Novak Djokovic loves playing tennis at the Australian Open, where he's won three consecutive Grand Slam singles titles. Despite this reign of dominance, Djokovic has sought to increase his edge on the competition even further by taking on Boris Becker as his coach—himself a six-time Grand Slam winner and a Wimbledon champ at age 17.
Djokovic will seek to tighten his vice grip around the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup and further assert his hard-court dominance over the sport, but he will face a stiff test against the other members of tennis' Big Four as well as a surging South American.
A win in Melbourne in 2014 would give Djoker five titles at the Aussie Open, putting him ahead of Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, who have four each. Only Roy Emerson collected more by winning the men's singles six times, and every year from 1963 to 1967 (all prior to the Open era).
Lukas Lacko became Djokovic's first victim at this year's tournament in a straight-set, first-round trouncing, so his march to the finals is well underway. Due to the composition of the bracket, his path to another title is very favorable, as he sees Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro and Roger Federer all on the other side of the draw.
Here is a closer look at the four men who could see Djokovic in the finals and hand him his first defeat at the tournament since 2010.
The debate over the best men's tennis player in the world can only be a discussion regarding the merits of Djokovic and Nadal. Between them, they've won a dozen out of the last 15 Grand Slams.
Nadal has 13 Grand Slams and is only 27 years old, which is slightly terrifying. He is the world's No. 1 and captured the U.S. Open and French Open last season, but his Serbian nemesis has not been beaten in the Australian Open since the last Winter Olympics.
Djoker outlasted Nadal in the 2012 Aussie finals after losing the first set 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 7-5. That match took nearly six hours and set the record for the longest Grand Slam singles final in history. It was nearly 2 a.m. local time when the fifth set wrapped up.
This time around, Nadal is already unhappy, according to his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, per Reuters (via The Guardian):
The spectators want a bit of rallying, a bit of tactics ... This year everything is a bit quicker, that's my feeling and also Rafa's. I don't know if it's because of the courts or the balls, which I think have been changed, but I don't think it's good for the spectacle.
The Plexicushion courts have been a point of discussion for some tennis players, and heavier hitters tend to favor the surface. Nadal, known as the best clay-court player in the universe, understandably would shy away from anything that introduces more speed.
Nadal has the best shot to end Djoker's run of success in the tournament, but that's only because the Spaniard is the best tennis player in the world. The conditions and surface do not play to his advantage, so he faces an uphill battle.
Andy Murray fell in straight sets to Djokovic in the 2011 final at Melbourne Park, but he collected a title at the U.S. Open in 2012 and gold at the London Olympics to demonstrate his prowess. Since Murray finally broke through and became the first British male to win at Wimbledon since 1936, he has established himself as a threat to win every tourney he enters.
Murray met Djokovic in last year's Australian Open finals and started in promising fashion by winning the first set by tiebreaker. Then he dropped the second set by tiebreaker. Then Djoker dispatched the Brit, 6-3, 6-2.
Who will win the 2014 Australian Open?
The Scot could be in line to improve on that 2013 result, but it's been a rotten start to this calendar year for Murray. He lost in the second round at the Qatar Open in Doha to start the year, and then he was downed in an exhibition match by Lleyton Hewitt.
After undergoing back surgery in September, Murray's showing at this tournament will be as much a litmus test for his overall health as anything else.
Juan Martin del Potro
Ranked No. 5 in the world, Del Potro has long been seeking membership in the club of elite men's tennis players, but it's a tough one to crack. He became the first player to defeat Nadal and Federer in the same tournament when he captured his first, and still only, Grand Slam title at the 2009 U.S. Open.
Last year, his best result was falling in the semifinals at Wimbledon. The 25-year-old Argentine could supplant Roger Federer in the "Big Four" at some point, but it's not yet time for the changing of the guard. Del Potro still needs to prove his elite efficacy; but if anyone is poised to turn the corner like Murray did in 2012, it's Del Potro.
He's coming straight off a straight-sets beating of Bernard Tomic at the Sydney International on Jan. 11, where he looked to be in tip-top form. NBC Sports shared the result:
Juan Martin del Potro outclassed defending champion Bernard Tomic 6-3, 6-1 in the final of the Sydney International. http://t.co/2mP0cHGnoR— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) January 11, 2014
Unfortunately for del Potro, he would get Nadal in the quarterfinals if both win their initial matches, and that is a considerable hurdle to worry about before he can think of facing Djoker.
Last year, Federer did not appear in a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002. The 32-year-old reached the semifinals at last year's Australian Open before Andy Murray needed five sets to beat him.
However, following that decent showing Down Under, Federer stumbled in the later Grand Slams on the calendar. At Wimbledon, his darling tournament, No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky took him down in the second round for his earliest exit there since 2002. At the U.S. Open, he was beaten in straight sets by Tommy Robredo.
It's been a bumpy road for the supreme Swiss lately, but never count out a man with 17 Grand Slam singles titles to his credit. Federer's last title came at Wimbledon in 2012, but the one prior to that was his 2010 win at the Australian Open, a straight-sets smothering of Andy Murray.
Fans are eagerly awaiting a return to form for Federer, but there are no guarantees that a resurgence will ever come. That said, there would be no better way to announce that he's back than to thwart Djokovic's attempt at a fourth straight title in Melbourne.