Australian Open 2014: Players Gaining Momentum Ahead of Year's First Grand Slam

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Australian Open 2014: Players Gaining Momentum Ahead of Year's First Grand Slam
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The 2014 Australian Open is on the horizon as tennis' best prepare to ring in the new year with one of the season's most grueling Grand Slam tournaments. 

Defending men's and women's champions Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka enter the year's first massive test with a chance to win for the fourth and third straight time, respectively. But with a deep field of challengers and the pressure mounting on each, nothing will come easy.

Wondering which dark-horse contenders could possibly shred their hopes Down Under?

Below we'll highlight a few players gaining key momentum ahead of the season's first major.

 

Lleyton Hewitt 

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Veteran Aussie Lleyton Hewitt has never won his home Slam, coming closest in 2005 as a finalist. However, a brilliant start to 2014 has the 32-year-old on everyone's radar coming into Melbourne. 

Hewitt is coming off a strong run in Brisbane to begin the new year, where he defeated Roger Federer in the tournament final. The world No. 43 dropped just two sets en route to his 29th career singles title.

Having won a pair of Grand Slams in the past, Hewitt is well aware of what it takes to go the distance at a two-week-long major tournament like the Australian Open, per BBC Sport

If I play like I did this week I have a chance of doing damage to some serious players. It gives me a lot more confidence going out there believing in how well I'm hitting the ball at the moment and that I can match up with the best guys.

Remember, Hewitt lost in straight sets in the first round of the 2013 Australian Open and won't be lacking motivation to come out firing in 2014.

 

Ana Ivanovic

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A finalist in Australia back in 2008, Serbia's Ana Ivanovic is an outside contender to keep an eye on this January in the women's draw. 

While she's been stopped in the fourth round in each of the past two years in Melbourne, her hard-court prowess and aggressive style of play make her a tough out for anyone. 

The world No. 16 is coming off a title in Auckland, New Zealand in which she knocked off Venus Williams in the final. Although Ivanovic can expect much-improved competition in Australia, you can't overlook the fact she dropped just one set on her way to her first singles title since 2011.

For a player who has often struggled with confidence, a fast start in 2014 could be the key to a second career Slam triumph.

 

Stanislas Wawrinka

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After conquering uncharted territory in 2013, Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka is primed for an impressive 2014 campaign.

A quarterfinalist at the Aussie Open back in 2011, Wawrinka has played some of his best tennis in Melbourne over the years. And although he bowed out in the fourth round Down Under last January, he gave three-time defending tournament champion Novak Djokovic everything he could handle in a five-set thriller. 

Confidence gained from matches like that one, combined with a new level of hard-court success experienced at last year's U.S. Open, make the 28-year-old a dangerous competitor.

Not to mention Wawrinka is coming off a hard-court title in Chennai, India to start the year.

While the competition in Chennai was certainly watered down, Wawrinka was dominant from start to finish, not dropping a single set en route to the title.

 

Li Na

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Although it's been nearly three years since Li Na won her only major tournament at the French Open, the two-time Aussie Open finalist is without question a threat to win her second career major this January in Melbourne.

After all, the 31-year-old Chinese star is coming off a year-opening title in her home country, winning the Shenzen Open in impressive fashion. Li dropped only one set on her way to the title and is now firing on all cylinders following a stellar run to the final of the 2013 WTA year-end championships in Istanbul last October.

Remember, Li boasts a 27-8 singles match record at the Australian Open dating back to 2005 and has won at least five matches Down Under in three of her past four trips.

 

Gael Monfils

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Unlike Hewitt and Wawrinka, the always entertaining Gael Monfils hasn't won a tournament yet in 2014. However, the electrifying Frenchman is off to an exceptional start and will carry loads of momentum into the year's first Slam event.

The 27-year-old reached the final in Doha, Qatar on Sunday, Jan. 5, losing to world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in a three-set battle that saw Monfils battle back to win the second set in a dramatic tiebreak.

Prior to facing Nadal, Monfils knocked off compatriot Richard Gasquet and three others in straight sets at the Qatar Open. His ability to transition from defense to offense was critical in those results and will be moving forward into Melbourne, per ESPN The Magazine's Howard Bryant:

Monfils' superior length and flexibility allow him to chase down balls that he often has no business keeping alive. When you combine that rare ability with a newfound confidence you have a worthy dark-horse contender.

 

Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter. 

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