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AUSTRALIAN OPEN MEN’S PREVIEW

The first Grand Slam of 2010 is about to get started in Melbourne and with the draw announced we can now start to debate who will be crowned champion in two weeks time. Will it be someone from the usual suspects – a Federer or Nadal perhaps? Or will someone new like Fernando Verdasco or Andy Murray breakthrough and claim their first major? Let’s take a look at who has a strong shot at the title and some of the potential dark-horses as well.

The Favorites:

Every Grand Slam begins by looking at world number one, Roger Federer, and rightly so. Having “only” won the Aussie Open three times, Federer has not had as much success at the start of the year as you might imagine. He is three years removed from his last victory in Melbourne and with the draw he has in 2010 I wouldn’t expect Federer to be the last man standing. In fact, I think this is the Slam where his record of twenty-two straight Grand Slam semi-finals may finally come to an end. It has to at some point, right?

Who is the most likely man to take Federer out? Igor Andreev is hoping it might be him in the opening round, and Andreev is a tricky player who just might be up for to the task. The pair have only met twice before, but Andreev gave Federer a rough-go at the 2008 U.S. Open where he pushed him to five sets before losing 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Andreev is as inconsistent as they come, but has come up big in the past during high-stakes matches as he displayed in ending Rafael Nadal’s streak on clay back in 2005. This is not a guy that Roger wants to face in his opening match.

Federer may also have to face either Marcos Baghdatis or Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round, and potentially Fernando Verdasco or Nikolay Davydenko (who defeated him in Qatar two weeks ago) in the quarter-finals. Sure, Roger is still favored to make it deep in this tournament – but the potential for upset grows stronger each year.

Also in the top-half of the draw is third-seeded Novak Djokovic who has a nice section at this year’s edition. The first seeded player he may face is little-known Jeremy Chardy of France in round three and the only true opposition I can foresee would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals. Tsonga actually leads their career head-to-head by a 4-2 margin, but Djokovic won their last encounter on hard courts easily in 2009.

Djokovic has not chosen to play any ATP tournaments thus far in 2010 which is puzzling. Instead he showed up at the Kooyong Classic exhibition tournament where he beat an aging Tommy Haas and then went down to Verdasco 6-1, 6-2 in an apparently meek effort. To make the start of his season even more troubling, Djokovic then played a friendly match against Australian Bernard Tomic and was beaten 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. These are not your typical Djokovic results but makes one question his off-season preparation.

Despite these early upsets and the fact that Djokovic’s frail physique is not meant for the brutal Aussie heat, he does have a good path in front of him to succeed. A couple of easy wins could boost his confidence and make him tap into the success he had here when he won his first and only Slam in 2008.

Fernando Veradsco is a player to watch and just came off a victory at Kooyong over Tsonga in the finals. Verdasco pushed Nadal to his limits at the Aussie Open in 2009 and came ever so close to defeating him before falling in the fifth set. His problem is that he usually does not trouble the top-fve and lost to all his matches at the season-ending championships in London to Federer, Del Potro and Murray in November.

The bottom-half of the draw contains some serious fire power with Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal all lumped together. Picking one of those four players to make it to the finals is easier said than done – although it will without a doubt come from this talented pack of four. I would be shocked if anyone but these four made it to the quarter-finals in the bottom of the draw. I will be glued to my television for the expected Roddick/Del Potro and Murray/Nadal matches.

Roddick already won his first tournament of 2010 by defeating Radek Stepanek in Brisbane. Looks like he is healthy and should breeze through the early round matches.

Del Potro has broken through the Grand Slam barrier with his win over Federer in New York last year. His confidence should be high, but it remains to be seen if he is prepared to challenge at the Slams on a regular basis. Success can affect people in different ways, so Del Potro will want to start the year off strong so that everyone knows he is for real.

Andy Murray is aware that it’s time to show the world he is capable of winning a major. He set high hopes after making the finals at the U.S. Open in 2008, but his results at the Slams in 2009 left a lot to be desired. The talent is there with Murray, but we’ve yet to see the mental consistency on the big stage.

Finally, defending champion Rafael Nadal must also be mentioned – I mean, he did win the thing a year ago! With no titles in the past nine months and injuries that derailed his season in 2009, it is easy to forget about Nadal’s potential impact on the game in Australia. Due to last year’s circumstances, the pressure will not be very high for Nadal in Melbourne and he is a strong possibility to repeat as champion.

Anticipated First-Round Matches:

Mikhail Youzhny vs Richard Gasquet: These two have only met three times before, and you can ignore the results in that series. Youzhny defeated a sixteen year old Gasquet at this tournament in 2003, Gasquet won on hard-courts in 2005, and then Youzhny won a tight five-setter in 2007 on clay. Youzhny is the 20th seed, while Gasquet should be ranked higher if not for his suspension last year. A coin-toss that I’d give the edge to Gasquet based on recent results and a heck of a first round match to watch.

Marin Cilic vs Fabrice Santoro: Just when you thought the magician had retired he is coaxed back onto the court to become the only player to appear in four decades as a professional tennis player. This will also mark Santoro’s 70th career Grand Slam. The 37 year old has been training hard in order to make this a competitive appearance, but don’t expect him to defeat the 14th seeded Cilic. It will be their first career meeting and I’m sure the veteran will have some tricks up his sleeve that the young Croat has likely never seen before.

Radek Stepanek vs Ivo Karlovic: The 13th seeded Stepanek surely hoped for an easier starting match than big-serving Ivo Karlovic. This match will feature two completely-opposite styles of play and probably not too many lengthy rallies.

Darkhorses:

As I mentioned before, beware of Igor Andreev to give Federer a stern test in the first round. Qualifier Xavier Malisse could push through a few rounds and upset Nicolas Almagro in the opener as well.

Overall though, this does not look like a tournament where someone is going to surprise us and come from nowhere to make headlines. It is a strong field with a small cluster of top quality hard-court players. One of the regulars should be hoisting the trophy when the final Sunday comes around.