As Rod Laver Arena looms, we open our preview series on the first major of 2011 with an analysis of the leading ATP contenders and their challengers.  Glancing down the rankings, we found that separating the pyramid into its levels stirred our imagination—and hopefully yours as well.

The champions’ club:  The top two still tower above the field, setting a Kilimanjaro-like standard for their challengers.

Nadal:

Causes for confidence:  Seizing the final jewel in the sport’s Grand crown, the Spaniard unveiled a vastly augmented serve at the US Open that could prove just as vital in Melbourne.  After a spectacular 2008 campaign, Rafa extended his momentum through the offseason into the only Australian Open title of his career so far.  This precedent suggests that the 2009 Melbourne trophy might soon find a companion on a crowded shelf in Mallorca.  While many players would suffer a lull in motivation after an achievement as splendid as a career Slam, Nadal’s unparalleled work ethic has shielded him against such lapses.  Most dangerous when most confident, he will shoulder less pressure than during his title defense here a year ago, having firmly establishing his dominance over the sport in 2010.  Although Murray, Davydenko, and even Melzer have found ways to hit through the Spaniard’s defense on hard courts, the best-of-five format will render an already daunting task even more challenging.  Few opponents can consistently hammer their targets with precision against Nadal through three grinding sets.

Causes for concern:   In the fall tournaments, Rafa’s serve fell perceptibly below the heights that it had achieved in New York.  One therefore wonders whether he can regain that level in the new season or whether the fates smiled fleetingly on him during that memorable fortnight; Lukas Lacko broke him five times in the second round of Doha.  Enjoying only a short Christmas vacation amidst exhibitions and sponsor activities, Nadal may not arrive in Melbourne with optimal freshness.  No man has won four consecutive majors since Rod Laver, moreover, and the magnitude of the occasion may sink into the Spaniard as he approaches a “Rafa Slam.”  Or it may not.

Federer:

Causes for confidence:  Recapturing the Melbourne trophy from his archrival in 2010, Federer enjoyed a magnificent fortnight that culminated with a thoroughly dominant victory over Murray.  In regal form at the year-end championships, he scored not only a morale-boosting triumph over Nadal in the final but reassuringly commanding wins over Murray and Djokovic.  Reinvigorated by the guidance of coach Paul Annacone, the Swiss star integrated more aggressive tactics into his arsenal.  Central among these was a more penetrating backhand, which may complicate the strategy of his opponents.  Formerly content to defend on his weaker wing, Federer now can assert himself more often in backhand-to-backhand rallies.  He may gain impetus from the mission of reversing last year’s disappointments at the majors, a goal that could fill the motivational void left by all of the records that he has shattered.  Like Nadal, the 16-time Slam champion profits from the best-of-five format, where a listless set here or a slovenly service game there won’t cost him as dearly.

Causes for concern:  Despite the London final, Federer hasn’t defeated Nadal at a major since Wimbledon 2007, a season when he fell a single victory short of the coveted calendar Slam.  If they clash in the final here again, the ghosts of Melbourne 2009 could tiptoe into the older man’s mind.  Perhaps more concerning is his recent struggle to convert match points, most notably in the US Open semifinal against Djokovic.  And one shouldn’t forget that the anonymous Falla came within three points of toppling Federer in his Wimbledon opener, or that he nearly entered fifth sets against players like Andreev and Bozoljac.  Long impeccable in early rounds, the Swiss master doesn’t always soar above the pedestrian multitudes quite as effortlessly as he once did.

Knocking on the door:  The crown princes of the ATP could snatch the crown themselves, but only if they perform at their highest level.

Djokovic:

Causes for confidence:  Basking in the glow of his nation’s first Davis Cup title, Djokovic ended 2010 much more promisingly than he began it.  An encouraging second half included an eye-opening charge to a second US Open final and crisp, focused performances through most of the fall.  Arriving in Perth just before the Hopman Cup began, the Serb has enjoyed an entertaining, undemanding week at an event that mirrors his ebullient personality.  The only former champion in the draw outside Federer and Nadal, Djokovic dispatched the Swiss star in straight sets en route to his single Slam title in 2008.  He seemed to have rediscovered his service rhythm and, more importantly, his motivation during that fortnight in New York.  Notoriously frail under pressure or in a hostile environment, Djokovic could thrive in the relatively benign atmosphere at the Australian Open.  The medium-speed surface suits the Serb’s symmetrical groundstrokes, perhaps the most fluid, balanced baseline arsenal among the ATP elite when at their best.

