There are those who shout foul, those who swear at the tennis gods, and those who shrug their shoulders as if to say “it was ever thus.” In the end, the draw comes down to a toss of the dice.
Sometimes, though, those dice seem weighted towards one quarter of the draw, or towards the top or the bottom of the draw.
So did the tennis gods tamper with the dice for the men in the Australian Open? Well it depends who you ask—or rather, who you favor.
Take these views of the Fanhouse UK website on Murray’s, Nadal’s and Federer’s fortunes:
“In truth, the Scot could barely have wished for a better draw.”
“As World No. 1, Nadal could have expected a less tricky path to the final than he has been handed.”
“Federer, meanwhile, will be happier with the cards he has been dealt.”
Now look at those on Busted Racquet:
“Flip on the cruise control, Rafa. The path for Rafael Nadal to the semis is the best he could have hoped for.”
“Fed has made it to the quarters in 27 straight majors. Could this be the one that trips him up?”
And in Scotland’s Daily Record:
“Tough draw for Andy Murray as Soderling and Nadal lie in wait en route to final.”
Just think for a moment about that last headline.
Doesn’t every player have a couple of top seeds like Nadal or Federer, Murray or Djokovic, Robin Soderling or Andy Roddick lying in wait “en route to the final”?
So let’s take a 'glass half full' and a 'glass half empty' view of each of the four favorites: Federer and Nadal, with barely a cigarette paper between them in the odds, and the slightly longer shots of Murray and Djokovic, also neck-and-neck with each other.
Nadal is undoubtedly the man to beat. He’s had the best form for almost a year. He’s had the No. 1 ranking since last May—and cannot be caught, points-wise, even if he plays not a single match until April. Even then, Federer has to win every tournament in his schedule.
So Nadal can, should he choose, just enjoy the Australian ride stress-free.
That, of course, is not Nadal’s way. He needs no motivation to come out with all guns blazing: it is in his DNA.
Yet he does have something to motivate him. With three Majors in the bag and the chance to be the first since Rod Laver to win four in succession, there will indeed be an incentive for the Spaniard. And that’s a fearful prospect for the rest.
The draw looks as though it will not place any undue stresses on the Nadal game right the way through to the semis.
The first round offers up veteran Brazilian Marcos Daniel, whom Nadal has dismissed in short order twice, most recently at Queens last year.
Next will be a qualifier Ryan Sweeting—who hasn’t won a main draw match since Washington last year—or fellow Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 58th in the world and with a couple of useful scalps last year. But he won’t trouble Nadal.
The top man’s first potential seed in the third round is another Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez, one of the least challenging seeds in the draw if his recent form is anything to go by.
He lost in the first round of his last four tournaments in 2010 and made a second round exit in Brisbane last week.
Beyond that lie John Isner—Nadal leads 2-0—or Radek Stepanek—some way off complete fitness, though a good player on the hard courts—or Marin Cilic.
The Croatian hasn’t won more than one match in a tournament since the first week in August 2010. This year started just as badly when, as title holder, he went out in the first round of Chennai.
So far, so good for Nadal. Even his potential quarterfinal match-up is just fine, with possibly the most benign of the top eight seeds, David Ferrer, waiting.
Ferrer, just this weekend, won his second title in his last four events. He looked trim, eager and fast in beating David Nalbandian in Auckland and seems to have found new enthusiasm for the game since he considered retirement at the start of last year.
He’s now at his highest ranking in well over two years. And yet…
Nadal has won 11 of their 14 encounters and the last seven in a row. Only a sub-par Nadal will fail this time, and that’s the closest thing he has to a half-empty glass.
In Doha, he fell ill with flu, did not perform at his best in losing his semifinal match, and is only now beginning to say he feels better. Nadal, therefore, has not had as much preparation as he would like for Melbourne, and he could face Murray in the semifinals.
It was Murray who pushed him to the limit in London a few weeks back and who has taken two of their last four matches.
If Nadal happens to meet Soderling instead, that’s less of a problem: Nadal beat him in both their meetings last year, both in Majors. Soderling does not have the variety and flexibility of game to beat an in-form Nadal.
