Top Storylines to Follow at 2014 Australian Open

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014

Top Storylines to Follow at 2014 Australian Open

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    The 2014 Australian Open is sure to feature amazing tennis stories and performances. Headed by superstars Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, there will be no shortage of legendary matches.

    Best of all is the unknown tales that are waiting to be written. Every Grand Slam tournament sets up its unique flavor of competitors, each at a peculiar place in his or her career.

    Nothing ever shakes out exactly as predicted.

    Featured ahead are the most popular storylines that include the game's biggest questions and stars. Amid the battles, disappointments and triumphs, there will be new adventures from the top tennis players in the world.

Just How Fast Are the Australian Open Hard Courts in 2014?

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    There could be really good news for Federer, Andy Murray and other players who prefer faster court surfaces. Bob Larson Tennis on reported that the Brisbane, Australia, hard courts indicate that "it’s possible that the 2014 Australian Open could be playing quicker than it has in years."

    For players like Federer who would like to end points quicker against physically grinding champions Nadal and Djokovic, this might prove significant. After all, Federer nearly defeated Nadal on the fast surface at Cincinnati a few months ago.

    Federer relies on effective serving and a forehand that can both hit through the court and carve out low-biting slice.

    Murray could use the pace from his defensive counterpunching to hit harder and have fewer exchanges with his more powerful rivals.

    For the WTA, this is bad news for trying to stop Williams and her power game. Defending champion Victoria Azarenka will have to contend with more difficult service returns and hope that Williams is erratic. Williams had her way with a convincing 6-4, 7-5 victory at the Brisbane International.

    With Nadal, change Down Under is not welcome. Nadal prefers to create topspin that bounces high on a grittier surface. He excels when playing strength-sapping physical matches. Quicker points neutralize some of these advantages.

    Djokovic will be seeking his fourth consecutive Aussie Open title. He would love conditions to remain similar to the past three years. Change could allow another ATP contender like Juan Martin del Potro to reap the benefits of hitting his powerful groundstrokes.

    It will be interesting to hear players react further, as the upcoming Aussie Open is actually played.

How Much Will Roger Federer's Performance Really Matter?

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    What do you buy for the person who has everything? Will it change his or her life?

    Federer's career has accomplished as much as reasonably possible, and then some. The 2014 Aussie Open is not the missing piece to completing his career. His bucket list has been checked off.

    However, he does have every ambition to win more Grand Slam titles. The competitive challenge itself often drives champions for one more taste of glory.

    His performance Down Under will matter a lot or not at all.

    If Federer gets back to the semifinals, it bodes very well for a strong comeback in 2014. If he is a finalist, he will be a huge story. If he wins the title, he will bring more excitement to tennis and continue to build his legend.

    On the other hand, Federer could get knocked out in the early rounds. If so, it might only be considered a stepping stone on his way to peaking for the summer. Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are still his most likely fields for success.

    Federer always matters to tennis fans, but some of his results are more important than others.

Does Victoria Azarenka Need to Defeat Serena Williams to Validate Her Star?

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    World No. 2 Victoria Azarenka has won the past two Australian Open crowns. She is an established star in women's tennis.

    But there are whispers of doubt about her becoming elite.

    Azarenka is still searching for a Grand Slam title in the northern hemisphere. She has been a semifinalist at the French Open and twice at Wimbledon. She has been a U.S. Open finalist two years running.

    If only she could beat Williams at a major. She has lost 13 of 16 career meetings, including 0-8 in Grand Slam matches. Most of all, her consistent and determined approach from the baseline is overwhelmed by Williams' superior serve, power and variety.

    Azarenka is great, but Williams is a legend. This is hard to overcome, even for an athlete as mentally tough as Azarenka. There are the technical matchup difficulties, but especially the burden of trying to break through her nemesis.

    Critics might charge that Azarenka's Aussie titles only came because she was lucky enough to avoid Williams. While that is not exactly fair, it is true that Azarenka has more to gain in winning an Aussie crown by defeating Williams in the final.

    It could be the next, and necessary, level in advancing her own Hall of Fame journey.

