Last year, the Australian Open gave the world of tennis a glimpse of what was to come in the remainder of the season. Novak Djokovic, ranked No. 3 in the world, made a great run to the championship, losing only one set en route to his second Grand Slam title.
The rest of the season was dominated by Djokovic, who became the top ranked player in the world over the course of 2011, a year in which he won 10 titles—including three majors—and started the season with more than 40 consecutive wins.
The rankings at the start of this year see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer both looking up at the top spot for the first time since 2004. With these two stars starting to show signs of falling, Djokovic seems the logical choice to run the ATP table once again.
However, the Serb did not win a title after the US Open, and injuries to his back and shoulder seemed to really bother the 24-year-old in the later parts of the season.
Nadal and Federer are surely not out of the picture, as both have the game to win a major on any given day, but age seems to finally be catching the Swiss, whereas the Spaniard has been slowed by injuries for a good portion of the last year, and his hard-court record was very disappointing after his run to the US Open finals.
These three have entered the past eight or so majors as the heavy favorites, but this battle in the Australian heat seems to favor the field to finally break this "Big Three" stronghold.
If none of these top three players win the title, it leaves a few contenders looking for a first major title.
Two top-10 cohabitants seem to be hungry to win Grand Slam No. 1 this year.
Obviously Andy Murray, the ultra-talented Scot who has gone 0-for-3 in Grand Slam finals has a great chance of finally capturing his first as does Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, an equally talented but inconsistent player.
If Murray is able to piece together his best tennis for a seven-match run, there is no doubt that he can ball with Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. During the "Asian Swing" in late 2011, Murray won the "hat-trick", capturing titles in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai. Neither Djokovic nor Federer played in any of these tournaments, but Djokovic is still recovering from injuries that sidelined him then whereas the Swiss has shown the same five-set prowess as in past years.
Tsonga also went on a tear last fall, finishing runner-up in his final tournaments, losing to a rejuvenated Federer in Paris and at the year-end championships.
Further in the draw, other players with chances emerge, as David Ferrer, a 2011 Aussie Open semifinalist and Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, can never be counted out.
Entering the Australian, none of us will have seen Djokovic in 2012, due to the fact that he prefers to sit out the early-year tournaments. Therefore, it will be impossible for us to know if he is at full strength.
When at 100 percent, Djokovic is the single most talented tennis player on earth, and will be the favorite, especially on hard-courts. However, given his sub-par finish last season, the immense grind of 2011 might have caught up to him.
For me, Nadal should be considered less of a threat than Murray or Tsonga on this surface, one on which he has seemingly regressed in past years. Although his campaigns in Australia in both 2010 and 11 were slowed by injuries, the huge heat, as well as the fast surface do not bode well for the Spaniard.
His showing in Doha, where he is already in the quarterfinals, should be relatively telling.
Federer, who has seemed at ease in recent months with a fantastic run to 2011, has been predicted to bounce back from a bad early part of last year and start gobbling up majors like he used to. But, Federer is only getting older, and more tired. He hasn't won a major in almost two years, and his five-set track record is getting worse and worse.
The three alpha-dogs should probably still be considered favorites, but if someone wants a chance to pounce, this upcoming slam is a great time to do so.