Though there is perhaps no one outside of his colleagues in the Big Four who Novak Djokovic fears, the defending Australian Open champion had to be pretty happy when he got a look at his draw for this year's opening Grand Slam. The bracket features many talented tennis players, but with few exceptions, most of the names in the draw are nowhere close to Djokovic's class and likely are happy just to be playing in Melbourne.
Yet it would be a mistake for Djokovic to get too cocky, as there are a few potential traps laying in Djokovic's path to the semifinals in the guise of players who have either shown they are capable of beating Djokovic or are just too talented to be ignored.
Here is a look at the four players in Djokovic's draw who would offer the greatest challenge to the defending champion as he seeks to claim his fourth Australian Open title and start his 2013 season with a bang.
Only a few players outside of the Big Four of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray are even mentioned as possible candidates to win a major in the near future. Of these select few, Tomas Berdych might just be the competitor most likely to upset the favorites in Melbourne.
Berdych has reached at least the quarterfinal round of a Grand Slam six times in his career, including the past two Australian Opens. He is also one of the few outside the Big Four to reach a Grand Slam final, when he lost to Nadal at Wimbledon in 2010. Most recently, Berdych reached the semifinal round of last year's U.S. Open after defeating Roger Federer in the quarter-finals, before losing to Andy Murray.
Berdych claimed a pair of ATP finals in 2012 at the Open Sud de France and the Stockholm Open, the seventh year out of the past nine in which he has claimed an ATP title. Berdych has little left to prove in his career except that he can produce a Grand Slam victory, and with an injured Nadal and an aging Federer, this is the time for Berdych to strike.
Djokovic has had little trouble with Berdych in the past, defeating him in 11 of the 12 times they have met, most recently at the 2012 ATP Finals, with Berdych's only victory coming in his run at Wimbledon in 2010. Djokovic has Berdych's number, but he is clearly the most talented possible opponent in Djokovic's draw.
It has been a while since Fernando Verdasco was on top of his game, with his last ATP title and Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance both coming in 2010. Though he has slipped slightly from his peak, Verdasco is still a dangerous player on the tour capable of beating the best, including Djokovic.
Verdasco reached the final of the Mexican Open in February of 2012 after three runner-up finishes in 2011 and claimed four doubles titles with partner David Marrero. After an early exit in the first round of the Australian Open, he reached the third round in each of the year's remaining Grand Slams.
Despite his disappointing performance in Melbourne in 2012, he plays well in the majors, reaching the fourth round in his two previous efforts and the semifinal round in 2009.
Most significantly for Djokovic, Verdasco has shown himself to be one of the few players capable of beating him, defeating Djokovic in four of the nine times they have met, most recently at the 2010 Internazionali BNL d'Italia. Verdasco's game shares a lot of similarities with Djokovic's great rival Rafael Nadal in that both are powerful baseliners with tumbling topsin, and Verdasco clearly pushes Djokovic to his limit.
Should Verdasco and Djokovic survive their first four matches and face off against each other, it will be interesting to see if Verdasco is still capable of pushing Djokovic to his limit.
After reaching the third round in both of his first two Australian Open attempts at 19 and 20 years old, it seemed that it was only a matter of time before Sam Querrey would win in Melbourne. Six years after his first Open, Querrey has yet to match his early success, exiting in the first round each year between 2009 and 2011 and in the second round in last year's tournament.
Still, Djokovic shouldn't overlook Querrey if he ends up facing the talented American. Querrey's game took a big step forward midway through 2012 when he won the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles in July, his first ATP singles victory since 2010. Querrey also reached the third round at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Most significantly for Djokovic, Querrey defeated him in their match at the 2012 BNP Paribas Masters, a tournament in which Querrey went on to reach the quarterfinal round. His overwhelming serve matches up nicely with Djokovic's powerful play, and his win in Paris shows that when the balls bounce the right way, Querrey is capable of beating the world's best, even Djokovic.
It is unlikely that Djokovic would fall to Querrey in a tournament as well suited to his game as the Australian Open is, but Querrey has shown that he shouldn't be taken lightly by the defending champ.
The second-most famous Swiss man in tennis today, Stanislas Wawrinka still has a sour taste in his mouth from last year's U.S. Open, where he had to withdraw from his fourth round match against Djokovic due to illness after falling behind early.
Though he hasn't won a tournament in two years, Wawrinka played well in 2012, reaching the third round at the Australian Open and the fourth round at the French and U.S. Open. He played well at the Masters level too, reaching the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo and the semis in Cincinnati.
Djokovic and Wawrinka know each other's games well, having met 13 times in the past. Though Djokovic has the clear upper hand in their matchups, Wawrinka has managed to defeat Djokovic twice, demonstrating that on the right day, Wawrinka is capable of claiming victory. With his brilliant backhand and powerful baseline play, he poses an interesting matchup to Djokovic, and he is one of the few people in the draw who has demonstrated that he is capable of topping Djokovic.