By Mike McIntyre
The Australian Open begins tomorrow from Melbourne, Australia and tennis fans from all over the world will be eagerly waiting to see how their favorite players perform in the first Grand Slam of 2013.
While the overwhelming number one pick among experts and fans alike seems to be Novak Djokovic to capture his third slam in a row Down Under, we know that nothing is certain and that five set matches in the Aussie heat can produce some big surprises (see Johansson 2002 for example).
Here are the main questions I have as we embark on two fantastic weeks of tennis.
- How will Roger Federer perform in his first match action of 2013? I'd be a little concerned if I were in his camp since he is the only top player to have yet to play this year.
- Will Bernard Tomic be able to continue his solid start to the year and back-up the confidence he is displaying at the moment? He is already publicly talking about a third round encounter vs Federer.
- How will Canada's Milos Raonic play? His start in Brisbane and Kooyong have yielded four straight losses.
- Will Lleyton Hewitt be able to use home court advantage to defeat Janko Tipsarevic in the opening round and find his groove in a very promising section of the draw?
- Who will be (if anyone) the darkhorse of this tournament. There are plenty of exciting options such as Gael Monfils, Jerzy Janowicz, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic.
Let's take a look at the men's draw quarter by quarter to examine who has the best chance of advancing and what matches should be watched at all costs.
Top seeded Novak Djokovic couldn't have asked for a much friendlier section of the draw to help with his title defence. While veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu is capable of playing some decent ball and a second round match with Ryan Harrison will get all the Americans buzzing, there is nobody before perhaps Tomas Berdych in the quarters who has the capability of defeating Djokovic on a day where he is healthy. Radek Stepanek is his projected third round opponent, with Sam Querrey in the fourth round. While these are all solid players, I would be absolutely shocked if they could take Djokovic down in a best of five set match.
Berdych gets veteran Michael Russell in his opener followed potentially by Guillaume Rufin, Fabio Fognini and Fernando Verdasco or Juan Monaco in the fourth round. In other words, look for him to advance to the quarters where he would face Djokovic for a spot in the semis.
David Ferrer, the fourth seed, finds himself in the top half of the draw with Djokovic. Ferrer could go from diminuitive Oliver Rochus in the first round to giant Ivo Karlovic in the second. Talk about a contrast! Beyond that he will have quality opponents such as Marcos Baghdatis in the third and Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth if he hopes to continue his quarter-finals or better streak at the majors which currently stands at four consecutive Slams. Not quite Roger Federer levels, but he sure did produce a consistent season in 2012. Ferrer is favored to make it to the final eight, but either Baghdatis (3-1 head-to-head for Ferrer) or more likely Youzhny (3-4 h2h) could bring an end to that without anyone being shocked.
Ferrer's quarter is going to give someone the opportunity to impress that we might not normally expect to see go deep in a Slam, or someone who has not gone deep in a while. Janko Tipsarevic is the 8th seed but faces national hero Lleyton Hewitt in the first round. Hewitt won the Kooyong Classic exhibition event this past week with victories over Milos Raonic, Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro in the finals. He's clearly in great shape and healthy which is always a concern for the 31 year old former world number one. This could be Hewitt's last chance to make a good run in Australia. Either he or Tipsarevic could see Gilles Muller in round two, Grigor Dmitrov or Julien Benneteau in round three and perhaps Nicolas Almagro or Jerzy Janowicz in round four before facing-off against Ferrer. Whoever manages to emerge from this terrific first round tilt should definitely be able to build on it moving forward in the draw.
I'm already looking forward to a potential fourth round match between Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic. Both of these guys should get through their initial three matches to set-up a this battle. Despite the fact that Del Potro has won their past four matches and leads head-to-head 7-2, I feel like Cilic is due for a breakout performance and that he is a player who has often played well early in the year. He also made the semi-finals here just three years ago, so we know he can perform in Australia.
A healthy Gael Monfils could spell trouble in this section if he can get by (and I think he will) the eighteenth seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov in the first round. An Andy Murray vs. Monfils fourth round match would not be one to miss either.
Murray should be enjoying the fact that the press has already annointed Djokovic as the eventual champion. After a tough loss to Federer at Wimbledon last summer, Murray finally grabbed a big one with his Olympic triumph and then followed that up with an even bigger result by nabbing his first Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows. The difference in Murray's play could be huge in 2013 as he no longer must dodge the constant stream of questions relating to his lack of Slam success. Free to simply let his play do the talking, Murray might be the one we should all be watching at the moment.
Roger Federer is getting some buzz for a potential early upset but doesn't that seem to be often the case with the game's all-time most consistent player? It is only natural for people to wonder how much longer he can keep-up his incredible streak of making the quarter-finals or better at the Slams which currently sits at an astounding 34 straight. While Benoit Paire lost to Federer in their only career meeting last fall in Basel, the young Frenchman has risen nicely in the rankings over the past couple of years and had decent results last year against some top players. While I'm not expecting an upset here, Federer does have tough players moving forward including an in-form Nikolay Davydenko in round two, upstart Bernard Tomic in round three and then perhaps the tricky Philipp Kohlschreiber or the booming Milos Raonic in the fourth round. My only issue with Federer coming into this tournament has been his decision not to play any warm-up events. All of the guys he will be facing are already well match tested in 2013.
Other players to look-out for in this section are Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. Those two should play each other in another entertaining fourth round possibility. Veteran Tommy Haas is lingering as well but in a best of five set match I don't think he has enough gas in the tank to compete with the younger guys.
Finally, don't forget about the potential of Raonic who is slated to meet Kohlschreiber in the third round. While he has dissapointed thus far in 2013, he has all the tools to be successful and is perhaps playing possum as we get underway. He's a guy that nobody wants to face in this tournament, I can guarantee you of that.
I'd normally go into predictions here for our semi-finalists but when I come up with Djokovic/Ferrer and Murray/Federer it just sets me up for a no-win scenario! I see Djokovic as a rock-solid pick and feel that Murray will likely face him in the finals if the latter part of 2012 was any indication. Both Federer and Ferrer are the far more vulnerable players and could be upset earlier, though I'd never bet against either one.
Enjoy the return to big-time tennis everyone and do check back for updates both here and on Twitter as the tournament progresses.