First off, my greetings to Bleacher Report writers and readers. It has been a while since I wrote about tennis, so pardon my "practice session No. 1," please.
Let us have a quick look at the draw first: Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray land in the same first half, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the second. For now, this may be good news for Federer and possibly bad news for Nadal and Murray, but let us keep in mind that the draw always shapes up differently as the tournament progresses.
At first glance, Nadal's road to the semifinals seems to be easier than Federer's and Murray's; however, given the opportunity, the Spaniard would probably swap his draw with Federer's, meaning both would want to avoid Murray in the semifinal. For Nadal and Murray, it will be like playing two finals in consecutive days, not good for either but a blessing for Federer and probably many tennis fans, at least for Federer fans.
One would certainly not want to be bruised a round earlier than the mortal combat of the final. But that is the situation Nadal and Murray will be in, if both get there.
In the first round, Nadal will do a quick job of Teymuraz Gabashvili. In the second round he will sail through the winner between Maximo Gonzalez and Denis Istomin. The Spaniard may lose a set to 29th-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round.
Nadal will not sweat much against his likely fourth-round opponent in either 15th-seeded Ivan Ljubicic or Feliciano Lopez. The quarterfinal will likely not get tougher either for Nadal, unless perhaps the talented David Nalbandian whips out his supersonic response and eye for angles while sustaining them through best of five sets.
Nadal's other likely opponents are fellow Spaniards David Ferrer and out-of-form Fernando Verdasco, whose quarterfinal run only could ease Nadal's road to the semifinal.
Will he be able to overcome Murray's aggression, or will it be the third time in a row that the Spaniard will lose to the Scot on hard court at the Slam level? I cannot answer that with certainty.
In the first two rounds, Murray's draw is as easy as Nadal's. He is less likely to lose a set to Lukas Lacko in the first round or the winner of Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo and Dustin Brown in the second.
By the third round, he will already start facing tougher opponents in 25th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka. Then, in the Round of 16, fast-rising, 20th-seeded Sam Querrey, who defeated the Scot as recently as at the Los Angeles final, can trouble Murray.
Big-hitting, mentally much-improved Tomas Berdych—or America's new hope, John Isner—could pose a serious threat to the Scot's dream before he faces the oxygen-less, gritty terrain of Rafa's Mount K-2, the second highest but most difficult mountain of the planet Tennis.
Murray can only hope the draw opens nicely for him so that he will not run out of gas by the time he tackles Nadal problem.
Djokovic, supposedly the weakest of the top four based on the last two Masters Series, is lucky to play fellow Serb Viktor Troicki in the first round. He will sail through Philipp Petzschner in the second round and 30th-seeded Juan Monaco or unseeded James Blake, his likely opponents in the third round.
Djokovic will already have a tough task in Marcos Baghdatis or Mardy Fish, two of the hottest players of the moment, in the Round of 16. If we see the same Djokovic we did in the last two weeks or so, this could be the end of his road.
Considering the Serb's consistency in reaching quarterfinals and semifinals, it is expected that Djokovic will manage to escape the threat of Fish or Baghdatis. Then, he can only ill-hope that Andy Roddick does not show up in the quarterfinal, or Nikolay Davydenko continues to struggle.
I would be happily surprised if Djokovic gets to the semifinal.
Overall, Federer cannot get an easier draw than this. He plays Brian Dabul in the first round and then the winner of Michael Berrer and Andreas Beck.
I don't think 32-seeded, counter-punching Lleyton Hewitt is any threat to the attack-first Federer we have seen, at least since the Davydenko match at the Cincinnati Masters.
His Round of 16 match with Jurgen Melzer or Juan Carlos Ferrero will likely be some kind of practice session for the Swiss. In the quarterfinal, fifth-seeded Robin Soderling or Marin Cilic can take a set off Federer, like the Swede did last year. Roddick or Djokovic in the semifinal is a straight-set win situation for Federer.
For most of us, it is customarily easy to predict this time Nadal vs. Murray (50-50) in the first semifinal and Federer vs. X-man (100-0) in the second, but expect some big upsets.
My follow-up ("practice session No. 2") article will be up by tomorrow evening, dissecting the chances of the top four favorites, including the shortcomings of each.