MELBOURNE—What’s at stake in this year’s Australian Open men’s tournament? What does it mean for the bigger picture and the longer term? Last year we debated whether Novak Djokovic’s wins over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were a temporary upsurge by a talented but volatile player, or the beginning of a new era dominated by a new champion who was in a class of his own. During the season, I came down on the side of the former. It was hard to imagine the rise of another Federer so soon after Federer himself. This will be Djokovic’s first chance to prove the long-view doubters wrong, and to begin to answer the question of whether his own reign has begun. I talked to a friend of his the other day who said that Novak was hungry. “He wants to have a better season than last year,” the friend told me, half-jokingly. If so, the Serb will have to start with a win in Melbourne.
Djokovic is the central story of the men's event (find the draw here), but each of its quarters contains a compelling sub-theme. First, where is Rafa’s head (and shoulder) right now? The theme of the Aussie media on Friday was that he’s “fit and ready.” Can Roger Federer reassert himself? Were the last two years a blip or a sign of slow decline? Coach Paul Annacone today reasserted his faith in Federer's passion for the game. Finally, is Andy Murray, with famous new coach in tow, ready, at long last, to win the big one? Taken together, this may be the strongest that these four players—or potentially any four top players—have been at the same time. Djokovic is No. 1 and looking loose again, and Murray has a fresh start and a title under his belt. Federer and Nadal? They're still Federer and Nadal.
You can’t ask for much more from a tennis tournament, in my opinion. Let’s look at the draw to see whose story has the best chance of ending up a happy one.
Any discerning tennis fan wanted to know one thing about this draw right away: Who fell into whom’s half. In other words, would we get another Djokovic vs. Federer and Nadal vs. Murray semifinal lineup—they were drawn that way all four Grand Slams last year—or would it finally flip? It flipped: Djokovic, if form holds, is set to play Murray, while we could see our first Federer-Nadal Slam semi since the 2005 French Open.
For now, Djokovic should have a chance to work his way into this tournament. He starts with aging Italian Paolo Lorenzi, and the best-known name he would face in his first three rounds is the also-aging Radek Stepanek. More interesting is who Djokovic could get in the fourth round. There’s 15th-seed Andy Roddick, who hasn’t played lately. Perhaps more menacing is the presence of 23rd-seed Milos Raonic, who has already won a tournament this year, in Chennai, and who made his breakthrough in Melbourne a year ago. If nothing else, Raonic, with his missile serve, is likely going to become the “guy who no one wants to face” of 2012. But Djokovic has the return to match any serve, and Melbourne Park, where he has won twice, is a second tennis home to him. Its slowish hard courts give him a chance to play his aggressive brand of defense.
On the other side of this quarter are two more potentially compelling storylines: David Ferrer's and Janko Tipsarevic's. Each of these modest-sized late-bloomers had a career season in 2011, and each finished in the Top 10. But does either of them have the weapons, or the self-confidence, for more?
Also in this quarter: Lleyton Hewitt (actually wouldn’t mind seeing him lose, because he’s a good commentator) and Richard Gasquet.
First-round match to watch: Roddick vs. Robin Haase. The Dutchman had him on the ropes for two sets here last year.
Best new name: James Duckworth (of Australia)
Best old name, and still king of active tennis names: Potito Starace
Andy Murray won't be able to ease his way into this one. He starts with the raw, athletic, unpredictable Ryan Harrison. The young American can throw in his clunker matches, but he’s also a big-stage kind of kid. Still, I like the steadier Murray in this one. He shouldn’t have to leave his comfort zone—i.e., rallying and running—to have success.
I also like Murray through the early rounds. Gulbis, Malisse, Llodra, Bogie, Jr.: There’s no one there who leaps out as a threat. As with Djokovic's draw, Murray's gets more interesting in the fourth round. That’s where he might find Gael Monfils or Victor Troicki. Monfils beat Murray the last time they played, in 2010, and Troicki nearly beat him at Roland Garros last year.
