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Steve Flink: Australian Open Preview

1/8/2013 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Glance into your rearview mirror, and images of a spectacular and captivating 2012 season will spring prominently into view. You swiftly recollect Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka ruling comprehensively at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal capturing a men’s record seventh French Open singles crown and Maria Sharapova securing a career Grand Slam with her triumph in Paris. Don’t stop there. Travel in your mind’s eye back to Wimbledon, where Roger Federer answered his critics emphatically with a seventh singles title run on the lawns while the redoubtable Serena Williams claimed her fifth women’s crown at the All England Club. Finish this journey of the mind by recalling Williams prevailing for the fourth time at the U.S. Open the evening before Andy Murray moved past his demons to collect a long awaited first career Grand Slam singles championship.

It was a magnificent year for tennis across the board with four different men’s victors at the majors and three distinct champions stepping forward among the women. But now it is time to leave the past behind us, and gaze into the future. A brand new year has come upon us, and the Australian Open is just around the corner. In my view, Djokovic is the narrow favorite among the men as he bids to capture the tournament for the fourth time in his remarkable career. He has not won a Grand Slam tournament since his victory “Down Under” a year ago, and yet the 25-year-old Serbian is unequivocally the best tennis player in the world. Day in and day out on hard courts, Djokovic is better than anyone else. He will be primed for this event, determined to reassert his authority, eager to start the new year on his own terms, hoping his ground game will be blazing.

Nevertheless, Murray will be nearly as confident as his keynote rival. His breakthrough win in New York last September at the U.S. Open has left this gifted British competitor in good stead. No longer does he need to validate his greatness by demonstrating that he can get it done at a major. Murray can open up his wings, try to build on what he accomplished at Flushing Meadows, look to peak again on a big occasion, and play freely. Across the last year, he competed honorably and efficiently against Djokovic in the sport’s emerging premier rivalry. They met seven times over the course of the season, with Djokovic taking four of those confrontations. Murray lost a heartbreaking five set encounter with Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open but upended the Serbian at the U.S. Open in another five set skirmish—this time in the final.

The way I look at it, Djokovic is the most likely man to succeed in Melbourne, the performer with the highest hard court standards, the toughest and most reliable player of them all. Murray is not far behind, and is undaunted by anyone in the field. But clearly Roger Federer remains in the forefront of the game, and he cut down both Djokovic and Murray in a dazzling finish at Wimbledon last summer. Although Federer has been victorious at only two Grand Slam events over the last three years, the fact remains that he is always a central figure at the game’s showcase tournaments. Since he was beaten way back in a 2004 third round meeting at Roland Garros against Gustavo Kuerten, Federer has advanced at least to the quarterfinals in 34 consecutive majors. In that astonishing span, he has missed the semifinal cut only four times.

Moreover, Federer has captured no fewer than four Australian Opens among his record men’s total of 17 majors. He has lost to only two players in Melbourne across the last seven years, falling twice to Rafael Nadal, bowing twice against Djokovic. Federer knows his way around the territory of the elite, and can call upon his considerable resources and experience to make it once more to the latter stages of the tournament. But the fact remains that he is 31. The view here is that the draw will be crucial for the second ranked player in the world. He could benefit enormously if he faces No. 4 seed David Ferrer in one semifinal, with No. 3 Murray taking on Djokovic in the other. Federer owns Ferrer. His career head-to-head record with the Spaniard is an impeccable 14-0. He has lost only three sets to Ferrer in their one-sided career series.

Under the right circumstances at the upcoming Australian Open, Federer might manage to cast aside Ferrer in straight sets and thus conserve critical energy for a potential final round appointment with either Djokovic or Murray a few evenings later. But defeating Murray and Djokovic back to back would be an awfully tall order for the Swiss on hard courts, perhaps beyond even his lofty reach these days. And yet, even if Federer does avoid facing both Murray and Djokovic, the question remains: can he topple either one of them in a best of five set hard court final under relatively slow conditions, playing at night? I have my doubts.

Meanwhile, I am convinced that Serena Williams is going to win her 16th Grand Slam tournament title and her sixth in Melbourne. Arguably, she has never headed into a major as such an overwhelming favorite. Since her shocking first round loss at the French Open a year ago against Virginie Razzano, Serena has lost only one match. In that dynamic stretch, she has won Wimbledon, the Olympic Games, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. She also opened her 2013 campaign superbly by garnering the title in Brisbane without conceding a set. Williams is thoroughly prepared, brimming with confidence, overflowing with pride. Despite her No. 3 WTA ranking, she stands unassailably in our minds as the best woman player in the world. She simply will not lose at the season’s leadoff Grand Slam event unless she is injured, way out of sorts, or attacked by nerves.

