Full House: Men's Australian Open Preview

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Defending champion Stanislas Wawrinka won a tune-up tournament in Chennai and ended 2014 on a high note. (AP Photos)

For years, the first question on fans’ minds as they looked over a men’s draw was where the Big 3's odd man out would land. Was Novak in Roger's half, or Rafa's? The same thing is true again this year, but the answer isn't quite as crucial as it once was. That’s because the location of the No. 4 seed, Stan Wawrinka, has become just as intriguing. Wawrinka is, after all, the defending champion in Melbourne, and appears to have worked himself into a similarly ominous form coming into this year’s event.

All of which means there’s no place to hide in the Australian Open’s ATP draw. Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka, and Andy Murray are healthy and seemingly at full strength; Nadal is injury free, though he will be rusty; Tomas Berdych has a new coach and new signs of life; Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori would surprise no one if they broke through for their first major title. Even Juan Martin del Potro has rejoined the party after a year on the sidelines.

That’s not a bad way to get 2015 started. Here's a look at how the season's first major tournament might play out.

*****

First Quarter

He had a fever the first week of the year, and he lost to Ivo Karlovic the second week, but Novak Djokovic is still the favorite in Melbourne. He has won this tournament three of the last four years, and is No. 1 in the world for a reason.

Djokovic's early rounds shouldn’t change anyone’s minds about that. Novak gets a qualifier first, the winner of Andrey Kuznetsov and Albert Ramos-Viñolas second, and possibly Fernando Verdasco third. But there are a couple of large men looming after that. Djokovic could face John Isner, who has beaten the Serb twice and pushed him to a deciding set in six of their seven matches, in the fourth round. In the quarters, he’s scheduled to play Milos Raonic, who showed major-winning form last week in Brisbane. Raonic was good enough in that event that I’m tempted to pick him to go all the way in Melbourne, but Djokovic remains the percentage choice.

Also here: Gael Monfils, Lleyton Hewitt, Feliciano Lopez. Feli, ranked No. 12, has had a surprisingly good run at age 34. Can he keep it going into the second week here? His draw gives him a chance.

First-round matches to watch: Juan Martin del Potro vs. Jerzy Janowicz; Dominic Thiem vs. Roberto Bautista Agut

Semifinalist: Djokovic

*****

Second Quarter

So how about Stan Wawrinka—can he morph into the Stanimal again? Until the quarters, his draw says yes. The three seeds in Wawrinka's half are Fabio Fognini, Alexandr Dolgopolov—it’s hard to find a flakier duo than that—and the 27th-ranked, clay-loving Pablo Cuevas.

It could be a different matter in the quarters; that's where Wawrinka is scheduled to face Kei Nishikori. Nishikori beat Stan in five sets at the U.S. Open last year, and he started his strong 2014 run by pushing Nadal through an intense three-setter in the round of 16 in Rod Laver Arena. A Stan-Kei quarter is a toss-up, and a slugger’s special. The only problem is that Nishikori has been handed one of the tougher opening-round draws in former Top 10 player Nicolas Almagro. Nishikori and Almagro split their previous two meetings.

First-round match to watch: Vasek Pospisil vs. Sam Querrey. Maybe you have to be American or Canadian to care, but in the era of 32 seeds, this qualifies as an interesting opener.

Sleeper: David Ferrer. He’s been to the semis in Oz twice, won his first tournament of 2015, in Doha, and did the smart thing by pulling out of Auckland afterward. Has the aging and seemingly declining Ferru been written off too early? He plays Thomaz Bellucci to start, and could get Nishikori in the fourth round. They’ve had their battles.

Semifinalist: Wawrinka

*****

Third Quarter

Rafael Nadal is the resident question mark of this draw. On the one hand, he has reached the final in Melbourne the last two times he has played there, and the men who beat him in those matches, Djokovic and Wawrinka, are not in his half. This makes Rafa a favorite to challenge for the title again. On the other hand, he has played just one match since having an appendectomy late last year, and he lost it to world No. 127 Michael Berrer. This makes Rafa, as he says himself, vulnerable to upset by virtually anyone, especially early. Two players in his vicinity are plausible candidates to pull it off: Mikhail Youzhny, who Nadal plays first, and Lukas Rosol, whom he’s scheduled to play in the third round, both have wins at Slams over him.

Nadal has also said that if he can get a couple of wins under his belt, anything can happen. This draw shouldn’t make him think otherwise. Tomas Berdych, a man Nadal has owned for a decade, is slated to be his quarterfinal opponent.

Also here: Bernard Tomic. He starts against Tobias Kamke and, for once, avoids Federer and Nadal early.

First-round match to watch: Ernests Gulbis vs. Thanasi Kokkinakis

Sleeper: Jiri Vesely. The young Czech lefty just beat Kevin Anderson in Auckland.

Semifinalist: Berdych

*****

Fourth Quarter

Should Roger Federer be worried that he has drawn Andy Murray into his quarter? That’s probably not the first thing on his mind: The last time they played, Federer won 6-0, 6-1. Still, Murray owns a win over Federer in Melbourne, and the chances are they that will face each other again this year: Murray hasn’t lost before the quarters in Oz since 2009; Federer hasn’t lost before the semis since 2003.

But that’s a question for the tournament’s second week. For now, Federer begins with a title in Brisbane already under his belt, a sense that he’s playing as well or better than anyone, and a pretty friendly first few rounds. He’ll start against Rendy Lu—Federer hasn’t dropped a set in their two previous meetings—and get either Juan Monaco or Simone Bolelli after that. The second-highest seed in his half is Tommy Robredo, but there are other players of interest nearby: Nick Kyrgios, Ivo Karlovic, and Borna Coric.

As for Murray, he’ll open against a qualifier, and is scheduled to face either Grigor Dimitrov or David Goffin in a potentially entertaining fourth-rounder.

Question mark: Kyrgios. He pulled the plug on his 2014 ATP season early to prepare for this moment, then went ahead and traveled the IPTL exhibition tour through Asia in December. Where is the young Aussie’s head now? He’ll start against Federico Delbonis. Can you hear the Fanatics chanting?

First-round match to watch: Dimitrov vs. Dustin Brown

Semifinalist: Federer

*****

Semifinals: Djokovic d. Wawrinka; Federer d. Berdych

Final: Djokovic d. Federer

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