While probably the least heralded of the four Grand Slams; the Australian Open has a considerable claim to being the best of the bunch. Were it not for the majority of play generally occurring during the middle of the night in Britain then this tournament would surely be receiving a great deal more credit. Even with this caveat, an unfeasibly large number of the best matches of the 21st century have taken place in night-time slot – the slot coinciding with those in the United Kingdom arriving at their desks for a morning of discreetly following along online.
So, why is it the best? Most importantly, the tournament produces a greater quantity of high quality matches, from start to finish, than any other Grand Slam. Additionally, the meteorological issues which plague the other three majors are absent – apart from the occasional excessive heat warning, rather an insignificant problem to have. And finally, it has the best crowd of any of the Grand Slams– an audience there to enjoy the tennis and support the players fairly and passionately; free from the sorry disrespect frequently in evidence at Roland Garros, the snobbery occasionally prevalent at Wimbledon, and the ignorant catcalling of Flushing Meadows.
Recent evidence of Melbourne’s superiority? The 2012 Australian Open latter stages surely matched any Grand Slam in the history of the game: Rafa Nadal took down Roger Federer (again) in a mini-classic in the first semi-final; Novak Djokovic then outlasted Andy Murray over five hours and five sets in the second semi before –almost incomprehensibly, in one of the greatest athletic feats of all-time – returning to defeat Nadal in an epic six hour final less than two days later.
2012 was another incredible year for men’s tennis (comfortably the highest quality sport on the planet right now), but the combined standard of play and drama probably never equalled that which was on show Down Under in January.
So to 2013 and a tennis landscape which has shifted dramatically at the summit of the game. Nadal is out injured, has been since Wimbledon, with no definite return date. Murray is now a Grand Slam champion, and in possession of dramatically increased confidence and a transformed forehand. Federer is on the wane, capable of fleeting brilliance but lacking consistency. Only Djokovic is recognisable from 12 months ago – remaining a frightening warrior, world number 1 and deserved favourite to win his fourth Australian Open.
Interestingly, Murray has a chance in Australia to accomplish something that has never been previously achieved in the Open Era (1968 – present). No player has ever won their second Grand Slam immediately after winning their first. Indeed, of the 49 first time Grand Slam winners in the Open Era, only Federer, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas and Ilie Nastase managed to win their second Major at the second attempt. (Thanks to the Sporting Intelligence website for that wonderful little nugget).
The other element of interest in this year’s draw is the potential rise of young contenders, Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. All have weaknesses in their games, but the appearance of a real challenger to the top 4 is long overdue. Australian, but by no estimation the home favourite, Tomic has a penchant for throwing the towel in too easily and Dimitrov is flashy, if erratic – but both young men have started the year exceptionally and could go well. Raonic has a monstrous serve but struggles with his movement. Could Tomic possibly end Federer’s remarkable streak of reaching every Grand Slam quarter final since Wimbledon 2004.
The draw has set up the tournament immaculately with big matches potentially on schedule from early on in the first week: Lleyton Hewitt vs. Janko Tipsarevic (R1), Tomic v Federer (R3) and David Ferrer vs. Marcos Baghdatis (R3) to name but three. Here’s to another January of attempting to balance overnight tennis and work the next day – something I’ve never managed with any great success before.
Djokovic bt. Berdych (Djokovic in 3); Ferrer bt. Dimitrov (Ferrer in 5); Murray bt. Del Potro (Murray in 4); Tomic bt. Gasquet (Tomic in 4).
Djokovic bt. Ferrer (Djokovic in 3); Murray bt. Tomic (Murray in 4).
Murray bt. Djokovic (Murray in 5).
It is hard to look beyond a Murray Djokovic final. The pick here is for Murray to take him down in 5 sets again, gaining a measure of revenge over Djokovic for heartbreaking defeats in 2011 and 2012. Should this occur, a rivalry to match any of the greatest in history will be officially, inarguably born.
The majority of the draw should progress according to seeding with Ferrer’s quarter unquestionably the most open. However, if Ferrer can survive Baghdatis in the third round, one would still expect him to reach the semi-finals.
Once there, Ferrer would face Djokovic, a nightmare matchup for the little Spaniard – and one which he has no hope of winning. In fact, it is difficult to see any significant challenge to Djokovic before the final.
The only outlandish selection here is for Tomic to go deep into the second week. But if not now, then possibly never for Tomic. I think he raises his game in front of a raucous home crowd and snaps Federer’s remarkable quarter-final record –just a hunch, plenty evidence to the contrary – and takes down Raonic and Richard Gasquet before eventually falling at Murray’s hands.