Who will be last man standing?
Players who beat Andy Murray at the Australian have a habit of doing really well. So Ryan Harrison can dream.
The young American from Shreveport, La., has drawn the No. 4 seed in the first round of the year’s first Grand Slam which begins on Monday at Melbourne Park. As he has proved while rising to No. 84 in the world after his first full year on the ATP tour, Harrison has the guns to worry top players. But Murray, with new coach Ivan Lendl in his corner, will present a huge hurdle for him.
However, should he manage to pull off a major shock, he will be following Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fernando Verdasco, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as the players who have overcome the talented Scot in Melbourne over the past four years. Tsonga went on to reach the final; Verdasco reached the semifinal and played one of the greatest matches ever seen here, losing to Rafael Nadal in five sets, while Federer and Djokovic both beat Murray in the final.
Obviously, Murray is desperate to prove himself this year, having lost in all three Slam finals in which he has played, the US Open and two in Australia. Many believe he has turned to the right man in Lendl, a tough, no-nonsense character who refused to be cowed by the fact that he actually lost in his first four Slam finals before going on to win eight through his career.
Harrison, a serious student of the game, will not need to be told that he will have to utilize his powerful serve to its maximum if he is to have any chance at all. And he must believe. Funnier things have happened.
There can be no repeat of last year’s final because Murray has Djokovic in his half of the draw, so if they progress they will meet in the semis. The Serb has arrived in Melbourne earlier than usual and, having won an exhibition in Qatar two weeks ago, seems to be in good shape. “I feel good,” Djokovic said. “I have played no small ATP tournaments coming in this year and have been here long enough to get in some good practice.”
Not that practice sessions have been particularly easy; the temperamental Melbourne weather has been in a foul mood this week, hurling down hail one moment and dripping with rain the next. The temperatures have been chilly but, once the wind swings away from the South Pole, they are set to rise.
Slowly, we will begin to discover the answers to the questions tennis fans have been asking themselves these past few weeks.
Can Djokovic even begin to repeat the first six months he enjoyed last year when only Federer beat him (at Roland Garros) before he stunned Nadal for the fifth time in five finals and won Wimbledon. Djokovic then did it again, of course, at the US Open and completed one of the most successful years any player has ever enjoyed on the world circuit. The odds are heavily against him being able to produce a repeat.
The next big question centers on Federer. He finished 2011 in a blaze of glory, winning titles in Basel and Paris and at the ATP Finals in London. Hitting with all his sweet precision, he looked like the Federer of old. But can he do it over five sets? There are those who doubt that he can.
Nadal is another question mark. He was mentally scarred by losing to Djokovic so often last year – especially those clay court defeats in Madrid and Rome – and does not seem to be quite the same player. A shoulder problem hasn’t helped but the proud Spaniard is defiant. “My shoulder is fine – no problem,” he says. Having admitted he was losing a little of his passion for the game in London, he now insists the thrill of returning home to win the Davis Cup for Spain has re-ignited his fire.
Both Nadal and Federer have drawn qualifiers in the first round and, unusually for two players who occupied the top two seeding positions at Slams for so long, they have been drawn in the same half. This may herald a semifinal meeting.
Apart from Harrison, the Americans have had reasonably good fortune with the draw. Mardy Fish will open against the experienced Luxembourg lefthander Gilles Muller and should run into Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round, which will be no picnic, but a fit Fish – which he wasn’t in London – should be able to give a good account of himself against the giant Argentine, who will be hoping for an improvement in recent form.
Andy Roddick, whose new hairstyle will not, hopefully, detract from his play, meets the talented but as yet unfulfilled Dutchman Robin Haase and then could find himself facing local favorite Lleyton Hewitt.
More worrisome, perhaps, is powerful, young Canadian Milos Raonic, who won the ATP title in Chennai last week and who could loom in Andy’s path, with Djokovic probably lying in wait in the fourth round.
John Isner, who has not made a great start to the year, will be hoping he gets as far as the fourth round and a chance to test his serve against Nadal.
Given all those question marks, predicting a winner is especially difficult this year. Djokovic must start as the favorite, with Federer and Nadal his greatest challengers. The third time could prove lucky for Murray if Lendl can instill that sliver of extra belief and, of the outsiders, both Tsonga and Tomas Berdych loom large – and not just physically. It is hard to see anyone outside that sextet playing the final winning note, but del Potro cannot be counted out completely. And we tend to forget him, but No. 5 seed David Ferrer will be yapping at everyone’s heels as usual.
One thing is certain, under the roof or under the sun and the stars, we will get some great tennis in Melbourne in the next two weeks.