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Australian Open 2012: Djokovic favourite for centenary title

Marianne Bevis previews the the first Grand Slam of 2012, where Novak Djokovic is favourite to retain his tltle

Marianne Bevis
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Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in their last Grand Slam final meeting in New YorkPA Photos

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This is a big year for the Australian Open in so many ways. It is the 100th year that the tournament has been played. It is its 25th year at Melbourne Park—its 25th since switching from grass to hard courts. And it is 50 years since the man whose name graces this tournament’s centre court, Rod Laver, won the calendar Grand Slam.

No-one except Laver himself has managed the feat since. Perhaps, in this centenary year, they will.

For the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, began one of the finest years in the Open era at this tournament 12 months ago. It started with a 41-match winning streak and ended with three Grand Slams and five Masters trophies—a final tally of 10 titles.

It needed one of the best matches of the year from Roger Federer to halt the Djokovic juggernaut at the French Open but the Serb returned the favour in the Australian and US Opens—and in both the other matches they played.

As for the man who started 2011 as No1, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic played him six times in six finals on three different surfaces, and beat him every time.

As a bone-weary Djokovic faded at the end of the year, the question on everyone’s lips was whether he could dominate his illustrious peers quite so completely again.

He has, thus far in 2012, kept his light under a bushel except for the lucrative six-man challenge event in Abu Dhabi. There, Djokovic not only beat No5 David Ferrer for the loss of three games, he did the same to Federer. Safe to say that the world No1 looked in prime shape and confident mood.

So only an outstanding performance seems likely to down this man at the Slam he has already won twice. And with both Nadal and Federer nursing physical niggles ahead of the tournament, the balance tilts even more in the Serb’s favour.

What Djokovic does know is that he will not have to beat both of them if they reach their allotted semi-finals because, for the first time since the 2005 French Open, the greatest rivals of the last six years are in the same half of a Grand Slam draw. That also means there can be no repeat of last year’s final between Djokovic and Andy Murray: They are scheduled to meet in the semis.

These four men have filled 20 of the last 24 Major semi-final places so breaking into the quartet has been the preserve of a select few: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga twice, Ferrer against an injured Nadal in Melbourne last year, and Tomas Berdych, Mikhail Youzhny and Marin Cilic once each—the last of whom is out of the this year’s Australian Open with injury, as is another former Slam finalist, Robin Soderling.

Tsonga and Berdych remain the prime contenders to break up the semi-final party, but where else do the threats lie?

Quarter one: Novak Djokovic

If there’s one thing to put the wind up the competition it is surely Djokovic looking and sounding more confident even than last year.

He calmly admitted during Melbourne’s post-draw discussion that he had only played the exho event in Abu Dhabi because he did not feel he needed any more match practice. He went on to say he believes his best performance last year was in winning the Australian title. A quick look back endorses that view: straight sets wins over Murray in the final, Federer in semis and Berdych in the quarters (two of the sets 6-1): He won the tournament for the loss of just one set.

Asked who he thought were the most dangerous players outside the top four, he highlighted Tsonga and rising star, Milos Raonic. The young Canadian, fresh from winning only his second ATP title in Chennai over world Nos 9 and 10, has risen to 25 in the rankings this week, more than 120 up on this time last year. His huge frame and equivalent game thrive on hot, fast courts—as he proved in last year’s Australian, where he won three qualifying and three main draw matches before losing to Ferrer.

He pulled out of the Kooyong Classic event with a stomach virus this week but expect him to be fighting fit for his first match and then fireworks if he meets Andy Roddick in the third round—though the home crowd will, probably fruitlessly, be cheering on Lleyton Hewitt in this segment.

So Raonic could square up to Djokovic in the fourth round, where Ferrer may face Janko Tipsarevic. The former has just won the Auckland title and the latter reached the final of last week’s Chennai. Tipsarevic, though, has an awkward first segment that starts with Dimitry Tursunov and heads to either Youzhny or Richard Gasquet.

It should, in the end, be a relatively straightforward run to the semis for Djokovic.

Matches to watch out for: Gasquet v Youzhny, Round 2; Raonic v Roddick, Round 3.

Semi-finalist: Djokovic

Quarter two: Andy Murray

Murray’s tennis in the coming weeks will be under the microscope as he embarks on his first Slam with Ivan Lendl as coach. The imperious Czech, himself slow to convert Slam finals to titles before eventually winning eight of them, pronounced to the BBC this week that Murray “is an absolute pleasure to work with.” With two Australian titles among his haul, Lendl also knows what it takes to win this event.

It will be too early to expect major changes in the Murray game but keen observers will be looking for changes in his mind-set: the kind of self-belief that Djokovic brought to the start of 2011.

Murray needs to hit the ground running in Australia and, with the title in Brisbane last week and a nice warm-up against David Nalbandian in Kooyong this week, he seems to have done so. His opening match is, potentially, the hardest of the top four: Ryan Harrison. The teenager has yet to put together some consistent form but had a few good wins last year, especially on hard courts, and rose from 173 to inside the top 70.

Murray’s first big test comes in the athletic form of Gael Monfils in the fourth round. The charismatic Frenchman showed all his potential in taking a set from Djokovic in Abu Dhabi and beating Nadal in Doha. He also had a run out in Kooyong this week and, if his knees hold up, he is a difficult obstacle.

