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2014 Australian Open: Men's Draw Preview

Jan 10th 2014

The Australian Open draw features a weightier top half than bottom half, where defending champion Novak Djokovic will eye his route with relish. 

Rafael Nadal

First quarter:  Diehard Australian fans must have groaned to see most of their home favorites positioned near world No. 1 Rafael Nadal.  After opening the tournament against Bernard Tomic, who plays his best tennis near home, Nadal might give Thanasi Kokkinakis a master class in what it takes to succeed at this level.  Also in his vicinity are Brisbane champion Lleyton Hewitt, who shocked Roger Federer there, and the encouraging Marinko Matosevic.  American fans cannot have felt much more enthusiastic about the prospects of Jack Sock or Ryan Harrison in this section, even if they survive surging Doha runner-up Gael Monfils.  The flamboyant Frenchman has troubled Nadal on a hard court before, including winning a set from him earlier this month, but the best-of-five format rewards steady more than streaky.  Steadiness certainly defines the two men most likely to meet Rafa when the second week begins.  Superior to Andreas Seppi on hard courts, Kei Nishikori should outlast the Italian veteran if he stays healthy.

Towering above Nadal’s possible quarterfinal opponents is a man who won their last meeting in October.  Juan Martin Del Potro began to reap greater success against the ATP elite in 2013, including victories over every member of the Big Four that comprises Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer.  His recent efforts at hard-court majors have disappointed, however, including a first-week loss to Jeremy Chardy at last year’s Australian Open.  Gifted a more favorable draw this time, Del Potro should face little resistance until the second week.  There, the heavy-hitting Canadian Milos Raonic will attempt to reach his first major quarterfinal at the Argentine’s expense.  Or perhaps Grigor Dimitrov will pursue the same feat, but Del Potro’s far superior experience at majors should prove crucial against either man.

Semifinalist:  Rafael Nadal

Andy Murray

Second quarter:  My preseason pick to win this title, Andy Murray bounced back less adroitly than one might have hoped from back surgery in January.  The reigning Wimbledon champion impressed at neither the Abu Dhabi exhibition nor the ATP 250 tournament in Doha.  All the same, a stack of qualifiers near him should allow Murray to play his way into the tournament.  He specializes in blunting the power of one-dimensional servers inconsistent from the baseline, such as Michael Llodra, Feliciano Lopez, and John Isner.  The tall American’s prospects of advancing to meet Murray remain murky at best, moreover.  Barring his path is Philipp Kohlschreiber, who defeated Isner at two of the last three hard-court majors despite the gulf in their height.  On the other hand, Isner earned his revenge on the German in Auckland this week by seizing a third-set tiebreak, and the clay specialists near him should pose few threats.

Ambushed by Hewitt in Brisbane, Roger Federer still produced compelling tennis that week.  The Swiss star also may have gained confidence from adding Stefan Edberg to his team, although he will not need Edberg’s insights to carve a path to the quarterfinals.  Federer may need to solve the man who stunned him at Wimbledon last year, Sergiy Stakhovsky, but little about Stakhovsky’s recent results suggests that lightning will strike twice.  Winless in his career against Federer, 2009 Melbourne semifinalist Fernando Verdasco has not built on a summer surge last year than included a Wimbledon quarterfinal.  A rematch of a five-set quarterfinal at the 2013 Australian Open might pit Federer against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with the right to face Murray at stake.  That fourth-round match would test how each man has rebounded from disappointing 2013 campaigns.  Looking to play the role of spoiler is Marin Cilic, who played some of his best tennis Down Under before his recent decline.

Semifinalist:  Roger Federer

Tomas Berdych

Third quarter:  Tasked with some challenging first-round opponents at recent majors, Tomas Berdych will feel grateful for a respite in Melbourne.  The Czech fell to Ivo Karlovic in his first and so far only match of 2014, but his first two opponents should not prevent him from reaching a rematch with Karlovic in the third round.  In fact, no man stands out from a section of familiar but slumping figures.  Apparently troubled by shoulder discomfort, the 35-year-old Tommy Haas appeared to finally lose ground in his battle with time over the past several months.  Less explicable are the ongoing woes of Kevin Anderson, unable to build on a solid first half of 2013 and winless against Berdych in his career.  Expect plenty of power but little subtlety or variety from this section, with the exception of Haas.

Outside a run to the final at the Paris Indoors last fall, David Ferrer has accomplished little of note on meaningful stages since finishing runner-up at Roland Garros.  Yet projected third-round opponent Jeremy Chardy has accomplished even less over the even longer period since his quarterfinal run in Melbourne a year ago.  Look for former Australian Open quarterfinalist Alexandr Dolgopolov, formidable so far in January, to challenge one or both of these men.  Less clear is what to expect from Jerzy Janowicz, capable of defeating or losing to anyone on any given day.  Janowicz can outhit anyone in this section with ease, but he lacks the momentum that most bold shot-makers need to succeed.  A possible collision with versatile veteran Mikhail Youzhny would offer an engaging contrast of styles.

Semifinalist:  Tomas Berdych

Novak Djokovic

Fourth quarter:  Into the lair of four-time champion Novak Djokovic are thrust a collection of men accustomed to coming up short in their meetings.  Exhorted by the enthusiastic Greek community in Melbourne, Marcos Baghdatis will launch one more attempt to recapture the magic of his stunning run to the 2006 Australian Open final.  Neither Baghdatis nor most of Djokovic’s other first-week opponents can produce the baseline consistency and depth required to upset the world No. 2.  But Ernests Gulbis will fancy his chances to raise some eyebrows, for he usually rises to the level of the competition against elite opponents.  American No. 2 Sam Querrey will find the Latvian’s power difficult to contain.

Never has either of Djokovic’s likely quarterfinal opponents defeated him on an outdoor hard court.  Even casual fans will remember the epic battle that the Serb snatched from Stanislas Wawrinka on Rod Laver Arena last year, among the finest matches of 2013.  Djokovic repeated the five-set result in a US Open semifinal, so he would enter a third straight meeting at a hard-court major as the clear favorite.  The same might be even more true of Richard Gasquet, also a US Open semifinalist but unable to solve Djokovic on any surface.  A few less famous men intrigue more than the familiar names in this section.  Seeking his third quarterfinal in four majors, Tommy Robredo looks to weather the onslaught of giant-killer Lukas Rosol.  Early in their careers, Vasek Pospisil and Pablo Carreno Busta look to build experience at majors.  But these are probably mere subplots to Djokovic’s march deep into another major draw.

Semifinalist:  Novak Djokovic

Final:  Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic