Thursday January 12th, 2012

Andy Murray has reached the finals in two consecutive Australian Opens, but still has not won a major title. (Julian Smith/EPA)

The Australian Open is just around the corner, and the usual names are topping many lists as the favorites. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer (pending that back injury) are on the short list for the men, while Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova are popular picks on the women’s side.

But there are 128 players in both the men's and women's fields, so surely there has to be some other contenders, right? New York Times tennis blogger Ben Rothenberg joins The Toss today to debate the non-Big Three players, men and women, most likely to contend for titles in Melbourne.

Today’s Toss: Which players not named Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Williams, Kvitova and Clijsters are most likely to win the Australian Open?

Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me for this Toss from Down Under, Ben. All the focus heading into the Australian Open has been on the Notorious B.I.G. Three of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, and deservedly so. While questions float about Nadal's shoulder, Federer's back and Djokovic's form, they've more than earned the right to be designated the odds-on favorites after winning 26 of the last 27 Grand Slam titles between them.

So those three will get their fair share of ink over the coming days. But what about everyone else? Who outside the Big Three has the best chance to win? The names that immediately come to mind are Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But if I had to back one man, it would be Del Potro. The jury is still out on whether Murray's offseason moves (he hired Ivan Lendl as new coach) will yield immediate results, and I'm a little concerned with Tsonga's heavy January workload, playing Abu Dhabi, Doha and Kooyong right out of the gate. But both men did win tune-ups (Murray in Brisbane and Tsonga in Doha), so they warrant proper attention.

That said, I'm backing Del Potro as the not-so-dark-horse candidate. He seemed to put everything together at the end of last season, and even though he lost both matches in the Davis Cup final against Spain, he showed prolonged flashes of that powerful forehand that we hadn't seen since before he injured his wrist. Though his offseason was short, the big Argentine finally looks healthy and was powerful and quick in his first win of the season in Sydney this week.

This season should see the return to prominence for Del Potro, who is ranked 11th. He's one of the few players (perhaps the only player) who can blast his way through the Big Three and doesn't need them to have an off day to win. Give him a good draw that lets him get a few easy matches to build his confidence, and Del Potro could Beast Mode his way through the second week.

Nguyen & Sesno: Can Del Potro crack the top four?

How about you, Ben? You never fail to surprise me with your picks. So surprise me.

Ben Rothenberg: Thank you for your hospitality in inviting me back here, Courtney.

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It's hardly a surprise, sadly, but my pick outside the top three is No. 4, Andy Murray. The guy owned the fall. He reeled off titles in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai, before hurting his leg and pulling out of the World Tour Finals in London. That had to be something of a thorn under the kilt (or whatever expression for annoyance Scots actually use). And he opened 2012 with that title in Brisbane.

People may doubt his closing ability at the business end of a Slam, but he is by far the safest bet outside the top three to actually make it to said business end of a Slam. The guy is riding streaks of four major semifinal appearances and two Australian Open final showings (losses to Djokovic and Federer). And with the way Del Potro went out to Gilles Simon in the third round at the U.S. Open, I don't trust him to make a deep run. Murray does all he can -- gives himself opportunity after opportunity to win a Grand Slam title. Eventually he HAS to win a Slam at some point. Law of averages.

But I'd love to be wrong and have someone like a Del Potro, Tsonga or Milos Raonic (who was never broken during his title run in Chennai) break through. Or maybe a Gael Monfils, Tomas Berdych or even a Bernard Tomic can get his head on straight and play a weekend of transcendent, opportunistic, Schiavonian tennis. The last four years have been all about this Big Three and their selfish dominance, and while it's undoubtedly been impressive, I am very ready for some fresh meat.

So, Courtney, what about the women? Anyone you see winning out of the WTA's virtual top three of Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Kim Clijsters?

Nguyen: Mark this as the day Ben Rothenberg played it safe. And here I was expecting you to tap Alejandro Falla as your guy.

You're absolutely right in declaring Kvitova, Clijsters and Williams as the WTA's virtual top three. They may be ranked Nos. 2, 12 and 13, respectively, but they're the players we expect to be in the late rounds and who, at their best, seem virtually unbeatable.

Outside of those three, my pick is the actual No. 3, Victoria Azarenka. There are simply too many questions surrounding Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki. And while I think Sam Stosur will have her best run at the Australian Open this year (she's never made it past the round of 16), I don't see her getting deep into the second week.

Azarenka finished 2011 strong, with a title in Luxembourg and a quality final appearance at the WTA Championships, where she was overpowered in three sets by Kvitova. But perhaps most impressive about Azarenka's 2011 was her ability to finally break through to make her first major semifinal, at Wimbledon (where she again was overpowered by Kvitova in three sets). She's maturing and less prone to emotional outbursts and letdowns. She seems to have a calm about her that serves her well when she falls behind in matches. If she can stay on her feet in Melbourne (her propensity to suffer injury or illness at the most inopportune times is downright scary), I like her chances.

And if I may throw in a backup pick, I am loving what I'm seeing from Li Na in Australia so far. On Thursday, she came back from a set and a break down to beat Kvitova in Sydney, showing the steely grit and maturity that helped her reach her first major final in Melbourne last year. She's fit, she's moving well and she's striking the ball as cleanly as she was at the start of last year.

Is it a coincidence that Azarenka and Li will face each other in Friday's final in Sydney? I don't think so. One of them will go into the Australian Open undefeated for 2012. I'll back the one who does.

Rothenberg: Nah, I would never pick Alejandro Falla to win this tournament. I do, however, think he's something of a lock to make the semifinals ...

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As for the ladies, it could go so many different ways. The 2011 Grand Slam events showed us that none of these women are unbeatable (Arantxa Rus and Alexandra Dulgheru, anyone?), so I think the possibility of an outside juggernaut is decidedly more plausible on this side.

I like your Li pick. I saw all of her matches at the Hopman Cup in Perth, and she rounded into form incredibly well. I'm not sure what happened when she went back to China after Wimbledon, but she seems to have used her offseason training in Munich to rediscover the self-belief and confidence she had before that trip home and the subsequent slump to close out the year. After reaching the Aussie semifinals in 2010 (loss to Williams) and finals last year (loss to Clijsters), a 2012 title seems to be a logical next step.

I also think Agnieszka Radwanska could do big things with the right draw.  She seems to have finally found the owner's manual to the amazingly complex contraption that is her shot arsenal, and she's finally beating big names with the varied game tennis nerds have loved for so long.  She's never made the semifinal of a major, but with back-to-back titles in Tokyo and Beijing last fall, she's a player I can have an inordinate amount of faith should she make it deep into the second week.

As for a real sleeper pick, why not Sabine Lisicki? As her win over a still-hot Li at Wimbledon showed, she has the game to beat the best at their best. And though her health is always a huge question mark, she's a proven winner on a huge variety of surfaces and is a player no one wants to face.  Even Serena (possibly facetiously, as you can never be sure with Serena) said she was scared by Lisicki's powerful serve.

Final thought: It says a lot about the lack of confidence her serve inspires that neither of us even mentioned three-time major champion and current No. 4 Maria Sharapova. You decide: Vote in our polls and sound off in the comments with your pick for biggest non-Big Three contenders.

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