The 2014 Australian Open draws have been revealed, and ahead of the action getting under way, it's worth taking a look at what the top seeds have to do to reach the finals.
Both Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka are defending champions of the season's first Grand Slam event, yet both are only No. 2 seeds. Occupying the first spots are Rafael Nadal for the men and Serena Williams for the women.
Considering both Nadal and Williams hold two of the four Grand Slam titles at the moment, it does make some sense that they rank ahead of the reigning winners in Melbourne.
If the tournament plays out as expected based on the seeding, these four superstars will battle for the hardware. Let's take a look at the road to get there for each individual, as well as their biggest potential obstacles along the way.
Men's No. 1 Rafael Nadal
Whenever it seems like Nadal is on the decline, he comes back, looking better than ever. Winning the French Open last season wasn't much of a surprise, but concern surfaced again when he bowed out in the opening round at Wimbledon.
He then won the U.S. Open to reclaim the top spot in the ATP rankings. As a result, he enters this event as the prohibitive favorite.
But a challenge awaits in the very first match when he faces Bernard Tomic, a supremely talented 21-year-old who hasn't quite put together his game yet. However, that could happen at any time, and Tomic discussed what he had to do to prepare, per The Australian's Margie McDonald:
I'm going to bring it to him. I'm going to prepare as best I can to play him. Obviously I've had that experience playing him (Nadal) before when I was 18 in the (Australian Open) third round in 2011. I felt like I had some chances… You know, I've got to play free and play relaxed and train the next few days and obviously have the right sort of training that's going to fit the right player I have to play against, because he's very, very difficult to play
If he is tested early, though, it might be a silver lining for Nadal and a means for him to sharpen his focus from the beginning.
ESPN's Chris Fowler doesn't like the Nadal-Tomic pairing for either player from the start:
The @RafaelNadal v Tomic opener is rough luck for both guys. Tourney better when Aussies make deep runs and needs rock stars like Rafa,too— Chris Fowler (@cbfowler) January 10, 2014
The likeliest adversary for Nadal in the third round is 25th seed Gael Monfils, whose consistency does not match his potential.
Which perennial Australian Open champion is likeliest to lose?
As for the Round of 16, No. 24 Andreas Seppi and No. 16 Kei Nishikori have excellent chances to draw Nadal—barring another impressive run from former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt to that stage.
Neither should be too big of a threat to topple Nadal ahead of a prospective quarterfinal matchup with Juan Martin del Potro, who won the Sydney International final over Tomic, per Michael Carayannis of the Sydney Morning Herald.
Del Potro's powerful serve would put Nadal's fitness to the test on the hard court, but the Spaniard would likely find a way to win in four sets at most.
As for the semifinals, it would come down to who emerges between fourth seed Andy Murray, who is coming off back surgery, and Roger Federer, the legend who looks to be entering the twilight of his career. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is another big name who could get past his two more accomplished peers and face Nadal at that stage.
It would not be at all surprising to see Nadal—presuming he's fit—encounter little trouble until at least the quarterfinals, despite the relatively rough road to glory.
Men's No. 2 Novak Djokovic
"The Serbinator" has dominated this tournament in recent years, winning the trophy the past three times. Until Nadal's resurgence, it looked as though Djokovic was poised to be No. 1 for years to come.
Now at his favorite Grand Slam venue, he has the opportunity to make a big statement. In his draw, he faces a ton of opponents who don't have the combination of physicality and stamina to stack up with him.
Outside of Tomas Berdych, whom Djokovic wouldn't play until the semifinals, only Stanislas Wawrinka should give the second-seeded star problems. Wawrinka pushed Djokovic to five sets at the 2013 U.S. Open before bowing out in an epic semifinal and fell in five sets to Djokovic in this tournament last year in the fourth round.
So there's no guarantee that Djokovic will make the final, but he should have plenty of rest under his belt before he tangles with Wawrinka again in the Australian Open quarters.
There is serious history at stake here, and it's worth noting how much of a hot streak Djokovic has been on, per the tournament's official Twitter account:
"Every year is romantic year. I got engaged in September. Since I got engaged haven't lost a match. maybe wedding should be soon." #Djokovic— Australian Open (@AustralianOpen) January 9, 2014
No matter who has been in Djokovic's way in three seasons, he's managed to cruise through to triumph. A clash with Nadal in the final would be a rematch of the 2012 edition; expect Djokovic to at least make it that far to defend the title that has been his for some time.
Women's No. 1 Serena Williams
The hard court plays to Williams' strengths. Power is her main edge over the rest of the field; she pummels the ball on serves and groundstrokes, often outmatching her foes.
That's why it's so hard to pick against the 17-time Grand Slam champion, especially since she has some unfinished business to attend to after losing prematurely to precocious American Sloane Stephens in last year's quarterfinals.
Beating Azarenka in the most recent U.S. Open final gives the 32-year-old Williams a big edge. That's not to say she's discounting her emerging rival, per the Australian Open's official Twitter account:
On the other hand, Nick Nemeroff of TennisViewMag.com points out how sensational she has been:
Serena Williams is 44-3 in her last 47 sets played and is currently on a 22 match winning streak. Sets lost to Azarenka, Li Na, and Jankovic— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) January 10, 2014
The semifinals present a bevy of tough hurdles in Li Na, Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki. Until then, Williams shouldn't have much to worry about thanks to her favorable draw, which features Sara Errani as the highest seed.
Williams has every right to be confident. Her intensity is part of what makes her such an intimidating force for the rest of women's tennis to deal with.
With that said, declaring 2014 as the year when she wants to win every Grand Slam event is extreme, but that's what she is doing:
While those expectations are daunting, it's something that she can thrive on. By setting the bar high, Williams is setting herself up for success.
Women's No. 2 Victoria Azarenka
The reigning trophy bearer thrives off emotion. She defeated Na in the final in 2013 after dropping the first set, which showed her resilience to be able to battle back to defend her title.
With two wins in this tournament and two runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open in as many appearances, she is a force to be reckoned with on the hard court.
At the age of 24, she has plenty of tennis ahead of her and more room to improve. Even though her draw may be a bit tougher, it could should sharpen Azarenka ahead of another possible battle with Williams.
Their most recent encounter went in Williams' favor at the 2014 Brisbane International Final, so there's also a bit of a vengeance factor here:
A potential rematch between Azarenka and Stephens, who squared off in 2013's semifinals, could happen in the Round of 16, per WTA.com.
The semifinals will likely feature Maria Sharapova, barring an unforeseen upset, and the quarters would be especially interesting if Azarenka faces Agnieszka Radwanska. The two have a bit of history, with Radwanska being displeased at Azarenka's grunting and how it projects an unfavorable image for women's tennis, per Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen.
That would only fire up Azarenka more for the possible showdown, spurring her efforts to pull off a championship hat-trick, just as Djokovic has on the men's side.