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Biggest Obstacles for All of the Top Stars at 2014 Australian Open

Jeffrey RuthFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

Biggest Obstacles for All of the Top Stars at 2014 Australian Open

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    Rafael Nadal says, "What obstacles?" as he approaches the 2014 Australian Open.
    Rafael Nadal says, "What obstacles?" as he approaches the 2014 Australian Open.Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

    The top tennis stars face significant obstacles at the 2014 Australian Open. The strange thing is, none of them are looking at the same challenges.

    Roger Federer is being betrayed by a limb that he just can't seem to get under control. Juan Martin del Potro can control himself, but what about the rising temperatures in Melbourne? Finally, Andy Murray is back, but did he bring his back with him?

    Speaking of backs, will David Ferrer hold himself back once more?

    The top two players in the world, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal would seem to be their own special nemeses as the Grand Slam season opens.

    But that's not true, either.

    Djokovic, despite being ranked No. 2, feels like No. 1 in Australia. If he finds the same magic with his new coaching arrangement, he won't have any obstacles confronting him. He'll be free to become the one problem Nadal must do away with if he wants Australian hardware.

    Time will tell which hills are simply too high to climb.

Federer's Fearless Forehand

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    Roger Federer must be less charitable with his forehand at the 2014 Australian Open.
    Roger Federer must be less charitable with his forehand at the 2014 Australian Open.Chris Hyde/Getty Images

    Maybe Roger Federer should fear his own forehand.

    What used to be one of the most awesome weapons on tour has now been turned against the Swiss star. He is right in the sights of this gun now.

    The biggest obstacle between him and success at the 2014 Australian Open is the number of points he will donate to opponents' causes. While Federer is known to be a very charitable individual, it is certain he would rather be a bit more tight with these sorts of donations.

    Can he do it?

    Yes.

    Will he do it? That is open to debate. SI.com held a round-table discussion of the state of Federer at the close of 2013. Not surprisingly, the talk turned to the failure of the forehand to impress over the year. Erik Gudris called the shot the "immediate issue" the former No. 1 needed to address. Courtney Nguyen agreed, saying the stroke had broken down.

    It is not that Federer needs to turn that side into a weapon once more. But he absolutely must cut down on the errors to stay in points longer.

    If he does so, he'll get over his obstacle and jump into the second week.

Juan Martin del Potro: Catching Fire

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    Juan Martin del Potro needs to beat the heat to beat his opponents at the 2014 Australian Open.
    Juan Martin del Potro needs to beat the heat to beat his opponents at the 2014 Australian Open.Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

    Can Juan Martin Del Potro stand the heat? That's the question that begs answering as the Australian Open 2014 begins.

    Of all of the obstacles facing the man from Argentina as he looks to capture the first Slam of the year, the one clearly on his mind is the function of temperature versus fitness. Consider the direction this statement made to ATP's official website drifted in after del Potro won the Sydney title last week:

    Starting the year this way is very, very positive. I'm looking forward for the rest of the season. I need to still work in the same conditions and the same way. Now it starts the hardest tournament for us, and I will see if I can go farther than last year in Melbourne [where he lost in the third round].

    Margie McDonald, writing for The Australian (subscription required), noted his preoccupation with the upcoming weather at the Australian Open.

    McDonald quoted del Potro as saying, "In Melbourne, playing five-set matches, the body has to respond 100 per cent all the time. I think I had a good preparation during the off-season, and I will see what happens next week."

    In a way, though, it is nice to see this as the prime obstacle for the rangy player from South America. Talk of the wrist has faded.

    All he has to do is beat the heat.

Andy Murray Is Back

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    The aches and pains of surgery will stay Andy Murray's biggest Australian Open obstacle.
    The aches and pains of surgery will stay Andy Murray's biggest Australian Open obstacle.Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

    Andy Murray is back, but is his back back?

    All eyes will be on the Scot when he lunges for balls, serves, and goes deep into baseline rallies. Since his hiatus due to season-ending surgery last year, the collective tennis world has wondered when he will start his Wimbledon defense...yes, the entire year will be called preparation for his Wimbledon defense.

