Four times a year tennis has its own version of March Madness with the release of the main singles draws for its major tournaments.
These brackets set the parameters for the events that dominate tennis fans' lives for two weeks at a time. They chart the path to glory for the top contenders and the road to relevance for everybody else.
They are either prophetical roadmaps or useless pieces of paper, depending on the tournament. At every tournament, however, they provide fodder for debates, as fans of all players lob accusations of lucky draws and conspiracy theories at each other from the first round through the final.
At the very least, they turn our blind guesswork into mere guesswork, as they finally tell us who our heroes will need to conquer to prevail in Melbourne.
Without further ado, let's dive into dicey waters of the 2011 Australian Open Main Singles Draw.
Top Seeds: Rafa Nadal (1), David Ferrer (7), Mikhail Youzhny (10), Marin Cilic (15)
Potential Noise-Makers: John Isner (20), Michael Llodra (22), David Nalbandian (27), Feliciano Lopez (31), Radek Stepanek, Alejandro Falla
Analysis: Two thoughts come to mind when one initially examines Rafa's quarter. The first is that there are an awful lot of dangerous floaters in there. Michael Llodra is an intriguing hard court sleeper after his impressive run at Bercy, and David Nalbandian is always a candidate to put it together for one world-class performance. Ace-machine/marathon-man John Isner can instill some anxiety on the hard stuff too.
The second is that, while there are several formidable second-tier gunners lurking, it is hard to consider this quarter's other top seeds legitimate threats to Rafa, especially with history on the line. While he's a nice player, David Ferrer is probably the least ominous top-eight player out there, as his three straight set losses at this year's World Tour Finals demonstrated. Considering the alternatives were Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and Andy Roddick, you have to think Rafa is happy with a potential quarterfinal against Ferrer, whom he's beaten seven straight times. While Mikhail Youzhny used to give Rafa trouble, it's doubtful he possesses the game to take a top-flight Nadal, as Rafa proved with a brutal 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 whipping in last year's U.S. Open semi-finals. Marin Cilic actually beat Rafa in their only encounter (Beijing 2009) and had a nice run in Melbourne last year, but he's faded badly ever since. After starting 2010 18-2, he lost 20 of his last 42 matches and even lost his first match of 2011 to Kei Nishikori in Chennai, a tournament he had won two years in a row. It just doesn't seem like Cilic has the power, movement or present form to beat Rafa at a major right now.
Rafa starts against Marcos Daniel of Brazil, a 32-year-old journeyman who's only made it out of the first round of a major once. Assuming things hold to form, Rafa will play 56th ranked Daniel Gimeno-Traveler next, one of the only Spaniards Rafa has never played. Things get tougher, on paper at least, in the third-round. If seeds hold, he'd play another Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez, which appears to be the first true test of Rafa's form this fortnight. But then again, we all thought the same of their U.S. Open match last fall before Lopez shanked his way through the first set like a junior having a panic attack. Rafa could also face Alejandro Falla, the lefty Colombian who almost shocked the world with a near first round mega-upset of Federer at last year's Wimbledon, in the Round of 32. In the Round of 16, Nadal's slated to play the struggling Cilic, a tall Croatian with excellent movement and accurate groundstrokes who has yet to develop the consistent power to become one of the game's best. Rafa could also face the monster-serving Isner or the hard-hitting Stepanek in the fourth round, two more big guys you'd think he'll run circles around.
According to seeding, the quarters will pit Rafa against Ferrer. Ferrer's 2007 U.S. Open upset of Rafa notwithstanding, it's hard to see him mustering the power required to beat Rafa these days. The next most likely quarterfinal opponent for Nadal is Youzhny, who beat Rafa in the 2006 U.S. Open and took him to five the next year at Wimbledon. However, Nadal has pasted the Russian in their last two major encounters without dropping a set.
Though it may be difficult for them to make it that far, you get the strange sense that the two players on the bottom half of the quarter with the best chance of taking Rafa out are Nalbandian and Llodra. The ultra-talented Nalbandian has battled Rafa to a draw in their four matches while Llodra gave some top players fits in 2010 with his herky-jerky serve-and-volley approach.
All in all, it's a tough and deep quarter with some tantalizing sleeper possibilities. But the Ferrer-Youzhny-Cilic challenger triumvirate is just not a very scary proposition for Rafa in the end. Simply put, it would be shocking if Nadal faltered before the semis. He's just too good.
Top Seeds: Robin Soderling (4), Andy Murray (5), Jurgen Melzer (11), Jo-Wilfred Tsonga (13)
Analysis: Wow. Apparently, they want Soderling to earn his first four seed and Murray to earn his first major. On paper, this seems like a brutal, almost unfair, quarter. First, Murray, the best five seed in a long time, landed on the bottom of the bracket, sparing Rafa and Roger a potential nightmare quarterfinal and setting up the positively delicious prospect of a Murray-Soderling quarterfinal. The next highest ranked player is Melzer, a surging lefty coming off a great 2010 who hasn't lost to someone other than Rafa or Roger in a major since last year's Aussie Open. The uber-talented, oft-injured Tsonga completes the quarter's top four. A huge hitter with a big serve, Tsonga typically reserves his best for Melbourne, making the finals, quarterfinals and semi-finals in each of his last three years. He also seems to have shaken the injury issues that plagued him for much of 2010, as he recently stood toe-to-toe against an in-form Federer in the second set of their semifinal matchup in Doha. This is a very talented top four.
