Over the next few days, we'll take a look at some of the Australian Open contenders in both singles draws, and ask a simple question: Is this player hot, or not?
That is, is he or she justified in heading into the first Grand Slam event of the year with high hopes and momentum, or more likely to be fraught with anxiety and hoping that fate, or the luck of the draw, will make everything turn out alright?
Today, we'll look at some of the top men, assigning them one to five chili peppers to denote their degree of "hotness." But keep in mind that this rating is relative, not comparative. In other words, just because two men have the same rating, it doesn't mean they have an equal chance to win the tournament, or are competing at the same level. It's a comment on the state of each individual's game.
We'll hold off on the women until the conclusion Sydney, where the draw is bursting with talent.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic:
Djokovic played well and looked strong in his only appearance since he hobbled away from the ATP World Tour Final last November, knocked out before the single-elimination semifinals. He played his next event in the final days of the year, at Abu Dhabi. There, Djokovic laid waste to Roger Federer and David Ferrer in consecutive 6-2, 6-1 matches to take the exhibition title. Djokovic yielded a lot of psychological territory when he ran out of steam in the last few months of 2011, but he looked great in Abu Dhabi, and his decision to skip tour play until the proceedings begin in Melbourne looks like a wise one. He'll be under a lot of pressure to defend his title, but he seems to be in firm control of what he's doing.
Let's not mince words and just face the facts: Things just haven't been going well for Rafa, not since Djokovic blossomed into a dominant player—a development that can be traced back to the clay-court season of 2011. Those back-to-back wins over Nadal at the Madrid and Rome Masters may have been a tipping point, and Nadal has yet to recover from them. And despite the hype, those six losses to Djokovic weren't the worst of it for Nadal. Nadal failed to gain back any ground in the fall, when Djokovic was out of action, and he also got off on the wrong foot this year, taking a desultory 6-3, 6-4 loss in the semis of Doha to Gael Monfils. You almost want to ask, What's eating Rafa Nadal?
Federer was a juggernaut at the end of 2011, but he was unable to sustain that momentum in the new year. He was crushed by Djokovic in that Abu Dhabi exhibition, and last week he had to surrender his semifinal against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Doha because of a bad back. He'll go into the Australian Open with many questions swirling around him, and the challenges posed by the heat and five-set set matches might be too much for him to handle over a two-week period.
An Australian Open finalist the last two years, Murray won at Brisbane last week. The best part of that may be that it got him off to a great start with is new coach, the great former player Ivan Lendl. But the drive to the title was just a continuation of the standard Murray set and adhered to all fall, before a leg-muscle injury forced him to pull out of the World Tour Finals. Look for some subtle Lendl tweaks to Murray's strategy, starting with an overall tightening up of his game and a new commitment to playing purposefully. When you hire an icon like Lendl as your coach, it automatically ramps up your motivation and energy. Murray will be tough to beat.
Over the years, Ferrrer has gradually defined himself as tennis' version of a character actor. He's reliable, always there to add some extra interest, fun to watch, and ever ready to act as the gatekeeper who prevents all but worthy opponents from getting to the men ranked above him—men whom he will never upstage, provided they do a reasonable job in their leading roles.
Although Federer stymied Tsonga on a few key occasions near the end of 2011, keep in mind that the aggressive, explosive Frenchman had back-to-back wins over Federer in the middle of the year (Wimbledon and Montreal). Tsonga has looked formidable at recent tournaments, and he's avoided the injuries that have halted his progress in years past. He's a great long-shot pick to win it all.
Sure, he can run off the rails at a moment's notice. But he finished last year strong, with a win in Beijing and a strong run at the Paris Masters (l. to Federer in semis, beat Murray). Berdych won all four of his singles matches as he paired with Petra Kvitova to win the Hopman Cup for the Czech Republic, and is laying low until the start in Melbourne. He could sneak in there and surprise a lot of skeptics.
All he's done so far this year is attract some unwanted headlines for getting into an unpleasant confrontation with Bulgarian youth Grigor Dimitrov at the Hopman Cup. Although he's in much better shape these days than in years past, the heat and high bounce on the Aussie courts will work against him.
Although he's woefully short of firepower and in a little over his head even against contenders like Berdych, Tsonga, and Murray, Tipsarevic is doing all you can ask of a guy who's trying to make the most of his somewhat limited talents and game. He made it into the Top 10, and he reached the final of Chennai (l. to Raonic) last week to justify his No. 1 seeding. He may not win the title, but he could prevent one of the contenders from doing so.
Like Tipsarevic, Almagro started the year by declaring his intent to stay in the Top 10; he fought off three match points in the Chennai quarterfinals but ended up losing to Milos Raonic in the semis. Unlike so many of his upper-echelon peers, Almagro isn't afraid of the heat or hard courts of Australia; he went from Chennai to the hard courts of Auckland. He'll have more match play under his belt than most of the stars at the upcoming main event, and it may pay off. Although he's never been past the fourth round in Melbourne, Almagro lately has lost only to quality players.