Why Will THIS Aussie Open Be Any Different for Juan Martin del Potro?

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    There's no reason to dislike Juan Martin del Potro. He is a good competitor, acts professionally and looks the part of a rugged champion.

    But once again, the talented but often injured Argentine is everybody's favorite to challenge for a Grand Slam title. Are there tennis fans who would list him as a favorite over Federer and Murray?

    Apparently the 2009 U.S. Open is still branded on his chest. (Why Nike does not somehow turn this into a cash cow may be one of the failed marketing opportunities in tennis history.) In truth, 2009 is looking more like a fluke than a foundation.

    Granted, he suffered a wrist injury, four years ago, but at this point he is what he is. He is a second-tier star who has not consistently challenged for Grand Slam titles, nor formed any real rivalry with Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray.

    His list of accomplishments hides behind the shadows of his potential. Since 2009, he has not appeared in another Grand Slam final. He has never won a Masters 1000 tournament.

    Del Potro is at his best when he is fresh. He likes to blast away from the baseline when his opponents allow him to attack. However, he is more limited if he must change strategies, use more variety of pace and match the defensive intensity of the elite players.

    It's also fair to question if he can develop a greater championship focus and aura. His personality is more relaxed, but there are times he seems to shrink away when the heat is on.

    Maybe this time it will be different. If not, the tennis world can always recycle him to be the dark horse at the French Open.

Better Future for Simona Halep or Sloane Stephens?

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    Suppose we could go five years into the future to see the destinies of Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens. If they were stocks, who would you bet on to be the bigger star and more accomplished player?

    Halep and Stephens are young, potential stars. They were the two most improved WTA players for 2013, with Halep winning the official award.

    They took different routes in pushing themselves to the edge of the Top 10. Stephens broke though with her quarterfinals win versus megastar Williams. She also reached at least the fourth round in every Grand Slam tournament. She moved her ranking from No. 38 to No. 12.

    Halep lost two convincing Australian matches to Stephens one year ago. Her road to success was not the Grand Slam stage, but her sizzling summer at mid-level tournaments. She eventually won six titles, second on the WTA behind Williams. Her ranking shot up from No. 47 to No. 11.

    There are differences, but similar outlooks for these young stars. They both prefer to play aggressive from the baseline and use a powerful serve. Each hopes that 2014 will be another leap into the elite of the WTA, and it all starts with the Australian Open.

    Halep in particular needs to prove she can win big Grand Slam matches. An excellent performance over the next two weeks will place her in the Top 10.

    Stephens hopes to defend her Aussie semifinals appearance, and she wants to prove she can be a major player. She knows this will be a reality only by defeating the top stars for Grand Slam prominence.

    In five years, which player will be better? For now it's debatable.

Is Andy Murray Purposely Keeping His Expectations Low?

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    Summer 2013 went from euphoria to frustration for Murray. The newly minted Wimbledon champion was unable to defend his U.S. Open title, getting swept by Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals.

    His chronic back condition caused him to end his season with surgery and rehabilitation.

    Tennis fans wonder if Murray will recover his form well enough to compete for the Aussie title. Recently, he faded in a comeback match, losing to Florian Mayer in Qatar's second round.

    Murray subsequently voiced concerns about his readiness in his comments to Paul Newman of The Independent:

    I wouldn’t expect to win the Australian Open. I’m just saying that I know that I’ve trained hard and physically I’ve done a lot of good work.... It would be unrealistic to expect to win the Australian Open, but I may start to feel better if I can get through a match or two.

    While Murray understands that match conditioning and timing are necessary to win tennis' biggest events, his comments effectively remove some of the pressure he will undoubtedly feel in trying to arrive with his best tennis.

    Murray could also be looking to set himself up as a surprise story. If tennis fans are talking about the other players, perhaps he can survive the necessary competition to make a run at the title by the second weekend.

    Is this more of Murray's blunt honesty or calculated rhetoric? In the end, it probably does not matter. He will fight for every match win he can get and look to hold up the Aussie Open trophy.