The rest of the quarter is basically a who's who of guys you don't want in your favorite player's draw. The world's most petrifying unseeded player, Del Potro, ends up here on his journey back from a serious wrist injury. Most would agree that Juan Martin is a top five player when healthy, and every tennis fan on earth prayed that their favorite player didn't draw him in the first round. At least he landed in the middle of the bracket against Dudi Sela, a few rounds away from Murray. A skinnier Marcos Baghdatis also lurks in this quarter. Baghdatis, a Cypriot who draws huge crowds down under, is a very talented big hitter who made the 2006 Finals in Melbourne. Though inconsistent, he showed flashes of brilliance by beating both Nadal and Federer in 2010. Ernests Gulbis is another talented, yet frustrating big hitter in this quarter. He seemed primed for a break out year in 2010 after beating Federer, and losing a heartbreaker to Nadal, in Rome, only to wither away as the year went on.
As if this was not enough, the draw is littered with several other trip wires. Denis Istomin showed an impressive amount of power in his 2010 U.S. Open loss to Nadal, while Thomaz Bellucci is an exciting up and coming lefty from Brazil. Phillip Petzschner had Rafa on the ropes before losing in five in the third round of last year's Wimbledon. He may have even pulled off the monster upset had he not netted an easy volley on break point early in the fifth. The emerging Guillermo Garcia-Lopez rounds out the quarter's pitfalls, fresh off an exciting fall in which he beat Nadal in Thailand and Berdych in Shanghai.
As such, the road to the dream quarter-final seems unforgiving for Soderling and Murray. Barring a surprise, the Swede will start off with Potito Starace in the first, face a qualifier in the second, meet either Istomin or Bellucci in the third and then face either Tsonga, Gulbis, or Petzschner in the fourth. Murray will start off with Karol Beck, then face either Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo or Illya Marchenko in the second, probably meet Garcia-Lopez in the third and then face either Del Potro, Baghdatis or Melzer in the fourth.
Good luck guys.
It is worth noting that draws can be deceiving. People waxed poetic about a second quarter of the 2010 U.S. Open that included Murray, Berdych, Youzhny, Isner, Querrey, Warwinka, Stepanek and others. However, before you knew it, Berdych was gone in the first, Murray fizzled quickly and Stan Warwrinka and Mikhail Youzhny ended up in the quarters. Shocking.
In the end, this is clearly a loaded quarter. Here's to hoping that we see Murray/Del Potro and Soderling/Tsonga in the fourth before a Robin/Andy quarterfinal. Whatever Murray and Soderling think of it, it should be fun.
Potential Noise-Makers: Ivan Ljubicic (17), Nikolay Davydenko (23), Janko Tipsarevic, Igor Andreev, Kei Nishikori
Analysis: Though Dr. Ivo may provide for an uncomfortable second-round matchup, Djokovic has to feel good about this very manageable draw. While no one wanted the under-ranked Davydenko in their quarter, he ended up on the other side of the bracket. Berdych, his main challenger on paper, has been a train wreck after his impressive showing at Wimbledon last year, with a first round loss to Llodra in New York and perplexing defeats to Tobias Kamke, Michael Berrer and Xavier Malisse along the way. Verdasco, despite his legendary 2009 semi-final loss here to Nadal, has proven himself unable to take the next step time and again. One has to feel for Nando though, as he landed a brutal draw of Tipsarevic in the second and Davydenko in the third. Almagro, the highest seeded player on Djokovic's half of the bracket, owes his ranking to the red stuff and has not traditionally been a serious threat on hard courts. One would think Igor Andreev, who scared the death out of Federer in the first round of last year's Australian Open, will make things difficult for Almagro in the second round.
After facing Granollers in the first and Karlovic in the second, Djokovic may meet countryman and Davis Cup hero Viktor Troicki in the third. In spite of his 6-1 head to head record, Djokovic isn't likely to take this one lightly, as Troicki had him on the ropes at the 2010 U.S. Open, up two sets to one and a break in the fourth before the Djoker rebounded to win in five. If he proceeds to the Round of 16, Nole is likely to take on either Almagro, Andreev or Ivan Ljubicic, and its tough to imagine any of these three giving Novak a serious problem.
While the rankings say Djokovic will meet either Berdych or Verdasco in the quarters, recent form suggests Davydenko will be there waiting for him. Finally over injuries that hobbled him for much of 2010, Davydenko looked a top flight player in Doha, where he beat Nadal in the semis and performed admirably against the Fed Express in the finals. While Davydenko is always a candidate for mind-numbing choke jobs in majors (think last year's quarter vs. Federer), if he plays up to his abilities, a Djokovic/Davydenko quarter could be a doozy. Both possess textbook strokes and a ton of versatility. Djokovic may have a little more power from the ground, but Davydenko is a flat out brilliant volleyer.
