The Australian Open men’s singles: With such big stars, who will walk away with the cup?
After the break following a fascinating 2013, tennis resumes in earnest next week in Melbourne at the first of the four Grand Slams. The Australian Open provides the perfect venue for the sport’s big stars to make their bids for glory and may well decide how the rest of the season pans out.
Here’s my take on the prospects of the major contenders Down Under:
1. Rafael Nadal
Reigning as the world’s No 1, Nadal made a remarkable comeback from a knee injury last year, winning the French and US Opens on his way to reclaiming the number one spot from Novak Djokovic.
Although he started 2014 on a positive note with a victory in Doha, he faces a rocky road in Melbourne. Opening against the potentially dangerous Bernard Tomic, Nadal can look forward to (or not) a potential quarter-final meeting with the big-hitting Juan Martin del Potro.
The Argentinean has always troubled Rafa and one can expect it to be no different this time if the two make it to the last eight. If Nadal is able to come through that test, he might face Federer or Murray in the semis – a relatively less troublesome matchup, given his positive head-to-head records against both.
2. Roger Federer
Federer endured a nightmarish 2013, winning just one tournament and falling down in the rankings. Although he was able to steady the ship at the end of the last season with good performances against the top 10, he will find it an uphill task to mount a serious challenge for an 18th Grand Slam. A loss to 32-year-old, Lleyton Hewitt, in the Brisbane final last week, was certainly not the start that he wanted in 2014.
But as long as Federer still believes in himself, it would be foolish to rule him out. The Australian Open draw hasn’t shaped out too badly for him, with a potential quarter-final clash with Andy Murray on the horizon. Whilst Federer fans will be hoping their man makes a strong statement in Melbourne, the Swiss Maestro’s chances of a fifth crown Down Under are slim, as his aging body will find it increasingly difficult to perform at a consistently high level in the best-of-five set matches.
Still, a new year and a new coach in Swede Stefan Edberg may mark a turn in the Swiss’s fortunes.
3. Andy Murray
The other big name in that half of the draw, Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, has just made his return from a lengthy lay-off. He is still quite rusty due to a lack of match practice as was evident in his early exit in Doha when he lost to Florian Mayer.
As the tennis season progresses, Murray is likely to get stronger but the Australian Open may be too early for him. And a looming match-up with Federer will definitely be a difficult one for him, given their five-setter here, a year ago.
But like Federer, Murray’s odds of finally winning an Australian Open crown look poor due to a prolonged absence from competitive tennis.
Among the chasing crowd, two names that stand out are Juan Martin del Potro and Stanislas Wawrinka.
4. Juan Martin del Potro
Del Potro had an impressive 2013 with his big forehand earning him wins over Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer.
This Australian Open might be the one where the big Argentinean finally breaks through. Indeed, the likely quarterfinal with Nadal may just be the watershed he needs.
5. Stanislas Wawrinka
Meanwhile, Wawrinka will be striving to progress deeper into the draw than last year when he was overcome in an enthralling five-setter by Novak Djokovic. Unfortunately for him, he may face the same man should he progress to the quarterfinals.
It is difficult to see Wawrinka progressing beyond that point, unless there is a dip in Djokovic’s incredibly high-level performance.
6. Novak Djokovic
Djokovic might have lost the No 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal but he is arguably the most in-form player on the tour, finishing 2013 on a 22-match winning streak including two straight-sets wins over his Spanish rival. What may be worrying for his opponents is that Melbourne has become something of a second home for him with his wins there in the last three years, in addition to his triumph in 2008.
A kind draw this year has ensured a smooth path to the final for the Serb, with only Stan Wawrinka and David Ferrer to contend with in potential match-ups. And based on last year’s performances, only Nadal looks realistically capable of beating Djokovic.
Djokovic recently hired Boris Becker as a coach and the one thing the German will have worked on with Djokovic is his net-play. That, coupled with his amazing baseline game, would make beating Novak Djokovic an incredibly difficult task for all. And that is why he appears to be the favourite in his struggle to attain his fourth Australian Open title while the others, including Nadal, look set to do the chasing.
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