Thursday January 12th, 2012

Rafael Nadal has been bothered by a left shoulder injury, but claims it's now at full strength. (Paul Crock/Getty Images)

The Australian Open begins Monday in Melbourne. Here’s a look at 10 of the top men and their prospects at the first Grand Slam tournament of 2012. Click here for the women's breakdown.

Novak Djokovic (Current ranking: 1): Can Djokovic maintain his 2011 level this season? That's the question hanging over the Australian Open and it's one that the Serb hasn't given us much opportunity to gauge. He played no warm-up tournaments in Australia, electing only to participate in the Abu Dhabi exhibition in December. Even though he won that title -- beating Gael Monfils, Roger Federer and David Ferrer along the way -- we can't place much stock in an exhibition result. But having seen a glimpse of Djokovic's practice sessions here in Melbourne, I can say that he looks to be relaxed, in good spirits and extremely fit. He was crushing cross-court backhands in practice and doing full sprints topped off with his patented hard-court slide without any hesitation. My sense is that his chances of winning will have more to do with his opponents' ability to raise their game rather than a drop in his.

Rafael Nadal (2): Djokovic, shoulders and rackets, oh my! Nadal admits he hasn't had the preparation he would have liked during his very short offseason after taking time to rehab a sore shoulder. He says the shoulder is in "perfect condition," but we'll need to see some proof. But aside from not having the time to train and work on his game, I can't help but wonder if he's had enough time to rest his mind and rediscover the passion that he said he lost at the end of last season. Add in the drubbing he received from Roger Federer at the World Tour Finals in November and my question is this: If the draw is unfriendly, does Rafa have enough in the tank physically, emotionally and mentally to beat both Federer and Djokovic on the way to the title?

Roger Federer (3): Federer practically rewrote the script on his 2011 with a strong finish, earning consecutive titles in Basel, Paris and London and reclaiming his No. 3 ranking from Andy Murray. But the fact remains that he's won only one of the last eight Grand Slam events, though that lone victory was in Australia in 2010. After withdrawing from Doha with a back injury, Federer said he believed he'd be fine for Melbourne. He's been practicing as usual this week, but stay tuned for how his back holds up should he make the second week.

Andy Murray (4): Could this be the one? Murray is probably as sick of hearing that question as I am of asking it. So I'll ask a different question: Can new coach Ivan Lendl change Murray's often-negative demeanor and give him the confidence he needs to finally break through and bag a major title? While the Scot had his best year at the Slams in 2011, making a final and three semifinals, his play in those ranged from horrible to forgettable. He was blasted off Rod Laver Arena in straight sets by Djokovic and barely made a dent against Nadal in three semifinals, tugging at his shorts, screaming at his box and berating himself, all while going down in flames. He's done it in front of his mother, his girlfriend and his best friend. But does he dare do any of that in front of a man he respects as a coach and champion? We'll soon find out.

David Ferrer (5): The likable Spaniard scored some big wins at the World Tour Finals and then followed up with a hero's performance against Juan Martin del Potro in the Davis Cup final. But the major question mark is whether Ferrer has the firepower and fortitude to win a major title, or if he's destined to have an Elena Dementieva-like career: always in the mix but felled by a serve that (while by no means as toothless as Dementieva's) simply doesn't give him a big enough edge to hold easily. Ferrer had a career-best semifinal appearance in Melbourne last year, but he'll need the draw to break in his favor to replicate that result. If the workmanlike Ferrer is able to make a deep run in the second week, who knows? You simply can't rule him out as a surprise winner here.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (6): Tsonga burst onto the stage in Melbourne four years ago, shocking Nadal in the semifinals before ultimately losing to Djokovic in the final. He's still one of the few players in the world who I feel has the match on his racket against anyone, including Nadal and Federer (it's a closer call against Djokovic 2.0). He's started the year well with a title in Doha, and the courts here reward his dynamic power and athleticism. Let's get Tsonga scheduled for some night matches on Rod Laver Arena and see him get the crowd rocking. That's when he's at his best.

Tomas Berdych (7): Big power and a head that doesn't seem to know how to harness it when the pressure mounts. That's been the book on Berdych throughout his career. The Czech has reliably found ways to botch a key volley or forehand when facing opportunities to surge ahead or close a match. Though his ability to control a match from start to finish has steadily improved over the last two years, he hasn't shed that shaky reputation. Is 2012 the year when Tomas Berdych finally believes he not only can be one of the top five players in the world, but that he should be?

Mardy Fish (8): Through most of 2011, Fish didn't have the air of a guy who thought he belonged in the top 10, even if his results kept proving otherwise. He never seemed comfortable as the top American, and while the enthusiasm and appreciation he showed at the World Tour Finals were endearing, the result was ultimately unsatisfying as the 30-year-old failed to win a match in London. Perhaps Americans are just used to the innate swagger that recent top players like Andy Roddick and Serena Williams have had for so long. Perhaps Fish's humility just doesn't fit the mold of a top-10 guy. We're not suggesting that Fish start exuding an air of cockiness or entitlement, but it's about time to begin acting like you've been here before, Mardy. You've earned that right.

Janko Tipsarevic (9): If you would have told me 365 days ago that Janko Tipsarevic would go into the Australian Open as a top-10 player, I would have asked for your brand of choice for Serbian moonshine and picked up a bottle. But the No. 2 Serb had a career year in 2011 and he's backed it up so far, making the final in Chennai before losing to Milos Raonic in a three-tiebreak match. I wouldn't be surprised if he pulls off a big upset. Juan Martin del Potro (11): The tennis landscape is simply more interesting when Del Potro is in the mix, hitting forehands with that primal level of power. He's healthy, he's hungry and if he can make the second week, he's got as good a chance as anyone to take the title.

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