It's time to begin what will undoubtedly be another blockbuster season on the ATP World Tour. The top men have all gathered in Melbourne, Australia for the first major sporting event of the year at the Australian Open. Rafael Nadal remains the man to beat Down Under, while defending champ Roger Federer continues to improve on his already spotless game.
Other contenders for the title in Oz will include Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling and Andy Roddick. In an era dominated by Nadal and Federer, the task of dethroning the top two dogs won't be easy. There has only been two Slam finals since the beginning of 2005 that have not featured the top two players in the world. In saying that, Nadal will be facing tremendous pressure as he attempts to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Majors in row. Federer on the other hand will face an equal amount of pressure as he cannot afford to lose any rankings points against his Spanish rival.
However, there is still room for a few players to break through the Fedal bubble. Soderling has produced some stellar results as of late; winning at the Paris Indoors to close out last year, while capturing the Brisbane title in early January. Djokovic has tasted the ultimate glory in Australia on one previous occasion, and he will be confident from his recent Davis Cup success. Murray's court speed and geometric precision are also well-suited to the plexicusion surface. The defending finalist has enjoyed his best success on hard-courts, and there's no reason why he can't glide into another final. Last but certainly not least, let's not forget about former US Open champ Juan Martin del Potro. The skyscraper Argentine is back in action after being sidelined for nearly a year. The current world No. 259 will enter the draw unseeded, but will remain a name that no one wants to face early.
With the draw made earlier this week in Melbourne, let's now take a look at the top four seeds and their respective quarters.
Beginning his quest for the "Rafa Slam" against world No. 96 Marcos Daniel, Nadal could meet up with good friend Feliciano Lopez in the third-round, before a popcorn match with 6'10" John Isner in the round-of-16. Nadal has handled Isner's serve adequately in the past, but the hard-working American has been busy improving his footwork and backhand, while sharpening the placement on his cannon delivery. Last year's semifinalist Marin Cilic is also in this quarter, but his form as of late would suggest that a steep ranking slide and an early exit are in store.
Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian will square off in the best first-round match of the event, with the Argentine rounding nicely into form with a deep showing in Auckland, New Zealand. Nalbandian has produced some trouble for Nadal in the past, courtesy of his smooth two-handed backhand up-the-line. If he can remain fit and eager, look for Nalbandian to challenge Nadal in the quarterfinals.
David Ferrer, who will compete as the second highest seed in this section, has what it takes to reach the second week, but I wouldn't hold my breath for a better showing than that. The compact Spaniard possesses a lot of fight, but the lack of sting in his baseline repertoire won't allow him to pose a significant challenge down the stretch.
Mikhail Youzhny could be a player to watch in this section, even though he has lost in the first-round on three occasions. Youzhny did reach the semifinals of the US Open last fall, and his fitness has proven to be rock-solid under hot conditions.
All in all, Nadal will be happy with the quarter that he was dealt, and apart from a potential tight-rope match against Nalbandian in the final eight, look for the top seed to cruise into the final weekend.
Adding an extra aggressive dimension to his game since hooking up with Paul Annacone, Federer rolls into Melbourne in sizzling form. Reaching the semifinals or better of every event that he's played since Wimbledon, the No. 2 seed could face a slew of talented shot-makers in the early rounds; none of whom possesses a great deal of power.
Lukas Lacko will be Federer's first hurdle, with either Gilles Simon or Yen-Hsun Lu awaiting in the second-round. Simon has defeated Federer in the past, but I just don't see him taking out the defending champ over five sets. Xavier Malisse and German Dustin Brown remain ultra explosive off the ground, but neither man has shown the mettle required to upend the best player's in the world on a consistent basis.
American veteran Andy Roddick comes in as the No. 8 seed, but his career record against Federer has been dismal at best. Stanislas Wawrinka has been playing some good ball as of late, but he's never been able to get past his higher-ranked countryman when it's mattered. I'd be inclined to look at No. 12 seed Gael Monfils as a thorn in Federer's path. The Frenchman, who defeated Federer at the Paris Indoors, has always put up a good fight against the Swiss. Monfils has also improved his mental state in recent months, and I could see him giving the No. 2 seed something to think about in the quarterfinals.
