Breaking down the Aussie Open draw
The Australian Open has produced many surprises over the years. The fortnight in Melbourne should be just as unpredictable in 2010. Both the men's and women's draws are deep with legitimate championship contenders. Let's dissect the draws:
Men's draw: Top half
A year ago, Roger Federer's run at the Australian Open ended with the Swiss star in tears. Federer was exasperated that he was unable to beat Rafael Nadal again at a Grand Slam. This year, Federer could be all smiles at the end of the tournament as he goes after his first Aussie Open win since 2007. The top seed has a straight-forward path to the quarterfinals.
The draw was kind to Federer, placing Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray in the bottom half. Federer will begin his quest for his 16th major victory against Igor Andreev. The Russian won’t be a gimme win for Federer. The world No. 36 just missed out being a seeded player. In the fourth round, Federer could take on Lleyton Hewitt, whose latest health concern is a back injury.
If the seedings hold, Federer's quarterfinal opponent will be Nikolay Davydenko, who comes to Melbourne with momentum. The No. 6 seed played outstanding tennis in London in capturing the ATP World Tour Finals to wrap up 2009. Davydenko made a smooth transition into the new year with wins over Federer and Nadal to capture the championship in Doha.
Don’t overlook Fernando Verdasco in Davydenko’s section of the draw. Verdasco was brilliant last year in Melbourne Park, losing to Nadal in an epic semifinal encounter that was one of the most memorable matches of last year.
Novak Djokovic broke through to win the Australian Open two years ago, but wilted in the heat of the Australian summer last year in losing to Andy Roddick in the quarters. The No. 3 seed from Serbia doesn’t have many marquee names to contend with in his portion of the draw.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open in 2008, but has not made a splash at a Slam since. Robin Soderling is seeded eighth and is hoping to prove that his stellar season last year was not an aberration.
Men's draw: Bottom half
Nadal is the defending champion, but there are some questions surrounding the former world No. . Nadal appeared thinner in London -- perhaps in an effort to put less pressure on his knees- -- at the season-ending ATP finals. The Spaniard did not win a set that week against the rest of the elite players and has not won a singles title in eight months.
Nadal conceded this month that his confidence has been shaken, saying "I have had a lot of problems in the head." Those are not exactly the words you expect to hear from a six-time Grand Slam champion.
Nadal will open his title defense against Aussie Peter Luczak and then will have to contend with a “murderers row” in the bottom half of the draw.
Murray, who could take on Nadal in the quarterfinals, comes to Melbourne in outstanding condition, having spent the holidays training in Florida and tuning up for the Aussie Open at the Hopman Cup in Perth.
However, Murray's performances at last year's Slams revealed the Scot's troubles with big hitters. He was ousted by Fernando Gonzalez at the French Open in the quarters and was bounced by Marin Cilic in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. He may have to contend with Nadal’s power and precision in the quarterfinals.
Del Potro looms large in the other section of this half of the draw. If he needs any motivation, the reigning U.S. Open champion can think back to how Federer dismantled him last year in the Aussie Open quarters. The Argentine is primed for a deeper run this year, but could see Marin Cilic in what would be a spicy fourth-round match.
While del Potro is dealing with a minor wrist injury, he looks to be on a collision course to meet Roddick in the quarterfinals. Roddick was sharp returning from the knee injury that cut short his season last year, capturing the title in Brisbane to start 2010.
The last man standing in the bottom half of the draw will have earned his trip to the finals.
Women’s draw: Top half
Top-seeded Serena Williams is still the player to beat if she can avoid an emotional meltdown like she endured at last year's U.S. Open. She is beginning two years of Grand Slam probation and her actions between the lines will be scrutinized.
Serena typically thrives under pressure and may use the demands that she maintain her composure on the court as added motivation in Australia. Sabine Lisicki could be a player to watch in Williams’ section of the draw. The German’s big serve makes her a tougher competitor than most players with a No. 21 seeding.
Seventh-seeded Victoria Azarenka is a potential quarterfinal opponent for Serena. Azarenka beat her last year in Miami, but was unable to translate that victory into a breakout performance at the Slams a year ago.
The defending champion won’t be able to meet her sister in the singles final because Venus Williams was placed in the top half of the women’s draw. Venus is seeded sixth in a section that includes Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieska Radwanska.
It would not be a surprise if Venus uses her championship experience to survive and advance through this portion of the draw to take on Serena in the semifinals. Wozniacki revealed her tenacity in reaching the championship match of the U.S. Open last year, but it will be difficult to knock Venus out of contention Down Under.
Women’s draw: Bottom half
This half of the draw is loaded with star power. Second-seeded Dinara Safina is hoping that her nerves don’t get the best of her once again on a Grand Slam stage. The Russian is also battling physical issues as she returns from a back injury.
Safina’s road to a second consecutive final could include a fourth-round match against Maria Sharapova, who first must beat Maria Kirilenko in an intriguing first-round match. The last time we saw Sharapova in a major she committed 20 double faults in her loss to Melanie Oudin at the U.S. Open.
Third-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova landed in a section of the draw that includes a pair of Belgians on the comeback trail. Kim Clijsters is playing in the Australian Open for the first time since 2007. It's hard to imagine a more lethal No. 15 seed than Clijsters, who started the year by taking the title in Brisbane. Kuznetsova and Clijsters could meet in an outstanding fourth-round match.
Justin Henin is back as well and is the ultimate “dangerous floater” in the draw as an unseeded player. The former world No. 1 showed no rust after her 20-month layoff, making a run to the singles final in her comeback event.
Fifth-seeded Elena Dementieva had to cringe when she learned that she might have to take on Henin in the second round. This year even the early-round matches in the women's draw will be must-see TV.