Power Ranking the Top 20 Men's Players Heading into 2014 Australian Open

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2014

Power Ranking the Top 20 Men's Players Heading into 2014 Australian Open

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    The ATP rankings are based on merit. A Top 20 player needs a lot of talent, work and winning. But rankings rarely hold to form for Grand Slam tournaments. The 2014 Australian Open will undoubtedly witness big winners and disappointed losers. Players get what they earn.

    The following slides will not simply list the Top 20 players, but rather the players who could also most likely go deep in the Australian Open. These are all players who have talent or potential to do some damage.  Although only one of these players will win the title, the others are more dangerous than some of the obviously ranked omissions.

    We are power ranking these top players because of potential and talent.

    Furthermore, we will look at what these players hope to accomplish in 2014. It's a long and winding road, with the Australian Open merely the starting chute of what promises to be a fascinating journey.

20. Bernard Tomic

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    ATP Ranking: 51

    Why He's Here: Why not roll the dice with mercurial Bernard Tomic? Yes, he is still learning to play professional tennis and is about as consistent as a crooked line. There are times, like at 2013 Wimbledon, that his talent teases fans.

    Then, he played a tough fourth round match before bowing out to Tomas Berdych. There are also times he appears disinterested—tanking is too strong a term—when adversity sets in. His loss to Andy Murray at Miami last year was borderline shameful

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Before his third-round match versus Roger Federer in the 2013 Australian Open, Tomic fed the media by rubbing Federer. The Swiss Maestro scoffed (in previous source) at Tomic's remarks, including Tomic's chances of entering the Top 10 by the close of 2013. Federer wiped out Tomic in the third round. Tomic's ranking is No. 51. Case closed. 

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: Tomic can indeed make waves with extra conditioning and commitment with his new coach, and by at least one report this is going well. But he must learn how to execute his creative methods of flat strokes and slice. He needs to play with more urgency, scramble harder and not stand and lunge at strokes that could use better footwork.

    Right now it's a stretch, but if he gets control of his game and stays humble, maybe he can rip his way into the Top 20. Or Australia's newest hope will soon become a forgotten bust.

19. Philipp Kohlschreiber

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    ATP Ranking: 22

    Why He's Here: Philipp Kohlschreiber may not be a household name, but he is a smart tennis player who can attack with his serve and volley. At the 2013 U.S. Open, he took the first set in his fourth-round challenge versus Rafael Nadal. The veteran is improving as he enters his 30s and may be poised for more success.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Last year he reached the third round at Melbourne before getting blitzed by Milos Raonic. Depending on the draw, Kohlschreiber should mix up his game and be a tougher out, especially if the courts are playing faster.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: Can Kohlscreiber knock off some of the Top 10 players more often in 2014? He could be this year's version of Stanislas Wawrinka by winning and competing in big matches. A good goal is for him to move his ranking inside the Top 10 by summer, and then he could ride a great indoor season to the WTF.

18. Tommy Robredo

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    ATP Ranking: 18

    Why He's Here: A year ago, Tommy Robredo was struggling to get back into the Top 100. His comeback from injuries started with first-round defeats at Sydney, Melbourne and Brazil. He improved all spring and eventually had a miracle run of five-set wins to become a French Open quarterfinalist. At the U.S. Open, he gained more acclaim by dismantling Federer on his way to another Grand Slam quarterfinal.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Robredo is very good on clay and slower hard courts. This year, Melbourne is rumored to be playing faster, due to Brisbane's faster surfaces. Some factors to note will include the temperature, humidity, evening play and grit or smoothness of the courts. Stay tuned.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: It will not be easy for Robredo's comeback magic to continue, but he should get a few more favorable draws. Best-case scenario would be for him to close in on the Top 10 and crack a Grand Slam semifinal, most likely at Roland Garros.

17. Nicolas Almagro

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    ATP Ranking: 13

    Why He's Here: More of a clay-court player, Nicolas Almagro found a way to climb to No. 13, despite some lackluster results late in 2013. He can hit hard groundstrokes and blow opponents off the baseline, but he sometimes loses his composure when adversity strikes.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Part of what makes Almagro such an enigma was illustrated in last year's Australian Open. He scraped past a qualifying player in the first round but later dominated talented players Jerzy Janowicz and Janko Tipsarevic.

