With less than a week to go before the party starts in Melbourne, here are five questions to consider about the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.
1. Who is the ATP front-runner these days?
After last season produced four different Grand Slam winners for the first time since OutKast's Hey Ya topped the Billboard charts -- that would be 2003 -- the process of identifying an overwhelming favorite going into a major has gotten murky. Is it Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 and defending champion, who has won three of his five Slams in Melbourne? What about four-time champion Roger Federer, who has made the semifinals or better at the Happy Slam every year since 2004? He's coming into the tournament well-rested after a solid training block. What about the guy who won the last Slam, U.S. Open champion Andy Murray, a two-time Australian Open finalist who came within a few points of beating Djokovic in last year's semifinals?
There are strong arguments to be made for each man. Djokovic, though, gets the nod given his recent performances. I know Abu Dhabi and Perth were both exhibitions, but Djokovic looked much sharper than Murray did in winning the Brisbane title. With Rafael Nadal's absence creating more potential for an imbalanced draw, the fortunes of the top three could hinge on Friday's draw ceremony.
Which leads me to the next question.
2. Will the draw break for Roger Federer?
As the No. 2 seed, Federer can't meet Djokovic until the final. Federer has lost his last two matches against the Serb at the Australian Open (both semifinal clashes), but the bigger question to me is whether Federer will be able to get there at all. As great as Federer still is, he no longer can tear through a major-tournament field without batting an eye at the draw. Now, his chances of adding to his Slam collection -- surely that NetJet still has some room -- fluctuate depending on which combination of top players land in his half.
The best-case scenario for Federer is that he avoids Murray, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. These four players have defeated Federer at majors (and elsewhere) and know they can beat him. The way the draw works -- here's a good primer -- three of the four could end up in Djokovic's half. If that happens, Federer will be in much better position to contend for his 18th major title.
3. Can anyone beat Serena Williams?
There comes a point in any great champion's run when you begin to wonder when the other shoe will drop. This happened when Djokovic won 43 consecutive matches in 2011 and when Victoria Azarenka ripped off 26 victories in a row to start last season. Now that internal negotiation of two contradictory concepts -- the expectation of winning vs. the knowledge that it can't go on forever -- turns to Williams.
Serena extended her winning streak to 16 matches with last week's title in Brisbane, a stretch during which she has lost one set. She has won 52 of 54 matches dating to last April, with the only losses coming to Angelique Kerber in Cincinnati and Virginie Razzano in the French Open. That 52-2 run has featured eight titles, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, an Olympic gold medal and the season-ending WTA Championships. Williams didn't face a top-20 player last week in Brisbane, where a much-anticipated semifinal against Victoria Azarenka never materialized because of Azarenka's withdrawal. Nevertheless, Williams' domination put to rest any questions about whether the offseason would slow her momentum.
There are no sure things in sports -- that's why they play the game and insert other cliché here -- but the 31-year-old Williams is as close to a sure thing as they come right now. The best bet for an upset could be in the first week. If Williams comes out flat and runs up against a lower-ranked player who's zoning that day, she could be in major trouble.
4. How far will Rafael Nadal slip in the rankings?
In missing the Australian Open and being unable to defend his finalist points from last year, the fourth-ranked Nadal is guaranteed to fall out of the top four for the first time since May 2005. Fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, ranked fifth since August 2011, is best positioned to replace him at No. 4. But Nadal could slip as low as seventh depending on the Melbourne performances of No. 6 Berdych and No. 7 Del Potro.
Why does it matter? Because the more Nadal falls in the rankings while he's not competing, the more difficult his draws become when he returns. Assuming he comes back on schedule at the end of February, Nadal's opportunities to improve his ranking before the French Open essentially will be at Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami. (He nearly ran the table during the European clay-court season last year, which means he has very few points to gain this year.) And even then, we're not talking about the potential for a huge rankings surge, given that Acapulco is an ATP
250 500 and that Nadal is defending semifinal points at both U.S. hard-court events.
5. Will the American women outperform the men?
In the last few years, the men dominated the discussion about American tennis heading into Australia. Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and John Isner led the charge, with Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison, and Donald Young in the spotlight as well. This year, however, the men might have to take a backseat, as the Williams sisters and a crew of young American women look primed to make headlines in Melbourne. Serena and Venus, of course, are a known quantity in Slam play, but the real story is the next wave. Sloane Stephens made the Brisbane quarterfinals, where she held her own in a loss to Serena, and the 19-year-old is continuing to cruise this week in Hobart with back-to-back straight-set victories against top-50 players Laura Robson and Simona Halep. Jamie Hampton, who turned 23 on Tuesday, had a career-best result in advancing to the Auckland semifinals last week; she challenged No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in that match, serving for the first set (Hampton would lose in a tiebreaker) and winning five consecutive games in the second set after trailing 0-4 (Hampton would lose in another tiebreaker). And this week, 17-year-old Madison Keys has won five matches in Sydney (including three to qualify) to reach her first WTA quarterfinal, and 19-year-old Lauren Davis knocked out second-seeded Sorana Cirstea in Hobart to make her first WTA quarterfinal. With all four youngsters in the main draw of the Australian Open, this could be a breakout Slam for the next generation of American women.