by John Huffstetler
For many in the US, pro football dominates this weekend's sports viewing, but make sure to save time to watch the opening rounds of the Australian Open as well. Major question marks surround the sport's big three of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, leaving the door open for a first-time major winner to possibly emerge. In 2011, Novak Djokovic lost only two matches the entire year through the US Open for a record of 63-2. After unarguably the best stretch of tennis in history, Novak finished the year going just 9-5, with 2 defaults and suspicious losses to Kei Nishikori and David Ferrer (6-3, 6-1). Has he lost his form or was this simply a major championship hangover? Then there's Nadal and Federer. Both have stated that they will be taking some time off after the Aussie to rest. Federer, although he's played by far the best tennis of the three post-US, had to withdraw last week with a back injury. The heat in Australia should allow his back to stay loose during the match, but this injury still brings his immediate grand slam future into question. Nadal, like the Djoker, has just been off since the US, and many speculate that his health is in doubt as well.
If another contender, like an Andy Murray, were to emerge, this would be the time. How often are 3 dominant players in the world all playing below their level at the same time? So then, who are the other contenders? The aforementioned Murray is one. As spectacularly consistent as Murray has been in getting to the semis of majors, he looks lost once there. He made all 4 major semis this past year and only reached one final, losing in last year's Aussie in pathetic straight sets fashion to Novak. Outside of Murray, the next big threat to break through with a victory is Jo Wilfried Tsonga. The wildly talented, but inconsistent and oft-injured Frenchman put together a strong 2011 campaign, racking up 57 wins and reaching the semis at Wimbledon and the Quarters of the US. His ability is unquestionable, but his penchant for fluctuating between spectacular and enigmatic play have made him an entertaining also-ran accustomed to failing to win titles. Outside of these 5, it's hard to imagine anyone else taking this title. Young phenoms Alexandr Dolgopolov, Kei Nishikori, and Bernard Tomic could make a strong statement but they don't have the experience to win a major with this kind of depth and strength. Veterans David Ferrer, Tomas Berydch, John Isner, and Juan Martin Del Potro could also make deep runs, but the title will most likely end up in the hands of one of these 5. The bottom half of the draw is certainly more wide open than the top half with many dangerous players lurking there. Here are my Australian Open predictions from the round of 16 on.
Who will Reach the Round of 16
1 Novak Djokovic- No brainer here. The toughest threat to Djoker is an aggressive, resurgent Radek Stepanek, but Novak should handle him easily.
23 Milos Raonic- Raonic missed time late last season (including the US open) because of a hip injury, but the young Canadien hard-court specialist showed his abilities in last year's Aussie Open, reaching the round of 16. He also won an impressive tune-up event in Chennai a few weeks ago, defeating a strong Janko Tipsarevic. I expect him to emerge through this section of the draw, where his biggest threats will be Andy Roddick and Robin Haase (who have to play each other first round).
9 Janko Tipsarevic- Tough section of the draw for Janko, with either Mikhail Youzhny or Richard Gasquet waiting in the 3rd round. I could easily see either player knocking him off but Janko is playing the best tennis right now and he has proven to be more match savvy than Gasquet. Youzhny seems to be on the tail end of his career but could still have one deep run left in him.
5 David Ferrer- A perfect draw for the gritty Spaniard to the round of 16. Last year's semifinalist will at least make it to this point. No one else is worth mentioning.
4 Andy Murray- Tough early draw for Murray this year, as he must play young American Ryan Harrison in the first round, followed by possible match-ups with Xavier Malisse, Ernests Gulbis, Alex Bogomolov, and Michael Llodra looming early. Despite the tough draw, Murray is too consistent for any of these players, despite their ability to attack his occasionally pushed groundstrokes.
19 Viktor Troicki- This section of the draw is wide open, but I expect Troicki to emerge. Gael Monfils, JC Ferrero, and others have a shot, but Troicki is the most consistent player in the group. Monfils now offically has the reputation for disappearing in majors, following a 2011 where he reached the round of 16 just once. Ferrero showed at the US that he can still be a factor in majors, but Troicki will prove to be the better player.
24 Kei Nishikori- I'll take a risk here and say that the young Japanese talent finally emerges in a major. He has racked up impressive wins in the last few weeks, having defeated Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, and Tsonga (twice). He will face a difficult draw, with Gilles Simon or Julien Benneteau awaiting in round 3. Either player could easily emerge from this section as well. Benneteau is playing terrific tennis right now, currently waiting to play the finals of the Aussie open tune-up in Sydney, and Simon is always a threat to reach the second day of a major. Like I said, a risk, but I like this young guys talent.
6 Jo Willy Tsonga- No doubts here and no one else is worth mentioning.
8 Mardy Fish- Not much here for Fish to worry about in this heavy clay-courter section of the draw.
11 Juan Martin Del Potro- Florian Mayer could prove to offer some resistance to DelPo in this section, but this is another no-brainer. He will just continue to improve as he gets more reps and his fitness gets better. By the end of the year, he will be once again clearly entrenched in the top 5 in the world.
