Roger Federer: Power Ranking His Australian Open 2012 Opponents

Glenn VallachContributor IIIJanuary 17, 2012

Roger Federer: Power Ranking His Australian Open 2012 Opponents

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    It's amazing how quickly a tennis draw can change.

    Tennis fans spend days on end contemplating a potential matchup, playing it out in their minds, and all it takes is one hot server or sloppy performance to render the hypothetical face-off impossible.

    For instance, it's likely that fans of Roger Federer spent at least one neurotic moment over the last few days thinking about a third-round match between their hero and 31st-seeded Jurgen Melzer. 

    They probably thought about Melzer knocking Federer out of the Italian Open in Rome last year, or the Austrian posing a surprisingly stiff challenge for Federer at the 2010 U.S. Open, and said to themselves, "Jeez, that's a tough little third-rounder." 

    Melzer has knocked Novak Djokovic out of the French Open, after all.

    But just hours into the tournament, those paranoid thoughts were proven moot, as Melzer fell to huge-serving Ivo Karlovic in a mildly surprising straight-setter.

    These things happen at events where the field is trimmed in half within the first 48 hours of play.

    So, with the challengers dropping by the session, we rank the remaining opponents in Fed-Ex's draw while we still can.

Number Eight: Andreas Beck

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    One thing is for certain, Federer will face Andreas Beck in the second round after the German dispatched Frenchman Eric Prodon in the first.

    The 93rd-ranked 25-year-old should be easy pickings for Federer, who straight-setted Beck in their only encounter at the 2010 U.S. Open.

    Beck lost to Thomaz Bellucci in his lone finals appearance at an ATP event.

    He's never made it out of the second round of a major, and it's hard to imagine him troubling Federer much. He just lacks the weapons.

    This one will be more about Federer: his form, his back, his serve.

    After a slightly laborious first-rounder, you can bet Federer will be looking to get off the court quickly and gain some momentum for the tournament's latter stages.

    If Federer struggles in this one, it's not a good sign for the Federer faithful.

Number Seven: Ivo Karlovic

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    If the second round goes the way we think it will, Federer will face off against the gigantic-serving Ivo Karlovic in the third round. 

    We've already mentioned Karlovic bouncing Jurgen Melzer out of the tournament on Day One, and despite Melzer's power ground game, you can bet that Federer isn't thrilled about a potential third-rounder with Dr. Ivo.

    The monstrous Croatian may have the biggest serve the game has ever seen. He's hit the fastest first serve ever recorded, the fastest second serve ever recorded and the second most aces ever in a match. 

    He's always at or near the top of several service statistics by the year's end, and simply put, he can make his opponent's life miserable. 

    His towering 6'10'' frame creates a near impossible angle for returners, and he can take a match right off his opponent's racquet if he's getting in his first serve.

    We saw him push Rafael Nadal to the limit at Indian Wells last year with thundering service games, and he's always liable to drag an unsuspecting victim into a couple tiebreakers. From there, anything can happen.

    Sure, Federer's managed to block back enough of Ivo's lasers to amass a 9-1 record against him.  After all, once the advantage of Karlovic's serve is gone, it's almost an automatic point for Federer.  The difference in agility and speed between the two men is almost comical.

    But Federer is wary of Karlovic.  Before their quarterfinal match at Wimbledon in 2009, Federer talked about his lone loss to Ivo at the 2008 Cincinnati Masters almost as if it still stung him.  He stressed how uncomfortable a serving contest that had turned into.

    So if the match comes to pass, yes Roger will be the heavy favorite, but don't expect Fed to run away with any double break sets.

Number Six: Alexandr Dolgopolov

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    Predicting fourth-round matchups can be hairy, as Federer can face any number of opponents in the Round of 16.

    But speaking of hair, it will be No. 13-ranked Alexandr Dolgopolov waiting for Federer in the fourth round if seeds hold to form.

    Can you imagine the crazy slices, spins and angles we'd see in that one?

    Federer and Dolgopolov possess perhaps the two most eclectic arsenals in tennis. Both can (and will) hit any shot at any time, whether it makes sense or not. 

    Forehand slices, back-footed drop shots, you name it. If this one comes to fruition, boy will it be fun.

    The dangerous thing about Dolgo's unlimited tool set is that if he's hitting all his circus shots, he can play some pretty spectacular tennis. 

    His first set battle against Novak Djokovic in peak form at last year's U.S. Open may have been the set of the year.  He also beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling in succession to reach the quarters in Oz i 2011. Flare aside, the guy can really play. His ranking alone will tell you that.

    The problem for the Ukrainian is that he often has trouble picking the right shot at the right time. He almost has too many weapons, and he can get cute with them at the wrong moments. 

    He almost resembles a pre-prime time Federer, flying around the court with limitless weaponry, but often bewildering with inconsistency and poor shot selection.

