Australian Open 2012: Novak Djokovic and Men with the Best Chance to Win
Just because Novak Djokovic enters as the world's No. 1 does not make him the runaway favorite for the Australian Open.
Sure he enters as the reigning champ that everyone is chasing, but this month's tournament is filled with a deep and talented pool of adversaries that will force Djokovic to raise his game and be on his toes from the early rounds.
Will Djokovic be up to the challenge or will a new champion be crowned?
With the top players (particularly the Top Four) all so entrenched, there is little room for outsiders in this year's draw. One would have to go back a long way to find a time when the world's fifth best player had such low hopes of winning, particularly in Melbourne. But, with Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all so dominant, such is the state of the men's game.
Here are 10 players that have a shot at winning the Australian Open.
10. Outsiders Looking In: Andy Roddick
Unless Andy Roddick can make a major move this season and bounce back from exceptionally disappointing results in the Grand Slams last year, this might be Roddick's last season entering the Australian Open as a contender.
He's coming up on the dreaded 30 and with it his window of opportunity is closing fast.
Still, as long as he is serving well and making his laser-like forwards, he has a chance to compete with the big boys and go far in the tournament.
Andy has three semifinal appearances to his name in Melbourne, so should the former world No. 1 catch a favorable draw and a little luck, a deep run can't be discounted.
Still, American tennis fans shouldn't get their hopes up too much. Beating the likes of Federer, Murray, Djokovic and the like would require tennis we haven't seen from Roddick in nearly two years now.
9. Outsiders Looking In: Milos Raonic
The 6'5" Candian had a breakout year last season winning one title and reaching at least the semifinals in three other events. Most impressive perhaps was Raonic's surprise run to the round of 16 at last year's Australian Open where he eventually succumbed to David Ferrer in four tough sets.
The ATP awarded Raonic for his efforts naming him the breakout player of the year thanks to his meteoric 130 point rise in the rankings.
So far early this season, the momentum from Raonic's 2011 season has carried over resulting in an impressive trophy in Chennai, India.
With a huge serve and volley attack and blistering ground strokes, the fast courts of the Australian Open are tailor-made to his game.
The big question is whether or not the young Candian has the mental toughness to compete over a two- week period.
8. Dark Horse Contenders: Juan Martin Del Potro
Juan Martin Del Potro has the talent, shot-making and mental stamina to be a top-three player. So far, injuries, fitness (the result of those injuries) and bad luck in the form of tough draws have kept Del Potro from reaching his potential. Eventually though, Del Potro is going to have to overcome the obstacles and excuses if he wants to be remembered as one of the game's greats.
Playing well at the Australian Open could go along way in helping to establish that legacy.
Del Potro was bounced by Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis in the second round so he should enter with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove. Expect big things from Del Potro Down Under.
7. Dark Horse Contenders: David Ferrer
For David Ferrer, the Australian Open isn't the ideal tournament and doesn't suit his grind-it-out game. The intense heat of an Australian summer is physically draining, and for a counter-puncher who relies on long points from the baseline, it can be especially tough to overcome over two consecutive weeks. Futhermore, Ferrer relies on playing himself into tournaments and with the Australian Open being one of the first tournaments of the year, the Spaniard doesn't have the preparation and match experience early in the season to be at the top of his game.
That being said, a rather surprising semifinals run here last year means he can't be ruled out.
6. Dark Horse Contenders: Tomas Berdych
It's hard to think of Berdych as a dark-horse contender, but with such an established and formidable Top Four, anyone outside Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or Murray will have a difficult chance of winning a Grand Slam.
That being said, if anyone can do it, it is Berdych who posted wins over Murray and Federer and had one of the best years on tour in 2011.
The question for Berdych is whether he can post three consecutive wins over the big four.
5. Dark Horse Contenders: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Just like Berdych, it's hard to think of Tsonga as a dark horse, especially since he's beaten the game's best on the biggest stages, including taking out Murray and Nadal on his way to the 2008 finals at the Australian Open and beating Federer in last year's Wimbledon Championships.
Once again however, the difficulty these players outside the Top Four face is while they have the talent to put together wins over one or even two of them, to take home the title it's likely that Tsonga and others would have to beat three of the world's Top Four. Doing so would be an incredibly tall order and one no one has yet to accomplish.
4. True Contenders: Rafael Nadal
Like David Ferrer, the Australian Open isn't Nadal's favorite or ideal tournament. The difference is Nadal is just a more talented player and is able to overcome the hurdles that trip up his Spanish counterpart.
Still, Ferrer was able to score a rare victory over Nadal in last season's quarterfinals at the Australian Open proving Nadal certainly isn't invincible here.
After finishing last year with consecutive losses (a real rarity for Nadal), losing earlier in Doha to Gael Monfils last week and concerns about fatigue and the durability of his knees, Nadal is as vulnerable as he probably has ever been heading to Australia.
Does it mean he still doesn't have a great shot at winning? No. But should he be the favorite he normally is? No as well. With Federer rolling, Djokovic coming off a record setting year, and Andy Murray always lurking, Nadal has his work cut out for him if he wants to reclaim the trophy.
3. True Contenders: Andy Murray
Is this the year Murray finally breaks through and wins a Grand Slam? For his sanity's sake, you certainly hope so.
Can he pull it off and win in Melbourne? If there ever was a year, this is it.
Nadal is somewhat vulnerable, meaning if he gets lucky and Nadal gets bounced early and either Djokovic or Federer get knocked out as well, Murray would only have to unseat one of the world's top players.
He's made two consecutive finals so he is comfortable with the heat and fast surfaces, and over the years he has proven he can easily handle everyone outside the Top Three. He's clearly the best player to never win a major. The question is will he finally vanquish such an ignominious title.
You get the feeling if he can't do it this tournament, it's going to be another long season of coming up just short.
2. Favorites: Roger Federer
Recent back spasms that caused Federer to pull out of the semifinals in Doha are certain cause for concern, but otherwise things are looking up. Dating back to after the US Open, Federer has been on a sparkling 20-match win streak and is playing some of his best tennis in years.
Talk of his demise is far overstated as he is just one year removed from winning the Australian Open and is coming off 27 wins in 28 matches with seven victories over Top-10 opponents.
If Federer's back is good-to-go, it's hard to imagine he isn't an equal favorite along with Djokovic.
1. Favorites: Novak Djokovic
It's hard to top last year's brilliance, but that is exactly what Djokovic will do. A repeat of last year's magic will be harder as Djokovic will be a marked man. However, if his ability to fend off attacks last season is any indication, he has all the tools to stay at No. 1.
While I personally believe Federer will unseat him in an epic finals showdown, betting against Djokovic is a risky proposition.