13 Alexandr Dolgopolov- This is a terrific section of the draw with Dolgo joining the veteran Fernando Verdasco and the emerging hometown hero Bernard Tomic. I expect Tomic to upset Dasco setting up a phenomenal 3rd round match-up of young phenoms with Dolgo emerging, much to the disappointment of the home crowd.
3 Roger Federer- Melzer can be tricky, but not on this surface against this man. Easy draw to the 16's for Fed.
7 Tomas Berydch- I don't necessarily trust Berydch, but he seems to have regained the form he exhibited on the hard courts early last year, losing in the quarters here to the Djoker. The best possible contenders to Berdych are the two tall, aggressive serve and volleyers in Stakhovsky and Kevin Anderson.
Marcos Baghdatis- Who dares to question Marcos at the Aussie Open! This is the tournament he lives for and he always gets tremendous fan support. 2011 was a rough year for him from a hard court perspective, but he played well last week in the tune-up in Sydney, reaching the finals. He will have to get through Stan Wawrinka in the 2nd round to make another Aussie charge, which is a large task, but Marcos always surprises here.
16 John Isner- The draw here is dangerous with David Nalbandian, Feliciano Lopez, and an aging but still scary Nikolay Davydenko, but Isner's game is too big right now for these players. If Nalby can get hot, he poses the stiffest threat.
2 Rafael Nadal- Rafa easily with no threats in this section.
Round of 16
1 Djokovic vs 23 Raonic- The Djoker in 3 tough sets.
9 Tipsarevic vs 5 Ferrer- This could prove to be the match of the tourney (if it happens) as both players have world-class fitness levels. Ferrer wins a tight marathon 5-setter.
4 Murray vs. 19 Troicki- Murray in 4. Troicki could give him a tough match and I expect Murray to enter this match-up having faced at least two tough opponents already. He will need to remain physically strong entering the second week and win some matches easily to have a shot at the title.
24 Nishikori vs. 6 Tsonga- Tsonga wins comfortably in 4. Nishikori has defeated Tsonga twice in the last few weeks, so Jo Willy's focus should not be a problem here.
8 Fish vs. 11 Del Potro- Hopefully, this match-up comes to fruition because it has the potential to be great. I will call for a continually improving DelPo to win this one in a tight 4 sets.
13 Dolgopolov vs. 3 Federer- Time for a change atop the sport and it starts right here. Dolgo pulls off the upset in 5 long sets using strong variety of play against an injured Federer. If this match-up occurs, the fitness level and shot-making ability of Dolgo would be too overwhelming for the match savvy great.
7 Berydch vs. Baghdatis- Berdych wins this one in 4 and the Aussie run for Marcos comes to an end (although it probably will end in round 2 if I'm being honest).
16 Isner vs. 2 Nadal- Not a great match-up for Rafa, since Isner can handle Rafa's high-arching top-spin (remember the 5-set scare in the 1st round of the French last year), but Rafa emerges in an ultra-tight 5-set match.
1 Djokovic vs. 5 Ferrer- Ferrer will make it entertaining, as always, but Novak remains on another level. Ferrer has a solid head-to-head record against the Djoker at 5-7, so he will push him, but in the end, Novak in 4.
4 Murray vs. 6 Tsonga- The classic match-up of offense (Tsonga) vs. defense (Murray) in this one. Most fans and analysts are praying for this duel; unfortunately for Murray, Tsonga will enter this match much fresher having faced the easier schedule. I expect Tsonga to win a tight 5-setter here.
11 Del Potro vs. 13 Dolgopolov- This would be another incredible match, but I think Dolgo's fitness would prove to be the difference as DelPo is still not fully back from his injury at this point. Dolgo in 5 after DelPo fades.
7 Berdych vs. 2 Nadal- Fitness is a huge part of success in the Australian Open because of the heat. If Nadal is healthy, he will win the is match because of his high fitness level. Rafa in 4.
1 Djokovic vs. 6 Tsonga- This would be another entertaining clash between arguably the best offensive player in the game in Tsonga and undoubtedly the best defensive player in Djokovic. Jo Willy has been successful against the Djoker in the past, winning 5 of their 9 match-ups including here in the semis two years ago; however, Novak has the 2-1 edge in major match-ups and his ability to track down would be winners will frustrate the wild Frenchman. Djoker in a tough 4.
13 Dolgopolov vs. 2 Nadal- This would be a favorable match-up for the veteran Nadal. Dolgo's game is predicated on moving better than his opponent and forcing them to move up and back using drop shots and angles. Nadal has dominated in two career meetings and I would expect more of the same here. Nadal in a comfortable 4.
1 Djokovic vs. 2 Nadal- How many times can a person say they've beaten Nadal 6 straight times! That's a testament to the high-level of play Novak reached in 2011. Throw out the matches after the US Open. It would be natural after the year Djoker had to cruise after the final major. He will be ready for this tournament and will once again be close to unbeatable. Novak in 4.
Winner- 1 Novak Djokovic
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