    The biggest thing that could aggravate the obstacle that is his back would be the faster courts at the Australian Open.

    Low bounces mean lots of bending.

    Tomas Berdych, after his first-round victory in Melbourne, seemed to confirm the long-contested rumor of a speedier surface being laid. "I think me, personally, the courts feel faster," he told reporters at his post-match conference.

    If this is indeed true, Murray could find his way into difficulty quickly. He has played only two matches this year, losing to No. 40 Florian Mayer, 6-3, 4-6, 2-6 in Doha. ESPN UK notes that Murray lost 13 of the last 16 games in that match.

    Despite Murray's claim that his back is fine, as reported by Alix Ramsay of the Daily Mail, one can easily foresee an early exit from the year's first Grand Slam.

David Ferrer's Confidence

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    Will David Ferrer feel down and out Down Under in 2014?
    Will David Ferrer feel down and out Down Under in 2014?Phil Walter/Getty Images

    David Ferrer has never been the best PR man for himself. It is not often a player ranked No. 4 in the world, as he was at the French Open last year, has doubts about his success in the very first round.

    And on his favorite surface.

    Yet that is David Ferrer in a nutshell.  His confidence, or lack thereof, has always been the chief obstacle for the Spaniard, and this year's Australian Open will be no different.

    He simply has to overcome himself before he can overcome his opponents.

    Certainly his recent spate of self-attack and near-meltdown in Auckland can't help things. According to Kris Shannon of The New Zealand Herald, he exhibited "uncharacteristic behavior" for someone so emotionally detached on the court.

    That included arguing bad calls and even arguing with himself.

    Ferrer's fans may find themselves hoping this unusual spurt of vitriol will break him out of his box and onto greater things, but probably not. Expect his confidence and success to evaporate as quickly as water on PlexiCushion.

Novak Djokovic's Start

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    Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker hope to get off on the right foot at Australia 2014.
    Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker hope to get off on the right foot at Australia 2014.Michael Dodge/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic's only obstacle this year at the Australian Open was getting the Djokovic/Boris Becker train on the tracks properly.

    Mission accomplished.

    The No. 2 player in the world and three-time defending champion down under has beaten Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, David Ferrer and Roger Federer over the course of the past three Australian Opens. The foes are not the obstacles.

    The only difference in the Djokovic camp entering this year's version is the arrival of new coach Boris Becker. The only possible thing that could have derailed this partnership would have been a bad start.

    Said Djokovic after his first-round win, "We both hope to get the right benefits and the right results right away here in Australia."

    With that being out of the way, he will have the chance to keep working on his German until the second week of the tourney rolls around. He'll need it during his victory speech where he thanks Becker for his help in raising another trophy.

Rafael Nadal's Nemesis Nole

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    Rafael Nadal looks to overcome Novak Djokovic this time around at the Australian Open.
    Rafael Nadal looks to overcome Novak Djokovic this time around at the Australian Open.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Rafael Nadal has one obstacle facing him at this year's Australian Open. His name is Novak Djokovic.

    While it is true that Nadal is No. 1, and likewise true that he defeated Djokovic in the 2012 U.S. Open final, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, the recent activity shows it is just as likely that he could lose. Their last two meetings were won by Djokovic in straight sets.

    That's a pretty grim reminder for the Mallorcan lefty.

    This doesn't necessarily mean Nadal will lose to Djokovic. Their head-to-head record doesn't lean overwhelmingly in either direction. It does show, however, that the No. 2 player is not content with his position and poses a real threat to Nadal's perch on top of the rankings.

    Interestingly, the idea of these two rivals being each others' biggest obstacles apparently cuts both ways. DNAIndia.com claims it is Nadal who is Djokovic's biggest obstacle, not the other way around.

    It doesn't really matter which way you attach the cart to the horse, one thing is true: If Nadal wants the Australian Open trophy in 2014, he'll have to play through the current titleholder to get his hands on it.

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