After a pulsating 2013 that saw one of tennis’ greatest fighters rise back to the top, 2014 begins on a familiar heated note Down Under. With celebrity ex-player coaches joining the bandwagon and bringing back the 80s, the calendar year’s first Major begins on Monday in Melbourne.
Over the years, there are certain trends that begin to form as early as now. Certain players begin their seasons with a bang, as always, and taper off towards the end, or even envelope it with equal success.
Novak Djokovic is one of those players. He used to begin every year strongly, the in-form player, and lose steam towards an injury-prone end. But 2013 was slightly different.
The rise of Nadal saw Djokovic pull up his socks and avoid his customary end-of-season lag. He opened 2013 with another win at the Australian Open when Nadal was still on the sidelines, his 3rd consecutive Australian Open trophy. Both Federer and Djokovic have now won 4 Aussie Opens, demonstrating how the Serb favours shooting out of the blocks faster than any other contemporary player of his generation. Towards the end of 2013 though, by the time Nadal had wrapped up a season-ending top of the rank year, Djokovic hit back with one of the most dominating finishes in recent history. He is on a 22 match winning streak heading into Melbourne- he won the last 4 tournaments he played in without breaking a sweat, including the season ending World Tour Finals in London- a tournament Nadal is yet to win.
The only player to win an Australian Open before Djokovic began his streak was Roger Federer back in 2010- when he demolished Andy Murray in a one sided final, the year of Federer’s final bit of resurgence.
So while Djokovic had the better of their last battle in 2013, seeded at 2, he will still not be the player to beat at Melbourne.
That is because Rafael Nadal, World No. 1 and no. 1 seed, is coming off a tournament win at Qatar. With Murray losing early, Nadal had a few rusty bones while taking 3 sets in the semis as well as the Finals- in the end overcoming the gritty Gael Monfils. That is pretty good match practice for a player who is not known to win everything in sight before Clay season begins in March.
Rafael Nadal, hence, will begin as favorite for the year’s first Major, in stark contrast to 2013 where Djokovic just needed to show up and hope Murray or Federer would have their usual off days once in a week.
Andy Murray, seeded at 4, will return to action after a failed comeback bid at Qatar where he lost in the 2nd round. His back surgery seems to still be affecting his movement, and he looked uncomfortable for whatever time he was on court. The buzz is low surrounding the Scot, which is unusual, considering he is one of the best hard-court players in contemporary tennis along with Djokovic. Murray will not be an overwhelming favorite, because many feel that he may have rushed his comeback in a bid to stop his rivals. But Lendl could be holding this one close to his chest. After all, they are the first player-ex player pair to have joined forces before the epidemic continued with Edberg-Federer, Becker-Djokovic and a few others.
Roger Federer, seeded at 6, will continue trying to keep critics at bay after a stunning final defeat to old foe Hewitt at Brisbane. Of course it was over 3 sets, but Federer fans will still be concerned about his inability to beat a top-10 player nowadays. The Aussie was at his determined best, sure, but Federer is still getting used to the new 95 inch Wilson prototype in his hand- and could fall by the wayside once again unless the draw is kind to him.
The draw, declared a few hours ago, throws up the following possibilities:
Andy Murray could face Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, if both manage to make it so far. It looks suspect on current form, but these Champions show up only during the best-of-5 Slams, and can outlast most others.
Nadal seems to have the toughest draw, starting his campaign against Aussie young gun Bernard Tomic. He also has a meeting with Hewitt in store, as well as a 4th round clash with Japanese star Nishikori- before his greatest test awaits in the quarters against wounded Argentine and foe Del Potro. The lanky Argentine seems to have an edge over Nadal on faster courts, and could smash him out of the park with his consistent power hitting- unless, of course, Nadal wants his 14th Slam really bad.
Djokovic has again drawn Swiss in-form favoriteStanislas Wawrinka in the last 8. Their clash last year at the same stage became one of the classics of ’13, with Djokovic gritting his way through the epic contest in 5 tough grueling sets.
Ferrer, seeded at 3 for the Open, will probably face Tomas Berdych in the last 8- a clash of the ‘best of the rest’. These guys are always good enough to make the last 8, but stand little chance to actually win a best-of-5 Major with the top 3 playing at such a high level.