    In the quarterfinals, he was up two sets on fourth-seeded David Ferrer, until blowing the match and dropping the final three sets. Three times he failed to serve out  the match!

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: To keep his ranking near the Top 10, he needs to repeat his quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open. Next, he needs a monster clay-court season, especially if he can win  a big one like Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome. It's certainly possible. Positive early-year results will be necessary to help him navigate through the faster courts of late summer and beyond.

16. Ernests Gulbis

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    ATP Ranking: 24

    Why He's Here: Never one to be reserved, the brash Ernests Gulbis can flex his muscle with some big tennis talent. His backhand is outstanding, near to Novak Djokovic's level, and he loves to pick up high topspin from baseliners. His serve can be outstanding, and his forehand powerfully effective, as long as it does not become erratic. He has the toughness to compete in big matches.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Last year he skipped the Australian Open. Soon after, he had a 13-match winning streak until a tight loss to Nadal. During the summer, he defeated Andy Murray on his way to the Rogers Cup quarterfinals. At Stockholm, he defeated Janowicz and appeared in the semifinals. The point is that Gulbis can perform and win at a high level.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: At age 25, it's not too late for Gulbis to morph into a Grand Slam contender. He could have a big year by defeating most of the Top 20 players. Why not charge into the Top 10 and start challenging the elite players on a more regular basis? The Aussie Open is a great place to start.

15. Tommy Haas

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    ATP Ranking: 12

    Why He's Here: Tommy Haas had a very solid 2013 tennis year. His highlight was at the Masters 1000 tournament in Miami. There he defeated Novak Djokovic and eventually advanced to the semifinals. He was consistent but unable to make a great run at a Grand Slam title.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Last year's Aussie Open first-round loss was a disappointment for Haas. He dropped the fifth set to fellow veteran Jarkko Nieminen. This year is an opportunity to pick up more points at Melbourne and penetrate the second week.

    He can do it by commanding all parts to his game, especially his serve and footwork. He needs to pick up cheap points at the net in order to avoid expending so much energy from the baseline.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: It's hard to see Haas improving on 2013, not at age 35. He's not going to sneak up on anyone in his draw. His best bet is to try to ride a hot streak at a venue like Wimbledon. If so, he could indeed become a surprise finalist. Otherwise, he will be hard-pressed to stay near the Top 10.

14. Kei Nishikori

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    ATP Ranking: 17

    Why He's Here: Perhaps the same clothing line as Djokovic could be worth some good play from Kei Nishikori. He slumped a bit in the second half of 2013, but Nishikori has generally been a well-conditioned athlete with all-court skills. What he lacks is the power and weapon to be a big-time winner. He does figure to improve and may yet hit his peak with a lot more bite in his game.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: The past two years at Melbourne have seen him reach the quarterfinals and fourth round, respectively. As long as he avoids a great day from a power player, he stands a good chance to advance. Of course last year's fourth-round loss was a humbling straight-sets defeat to Ferrer who is the blueprint to what Nishikori could somewhat become.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: He needs to win signature matches. It will take at least one hot run to bolster his belief. He has added former French Open champion Michael Chang as at least a temporary coaching adviser. Chang was known for his feisty grit as a player and knows the kinds of challenges Nishikori faces in trying to overcome the elite players. Will he make a difference?

13. Grigor Dimitrov

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    ATP Ranking: 23

    Why He's Here: It's true Grigor Dimitrov is still being viewed more by his potential than his results. After all, he has only advanced past the second round one time (2013 French Open third round) in Grand Slam play. But there was steady progress in 2013, highlighted by a win over Novak Djokovic and a pair of tough matches versus Rafael Nadal (Monte Carlo and Cincinnati). He is ranked No. 23 and looking for more.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Dimitrov has beautiful strokes and a champion's presence when he is on his game. The Aussie Open plexicushion surface could be the ideal surface for him to set up his offense, and he showed great footwork on clay last year with some terrific defensive work. Could this be his coming-out-party? Some of this depends on the draw, but most depends on his readiness and belief.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: If his time has come, Dimitrov could ride into the Top 10. There are plenty of solid but unspectacular players he could leapfrog. What he needs is that breakthrough title at a Masters 1000 event or a run to the Grand Slam semifinals. If this seems too ambitious, it's probably a better bet than many of the players ranked ahead of him.

12. Richard Gasquet

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    ATP Ranking: 9

    Why He's Here: Richard Gasquet picked up his game late last summer, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open. He qualified for the 2013 ATP World Tour Finals but was dismissed in losing all three of his matches.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: The good news is his consistency. He is usually good for a fourth-round appearance but rarely more. The problem is that he is usually no match against the best players. His career records against the "Big Three" are 0-12 (Nadal), 1-10 (Djokovic) and 2-11 (Federer).

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: Realistically, Gasquet needs to break into more quarterfinals and semifinals appearances at Grand Slams to improve his ranking. He could be helped greatly by winning a Masters 1000 title or perhaps finally landing in a Grand Slam final. Best-case scenario sees him landing at No. 5, but it's more likely he will be outside the Top 10.

11. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

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    ATP Ranking: 10

    Why He's Here: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga peaked in 2013 with his French Open semifinal appearance. He was injured in his second-round loss to Gulbis and missed the North American hard-court swing. Typically, tennis fans can expect his ranking to be comfortably inside the Top 10. Now, there are still some questions about his overall fitness and readiness to play at full strength. He helped France win the Hopman Cup last week.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Six years have passed since Tsonga rose to fame as a surprise Australian Open finalist. He is still looking to get back, even though he has had semifinal and quarterfinal appearances here. His five-set duel with Federer in last year's quarterfinals was a bitter loss, especially because he lost the first and third sets with tiebreakers.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: Is Tsonga's time as a Grand Slam contender nearly over, or can he raise his game and finally win one? He recently said in a Sport360 interview, per Reem Abulleil, that he believes he will win a Slam:

    If I think I’m not able to achieve it I will stop. I’m not that kind of guy who will play just for playing and be on the tour. I don’t care. I have family, I make a lot of sacrifices to play tennis, even if it’s my passion, so I’m doing it just because I really believe that I can do something great.

    I’m not doing it for recognition from people. I’m doing it for me. Because when I was young I had a dream to win a Grand Slam and whatever people think, I just try to do everything in a good way and I hope it will happen.

10. Milos Raonic

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    ATP Ranking: 11

    Why He's Here: Milos Raonic is another example of the powerful-serving big man with a lot of holes in his game. He has made steady progress with his groundstrokes against lesser players, but his footwork pales in comparison to the elite players. Case in point, was his final appearance at the Canada Open in August. Nadal pulverized him by making him move too much, and his plodding defense was exposed.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Depending on the draw, Raonic could serve his way into the second week. He will need to control his matches if he hopes to land in the quarterfinals and beyond. He doesn't have the more complete game and explosiveness of Janowicz, so for now he has a more limited ceiling in becoming a genuine contender.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: He has shown flashes of playing well on clay, but his massive serve could send him on a deep Wimbledon run, if all goes well. He needs to go deep in many big tournaments if he is to be a confident winner. It could happen in 2014, but he must keep improving.

9. David Ferrer

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    ATP Ranking: 3

    Why He's Here: Nobody questions the size of Ferrer's heart, just the lack of power in his offense. The indefatigable Ferrer travels the world in search of ATP points and consistently reaches the late stages of tournaments. There's the sense that his No. 3 ranking is more a product of opportunistic consistency rather than a measure of his talent.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Traditionally, Ferrer has played some of his best tennis Down Under. He seems to adjust to the summer heat at this time of the year, likely as he is accustomed to heavy travel and changing venues.

    He has appeared in the semifinals twice and quarterfinals once the past three years. His greatest win was his 2011 quarterfinals straight-sets victory over Nadal. But there's also the reality of getting blasted by a more powerful opponent, like Djokovic's 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 pasting last year.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: It's hard to see Ferrer matching his French Open final appearance and No. 3 ranking from 2013. It's possible he could catch a break in the last two rounds and face players other than Djokovic or Nadal. Maybe he could win his long-eluded Grand Slam title. The more likely scenario will see Ferrer's ranking bleed away points as he fades from the top five.

8. Jerzy Janowicz

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    ATP Ranking: 21

    Why He's Here: Janowicz might be the most likely player to leap into Grand Slam contention. He has already shown great potential with his big serve and forehand variety; he is almost as likely to carve out a delicate dropshot as thunder a winner past his opponent. He has shown a kind of big-match toughness, demonstrating he belongs. His 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist appearance is a great start.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Janowicz would like to forget his meltdown at the 2013 Australian Open second round. Though he lost his temper in screaming at the chair umpire, and eventually went down two sets, he did rally to win the match. 