However, Federer appears to be locked into his old ways of winning often and winning comfortably. Barely losing sets in his last five tournaments, look for Federer to continue his current MO and push into the semifinals.
We haven't seen much of Djokovic this year apart from an under-the-radar appearance at the Hopman Cup. The Serb will undoubtedly be on a high after his Davis Cup glory in December, but will he have enough mental energy left to stand the heat of the hard-courts in Australia? Although Djokovic has won this event in the past, he will without question be carrying the most wear-and-tear on his body from the top four seeds. Anchoring his country to Davis Cup supremacy, Djokovic could find himself in a few tough affairs early on.
Facing unorthodox Spaniard Marcel Granollers in round one, Djokovic could take on Ivo Karlovic in round two, with close friend Viktor Troicki lurking in the third round. Troicki has quietly improved his confidence in the last two months, and if his belief is present—he led Djokovic by two sets to love and by a break in the first-round of the US Open—then I could see the lower-ranked Serb pulling through with an upset.
No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych and No. 9 seed Fernando Verdasco haven't exactly knocked them dead on Tour lately, and I wouldn't be surprised if both top 10 players were bounced before the first weekend. Berdych has been a shell of the player he was since reaching the finals of Wimbledon, while Verdasco's change of racket, modified faux-hawk, and new Head & Shoulders ad, haven't exactly translated into victories on the circuit.
One player, though, who seems to have his head on right these days is Nikolay Davydenko. Ranked No. 23 in the world, Davydenko appears to have the rhythm of his off-the-rise strokes in order, and while he's slipped down the rankings, I wouldn't look past his hard-court proficiency.
Reaching the quarters in Australia on four occasions, Davydenko won't have much pressure on his shoulders this time around, and with a challenging but workable draw in his path, look for the former top three player to shine in this section.
Djokovic gave a lot of effort to win the Davis Cup in Belgrade, and although that was a commendable feat to say the least, look for the Serb to get some much needed R&R with an early exit in Australia.
Could this be an even bigger year for Soderling? He's up to a career best of No. 4 in the world, and for those of you who watched him dismantle the field in Brisbane, the Tibro native was in devastating form. Picking up a new coach a slightly better transition game, Soderling was placed in the most loaded quarter in the draw.
Facing Potito Starace in the first-round, Soderling could meet Ernests Gulbis, Alexandr Dolgopolov or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before the quarterfinals. Gulbis and Dolgopolov have the firepower to challenge anyone on Tour, but still lack the mental fortitude needed to grind through five set matches. Tsonga has played his best tennis in Australia throughout his career, but one wonders if he's had enough matches since his recent knee injury?
No. 4 seed Andy Murray will once again have the weight of a nation's expectations to combat when he begins his finals defense. Presented with a relatively easy draw to start, Murray could see Juan Martin del Potro, No. 11 seed Jurgen Melzer, or No. 21 seed Marcos Baghdatis prior to the quarterfinals. Depending on how efficiently del Potro can get through his early rounds, he could become a severe test for the Scot. I'm not convinced that Melzer is ready for stardom just yet, and although Baghdatis has played exceedingly well in Melbourne in the past, his second serve and forehand have been dodgy since the fall.
In saying that I've been impressed with the ruthless, but calm demeanor of Soderling as of late. He's getting the job done on court, and he's answering his pressroom questions with a smile.
Sorting out his point composition to an even greater degree in recent months, Soderling would be tested by the slice and trickery of Murray in a potential quarterfinal showdown; a match that I believe the Swede is ready to win.
Losing in the first-round last year, look for Soderling to take his confidence to a new level in Melbourne this year. The sledgehammer Swede will be one to watch in 2011.
Kei Nishikori: With Brad Gilbert on his side, and a vicious western forehand to boot, Nishikori could be poised for a great year.
Richard Berankis: Can punish the ball off either wing, while only standing at 5'9".
Adrian Mannarino: French flair; even better hair.
Nadal vs. Nalbandian; Soderling vs. Murray; Djokovic vs. Davydenko; Federer vs. Monfils
Nadal vs. Soderling; Federer vs. Davydenko
Nadal vs. Federer