In 2012, Serena was a combined 8-0 against Azarenka and Sharapova, dropping only one set in the process. To be sure, Azarenka came exceedingly close to toppling Williams in the U.S. Open final. She was two points away from a three set victory before Serena prevailed 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. Azarenka confirmed in that contest why she is one of the premier returners in tennis, but the fact remains that Williams was guilty of too many self-inflicted wounds. Her feet were frozen and her mind surprisingly clouded with insecurity. In the end, Williams won that match largely on willpower, but she took the rest of her duels with her two foremost rivals much more comfortably in straight sets.

Complicating matters for both Sharapova and Azarenka as they approach the Australian Open are injuries. Azarenka defaulted her semifinal to Williams in Brisbane because of an ailing big toe on her right foot. Perhaps that move was precautionary, but it is entirely possible that Azarenka could be hindered in defense of her title by pain. In any case, this is not an ideal way for the world No. 1 to approach the first major of the year.

As for Sharapova, she has been struggling with a collarbone injury, which might well turn out to be more serious than Azarenka’s toe. If the 2008 Australian Open victor Sharapova is unable to serve at full force and earn her share of free points, she won’t return to the final round, and might even fall early. Other leading women could fare well in Melbourne. Agnieszka Radwanska--- the No. 4 ranked player in the world—is the best defender in women’s tennis. She took a set off Serena in the Wimbledon final. World No. 5 Angelique Kerber--- the industrious and often flashy left-hander from Germany—is the last player to beat Williams. She upset the American at Cincinnati, causing damage with her wide slice serve in the Ad Court. She frequently pulled Serena off the court, opening up opportunities for clusters of forehand winners into big empty spaces. But Williams was already well prepared for the U.S. Open, having won the Olympics majestically. She performed indifferently against Kerber and seemed less than jarred by that summertime defeat.

The draw in Australia will make little difference to Williams the way she is playing. At 31, she has reached a career peak. Her first serve is the best ever among the women, her motivation to succeed has never been better, and she has a larger sense of history and urgency than ever before. If Williams can get on the board in Australia and claim the title—as so many of us believe she will—she will stand a reasonable chance of becoming only the fourth woman ever—and the first since Steffi Graf in 1988—to secure a Grand Slam. She could possibly be stopped at Roland Garros again. That is a tournament she has taken only once in her illustrious career, back in 2002. But the feeling grows that Williams is going to win the Australian Open and come into Roland Garros with destiny on her side.

The men’s picture in Melbourne is more complicated. The gap between Djokovic and Murray is not very wide, and Federer is still a great player as he moves through his early thirties. Djokovic is surely the man to beat, but Murray was a finalist in 2010 and 2011 before losing in the penultimate round a year ago. If I were grading these players going into the tournament, I would give Djokovic a 98, Murray a 96 and Federer a 94. No one else can seriously be expected to win the tournament.

Ferrer has never been in a Grand Slam tournament final. Tomas Berdych has been a perennial contender at the majors since 2010, when he went to the final of Wimbledon. His backcourt game is devastatingly potent and consistent, but he is a brittle competitor who too often seems almost afraid to win big matches. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was startling and electric in reaching the Australian Open final of 2008 with a sweepingly versatile display against a confounded Rafael Nadal. The Frenchman has been a semifinalist the last two years at Wimbledon. But he is still more of a shot-maker and athlete than a match player, vastly entertaining yet highly vulnerable under pressure. Meanwhile, this might be the moment for Juan Martin Del Potro to revisit the heights he scaled at the 2009 U.S. Open, when he removed Federer in an exhilarating five set final. He may well have the best chance to win of anyone outside the three favorites at the top of tennis today, but Del Potro would be a distant fourth strongest candidate for the title.

Three other men must be observed closely in Melbourne. Nikolay Davydenko concluded five years in a row—2005-2009—ranked among the top six in the world. At 31, the Russian with the immaculate footwork and the aggressive ground game seems revitalized. He crushed Ferrer with gusto in the semifinals of Doha last week before blowing the final against Richard Gasquet. Davydenko—currently ranked No. 40 in the world—will perhaps be the most dangerous floater in the draw. Milos Raonic might finally be ready to exploit his enormous potential with a strong showing. And the diversified Jerzy Janowicz will probably make his presence known in Melbourne, perhaps in a substantial way.

But, in the end, only the elite will survive at the first major of the season. I believe Serena Williams will be unstoppable, and envision Novak Djokovic making it three in a row “Down Under”. We all look forward to a crackling opening act at the majors in 2013.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.