Causes for concern:  Djokovic played more matches than any other player last year and endured the shortest off-season, although he did not play December exhibitions like Federer and Nadal.  Challenging the Spaniard for substantial stretches of their US Open final, he never has defeated Rafa at a major and thus would need to overcome a psychological burden should they collide.  More generally, his multitude of mysterious ailments can surface at the least opportune moments, such as his last two Melbourne campaigns.  When his self-belief falters, so can his stomach.

Murray:

Causes for confidence:  Claiming to prefer the US Open above the other majors, the Scot eventually may garner most success on the less swift courts in Melbourne, friendlier to his counterpunching style.  During his finals run at last year’s Australian Open, he defused powerful servers with seamless movement and intelligent point construction.  On outdoor hard courts, Murray has won his last two meetings with both Nadal and Federer.  His intense focus and crafty tactics allow him to psychologically compete with the Spaniard perhaps better than any other opponent, while his underestimated first serve proved a key advantage in his two previous Slam victories over Rafa.  Never meeting Djokovic in 2010, he began to reverse the Serb’s early dominance of their rivalry with two victories over him in Masters 1000 finals during 2008-09.  The Hopman Cup offers him a stress-free, informal environment that could help him enter Melbourne refreshed; it appeared to aid his preparation last year.

Causes for concern:  Still seeking that elusive Grand Slam prize for an impatient nation, Murray will feel ever-increasing pressure as his drought continues.  Despite his successes against the top two last year, he fell to both of them at the year-end championships in London.  Failing to win a set against Federer in either of their Slam finals, moreover, he will face a massive mental challenge if they meet here.  Beyond his chronic negativity, Murray struggles to maximize the offensive potential of his forehand, which lags well behind the dominant wings of the top three.  Not for a long time has a player successfully counterpunched a path through a non-clay major.

Waiting in the hallIf somebody slips, they’ll rush to take advantage, but they need to not only perform at their best but have external circumstances (like the draw) to fall in their favor.

Soderling:

Causes for confidence:  The Swede concluded 2010 auspiciously with his debut Masters 1000 title at the Paris Indoors.  Ever a volatile personality, he may feel less pressure in the more relaxed atmosphere of the Australian Open.  In six of the seven majors since his 2009 breakthrough, Soderling has lost only to Federer or Nadal; he thus stands to profit more than anyone from an untimely misstep by either of them.  The relatively high bounce in Melbourne should facilitate his preference for flat swings and even hitting downwards on his groundstrokes at times, while the slower court might mask his often ungainly lateral movement.  Over the last two seasons, the ball-devouring Swede has reached more Slam finals than any player outside the top two, although both of those finals came at Roland Garros.  Nothing and nobody intimidates him, as the two #1s of the last two years discovered most painfully.

Causes for concern:  Without the career-changing guidance of Magnus Norman, Soderling must adjust his volatile personality to new coach Claudio Pistolesi.  Despite his triumph over Federer on clay, he surrendered that momentum in those rivalries with three straightforward losses to the Swiss over the rest of 2010.  Meanwhile, Nadal reasserted himself against the Swede with victories at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.  Soderling has won just two matches in five appearances at the Australian Open, including a second-round implosion against Baghdatis in 2009 and an opening-round loss last year in which he squandered a two-set lead against Marcel Granollers.

Berdych:

Causes for confidence:  Snapping Federer’s streak of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals, the Czech scored two dramatic triumphs over the then-#1 last year and nearly a third at the Rogers Cup.  Charging within a set of the Roland Garros final, he hustled Murray off the court on what both players would consider their least favorite surface.  At the 2009 Australian Open, he won the first two sets from Federer before fading; three second-week appearances there over the last four years demonstrate relative consistency by his standards.  In 2010, Berdych defeated every member of the top five except Nadal at either a major or a Masters 1000 tournament.  Similar in strengths and flaws to Soderling, the tall Czech will benefit from the same characteristics of the surface discussed in the Swede’s profile.

Causes for concern:  Don’t count on Berdych to muster much resistance against Nadal, who has won a staggering 21 consecutive sets against him.  During most of the second half, the Czech returned to his familiar head-scratching self as he attempted to adjust to his elevated status.  Consequently, it remains unclear whether we witnessed a career year (or career summer) in 2010 or whether he can build upon the achievements of last season.  After those two memorable first-half encounters, Federer recorded a dramatic comeback against Berdych at the Rogers Cup that may have restored his confidence against the Czech.

Watching through the window:  Miracles can happen, and nowhere more often than in Melbourne.