But the biggest threat to Murray reaching his fifth straight Slam semi should come from the player at the bottom of this quarter, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman has built on a rare long stretch of good health; with a win in Doha and runners-up finishes in London and Paris late last season, he's currently playing the best tennis of his career. Tsonga beat Murray in the first round here in 2008, but Murray has won their last four meetings—the last one, in Queens in 2011, was 6-4 in the third set. Tsonga likes these courts and this event, and has been to the final here. He has time to line up his big swings and get in behind them for touch volleys. Call it one more men’s storyline: Can Jo the performer become Jo the winner?
It won't be easy. Murray looked good in Brisbane, where he was, relatively speaking, aggressive and positive. The addition of Ivan Lendl as coach should give an immediate boost to his motivation and sense of purpose—he has someone to live up to now. Plus, Murray has reached the final of this event two years running.
Sleeper: Dennis Istomin plays Tsonga in the first round. He’s 0-2 against the Frenchman, but he did just reach the Sydney semis.
This isn’t the toughest section, but from a game-style perspective it’s the most intriguing. Bernard Tomic, Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Juan Martin del Potro add some big and idiosyncratic talent in the middle brackets, to supplement the marquee name at the bottom, Roger Federer.
Not that Federer will see any of those guys in the first three rounds. It appears to be a routine opening stretch for the third seed. A possible exception is either Jurgen Melzer or Ivo Karlovic; they face each other in the first round, and the winner could face Federer in the third. Melzer has beaten Federer once, and Karlovic remains a concern to all.
Where is Federer, game-wise, at the moment? A bad back forced him out of Doha and slowed the roll he had begun at the end of October. His early rounds in Oz should allow him to regain some momentum. Last year the combination of cool weather and night matches slowed his shots here and didn’t help him against either Gilles Simon, who gave him an early five-set scare, or Djokovic, who straight-setted him in the semis. (It’s cool in Melbourne at the moment, but it’s supposed to get warmer as the tournament begins; not that Federer wants it to get too hot.)
What might help Federer most are his opponents. The second-highest seed in this quarter is Mardy Fish, next is del Potro, next is Dolgopolov. Of those three, only del Potro looks like a possible serious threat to Federer—though you never know about Dolgo; he can throw down an incredible set against anyone, as he showed in his match with Djokovic at last year’s U.S. Open. But three sets? Against Federer? I doubt it.
First-round match that might make a good cartoon: Tomic vs. Fernando Verdasco. Imagine Verdasco as the ornery character with steam coming out his ears. Imagine Tomic as his maddening, elusive young adversary. The Aussie teen appears to have improved some more already this year.
First-round match to watch: Del Potro vs. Adrian Mannarino. The giant versus the poet. Little soft-balling Mannarino upended the big bludgeoner at Queens last year. Probably not gonna happen again, but still, an interesting match-up.
Four of Nadal’s potential oppenents in the first three rounds are going to be qualifiers. Two are crusty veterans, Tommy Haas and Ivan Ljubicic. One is Donald Young. Nadal, like his fellow top seeds, should be able to find his range early, even if Ljuby has troubled him in the past.
There’s potential thunder in the distance, though. Nadal could get John Isner, David Nalbandian, or Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth round. Of these three, Isner would pose the biggest threat. I had thought coming into the season that Isner might be moving up and pounding his way to a Slam semi soon, but it hasn’t started out that way. He lost to his buddy Bobby Reynolds early in Sydney. Still, Rafa, who nearly went out to Isner at the French Open last year, will probably be rooting for someone else to get to the fourth round.
Tomas Berdych leads the other half of this section. The Czech, boosted by a zealous and unexpected local following, was hot in Oz last season, until he ran into an even hotter Djokovic—we’ll see if Berdych's chanting fans return. Also here are Marcos Baghdatis, who is yet again showing signs of life in front of his own local following; Grigor Dimitrov, who showed off everything he can do against Mardy Fish at the Hopman Cup (including, almost, ducking a punch); Stan Wawrinka, who played well in Melbourne last season, until he played decidedly not well against Federer; and Kevin Anderson, the solid South African who appears to be improving.
Nicolas Almagro is also here. What’s notable about that? The Spaniard is the 10th seed in the entire tournament. That might be this event's most mysterious story of all.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Murray; Nadal d. Federer
Final: Djokovic d. Nadal