So is all that a glass half empty? Not really.
There has been the small question of the Lleyton Hewitt-Nalbandian first round encounter that could run its course through to the last 16. Hewitt, by all accounts, is looking fit and very confident. Even so, he hasn’t beaten Nadal since 2006, and with Ferrer’s easy dismissal of Nalbandian in Auckland, that 'threat’ looks like a red herring.
And that’s why Nadal will reach the semis.
As the No. 5 seed, Murray was in danger of meeting one of the three most dangerous players in the quarterfinals: Nadal, Federer or Djokovic. He will count himself lucky that he does not face the prospect of any of them until the semis.
Instead, he has the new world No. 4, Soderling, who only sits above him because Murray opted to play the Hopman Cup rather than a point-scoring ATP event ahead of Melbourne.
He won all three matches there with ease and has looked very relaxed in practice with off-court friend Djokovic.
With the advantage of hindsight, Murray can also take confidence into this year’s event from last year’s best-ever performance in Melbourne.
He made a resurgence on the outdoor hard courts during the latter part of 2010 with Masters titles in Toronto and Shanghai, taking the scalp of Federer in both. He also reached the semis of the WTFs—and very nearly the finals after a long, high-quality match against Nadal.
All of this should give him the confidence to win his Australian quarter and take on Nadal in the semis.
In the short term, too, Murray has a good draw. He can reach the third round without meeting anyone inside the top 70 and would then meet the lowest seed in the draw, No. 32 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
The Spaniard had some useful wins last autumn, beating Nadal in Bangkok and Tomas Berdych in Shanghai, so he poses a challenge, but not a huge one.
The next step though: that’s another prospect.
The next segment of Murray’s draw is full of intrigue.
Marcos Baghdatis has been on a fitness programme, has lost weight and is up for a fight. Still only 25, he was a finalist back in 2006, has a huge following in Australia and has the kind of all-round game to knock the rhythm out of an opponent. He did pick up a groin strain before Sydney but, if he’s fit, he will be a dangerous sleeper.
That’s always supposing he gets past the real unknown in the draw—Juan Martin Del Potro—playing in his first Major since injury forced him off the tour this time last year.
The Argentine played a strong, long match to beat Lopez in Sydney last week, but ran out of steam in the next round. And that could be his downfall so early in his comeback season.
Should neither Del Potro nor Baghdatis make it through, there is still Jurgen Melzer to contend with—and this seems the most likely scenario.
Murray has beaten him in all four of their meetings, but they haven’t played since Melzer discovered some late-flowering form in 2010.
The Austrian has also just beaten Nikolay Davydenko and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Kooyong Classic knockout event. He could be a real test.
But it’s the top section of Murray’s quarter that looks a fright.
As if Soderling, usurper of his No. 4 ranking, was not enough, there are Ernests Gulbis—a man who seems constantly poised to fulfill his huge talent—and Tsonga—a man who has many times all but fulfilled his talent only to fall foul of injury. Now he seems fit and he had a good warm-up in Doha. He could be dangerous.
Perhaps it’s Soderling who should feel hard done by in this quarter of the draw—though he will take encouragement from his defeat of Tsonga in the Abu Dhabi knockout exho over the New Year.
So Murray’s opponent in the quarterfinals will be a very strong contender who has proved his worth simply by reaching deep into the draw.
If it’s Soderling versus Murray, it could be cracker. Both men have been working hard over the off-season and there is that tension in the rankings.
They stand 3-2 in the head-to-head, but Murray, with the greater variety, should have the edge for a semifinal place.
Djokovic has looked like a man with his glass more than half full ever since Serbia won the Davis Cup.
In fact, the only thing to have disturbed the Djokovic confidence since his U.S. Open breakthrough against Federer is one superfluous contact lens at the WTFs. He was even pragmatic about his straight-sets loss to a Federer hitting a purple patch in the WTF semis.
