Shaz Rahman previews the Australian Open Grand Slam and asks who is likely to lift the trophy.
Top half of the draw
On initial inspection Djokovic is the clear favourite after his incredible three Grand Slam haul of 2011, yet that feat is incredibly difficult to repeat. Of the greats that have achieved this feat including; Wilander, Nadal, Connors, Laver and Federer only Laver and Federer have been able to repeat the feat. Laver conquered all in the times where the line between amateurism and professionalism was blurred and Federer was dominant as his competition was weaker than it is now. Djokovic faces much stiffer competition in possibly the best era that tennis has ever seen and so there is a chance that his exploits of last season will lead to fatigue, both mental and physical.
He showed signs of physically breaking down in the final of the US open and his back broke down dramatically in the Davis Cup immediately after against Del Potro and he was forced to subsequently withdrew from several tournaments meaning that whether he is fully fit running into the Australian open is questionable. Has Djokovic been able to train hard during the minimal off season? Have others been able to catch up? Djokovic has looked good in the big fat pay cheque exhibitions that Djokovic has played. We will see whether his body can sustain two weeks of wear in tear in a Grand Slam. If he can he is still the favourite and he may be pleased that he is seeded to play Murray in the semi-final rather than Federer.
Speaking of Murray, he will be pleased that he will potentially avoid Nadal in the semi final as Nadal beat Murray in three of the four Grand Slams at this stage. Murray has been working hard in the off season with his new coach Ivan Lendl. Lendl can empathise with the nearly man tag that Murray has unwittingly attached himself to as Lendl lost his first four Grand Slam finals.
However, Lendl was ultimately able to make the breakthrough and went on to win eight Grand Slams. He has a meticulous approach to tennis and this could have a positive effect on Murray’s game. On the other hand there could also be a clash of personalities as Murray has a reputation for wanting to set his own path. Murray has shown good form recently winning comfortably in Brisbane and in the Kooyong exhibition over Nalbandian. Despite his strengths, Murray continues to display a brittleness towards the end of big tournaments. Towards the end of the Slams he often tends to pick up niggles that tend to damage his chances.
The two week journey that is required to win a Grand Slam has been a step too far for Murray’s body and mind. Murray may have to defeat both Djokovic and Nadal to win and that is a very difficult proposition, but a relaxed and confident Murray is still a contender, if he can hold his body together and his rivals bodies fall apart.
Elsewhere in the top half Hewitt and Roddick could meet in the second round in what once could have been a final. Neither have the ability to go all the way but could cause Djokovic a few problems if they are on the top of their game in round if either of them they can get past the big serving Raonic in round 3. David Ferrer looks good for the quarters. Murray’s path looks pretty clear to the quarter final where he has the chance of playing the very hit and miss Tsonga. Tsonga can be brilliant. He can also be awful. Djokovic remains the favourite if he remains fit.
Bottom Half of the draw.
Federer goes into the tournament off the back of a very successful indoor stretch at the end of last year culminating in a 6th victory at the end of year championships. His confidence should be sky-high because he was 20-0 before a back injury forced him to retire in the Qatar Open at the semi final stage. We will have to wait and see if that back injury is a minor niggle or something that will affect his chances.
2011 saw Federer fail to win a Grand Slam for the first time since 2002, but despite not dominating the tour like he used to, he is still a force to be reckoned with. He now seems to recognise that he can not steamroller the competition as he once did but be can still compete and he will be determined to make 2012 successful, especially with the Olympics being at his beloved Wimbledon. Federer is also scheduled to play for Switzerland in the Davis Cup against the United States, which shows that the goals that Federer has for the season are more broad than just trying to win the Grand Slams.
This view may be for the best as Federer is seeded to face Nadal in the semi final and Nadal has the clear psychological advantage over Federer with Nadal having triumphed over Federer in their last four Grand Slam meetings. All of those aforementioned meetings have been in finals so it will be strange to see these two meet in the semi final if they both make it that far.
In the bottom quarter of the draw lays Nadal. Nadal was understandably bewildered about Djokovic’s rise to power that included Djokovic defeating Nadal every time they met last season. Nadal has stated that he knows that he needs to raise his level to be able to topple Djokovic , yet also believes that it is unlikely that Djokovic will be able to maintain the remarkable level he achieved in 2011.
Indeed in 2010 Nadal himself triumphed in 3 of the 4 Grand Slams and we know that Nadal was not able to do the same the following year. Nadal also might have a suspected injured shoulder. Nadal claims that he will be fine for the Australian Open, but he will have February off to recover. Injury has derailed Nadal before thus that doubt about the injury status of Nadal is always in the back of our minds. If Nadal can stay fit he would look the favourite to reach the final in the bottom half of the draw.
To summarise the rest of the bottom half of the draw, Tomic vs Verdasco looks to be the tie of the first round. Tomic has shown a sign that he could be a top player last year with his unorthodox style and Verdasco is still a good player that has struggled to reach the heights of the top ten since he dropped out of the top ten. Mardy Fish is in the same quarter as Federer, but the man we should really look out for is Del Potro. Del Potro is the one man that looks like he can truly break the dominance of the top four. The Argentine may once again be able to climb to the top of the Grand Slam glory by maintaining is fitness. Del Potro’s crowning achievement by defeating both Nadal and Federer in the US Open of 2009 could have led to Del Potro challenging the dominance of Nadal and Federer. Sadly serious wrist injuries stopped that happening in 2010 and 2011 was a season of trying to regain his place amongst the elite. He has not quite managed it yet, but look out for him as the dark horse in the tournament. In the bottom quarter Berdych could face Nadal in the quarter finals, dangerous floaters include Baghdatis and Nalbandian, however I can not see past Nadal reaching the semi-final.
Actually I can’t see past the top four taking up the four spots that everyone wants to be in near the end of the tournament. From the last four I am less certain about making predictions as the eventual winner could be any one of the best four players in the world. I would like Murray to end the miserable wait that Britain has had to find a Grand Slam champion, but I think it will be Nadal who eventually reigns supreme in Australia again. I make the assumption that Djokovic’s injuries will stop him playing to his ability. The good thing from the spectator’s view is that who the champion will be is not as clear cut as first thought.