Murray’s likely opponent in the quarters is Tsonga, not only a Slam finalist himself but playing possibly his best ever tennis in recent months. John McEnroe said of the Frenchman after the draw: “Jo is probably the guy who’s the most dangerous of all. He’s shown he can play some big-time tennis. I think mentally and physically he’s playing the best tennis of his life.”

He pulled out of Kooyong with exhaustion this week, having arrived late from his victory over Monfils in the Doha final: probably a sensible precaution. His eighth includes the unpredictable Gilles Simon and fleet-of-foot Kei Nishikori, so there is plenty of talent for Tsonga to negotiate before the quarters.

The quality of the last encounter between Murray and Tsonga in the final of Queens promises a great quarter-final face-off if they fulfil their seedings.

Matches to watch out for: Llodra v Gulbis, Round 1; Nishikori v Simon, Round 3; Tsonga v Murray, QF.

Semi-finalist: Tsonga

Quarter three: Roger Federer

Federer’s last Grand Slam was won here in 2010, his fourth Australian title. But he has suffered some difficult losses here, too: semi-final exits in 2008 and last year to Djokovic, and loss to Nadal in the 2009 final.

At the end of 2011, however, he put himself into contention for his fifth Melbourne title with an unbroken run from the US Open semis to the World Tour Finals title. But since withdrawing from the semi-finals in Doha with a back strain, things are less certain. His movement, and especially his service action, were certainly inhibited in his three-set win against Andreas Seppi there. It’s now a case of wait-and-see.

He faces a qualifier in his opener, and the likes of Andrey Golubev and Igor Andreev are both capable of showing up any weakness in Federer’s movement. His next test, in Round 3, could be either Jürgen Melzer or Ivo Karlovic—both dangerous on a good day. Round 4 is even more fascinating, including as it does the other man Djokovic identified as one of the dangers outside the top four: the impressive teenager, Bernard Tomic.

With home support and a fast-growing game and physique, Tomic plays the final of the Kooyong Classic this weekend. He established some Grand Slam credentials in reaching the quarters at Wimbledon via seven matches in 2011—and took a set from Djokovic. He has since beaten Mardy Fish, Stan Wawrinka and Viktor Troicki.

Tomic sits amid a glut of talent in the draw, though: Fernando Verdasco in the first round, Sam Querrey in the second and Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third. The brilliant but unpredictable Ukrainian is at a career-high ranking, reaching the final in Brisbane before falling to Murray while carrying a groin injury. He famously took out Tsonga and Soderling at last year’s Australian.

In Federer’s other eighth, however, lurks his most dangerous opponent: Not the superior-seeded Fish, though if fit, his fast serve-and-volley game could reap big rewards in Melbourne, but Juan Martín del Potro. As one of the rare few in the field apart from the top three to have tasted Grand Slam victory—Juan Carlos Ferrero is the other almost a decade ago—many feel it is only a matter of time before his comeback from extended injury problems is complete: He rose from 258 to No11 last year.

Del Potro has the creative and quick Adrian Mannarino in the first round and the equally creative but inconsistent Florian Mayer—who suffered a groin injury in Brisbane—in the third. A fourth match versus Fish, if both are on song, has the makings of a classic.

On paper, then, Federer’s draw could be the most taxing of the top four seeds, especially with old adversary Nadal in the bottom half.

Matches to watch out for: Monaco v Kohlschreiber, Round 1; Verdasco v Tomic, Round 1; Dolgopolov v Federer Round 4; Del Potro v Fish, Round 4; Federer v del Potro, QF.

Semi-finalist: Federer

Quarter four: Rafael Nadal

There are similar uncertainties surrounding Nadal to those around Federer: He has deflected expectations by revealing that he has carried a shoulder problem since the WTFs. Nevertheless, his form looked solid in reaching the Doha semi-finals.

If he is at full strength, he will hope to make Melbourne 2012 third time lucky: He has fallen with injuries in the quarter-finals for the last two years. He will also want to reassert himself over Federer—who handed him a brutal defeat in the WTFs—and, more particularly, Djokovic for those six straight defeats last year.

The draw has been kind in the early stages. With four qualifiers out of eight at the start, and Tommy Haas nursing a calf injury, only veteran Ivan Ljubicic comes between Nadal and the fourth round. There he could meet any of several men. John Isner, seeded at a career-high 16, should thrive in the Melbourne conditions, but so will his third-round opponent—either the big-hitting Feliciano Lopez, also at a career high, or the flat-hitting Nikolay Davydenko. A stand-out in this segment is David Nalbandian against Sydney finalist, Jarkko Nieminen, though neither is likely to survive many rounds thereafter.

In the quarters, No7 seed Berdych awaits. He has been warming up in Kooyong this week after a good end to 2011, and despite losing his matches there, the big Czech is developing a powerful, attacking game and also better concentration. He will be dangerous if the conditions stay fast and if Wawrinka does not find one of his own streaks of form.

Nadal, though, has not lost to Berdych since 2006: Their result in Melbourne will probably come down, simply, to the Spanish shoulder.

Matches to watch out for: Lopez v Davydenko, Round 2; Nalbandian v Nieminen, Round 1; Isner v Lopez, Round 3; Wawrinka v Baghdatis, Round 2.

Semi-finalist: Nadal

Final: Djokovic beats Nadal

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