    This year, he must rise above tantrums and show his mettle. There is every reason to see him play into late rounds. He's one of only a few outlying players who could knock off one of the top players on the way to beginning his own legend.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: His ceiling may not be visible yet. He could absolutely get to a Grand Slam final if chaos and upsets occur similar to the previous Wimbledon. He could also be a top-eight player and earn his way to the WTF tournament in November. This will take consistency and a few great results.

7. Tomas Berdych

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    ATP Ranking: 7

    Why He's Here: At times Berdych is better than his ranking. Otherwise he is worse. Tennis fans know a hot Berdych can defeat anyone on tour, as long as it's before the late stages of a Grand Slam tournament. Then his predicable, frigid play often sends him packing as the press tries to decipher his failures.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: There's nothing to suggest Berdych will turn in a great Australian Open run. Last year, he split the first two quarterfinal sets with Djokovic before his carriage turned into a pumpkin. Can he finish the job this time around?

    It's the age-old question dogging his career. The good news is that expectations for Berdych have become boring. He can serve big and hit clean winners from anywhere on the court. This is usually good enough for him to erase the first week of competition. Then he can try again with "Big-Match Bingo."

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: Berdych has to hope that Djokovic and Nadal decide they've had enough of dominating the ATP tour. If Murray and Federer continue their recent struggles, it could open the way for secondary stars like Berdych.

    Best-case scenario finds Berdych riding a magic carpet to a Grand Slam final and completing a fairy-tale ending. He can at least hope to grab a couple Masters 1000 titles and penetrate more Grand Slam semifinals.

6. Stanislas Wawrinka

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    ATP Ranking: 8

    Why He's Here: In the 2013 Australian Open fourth round, Stanislas Wawrinka played the match of his life versus No. 1-ranked Djokovic. He hit with the offensive firepower and boldness necessary to contend for a Grand Slam title. He continued his ride upward by landing in the U.S. Open semifinals and gamely pushing Djokovic in five sets. Is he ready to defeat the top of the ATP?

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Last year's big match figures to help Wawrinka. He knows how to prepare for big matches and now believes he can win them, according to his video interview on ATPworld.com:

    (The Aussie Match)…was something different for me after that match, mentally. I realized that I was there, my level was there, and that I can play against the best player in the world, and after that I had some—much better results.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: The veteran journeyman could blossom into a top-five player this year if he continues to raise his game. If 2014 turns into a year of unforeseen chaos, Wawrinka could be one to take advantage of the upsets and win a Grand Slam title.

    At the very least, more semifinal appearances and a few big titles on hard courts or clay could move him past the likes of Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro.

5. Juan Martin del Potro

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    ATP Ranking: 5

    Why He's Here: Once again, Juan Martin del Potro arrives as champion-in-waiting, a talented baseline-smashing giant who is capable of beating the very best. As always, there are questions about his back, wrist and any number of obstacles that could crop up during two weeks of tennis purgatory. Will this be the time he finally captures that elusive second Grand Slam title?

    Early Australian Open Outlook: He has never made it to the Australian Open semifinals, which is surprising given that the court surface at Melbourne should allow him better defensive recovery and time to set up his big groundstrokes. He needs to have his best energy and fitness through the Australian summer in order to contend for the title.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: No more excuses for Del Potro. Yes, Nadal and Djokovic are better, but Del Potro needs to make Grand Slam semifinals a regular occurrence in order to give himself the opportunity to win another.

    Ideally, he gains the belief and confidence that he should be right at the top. A great 2014 could indeed see him win another Grand Slam title and enter the conversation as a perennial favorite.

4. Roger Federer

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    ATP Ranking: 6

    Why He's Here: After a dismal 2013, Federer is looking for a comeback with a great Aussie Open performance. He last won the title in 2010.

    Despite his struggles, the Swiss Maestro is optimistic he will regain his best form, telling the Australian media via Laine Clark of The Sydney Morning Herald ''These last few months have been important for me, feeling that movement is not an issue any more and I can go full out, especially mentally.''

