On Top Down Under (II): Australian Open ATP Contenders
We follow the same pattern that we used in the preview of the women’s contenders for the men’s field at the 2013 Australian Open.
Djokovic: Three of his five major titles have come in Australia, where he aims to become the first man in the era to achieve a three-peat at the Happy Slam. A good fit for his personality, the tournament also suits his playing style with a medium-speed surface that showcases his ability to transition between offense and defense better than any of the majors. Despite durability concerns earlier in his career, Djokovic enters Melbourne as the fittest player in the field after his nearly superhuman finish to last year’s tournament. He finished 2012 impressively by sweeping through the year-end championships undefeated for the first time, and a similarly strong finish in 2010 (Serbia’s Davis Cup title) catapulted him into the best season of his career when the new year started. But Djokovic lost the majority of the finals that he played last year, including two at majors, and two of his three non-clay meetings with Federer. Other than the Swiss star and Murray, however, probably nobody can stop him.
Murray: Two years ago, Djokovic crushed him in a farcically non-competitive final. One year ago, Djokovic narrowly edged him in a semifinal thriller. If they meet in Melbourne for the third straight year, Murray will hope to repeat his success from another thriller against the Serb last year: the US Open final. This rivalry turned against him last fall with consecutive losses to the Serb, but he should bring more confidence than ever to this tournament now that he has shed the monkey of major futility from his shoulders. Rebounding from an understandably flat post-US Open fall, he started 2013 in the best possible fashion by defending his Brisbane title. The Scot’s game distinctly resembles Djokovic, which means that their matches usually hinge on execution and that the same surfaces favor their games—like the Melbourne court. And Murray will feel relieved to find another major draw without Nadal, his other principal nemesis at these events over the past few years.
Federer: Remarkably, the Swiss star has not reached a final at a hard-court major since this tournament two years ago and has not won a hard-court major since this tournament three years ago. In the scorching heat of the Australian summer, the Dubai-trained Federer should benefit from his imperviousness to climate. He may find the courts a bit slow for his liking and the higher bounce uncomfortable for his backhand. Federer favors a low contact point on his groundstrokes, and his waning consistency betrays him more often in the longer rallies here. That said, he has reached at least the semifinals every year since 2004 in his steadiest results at any major. Federer also never has lost to Murray at a major and continues to knock on the door of defeating Djokovic at the other hard-court major, holding match points in each of their last two meetings there. Conversely, he has lost his last six sets against the Serb in Melbourne.
With a bit of luck:
Del Potro: Early last year, the lanky Argentine achieved remarkably regular success against almost every opponent but one: Federer. Consecutive victories over the Swiss last fall may have bolstered his belief that he can extend that momentum to this year, while he delivered more competitive efforts against Djokovic than he had before. But Del Potro never has defeated either Murray or the Serb in the best-of-five format, while he struggled for much of last season against the less intimidating Ferrer, an opponent whom his superior power should allow him to dominate. The high bounce favors a man of his height and flat groundstrokes, who welcomes the opportunity to hit down on the ball. Less auspicious for Del Potro is the Australian heat, which could blunt his energy if he plays frequent day matches. Still, he is the only major champion of any relevance in the draw (sorry, Lleyton) outside the top three men.
Berdych: The Czech ended his 2012 majors with an electrifying upset over Federer at the US Open that illustrated just how dangerous his ball-striking can be against anyone. He then began his 2013 season with a Chennai loss to Bautista-Agut that illustrated just how inconsistent his results can be. Both a trendy and a risky choice for Melbourne glory, then, Berdych will look to build upon his strong contributions to the Czech Republic’s Davis Cup title run last year. While he will share Murray’s relief at a Nadal-less field, having lost their last eleven meetings, he has compiled just as miserable a record against Djokovic with only a single win in twelve attempts. More successful against the Scot, Berdych won sets from him twice last year but may find conquering a more confident, aggressive Murray an enhanced challenge. An unpredictable competitor, he usually wins his marquee matches decisively or not at all.
With a lot of luck:
Tsonga: Winless against the top eight last year, the former Melbourne finalist regressed dramatically and may need more time to settle into his partnership with Roger Rasheed. This coach seems an odd fit, considering his work with the similarly inconsistent Gael Monfils, so many have questioned Tsonga’s dedication. Always a crowd favorite, he revels in the lighthearted atmosphere of the least intense Slam and proved that 2008 was not an anomaly by reaching a semifinal there in 2010, although his last two appearances have ended in the quarterfinals. One probably cannot count on Tsonga for more than one upset, for his form oscillates dramatically between matches. Few men’s draws at majors in recent memory have imploded to the necessary degree for him to mount a charge, but the Australian Open is the most likely candidate with its history of surprise men’s finalists.
Ferrer: The ATP leader in titles and matches won last year, he looked understandably weary in a resounding exhibition loss to Djokovic and an early exit from Doha. The evergreen Ferrer has produced some of his best tennis late in his career, and his best results at majors have come on hard courts despite his preference for clay. Testing both Murray and Djokovic at Melbourne in recent years, he usually finds his serve too great a liability to grind out victories against elite opponent who can win more free points while also standing toe to toe with him in the trenches behind the baseline. But Ferrer’s confidence, also a weakness, may have risen with his first career Masters 1000 title in Paris last fall. Few men have won their first majors at his age, but he can chip away at plenty of more talented shot-makers in the Australian heat and rarely wastes an opportunity when it arises.
Need a miracle:
Tipsarevic: Inspired by the feats of compatriot Djokovic, the second-ranked Serb has stayed long enough in the top 10 to legitimize his breakthrough. He came within a tiebreak of reaching his first major semifinal at the US Open, so momentum may lie on his side following that achievement and his Chennai title. In no department of his game can he claim superiority to any of the Big Three, though, so Tipsarevic would need to hope for a monumental collapse from at least one of them before or when they face him. On the other hand, he nearly did upset Federer in a five-set epic here five years ago, his best result against the current elite.
Gasquet: In the top 10 largely because of comfortable first-week draws at majors last year, he never has reached a major final and has not reached a semifinal at a major since Wimbledon in 2007. Although he won Doha to start the season, that tournament marked just the second title of Gasquet’s career on outdoor hard courts, and fitness in the best-of-five format looms large as a concern on both physical and mental levels. A title for him would make Schiavone’s Roland Garros fortnight look ordinary.
Coming tomorrow is a brief look at some of the dark horses to note in the Australian Open fields. Draw previews will follow after their release on Friday. Don’t forget to read more articles by me, meanwhile, at tennisgrandstand.com and tennisviewmag.com as well as the Sydney tournament website!