Tennis’ first major tournament on the ATP calendar is finally here. The 2018 Australian Open Championships bring a fresh start for most of the players in the circuit as they fight for ranking points and spotlight in one of the sport’s glamour events. As for the elites, the Oz is just a stomping ground to assert their dominance over the rest of the field. Or is it?

Men’s tennis Big Four were expected to be in full force in Melbourne until former world’s No.1 Andy Murray pulled out with a hip injury. Still, the trifecta of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and a returning Novak Djokovic will be more than enough to keep fans buzzing throughout the tourney.

Not to be left out are rising stars such as Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Jack Sock and Grigor Dimitrov, who are all coming off strong 2017 campaigns. Of course, seasoned netters Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori will always be there to spice up the competition and bust some brackets.

Predicting the outcome of the last four Grand Slam tournaments has been really tough, especially with the kind of a drop off Djokovic had last year. It can be argued that Nole’s struggle opened the door for both Federer and Nadal to reignite their respective careers. On the other hand, the revival of tennis’ most celebrated rivalry might not just be an accident. Perhaps, it’s sheer will that catapulted these two great players into greater heights at this stage of their tennis journey.

Yet, this won’t change the fact that men’s tennis is on a transition. The second half of 2017 proved just that when a group of up-and-coming netters began to make their move in the ATP world rankings. The Big Four have never seen this kind of youth uprising before. They are under real threat and maybe, just maybe, on their last stand.

So, who really are the contenders in Melbourne? It’s crowded for sure, but there’s still some sort of stratification in place when it comes to picking the favorites. Again, there isn’t much of a gap that separates the contenders from the dark horses. The only edge upper tier players enjoy over their peers are is their experience. Other than that, this year’s Australian Open is going to be a wide-open race from start to finish.

Tier 1

Roger Federer – the Swiss Master is still viewed by many bookmakers as one of the favorites to win the Australian Open. And why not? Federer just had a Serena Williams-type of a revival in 2017, padding his Grand Slam haul to 19 by bagging the Australian and Wimbledon Open championships.

This year, Federer is expected to have another strong campaign with his injured back fully healed. The possibility of a finals clash with Nadal also favors Federer, who dominated his Spanish rival in four matches (all on hard courts) last year.

Rafael Nadal – Nadal also had a memorable 2017. He completed the very first La Decima at French Open and captured another hardcourt crown at US Open. Unfortunately, another knee injury hobbled the world’s No. 1 in his preparation for the Australian Open. Although Nadal stressed that his knee is fine and there’s no need for heightened concerns, many are still cautious on how the injury will affect his performance, especially in the later rounds.

Tier 2

Novak Djokovic - The conversation would have been different if it was Nole circa 2012 to 2015, but injuries and a regressing mental game cast doubt on the Serb’s ability to replicate his past triumphs in Melbourne. Who knows what Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek will bring to the table this time around? Coaches are just there to provide strategies and pointers. In the end, success will depend on the player’s skill and knack to perform under pressure. No one really knows what version of Djokovic this year’s Australian Open will be getting. One thing is for sure, Nole is a very dangerous man when healthy both on physically and mentally.

Tier 3

Grigor Dimitrov – It’s really close, but Baby Fed needs another Fed-like performance to officially join tennis’ upper class. Dimitrov, the reigning ATP Tour Finals champion, looks to continue his sizzling form with another deep run at the Australian Open. A semifinal stint at last year tournament sets him up well for the remainder of the 2017 season. Can he win his first Grand Slam crown? There’s little doubt now about his ability to muster another remarkable campaign. However, Grand Slam events are different beasts. To win, Dimitrov must face the pressure head on and show laser-sharp focus from round 1 all the way to the finals.

Juan Martin del Potro – Sacha Zverev is a tennis prodigy, probably the next big thing in tennis. Then again, the 20-year-old has been a disappointment in Grand Slam events so far. His best finish in a Slam was a fourth-round stint at the 2017 Wimbledon Championships. Meanwhile, Del Potro sports an impressive record at major events. He might not be in the same ranks as the Big Four or even below Big 4 crasher Stan Wawrinka, but Del Potro is perhaps the most underrated tennis player in this era. The Argentine has delivered the goods time and time again in Grand Slams, upsetting top contenders left and right. Don’t be deceived by his place on the world ranking (No.12), the Argentine can mix it up with the very best and even beat the top-seeded player on any given day.

The Darkhorses: Zverev, Kei Nishikori, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Goffin, Jack Sock and Dominic Thiem.

They might not be the favorites to win it all, but all of these players are very capable of pulling off a shocker Down Under. Will Zverev, Sock, Thiem and Goffin finally reach their full potential in Slams? Has Nishikori already moved on from nightmarish 2017 campaign? Will Tsonga replicate his run over a decade ago? These questions can only be answered on the hard courts of Melbourne.