    Early Australian Open Outlook: He has added serve-and-volley legend Stefan Edberg to his team, which likely indicates his desire to be more offensively aggressive at the net. His serving will be the key to setting up forehand winners and more volley success. If he can take the initiative and shorten points against his baseline rivals, Federer might be the surprise Aussie Open winner.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: A return to the Aussie semifinals would be a great sign that he has more excellent tennis left in the tank. Federer will most target Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in his quest to win more Grand Slam titles.

    It's clear he is not just showing up to participate in 2014, also saying through Clarke of the The Sydney Morning Herald "I want to be part of the best, and hopefully beat the best players in the game."

3. Andy Murray

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    ATP Ranking: 4

    Why He's Here: If the photo is depicting Murray's pleas to the tennis gods, he must hope first of all that his back problems will not be a factor. Murray's time off to end 2013 and rehabilitate from back surgery raises concerns about his conditioning and competitive peak. If all goes well, Murray will be hungry and ready to win his first Aussie Open title and third career Grand Slam title.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: Murray lost to Florian Mayer in the second round of the Qatar Open. He was up 6-3, 3-0 before getting blasted by his more aggressive opponent. This might be nothing more than Murray getting back his tennis legs and finding his endurance. He might need to survive his opening few matches to prime for his biggest rivals by the semifinals.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: Can Murray stay healthy and raise his game to yet another level? The Aussie Open crown would be a huge title for his career. Realistically, he will need to reinvent himself during the clay-court season if he is to have a shot at that title.

    Murray loves the second half of the year when he has his best shot to win on faster courts against his two more talented, grinding rivals. Two Grand Slam wins in 2014 would be a dream season.

2. Rafael Nadal

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    ATP Ranking: 1

    Why He's Here: What a difference a year makes. Last year Nadal was sidelined from the Australian Open. Now he returns, hoisting two more Grand Slam trophies and wearing the No. 1 ranking. Each match he wins at Melbourne will add to his ranking lead.

    A trophy would give him at least a few more months of space from the inevitable Djokovic charge. Nadal would love nothing more than to nab his second Aussie title and become the only player of the Open Era to complete two career Grand Slams.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: For most of 2013, sans Wimbledon, Nadal proved to be a spectacular success. He dominated the summer hard courts, which bodes well in Melbourne where the courts allow Nadal to bounce his topspin a little higher.

    The ongoing question is if his two late-year losses to Djokovic has now transferred momentum back to his rival should they meet in the final. Despite his No. 1 ranking, Nadal is still looking up at Djokovic's three-year unbeaten streak at Melbourne.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: The first order of business is for Nadal to stay completely healthy throughout the year. Historically, Nadal has followed up his best tennis streaks with injuries or other interruptions.

    He would love to take the year's first two Slams, something not accomplished since Jim Courier in 1992. Then Nadal could set his sights on Wimbledon redemption. Can he win two or three Grand Slam titles in 2014? If so, the chase for Federer's 17 majors can then become a reality.

1. Novak Djokovic

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    ATP Ranking: 2

    Why He's Here: We may as well engrave Djokovic's name all the way to the semifinals. The last time this did not happen was the 2010 French Open. This is also his most ideal surface and home to his greatest success.

    He is a four-time Aussie Open champion and winner of the last three. There is almost an immortal manner to his victories as if he were the hero of a Greek trilogy. He outlasted Nadal in their 2012 marathon classic. He pulled a similar encore versus Wawrinka's 2013 virtuoso performance.

    Early Australian Open Outlook: The pressure has increased on Djokovic to defend his Aussie crown if he hopes to stay within striking distance of Nadal for the No. 1 ranking. Furthermore, Djokovic can become The King of Australia with an unprecedented fifth crown.

    Currently he shares the titles record Down Under with Andre Agassi and Roger Federer. The key is for him to continue the momentum he built following the U.S. Open. He is a fiery, big-match player when clicking on all cylinders.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2014: He could win the calendar Slam, though the grind of such a feat makes this a long shot. If he is healthy and gets a few breaks through draws and timely performances, he is the man to beat anywhere.

    His ideal plan is to defend Aussie and barnstorm through the clay-court season. He could regain the No. 1 ranking by May and subsequently run away with it in winning his coveted French Open title. Two or three Grand Slam wins in 2014 is very realistic if Djokovic is near his best.