Overall, its a pretty average quarter, with a hurdle or two along the way, that could end with a bang if we get Djokovic and either Davydenko or an in-form Berdych.
Potential Noise-Makers: Sam Querrey (18), Stanislas Wawrinka (19), Teymuraz Gabashvili, Robin Haase, Yen Hsun-Lu
Analysis: At first glance, these seem like navigable waters for an in-form Federer. He's won almost every tournament he's entered over the last few months, and nobody in this quarter jumps out as an obvious candidate to end that streak. Roddick, the second highest seed in the bracket and a very good hard court player, is not likely to get Fed quaking in his boots, as Roger owns a ridiculous 20-2 head-to-head advantage. Federer has also owned Roddick down under, with two masterful straight-set victories in the semi-finals of 2007 and 2008.
The next highest seed is Monfils, the wildly talented and entertaining Frenchman. A potential quarter against Le Monf may raise Roger's eyebrows a touch, as Gael recently beat Roger in a thriller in Bercy. But its hard to see Monfils, a pretty passive defense-oriented player, beating Federer in a truly big spot on hard courts. Roger's 5-1 against Monfils lifetime, including two wins on Monfils' turf at Roland Garros.
Next is Mardy Fish, the American who famously got himself into shape and had a break-out 2010. It should certainly be noted that Fish battled Roger to the end in the 2010 Cincinnati final, where Federer eventually triumphed for his second straight title. However, this is clearly a different Federer than the one who sputtered through the summer, rarely ever displaying top form. The fact that Mardy got smoked in straights by Radek Stepanek in Brisbane recently isn't a very good sign for the American, either. Federer holds a 6-1 lifetime advantage, and won their only meeting in a major, way back in 2003 at Wimbledon. Frankly, it just seems unlikely for Fish to conquer such an obviously motivated Federer at a slam.
Other dangerous players in the draw include Federer's compatriot Wawrinka, who just won Chennai and notably blasted Andy Murray out of New York on his way to the quarter-finals. However, Stan has a very difficult path to Roger, who owns a 6-1 head to head record over him anyway. In the first round, he plays Teymuraz Gabashvili, who bounced Roddick from Roland Garros last year and put forth an extremely impressive hitting display against Rafa in the first round of the U.S. Open. Then, he'd face Monfils in the third and Roddick in the fourth.
Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the draw for Federer is its tough beginning. Much like last year, when he had to pull a Houdini against Andreev in the first round, Roger will not be able to sleepwalk his way into the second week. In the first round he plays Lukas Lacko, the Slovakian who recently bageled Rafa in the second set of a three setter in Doha. You can bet that anyone capable of such a feat has Roger's attention. It doesn't get any easier after that, as he'll either play the former top 10 Gilles Simon of France or Yen Hsun-Lu, who made the quarter-finals of last year's Wimbledon beating Roddick along the way, in the second. The potential third-round matchups look a little more favorable for Roger, as he'll probably either play the slight Montanes or the veteran Xavier Malisse. According to seeds, the Round of 16 will present one of two Americans, Fish or Sam Querrey, who put forth a rather impressive performance himself in 2010. If all goes to plan, Federer will face either Roddick, Monfils or Wawrinka in the quarters.
Again, from afar, it seems like a reasonable draw for Federer. It starts with two relatively tough matches, hits a lull in the third and culminates with two difficult but eminently winnable matches in the fourth and quarters. It's not an easy draw per se, but considering his form and determination, Federer has to be the odds-on favorite to make it through.
All things considered, you'd think that Nadal will face either Soderling or Murray in top half's semis while Federer will meet either Djokovic or Davydenko in the bottom half.
The prospect of another Murray/Rafa semi will no doubt drive Nadal fans batty. Murray has landed in Rafa's half in six of the last seven majors Rafa's entered, and despite his semi-final victory over Murray in last year's Wimbledon, Rafa is 1-2 against Andy in hard court majors.
A match against Soderling, while still scary, will not pray on the Nadalites' nerves as much. Rafa has clearly paid back Robin for the 2009 shock at Roland Garros with 2010 wins at Wimbledon and the French, and Soderling has yet to establish himself as a major contender on hard courts.
Again, an on-fire Murray could conceivably beat Rafa, but its not likely.
While Federer has finally avoided the scary quarter-final potential of Soderling, he again finds himself 10 matches away from a semi with the Djoker. It would be the fifth major semi-final the two have played in their careers, all coming in the last four years. While Roger's 5-2 record in majors vs. Novak would give him confidence, beating an in-form Djoker is no picnic, especially with the emotional baggage of those lost match points in New York along for the ride.
A semi with Davyenko, on the other hand, would be a breath of fresh air for Roger, as his 15-2 head-to-head career record (5-0 in majors) demonstrates. Clear advantage for Roger on that one.
As with Nadal, Roger could lose his semi, but its just not very probable at this point.
Roger vs. Rafa, Part 23 is everybody's dream. Rafa would be fighting to make history while Roger would be fighting to preserve it. Rafa could achieve the Rafa Slam while Roger could win his fifth Aussie Open.
History says Rafa. Present form says Roger.
What say you?