It’s mid-January and, for those of us iced into the Northern Hemisphere, it’s time to align body clocks with the land of sand and fire.
So who are we picking for the men's Australian Open?
If the mainstream media are anything to go by, we have only three options. But then, read too much of those same papers and you’d be forgiven for thinking one of those three is eligible for a bus pass.
Before we dismiss possibly the greatest player of all time as a knock-kneed has-been, let’s look at the defending champ. What can we read into the form of Novak Djokovic? Well, let’s get the relatively shocking stat out of the way: the Djoker hasn’t won a slam for a whole year.
Hadn’t considered that, had you? That’s right, the French, Wimbledon and US Opens all slipped by last year without the world No. 1 laying his hands on the big prize.
So, no matter how wide the points gap at the top of the rankings, Djokovic just has to be feeling that teensy bit of pressure to start delivering on the big stage again. Even though he actually won more matches last year than in his miracle year of 2011, you always sensed the Serb was thinking, "Do I really have to do this all again? It’s just soooo much effort."
After his US Open finals defeat to Andy Murray, Djokovic looked utterly spent, like in the days when he was the third wheel in men’s tennis. In those days when he made a habit of reaching semifinals whilst looking very, very tired.
When he became the main man two years ago, you sensed he was existing inside a bubble that might have, but somehow just didn’t, burst. Djokovic had no right to win some of those matches. (The match point turnaround against Federer in the US Open semis, anyone?) Confidence is a wonderful thing.
Confidence is something that Roger Federer has never lacked. But for once, the Swiss hasn’t been given the kindest draw humanly available to the tournament organisers. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo from his staff.
Of particular interest will be a potential third-round clash with in-form Sydney winner Bernard Tomic. The bad boy of Aussie tennis seems strangely focused this year and the stage could be set to finally announce his arrival in grand style.
On top of that, a peek at Federer’s recent schedule suggests a man preparing for the end. While Murray ran on Miami beach until he brought back his sushi, Federer was completing a six-event South American exhibition spectacular. At a reported $2 million per match, you have to think that Federer was thinking more of his pension pot than his 18th slam victory.
All in all, it’s not ideal preparation for the year’s first slam. At age 31 and with just the one major win in the last three years, you have to consider the world No. 2 to be vulnerable in a quarter littered with bombs. Those come in the form of Tommy Haas, Nikolay Davydenko, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and, of course, Tomic.
Should Federer navigate that minefield to the semis, he’ll likely face Murray. The Scot had two options to pick from after his US triumph. He could either drive himself onward and win more big ones or live a life of leisure with nothing more to prove.
Murray chose the beach. Miami beach—and a whole load of lung-bursting reps across the sands with minimal recovery. If they handed out pots based on who wants it more, they could stop the whole circus right now.
On top of his extra-terrestrial fitness, Murray should now be able to let fly on his extraordinary talent, freed as he is of his 76-year-old shackles. With a remodelled forehand and a more dependable second serve, the Scot is the only one out there who can make Djokovic look lost.
At times during their Shanghai Masters final in October, less a tennis match and more a survival weekend, Murray made Djokovic look, not pedestrian, but at least impaired. Indeed, the Scot might have won that match in straight sets but for a desperate tweener from the Serb with Murray serving at 5-4 30-0 in the second set, which somehow paid off.
The confrontation explored the outer limits of their mental endurance. When the two men finally brought the out-of-control juggernaut to a halt, with Djokovic the 6-3 final-set winner, we’d learned three things.
Firstly, both men do bricks-and-mortar tennis incredibly well. Secondly, Murray has a nice line in interior décor that Djokovic doesn’t. And thirdly, the Serb probably remains out in front where the mental furniture is concerned.
When Murray rips free with the full weight of his talent, there’s no more intimidating sight in tennis. With the weight of history and self doubt now removed from Murray’s shoulders, the Australian Open title is his to lose.