Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Australian Open 2012: The Men

The first Grand Slam of the year is underway Down Under, but before I go any further here are some links to the Open that you might find useful:
Who’s Playing :  Men’s Singles Draw , Women’s Singles Draw, Men’s Doubles, Women’s Doubles, Mixed Doubles (not yet available); Juniors (not yet available);  
When they’re playing: Schedule of Play;
Where you can watch them play: ESPN2 Schedule, Tennis Channel Schedule.
So what can we expect from this year’s Australian Open? Pretty much what we can expect every year: Great tennis and a foreshadowing of things to come for the year. As usual, the first Grand Slam of the year generates more answers than it does questions. Here are my best bets to win the Men's Singles Championship.
No.1 Seed
Has Novak Djokovic recouped enough to resume the run he had through most of 2011?  Novak was obviously in a different mode after claiming the US Open in September, retiring during a Davis Cup match in early October, withdrawing before a quarterfinal match against Jo Wilfried Tsonga in November, and losing twice at the Tour Finals in November as well. Unlike the other top players, Novak skipped any tune-up tourneys and the dismantling of his first round opponent suggests that he is well-rested and ready to go.
I don’t see any sign of trouble for Novak until a potential third round match-up with Milos Raonic, the Canadian whose huge serve and big game made a big splash last year, climbing 131 spots in the rankings to his current No.25 slot. David Ferrer usually plays Novak tough, so if Ferrer is still in the draw by the quarters, he could push Novak. Bottom line is that if Djokovic is on form in all phases of his game, only an on-form Federer can give him a run.  
No.2 Seed
Will Rafael Nadal’s body allow him to return to the form that rendered him chock full of confidence and which forced Federer’s resolve to flee? Rafa’s performance in Doha doesn’t suggest that he’s full strength, losing to Gael Monfils in straight sets in the semis. In fact, if we exclude two Davis Cup wins, Rafa is a mere 9-5 on the ATP Tour since October of 2011, and is publicly complaining of knee pain. Uh, not good signs for Rafa in Melbourne.
After a straight-set win in the first round, Rafa has Tommy Haas in Round 2. If Haas brings his A-game Rafa could struggle in this one. If he makes it through that match, I don’t see any real trouble until the Round of 16 where he’s likely to be playing either John Isner or David Nalbandian. Although he hasn’t lost to either the last three times out, both have played him tough, including his five-set win over Isner at the 2011 French Open.  A hot Tomas Berdych could be trouble in the quarters if Rafa is off his game, but he has yet to beat Rafa, so the draw looks good for Rafa to move through to the semis.
No. 3 Seed
Will Roger Federer return to the psychological form that marked his reign atop the ATP Tour? Let’s face it Fed fans; Roger hit the ball and moved as well as he ever has last year, but he didn’t last year, and hasn’t for some time, displayed the mental resolve that catapulted him to greatness.  His first tourney of the year at Doha makes me wonder. He went three sets with No.38 Andreas Seppi in the Quarters and withdrew rather than face Tsonga in the semis. Back injury? Perhaps. Not wanting any part of Tsonga this early in the year? Who knows?
After a slow start Roger straight-setted his way into Round 2, where he’ll meet Andreas Beck. Roger looks to have a relatively smooth path to the Round of 16, where the odds suggest he is likely to face Juan Martin Del Potro or Mardy Fish. I just don’t see Karlovic, Dolgopolov, Tomic, or Querrey taking Roger out before the quarters. Both Mardy and Delpo have the goods to give Roger a run in the quarters if they get there, but there’s a good chance we’ll see Roger and Rafa in the semis. This time, it’ll be a grudge match. There’s talk of a rift between the two.
No.4 Seed
Andy Murray got off to a good start in 2012 with a coaching change to the legendary Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl, and an event victory in Brisbane to his credit. Murray has proven that he can beat anyone in the game on any given day. He’s beaten Federer two of the last three times they’ve played; he beat Nadal the last time they played, bageling Rafa in the third set in Japan in October; and is 2-2 with Djokovic in their last four, winning the most recent when Djokovic retired in the second set after losing the first and trailing in 0-3 in the second. The question remains, can Murray bring it over a two-week span in five-setters against the top echelon players?
Through to the second round after dropping the first set in match No.1, Murray’s draw through the quarters looks promising. If Ernests Gulbis is playing to potential he could give Murray a challenge. However, Murray’s stiffest test before the quarters is likely to come from Gael Monfils in the Round of 16, who downed Murray the last time they played and against whom Murray has a 3-2 record. Again, if on form, Murray should reach the quarters where, chances are, he’ll face my dark horse pick for the event, Jo Wilfried Tsonga
No.6 Seed
Tsonga, seeded 6th, has been in one Australian Open final and has plenty of game to get there again. Tsonga appears to be healthy, winning the first tourney of the year at Doha, but the question with Tsonga is whether he’s mentally ready to capitalize on his immense talent. Despite dropping a set in his first match, Tsonga seems poised to make a run at least to the quarters where Murray figures to be his likely opponent. He hasn’t fared well against Murray in the past, having lost five of six matches played including the most recent four. However, given Tsonga’s play over the past few months, it would be no surprise to see him in the semis vying with Djokovic for a finals appearance.
Given the depth of the ATP Tour and the fact that the Australian Open seems more conducive to surprise winners than any of the other Grand Slams, it wouldn’t be a total surprise if someone other than those mentioned above emerges as the Champion.

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