With three finals and two semifinals in his last six ATP events, no wonder the Serb is looking and sounding like a man ready to step up to challenge the top two.
Like Murray, Djokovic has only played the Hopman Cup since Christmas and won all three matches. He will, though, have some good warm-up matches in Melbourne before the big challenges start.
Marcel Granollers is a useful 42-ranked Spaniard who came through the qualifiers to reach the final of Valencia but otherwise has enjoyed success mostly on the Challenger tour.
Ivo Karlovic will throw some serious serving ammunition at Djokovic, but will be run ragged by the Serb if he doesn’t hit outright aces.
The Serb’s first seed should be fellow Davis Cup colleague, the improving Viktor Troicki, who reached the final of this week’s Sydney event, but has lost to Djokovic in the last six of their seven matches. Troicki will give his compatriot a run for his money but is unlikely to beat him.
As for the last 16, that looks to be a cakewalk for the Serb. He lost to No. 17 Ivan Ljubicic when the Croatian powered to an unexpected first Masters title in Indian Wells, but Ljubicic has struggled to match that form and Djokovic has beaten him twice since.
Nicolas Almagro’s No. 14 ranking is deceptively high. He won just three matches after the U.S. Open last year and only two in Auckland this week.
Djokovic should cruise to the quarters, and then…
Things start to get a little more tricky as the big boys enter the fray.
There are some good-looking matches in the top section of his quarter that could produce any one of three robust opponents.
No. 6 seed Berdych will have to get past the unpredictable talent of Richard Gasquet. A man new to the top 10, Berdych had an outstanding early 2010 season and a disastrous end. And in 2011, he has lost in Abu Dhabi to Nadal in straight sets. He went out of Chennai in the semis and he has also lost to Davydenko in the Kooyong Classic.
Davydenko had a good run in Doha but lost to both Hewitt and Melzer in Kooyong, so while he’s favorite to beat Berdych to the quarters of Melbourne, it’s hard to see him beating Djokovic—though they traditionally have close-fought encounters.
Then there’s No. 9 seed Fernando Verdasco, who could meet Janko Tipsarevic in the second round. After the Spaniard’s excellent runs in the European clay season, there has been a dreadful falling off of confidence in the last few months, compounded by a first round loss in Brisbane last week.
So Tipsarevic could, on a good day, deprive Verdasco of a tilt at Davydenko.
The less-than-stunning form of his three major threats bodes well for Djokovic, who should still be sipping from a glass that’s more full than empty as he progresses to the semis.
Federer has been on such a run of form since his resurgence in the latter half of 2010 that it is little wonder he’s joint favorite with Nadal for the Australian title.
With coach Paul Annacone in his corner, a retooled serve and backhand, and a new enthusiasm for attacking the net, he also beat each of the other top four contenders in the WTFs.
He’s the Australian title holder, has won 26 of his 28 matches since the U.S. Open, and wants that No. 1 ranking. And that all suggests a glass near brimming.
Federer’s first round match should give him few palpitations. The 99th ranked Lukas Lacko may have bageled Nadal in Doha, but Nadal looked like death warmed up: It was not a strong indicator.
Looking forward to Federer’s first seed, Albert Montanes, there is some revenge to be taken for his unexpected Estoril defeat last year. This is a different Federer from the one working back to form after illness last spring: A win here should be a straightforward matter.
The same might be said of the next—either Sam Querrey or Mardy Fish—as neither has had great success since the early U.S. Open swing.
The other half of Federer’s quarter is a more interesting prospect, but first there is the little matter of the second round.
Federer’s second match is the kind he would probably like to avoid so early in the draw.
The unseeded Gilles Simon has wrestled for months with a knee injury but has gradually been returning to form—to such an extent that he has just won the Sydney title without dropping a set. That in itself is a worry. That Simon has won their only two previous matches adds a little more spice.
As an aside, and if Federer was the pessimistic type, he might wonder at having only one qualifier in his quarter compared with the five in each of the other three. It makes him the only top eight player not to have a qualifier in his eighth of the draw.