    The other problem for Dolgo against Federer is his slightness. Sure, he does whip up an impressive amount of pace for his diminutive frame, but it's hard to imagine him summoning the power to bother Federer too much.

    You can just picture Federer digging in at the baseline and pushing the smaller Ukrainian around as the match progresses.

    We don't have much to go on, though, as the two have only met once, with Dolgo withdrawing on the brink of defeat in Basel in 2010.

    If we do get a second encounter between these two showmen, however, grab some popcorn and enjoy.

Number Five: Bernard Tomic

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    If we are deprived of a Dolgo-Federer showdown in the fourth, chances are it will be the unflappable Bernard Tomic that played spoiler. If Tomic can beat American Sam Querrey and Dolgopolov defeats Tobias Kamke, the two would face off in an intriguing third-rounder.

    And we wouldn't complain if Tomic found his way to Federer in the fourth. Federer taking on the Australian teenager in an electric Rod Laver Arena would be fine drama.

    Sure, Federer would have his customary legions of faithful, but the crowd would be decidedly pro-Tomic.  An Australian man hasn't won the Open since 1976, and it's clear that the entire country is starting to think Tomic will be the one to end the drought.

    He's already thrilled Melbourne with his comeback against Fernando Verdasco in the first round, and there's no reason to think he's about to succumb to the pressure of being the hope of a nation.

    That's what makes him such a threat to Federer (and others): his confidence  He brashly strides around Rod Laver Arena as if he's already won the tournament. He's cocky, cool, smooth, and it's almost impossible to picture a moment too big for him.

    And isn't that what holds so many back against legends like Federer, that lack of belief?  That's not a problem for the 19-year-old.

    He also has the game. He's tall and strong enough to deal with power off the ground, and he's incredibly light on his feet. He floats around the court with Federer-like grace. 

    His game is impressive technically, too. Darren Cahill has labeled his slice backhand one of the best in tennis, and if he's feeling good enough to let it fly, his forehand can be a weapon.

    Perhaps the most effective part of his game, though, is his uniqueness. His off-paced groundstrokes clearly knock his opponents out of rhythm, and like Dolgopolov, he has a wide variety of shots that he's not afraid to use.

    At just 19, he's already reached the second week of Wimbledon, and he's stood toe to toe with Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in the best-of-five format. Even as a teenager, he's not getting outclassed by anyone.

    Still, Federer would have the advantage in this one.

    Tomic doesn't possess the raw power that tends to give Federer trouble these days, and you'd have to imagine that Federer would capitalize on the chances that the Aussie presents him.

    Either way, though, we wouldn't miss this one for the world, if it happens, of course.

Number Four: Mardy Fish

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    It's strange to think that anyone would want to face the highest possible seed in the quarters, but that seems to be the case for Federer with his draw in Melbourne.

    On the other side of Federer's bracket are eighth-seeded Mardy Fish and 11th-seeded Juan Martin del Potro. Given the choice between the two, you'd think Federer would rather play the American in the quarterfinals.

    Fish, despite a strong serve and solid net game, appears to lack the mobility and variety to trouble Federer over five sets. He doesn't make up for it with power from the baseline, either. His ground strokes are reliable, but not explosive, and it's hard to see how he would topple Federer in peak form.

    The last time the two played was in the round-robin stage of last year's World Tour Finals. Fish was looking to avoid being shut out in London, and Federer had essentially nothing to play for, having already clinched a berth in the semifinals. Federer still won pretty comfortably, however, despite going through the motions for most of the match.

    That's no surprise, though, as Federer has beaten Fish in seven of their eight career meetings.  There's just an unmistakable talent disparity between these two.

    Then again, Fish did look impressive sweeping the talented Gilles Muller out of the first round, and you can't argue with his results over the past year or so. He beats who he should beat, and he always seems to be hanging around at the latter stages of the big events. 

    In an era of men's tennis where so many talents underachieve, Fish has been overachieving.

    His draw is pretty manageable, too, with lefty Alejandro Falla in the second round, and the winner of Pere Riba and Philip Kohlschreiber in the third. 

    Don't be surprised if Fish ends up giving del Potro all he can handle in the fourth.

Number Three: Juan Martin Del Potro

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    Roger Federer's draw in the quarters is a bit of a give and take in Melbourne. 

    On the one hand, he received a pretty tame next-highest seed in Mardy Fish, much more manageable than the Jo-Wilfriend Tsonga draws he's been getting of late. 

    On the other, Juan Martin del Potro is lurking in his bracket, and if everyone plays up to their abilities, you'd think the big Argentinian will be waiting for Federer in the quarterfinals.