Will the Australian Open Reveal a New Legitimate Grand Slam Contender?

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    For tennis fans who hate dynasties, it seems that ATP dominance from Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will never end. These fans would love to see more parity.

    Who wouldn't feel good to see hard-working David Ferrer win one major?

    Would it be too much to complete a six-year storybook ending to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's smiling run at the 2008 Australian Open?

    Will one of the "potential stars" ever find the confidence and consistency to win a Grand Slam title? We're looking at you, Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz.

    The WTA has had more breathing room at the top in recent years, at least until Williams decided to go retro and whip up on the next generations of tennis.

    Agnieszka Radwanska could use more power. Sara Errani needs a bigger serve and success off clay. Petra Kvitova lacks for more control and consistency.

    Certainly one second-tier player will create some Aussie buzz during the upcoming tournament, but will he or she have staying power for 2014?

    Dynasties do not last forever, but they are reluctant to give anything away. It will be hard for one breakout player to win some of this power.

Can Djokovic Continue to Escape with Epic Wins?

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    He has been the deserving champion for three consecutive Aussie Open titles, but Djokovic has also had some narrow escapes. Is this more evidence of his greatness, or has Lady Luck watched over him more kindly than should be expected?

    In 2012, Djokovic won a semifinal battle with Murray in five tough sets. He then endured nearly six hours of warfare with Nadal. He was down one break in the fifth set and took advantage of Nadal's failed backhand putaway in the eighth game. It might have saved Djokovic's title.

    In 2013, Djokovic survived the career-best effort from Wawrinka in the fourth round. Wawrinka hit several splendid winners and put Djokovic on the brink of defeat. Finally, the Serbian champion succeeded with a 12-10 score in the fifth set.

    Djokovic is not infallible. He has lost tough matches at other venues. His 2013 French Open semifinal loss to Nadal was a heartbreaker, and it likely cost him this coveted title.

    But at the Australian Open, it feels like Djokovic has a charmed home-court advantage when he wins  these kinds of matches.

    Will he escape with a tough match or two to become the first player of the Open Era to win five Aussie Open titles? We will soon find out.

Would You Take Serena Williams or the WTA Field?

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    The consensus on Williams is that it's her tournament to lose. As long as she is healthy, focused and able to impose her talent, she will win. Her athleticism and power is still ahead of its time in women's tennis, and her mental toughness intimidates her opponents.

    This doesn't mean Serena is unbeatable. She can be her own worst enemy at times, or at least overly stubborn in how she plays. She always wants to be the one to overpower, outserve and outthink her opponents. She can be prone to silly errors or berate herself if she has a few tough games.

    The rest of the WTA has not had much success in stopping "A Level" Serena. To say that anyone is truly her rival is to point out that she has had success in beating Serena. That is not the case:

    Azarenka has only won three of 16 career meetings and is 0-8 in Grand Slam matches.

    Maria Sharapova has only won two of 17 career meetings and has lost 14 straight. She has not defeated Williams since 2004!

    Li Na has only won one of 11 career meetings.

    Serena is hungry for a title she has not won since 2010. Winning Australia would complete her latest run of dominance.

    It's probably a good bet to take Serena vs. the field.

Will Rafael Nadal Double Up His Grand Slam Legacy?

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    Never mind that Nadal's image in the photo bears a vague resemblance to the pirate look by 1995 Andre Agassi. If it's an omen, Agassi won the Aussie Open title that year.

    These days, Nadal is in search of adding more history to his unmatched legacy. Up next is the opportunity to be the first man of the Open Era to win each Grand Slam title at least twice each.

    And if that were not enough, bagging the Aussie title would set him up to be the first player in over 20 years (1992 Jim Courier) to win both the Aussie and French Open titles.

    With Nadal, it's often the journey that is more epic than the final result. Whether or not he gets there, he will not do so by winning or losing through a predictable path. There will be moments he will have to overcome challenges, upsets and adversity.

    If he completes his quest, he will likely have to conquer the man who has already made his own case to be King of Australia, Djokovic.

    Tennis Down Under never disappoints. Just enjoy the ride.