Roddick:

Causes for confidence:  If the 2003 US Open champion begins this year as promisingly as he did the last, he might vault into contention at a major where he has dropped two semifinals to Federer.  The second straight Andy to fall just one victory short of the prestigious Indian Wells-Miami sweep, Roddick once seemed on the verge of a memorable season that might extend his magic from the previous Wimbledon.  A mild bout of mononucleosis played a central role in his demoralizing second half, and he has fully recovered after a productive off-season.  Defeating Nadal once and nearly twice during 2010, Roddick also scored another victory over Djokovic before succumbing to the Serb in London.

Causes for concern:  Beyond that infamous 2-20 record against Federer (0-8 at majors), the American lost the tiebreak excellence that often has comprised the margin between victory and defeat for him; he has won just seven of twenty tiebreaks since his Miami title.  Still one of the best servers in tennis, he collects fewer free points from his delivery than he once did.  And the startlingly assertive backhand that nearly undid Federer at Wimbledon 2009 seems to have vanished, like most of the tactical innovations with which Roddick has experimented.  Outside his serve, little in his game intimidates.

Verdasco:

Causes for confidence:  Few Australian Open aficionados can have forgotten the spectacular pas de deux executed by Fernando and Rafa in their 2009 semifinal.  Yet that five-hour collision merely culminated the finest fortnight of Verdasco’s career, during which he outlasted Murray and outslugged Tsonga.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, he delivered a memorable if uneven performance in an epic comeback against Ferrer.  Outside the top two, Verdasco has scored recent victories over all of the major rivals who could confront him in Melbourne, although some of those successes occurred on clay.

Causes for concern:  Like Roddick, he endured a generally arid second half after an encouraging first half; unlike Roddick, he lacked the excuse of injury or illness, although one must attribute some culpability to a cumbersome clay schedule that sapped his energy.  Moreover, he never has defeated either Federer or Nadal, streaks that seem unlikely to end at a major.  Since that Melbourne breakthrough eight majors ago, Verdasco has defeated no top-10 players at a Slam while falling to second-tier figures like Fognini, Almagro, and Karlovic.

Tsonga:

Causes for confidence:  Electrifying and frustrating by turns, the acrobatic French star has scored his most notable victories at the Australian Open, where he has reached a final and a semifinal over the past three seasons.  Nadal fans will shudder to recall the ruthless barrage with which Tsonga overwhelmed Rafa in 2008, while the stomachs of Djokovic’s fans will churn when they reflect upon the five-set quarterfinal that he contested with Tsonga in 2010.  Hampered once again by injury last year, the Frenchman nevertheless lunged and leapt into the Wimbledon quarterfinals and had ample opportunities there against Murray.  Few players share his combination of thunderous power and athletic agility, as devastating to opponents as it is draining upon his body.

Causes for concern:  Ever lurking to ambush his career, injuries have prevented Tsonga from establishing momentum and consistency; his ferociously physical style has exacted a heavy price.  Often less focused than the leading contenders, he will drift through games at a time in an absent-minded, lethargic state and doesn’t always deliver his best tennis when it matters most.  His enthusiastic embrace of risk and spectacle almost surely will fail to carry him past seven contrasting opponents in a best-of-five format, which rewards players more physically and mentally durable than Tsonga.

Davydenko:

Causes for confidence:  The relentless Russian joined Murray as the only player to conquer Federer and Nadal on consecutive days in 2010, saving a match point before defeating the Spaniard in the Doha final.   In the Australian Open quarterfinal, he dominated Federer through a set and a half with viciously angled groundstrokes that kept the eventual champion off balance.  If he can maintain that level throughout an entire fortnight, Davydenko can control rallies against any opponent with his early ball-striking and uncanny timing.   When he captured the 2009 year-end championships, he demonstrated that he could overcome several challenging opponents consecutively, ousting Nadal, Soderling, Federer, and the then-formidable Del Potro.  An auspicious week in Doha will have infused him with much-needed momentum after an Indian Wells wrist injury crippled most of his 2010 campaign.

Causes for concern:  A charmingly self-deprecating but occasionally fatalistic character, Davydenko still lacks self-belief against Federer despite two recent victories over the Swiss.  Much less steady on serve than the others in this list, Davydenko also can spray groundstrokes wildly when his timing slips by even a fraction.  Relying upon a mechanical, precisely engineered style, he lacks alternatives when his familiar weapons misfire.  Moreover, few Slam champions have earned their first major as late in their career as the Russian, who has yet to reach a final at the Big Four and could meet a leading contender as early as the third round.

***

We return first with a Sydney preview and then with a preview of the WTA contenders in Melbourne, which will not unfold into such a neatly ordered hierarchy.  Expect fewer and larger categories in the sequel, although we have not yet completely plotted our strategy.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Hopman Cup - Day 4

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