Aussie Open Men's Preview: Three-Peat in the Heat?

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MELBOURNE—Like a lot of things on the ATP tour these days, this Australian Open can be broken down into two sets of questions: One for the Top 3, the other for everyone else.
Let me start at the top. This year Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray come to Melbourne with very distinct story lines. Djokovic is looking to stamp his end-of-2012 return to No. 1 with a major title, and leave no questions as to who the best player in the world is. It would also make him the first man in the Open era to win three straight Australian Opens, not a small achievement. At 31, Federer is trying, again, to, as Australian legend John Newcombe put it in a Melbourne paper on Friday, "fend off father time." Amid talk of reducing his schedule to extend his career, he begins 2013 having played no Aussie Open warm-up events. Murray, meanwhile, arrives in Melbourne with the biggest question mark on his back. What did his Olympic and U.S. Open wins mean, exactly? Will they prove to be, in the tradition of Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl, a psychic opening of the major-title floodgates? Or were they one-offs from a guy who was bound to break through eventually, but who isn’t made of No. 1 stuff?
As for the contenders outside the Top 3—roughly speaking, we're talking about David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin del Potro—each of them has his own story and issue to overcome. But the bigger, more general question is whether we should keep waiting for one of them to make a Grand Slam title run. Is it time to forgo the usual words of hope for these guys and just say, “I’ll believe it when I see it”?
The one player of that group who we have seen win a big one, of course, is del Potro. Which means that there’s a third question to consider at this year’s Aussie Open: Is the big Argie back?
Let’s see if the draw gives us any early clues.
Djokovic has a lot to be happy about at the moment. He’s the top seed, he’s won his most recent encounters with Federer and Murray, he loves the Plexicushion at Melbourne Park, and now he’s been given a manageable path to the final. Very manageable, when you consider how consistent Djokovic has been in early rounds recently. He’s trying for his 11th straight trip to a Slam semi.
Djokovic will open against Paul-Henri Mathieu. The Frenchman is a capable veteran, but Djokovic is 4-1 against him and hasn’t lost a set to him since 2006. After that, these are the other names in Nole's half of this section: Giraldo, Harrison, Lopez, Troicki, Stepanek, Querrey, Baker, Kamke, Cipolla, Wawrinka, qualifier, qualifier, qualifier, qualifier. Querrey did upset Djokovic in Bercy last year, but it’s hard to imagine a repeat inside Rod Laver Arena.
Tomas Berdych is the top seed on the other side, and is scheduled to meet Djokovic in the quarters. There’s reason to see that as a challenge. Berdych once beat Djokovic at Wimbledon, and he is coming off a rousing Davis Cup title effort to end 2012. But don’t count on that launching him past Nole, who is 11-1 against the Czech. They met in the quarters here two years ago; Djokovic, despite the best efforts of Berdych’s very vocal Melbourne fan club, won in a straight-set blitz. One question: Is Novak still affected by heat and allergy issues? He suffered from the latter here last year, and it's likely going to be hot this time around.
Potential Second-Round All-American Match: Sam Querrey vs. Brian Baker 
Best-Named First-Round Match: Fabio Fognini vs. Roberto Bautista-Agut
Sleeper: Kevin Anderson, who is in the Sydney final this weekend, and who did beat Djokovic many moons ago.
With Rafa out, his countryman David Ferrer moves into the four spot. That keeps him out of the Top 3's crosshairs until the semis, and has also, coincidentally, given him the clearest path to the final four. Ferrer’s theoretical quarterfinal opponent is No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic, and in the round of 16 he’s slotted to play Kei Nishikori, who is coming off a knee injury in Brisbane. Have Ferrer’s expectations changed with his success? We may get an idea here. His lack of weaponry was exposed by Nikolay Davydenko on this surface in Doha, but it’s hard to see anyone who could do the same in his quarter.
Also here: Ivo Karlovic, who could face Ferrer in the second round. Marcos Baghdatis, who made a semifinal run in Brisbane, and is a perennial favorite in Greek-heavy Melbourne. (Plus, he needs something to top his racquet-smashing tantrum act from last year.) Jerzy Janowicz, 2012's new entry in the wide-open Future of Men’s Tennis sweepstakes. Grigor Dimitrov, who played some exciting tennis in reaching the Brisbane final last week. And Lleyton Hewitt. Rusty will open his latest last hurrah campaign with a night-time battle royale against Tipsarevic.
First-round matches to watch
Dimitrov vs. Benneteau. They’ve got style, miles and miles; we’ll see about the substance. 
Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic. No style points here; but no holds barred, either.
Question Mark: Nishikori's knee
Draw-wise, the big question was where Murray was going to land: In Djokovic’s half, or Federer’s? Now we know that he’s in Federer’s—yet another reason for Nole to be smiling. 
First things first: Murray’s road to the quarters looks pretty clear, though a possible stumbling block comes in the opening round, when he plays Robin Haase. The Dutchman is 1-1 against Muzz, and nearly beat him at the U.S. Open in 2011. After that, though, the highest seeds in Murray’s half are Gilles Simon and Alexandr Dolgopolov.
In the quarters, though, things shouldn't be so routine. Del Potro is on the other side of this section. Is he ready to go all the way again? By the end of 2012, he had shown all, or nearly all, of the signs, and he played well in reaching the quarters here 12 months ago. Murray is 5-1 against del Potro lifetime, but del Potro has won at least one set in all of their matches—including the one where he talked about Murray’s mom. This is a quarterfinal I’d like to see.
“I Can’t Bear to Watch, but I Dare Not Turn Away”: Gael Monfils vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov
Player on a Late-Career Rise: Horacio Zeballos is a 27-year-old doubles specialist from Argentina whose singles ranking has improved 20 points recently, to a career-high No. 66. He opens against Andreas Seppi
Young American Starting to Make a Name: Rhyne Williams
This wasn’t exactly what Federer needed in his return—he’s been given the toughest draw of the Top 4. After opening against Benoit Paire, in a match that should make up for in flash what it lacks in drama, Federer could get Nikolay Davydenko, the same Davydenko who demolished Ferrer in Doha last week. 
The hits don’t stop there. Federer could face a newly determined Bernard Tomic in the third round, and an even bigger young gun, Milos Raonic in the fourth—the Canadian lost a couple of close ones to Federer in 2012. Finally, in the quarters, Federer is scheduled to face Tsonga, who reached the final here in 2008.
Of course, a “tough draw” is a relative thing when we’re talking about Roger Federer. His collective record against Davydenko, Tomic, and Raonic is 23-2, and he’s 8-3 against Tsonga, who has already been injured this season.
First-Round Match to Watch: Federer vs. Paire. The Frenchman says he has always “adored” the Maestro. There Will Be Flash.
Sleeper: Richard Gasquet. We’ll see how fit the fitter Reeshard really is in Melbourne. He has a good draw to the round of 16, where he might face Tsonga.
Curiosity: Lukas Rosol
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Ferrer; Federer d. Murray
Final: Djokovic vs. Federer. Nole has won two of their three matches here, in straight sets. He should have the easier road to the final, which will be played under the slower night conditions that suit him. Djokovic handed Federer a rare indoor loss in London two months ago. If they make the final this time, it will be on what Novak calls the court where he has "the best memories." He may have another one in two weeks.
CHAMPION: Novak Djokovic 
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