The opening Grand Slam of the year always brings a lot of hope to the fore for players but there is, as ever, a sense of déjà vu in the men’s draw with the leading contenders once again head and shoulders above their rivals.
Last year in Melbourne a new era in tennis was ushered in with Novak Djokovic beginning a year of dominance by winning the Australian Open. This year the Serbian star is no longer the hunter with the likes of Rafa Nadal, roger Federer and Andy Murray all competing in Melbourne with one goal-to dethrone the new king of men’s tennis.
Djokovic’s stunning 2011 saw the Serbian win three major crowns, missing out on only the French Open, and he looks to be in great condition once again this year as he bids to claim a third Australian crown. The challenge facing the likeable Djokovic is similar to the one that faced Nadal after he ascended from being the chief advisory to Federer to the world’s best player.
The challenge is not to remain at the same level, it is always to improve. With Djokovic having endured a disappointing time following his first major title, the 2008 Australian, he was eager not to fall into a similar trap last year. The task ahead of him this season though is to maintain that momentum and keep his rivals at bay.
At first glance Djokovic has many reasons to be confident of winning another Grand Slam title in two weeks time. The aging Federer is far from the player he was in his prime but even so the magic that has made him the most successful man of all time at the Grand Slam level showed signs of returning at the end of last year. Federer can no longer overpower his chief rivals at his will but he still has more than enough game to make it through to the final stages and with Djokovic in his side of the draw the Swiss star would surely love the chance to pit himself against the top seed in the final.
As far as Nadal is concerned he has been clearly slowed by injuries over the course of the last twelve months but there are positive noises coming from his camp that he is now ready to play at his best. Whether this is just a PR machine or the truth will be revealed in Melbourne but with Nadal having suffered from a severe shoulder issue last year it is clear that this season could be one of the most difficult, and important, of his illustrious career.
Added to his physical maladies from 2011 the Spaniard now also has the mental scars of being defeated by Djokovic in the finals of the last two majors. He has publicly said all the right things about his rival and his own mental state but it will only be in the heat of battle that we will truly see if Rafa has returned to his best. Nadal is one of the most combative champions ever to play the sport and with his pride having been hurt in 2011 he will be a very dangerous beast in the coming year if he is fully fit.
Andy Murray shook up his backroom staff by bringing in Ivan Lendl as his coach. It will be interesting to see if the eight time Grand Slam champion can help the Scot to achieve the titles at the highest level that his talent deserves. Murray is unlucky in that in any other era he would already have won numerous titles but against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic he has been outclassed over the last three years.
Murray needs a strong start to the season and having been runner-up in Melbourne for the last two years it is clear that the Australian courts suit his game. If he can attack the net more over the course of the next fortnight he has the potential to be a very dangerous player but until he wins a title there is always going to be question marks hanging over his head.
Outside of the leading four players there is a sizeable gap to their challengers and the men’s game is once more in a state of waiting for the latter stages where the big four match off in the semi-finals. Even so there are some players that will relish the role of spoiler in the coming weeks, notably Jo-Wilfreid Tsonga who could face Murray in the quarter-finals. The home crowd will also be hoping that last year’s surprise package, Bernard Tomic, can continue to develop over the coming year. The Australian will face 22nd seed Fernando Verdasco in the opening round in what is arguably one of the most appealing opening matches of the tournament.
Marcos Baghdatis is another unseeded player eager to show that he can challenge at the highest level. The Cypriot, a former finalist in Melbourne, has struggled in recent years but he always performs well in Australia, including a recent victory over Martin del Porto in Sydney, and he will be looking to make the first steps in returning to the upper echelons of the game after a slip from number eight in the world rankings to 43rd.
With the gulf in class between the leading four and the rest of the men’s tour it is impossible to bet against an unlikely winner but just who will get into the final is another matter. Djokovic will be very hard to beat and Rodger Federer will be eager to show that he still has the same magic in his racket.
The ladies draw sees top seeded Caroline Wozniacki once more start a tournament with everyone questioning the merits of the world number one. The Dane is not a player that has the weaponry to challenge the likes of Serena Williams but she has the consistency to win tournaments throughout the year and it is far from her fault that the rankings place a greater emphasis on consistency than winning major titles.
Wozniacki will start the campaign with question marks also hanging over her wrists. She has said she is fully fit but until she gets through her opening matches the questions will remain. A semi finalist last year, beaten after failing to convert match points against Li Na, it will be intriguing to see how Wozniacki performs given the pressure placed on her. With bookies placing prices of 18/1 on Wozniacki to win the Open it is likely that no top seed has ever opened a tournament with such long odds.
One of the biggest challenges facing the top seed is the draw. Last year’s final could be a fourth round matchup with reigning champion, Kim Clijsters, facing Li Na. The winner would then face Wozniacki and few would be confident in backing the Dane against either of these players. The other leading player in this side of the draw is third seed Victoria Azarenka who after a potentially tricky opening match, against Heather Watson, should have a very easy passage through to the quarter finals. There she would face Agnieszka Radwanska, who she easily beat last week in Sydney.
The other half of the draw throws up a series of very exciting matches with second seed Petra Kvitova, the pre tournament favourite, placed in the quarter of the draw with the hardest players in the tournament. The Wimbledon champion will have the company of the likes of Marion Bartoli, Samantha Stosur, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Ana Ivanovic. These five players are all amongst the biggest hitters on tour so it is likely that the most interesting opening week matchups will occur in this quarter. Whoever gets through this section of the draw will face
The final quarter however will see Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the same quarter and for Sharapova there is a perilous path to the final with an opening match against Gisela Dulko. The Argentine is exceptionally strong but struggles with inconsistencies. She will however be very capable of pouncing on weak serving from Sharapova who would also have to play Angelique Kerber, a surprise US Open semi-finalist last year, and Svetlana Kuznetsova before battling Williams at the quarter final stage. The winner of this will play Kivitova in the semi finals. Sharapova has made a superb return to form in the last twelve months but without a consistency and reliably service she will always be prey for the top players.
The opening Grand Slam of the year looks set to provide lots of fireworks from the outset!