Australian Open 2012: 5 Young Competitors Officially on Our 2012 Radar

David DietzContributor IIIJanuary 24, 2012

Australian Open 2012: 5 Young Competitors Officially on Our 2012 Radar

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    Why focus on the greatest top-four players to ever play the game at one time when we can look to the next crop of up-and-coming talent? 

    Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray are clearly cemented as the top-four seeds, but there are a lot of future stars clamoring to provide a challenge and knock them from their perch.

    Here are five players to watch who will give the game's best all they can handle in 2012 and beyond.

5. Mikhail Kukushkin

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    The relatively unknown 92nd-ranked Mikhail Kukushkin has been the biggest surprise of the tournament and the New Year to date. 

    Before bowing out to Murray in rather disappointing 1-6, 1-6, 0-1 fashion, the 24-year-old Kazak pulled off stirring upsets over 19th-ranked Viktor Troicki and 14th-seeded Gael Monfils.

    Kukushkin's run to the final 16 is definitely enough to qualify him as a player to watch in 2012. 

4. Milos Raonic

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    Milos Raonic didn't have quite the tournament of the others on this list and exited before he should have, but a tough loss to an inspired and resurrected Lleyton Hewitt should not dissuade skeptics of Raonic's big-time game.

    After taking the trophy in Chennai, India, where he defeated both 10th-seeded Nicolas Almagro and ninth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic, a lot was expected from Raonic over the course of these two weeks. 

    Unfortunately, Raonic couldn't keep his winning streak alive. Nevertheless, he is one of the top up-and-comers to keep an eye on in 2012. 

3. Bernard Tomic

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    No one captured the attention of the nation during the first week like Bernard Tomic. 

    The 19-year-old hometown hero showed toughness, determination and a big-time game in defeating both 22nd-seeded Fernando Verdasco and 13th-seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov. 

    It was his coming-out party, and he handled the spotlight and the hopes of a nation with class and a little flair for the spectacular. 

    Tomic needs to add another 15 pounds and a bit more power to his game, but should he do that, he's unquestionably a top-five talent.

2. Kei Nishikori

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    Outside of Roger Federer, who is in the midst of a 24-match winning streak, no one is hotter than Kei Nishikori. Considering that Federer is a 16-time champ and Nishikori has beaten similar top competition, that's a pretty big distinction.

    Starting at the ATP Tour Masters Series in Shanghai last October, Nishikori has been rolling, beating Tsonga twice, Djokovic, Berdych and Dolgopolov. 

    The 2012 Australian Open has been Nishikori's big breakthrough, and the 22-year-old Japanese youngster's gritty five-set victory over Tsonga confirmed he belongs. Advancing any further would just be icing on an already sweet cake. 

1. Juan Martin Del Potro (He's Back!)

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    In 2009, Juan Martin Del Potro was the hottest youngster on tour. After a surprise run through the US Open and a shocking finals victory over then No. 1-seeded Roger Federer, Del Potro was pegged to be the next great star. After two relatively frustrating, injury-filled years, Del Potro is back.

    Currently ranked 11th on tour, Juan Martin should break back into the Top 10 after reaching his first Grand Slam quarterfinals since raising his US Open trophy. 

    Finally healthy, Del Potro has breezed through a relatively easy draw, dropping only one set in four matches. Up next is the mighty Roger Federer. Del Potro's next test will show just how far he's come. 

    Nevertheless, Del Potro makes the list, and at only 23 years old, the young Argentine will be a future star and mainstay of the tour.