He might then be mighty relieved that the qualifier in question, Grigor Dimitrov—the 19-year-old wunderkind dubbed ‘the young Federer’—faces the other Swiss in this quarter rather than himself.
If the Simon hurdle is overcome, the next big challenge is likely to come in the quarterfinal, though in what particular shape it is hard to predict.
The obvious choice is Roddick, who must wonder what he’s done to face his nemesis in another Slam. Federer holds a 20-2 record over the American who has beaten him just once since 2003.
Roddick lost out to Soderling in the Brisbane final, and it’s hard to see what new weapons he will bring to his game that might turn the Melbourne result in his favor. It’s possible, even, that he will be beaten to the quarters by either Stanislas Wawrinka or Gael Monfils.
The Swiss No. 2 Wawrinka has just won his first hard court title in Chennai and reached his first Major quarterfinal in Flushing Meadows. He’s a man reborn, it seems, and is one to watch in this quarter.
In the second round, though, he has to get through the winner from the classy match-up of two rising talents, Andrey Golubev and Dimitrov—a match to savor.
Then Wawrinka could face the flair and athleticism of Monfils. The Frenchman is a player who can explode into pieces or set the tournament alight. He is a dangerous prospect, not just for the No. 2 Swiss but also for the No. 1 Swiss. Federer was beaten by Monfils in three tie-breakers in the Paris Masters last November.
So there are both early and late obstacles of substance for Federer.
He is by nature an optimist, though, and in his recent form, his fans should be too. He ought to take up his place in the semis.
Murray and Nadal have had 13 meetings since their first in Melbourne four years ago. This could be their sixth Major encounter and their third in the Australian.
While Nadal holds the advantage in their overall head to head, Murray has beaten him in their last two hard-court Majors. Remember, too, how close their last meeting in London turned out to be.
Theirs is turning into a very fine rivalry, and a Melbourne semi would give Nadal the chance to turn the tables on his sad exit with injury in the quarters last year.
Even if Nadal starts rusty, he has a decent enough draw to work himself into fighting form and to find his rhythm.
Their contrasting draws could make all the difference. If Murray has to beat Soderling in his quarter while Nadal faces Ferrer, the Scot may be the less fresh and the more vulnerable over a long match.
The edge goes to Nadal.
At least as great a rivalry is developing between Djokovic and Federer. This could be their 20th meeting and their seventh in a hard-court Major. Four of those have been in semis, one in a final.
They are a win apiece in Australia, are both in excellent and confident form, and they both play an attacking all-court game that challenges their brains as well as their bodies.
There is also a small extra incentive for both in the ranking points—if the Serb wins the title and the Swiss fails to make the quarters, they will swap places in the rankings.
If they meet in the semis, it could be the match of the tournament. It will be a close-run thing, but with Federer’s dominant win in London and in their two previous matches, he gets the nod.
They are two parts of one of tennis’s all time rivalries.
They are friends, mutual admirers and both could break records in Australia and through the year.
But make no mistake: Amicable as they are off court, they are two of the most dedicated, driven men in their sport.
Interesting, then, that as the competition gets under way, they are both anxious to hold the other up as favorite for the title.
Federer: “I think its unbelievable what Rafa’s been able to do…he’s been the one dominating the Slams. [He’s] had hardly any tough matches in the last three Slams. That makes him the favorite.”
Nadal: “I feel less of a favorite than Federer and [equal to] Djokovic, Murray and Soderling.”
Can they be serious?
The weight of the 'favorite' tag is a heavy one, and Nadal has always resisted it. However, after his last year, it’s something approaching disingenuous to persist with the denial. All the more so because he won their last three Major match-ups, all in finals and including the 2009 Australian.
Nadal is No. 1 in the world by more than 3,000 points, and it would take a brave man to bet his house against his success on this occasion.
Some will insist that the draw has played its part but, in truth, the result will come down to who is the best on seven given days in seven successive matches.
My imaginary fiver is on Federer, based on the current steel in his eye and smile on his face.
But perhaps I’ll put a couple of quid on Nadal at the same time!