    Everyone knows that, when healthy and playing well, del Potro is one of the best around. If he didn't hurt his wrist at the end of 2009, we may be talking about a Big Five in men's tennis instead of a Big Four.

    Remember the way he smoked Rafael Nadal out of the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals?  Not even the 2011 version of Djokovic made Rafa look that hopeless.

    The guy is just a phenomenal talent.

    Federer has made it clear that he considers del Potro the biggest hitter on tour, and the eye test confirms that opinion. His forehand penetrates the court like no other, and his two-handed backhand is a powerful and diverse weapon.

    Wen he's at his best, del Potro ruthlessly clubs his opponent off the court, with each shot harder than the last.

    He's also remarkably quick and agile for his size, and when clicking, his serve can be extremely difficult to get back.

    Simply put, he has the whole package.

    And don't Federer fans know it, as the Argentinian dealt Federer one of the most painful losses of his career in the 2009 U.S. Open finals. You can bet Federer still regrets taking his foot off the gas pedal at the end of the second set in that one, as once the Argentine got his teeth into the match, the forehands started flying.

    But it must be said that del Potro has never looked the same after that serious wrist injury a couple years ago. He's come close, no doubt, but there hasn't been that emphatic "I'm back" moment yet from the Argentinian. 

    Federer fans everywhere are hoping it doesn't come next week.

Number Two: Tomas Berdych

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    Now we proceed to the other side of Roger Federer's half, where huge hitter Tomas Berdych is the second-hghest seed.

    If Federer faces Berdych in Melbourne, that means someone (probably Berdych) will have done him a favor and knocked out Rafael Nadal before the final four.

    But as appetizing as a non-Rafa semifinal would be for Federer, Berdych is no cupcake.

    The seventh-ranked Czech possesses the sort of power game that can bounce Federer out of a major on a bad day. We saw it with Robin Soderling at Roland Garros in 2010, Berdych himself at Wimbledon a few weeks later and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon in 2011.

    If Berdych is landing his serves and hitting lines, he can make life tough for Federer.

    The Czech has massive power off both wings, and can get surprisingly low to hammer the chips and slices that Federer  likes to throw at the big guys. 

    Not only did Berdych knock Federer out of Wimbledon a couple years ago, but he totally outclassed him in Cincinnati last summer, a performance Federer himself has raved about several times.

    He also took Federer the distance in Oz in 2009, a match many thought he'd win after taking the first two sets.

    Berdych moves just well enough to complement his big hitting, and he can take the match off of anybody's racquet when he's going well.

    But the Czech faces the same problems as all big hitters do against Federer. He's not a great returner, and most of the time it only takes one sloppy game on serve for him to lose the set.

    He's quick for his size, but still rather heavy-footed compared to Federer. If he's not serving well, Federer can handle him pretty easily, as we saw in Paris at the end of last year.

    Federer's 10-4 in their career meetings, and as dangerous as Berdych can be, you know Federer would welcome a semifinal against the Czech with open arms.

Number One: Rafael Nadal

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    For the first time since 2005, Roger Federer is in the same half of a major draw as his nemesis, Rafael Nadal. 

    And as nice as it may be to finally avoid the surging Novak Djokovic until the finals, Federer can't be thrilled about potentially needing to conquer his principal demon just to qualify for the championship match.

    Rafa's heavy cross-court forehand brought Federer to tears in Melbourne three years ago, and unless the match is played on a low-bouncing indoor hard court, it seems like the Spaniard's game is tailor-made to beat Federer.

    Federer is a perfect four for four against Rafa at the Year End Championships, and 1-4 against Nadal on all other hard courts. So as decisive as that straight-set beat-down seemed in the O2 Arena a couple months ago, it probably doesn't mean much for the high-bouncing Plexicushion Prestige in Melbourne.

    We learned this lesson last year, when Federer followed up his 2010 victory over Nadal at the WTFs by getting embarrassed by the Mallorcan in Miami just months later.

    To beat Nadal on a court as slow as Rod Laver's, Federer would have to serve lights out, something he's failed to do over and over again against Nadal on the biggest of stages.

    It may be even harder than usual for Federer to do so this time around, as he's dealing with a back injury that recently forced him to withdraw from Doha. In describing the injury, Federer explained that it prevented him from serving full bore.

    That could be a big problem for Federer if the seeds hold to the final four.

    And you know Federer isn't sleeping any better knowing that Nadal has again declared himself unhealthy with shoulder and knee injuries.

    Federer's witnessed Nadal's mind-over-matter capabilities firsthand when Nadal seamlessly rebounded from a five-hour semifinal against Fernando Verdasco to run like a rabbit against him in the 2009 Australian Open final.

    And don't we all wish we could move like Nadal did in the first round, bad knee and all?

    Unless Nadal is limping around the tournament grounds with a cane, Federer  would still rather face anyone else on earth in the semis.