This tournament, though, shapes as one of the most intriguing for many years, such was the dramatic shift on the men’s side of the sport that occurred in 2011. When Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer arrived, they were still the top dogs, the men most likely. It was in Melbourne, however, that Novak Djokovic collected his first of three majors last year en route to displacing Nadal as world No 1.
According to British Eurosport pundit Greg Rusedski, the 2012 Australian Open will make for fascinating viewing as the three heavyweights – four if you include Andy Murray, whose pursuit of a first Grand Slam title continues – compete to make the early running.
“It’s intriguing because you’ve got so many storylines. It makes for a fascinating start to the season and could really set the tone for the rest of the year,” Rusedski says. “Djokovic is the new force who emerged in 2011; Federer is 30, but finished last season well; Nadal will be desperate to rebound after losing the No 1 ranking; and Andy Murray is still looking to break through for his first major.”
For Rusedski, the Canadian-born Brit who reached a career-high world ranking of No 4 back in 1997, Djokovic deserves to start favourite after his dominant year but will encounter a new kind of pressure that accompanies being the front-runner.
“I think, on paper, it’s Djokovic, Murray and Federer in that top group, with Nadal just a little bit out of it because he’s carrying some injuries,” Rusedski says.
“It’ll be very interesting. With Djokovic, everyone wants to know if he can repeat that remarkable year. He’s the favourite and the man to beat, but the big challenge will come in the latter stages of the tournament when he’s now expected to win. He’s dealt with the pressure at big tournaments before, but he’s never successfully defended a Grand Slam title.”
Of the other two men in Rusedski’s “top group”, Federer, at 30, is the oldest, but his 16 career majors and, perhaps more importantly, his impressive finish to an otherwise difficult 2011, convince Rusedski that the Swiss is well and truly in the hunt at a tournament he has won four times before.
“I wouldn’t write Federer off in a million years but I think the challenge for him is psychological and a little bit physical,” Rusedski says. ”He really struggles against Nadal but he’s fit and feeling healthy and Rafa’s not totally fit, then I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s there at the end.
“I think there’s still at least one major in Federer but if it’s not this year then it’s only going to get harder. But don’t write him off. He’s motivated by the Olympics and also to get back to No 1, because he’s one week short of Pete Sampras’s all-time record for most weeks spent in the top spot.”
And then there’s the great British hope, Andy Murray, poor old Andy Murray, who, in the hope of breaking his drought, has appointed former world No 1 Ivan Lendl as his new coach. Had he been born in a different age, Murray could plausibly have a swag of majors under his belt by the age of 24. Instead, he remains one of the best players not to have won a Grand Slam.
“Murray doesn’t want to keep that tag but it’s tough against those top three guys,” Rusedski says. “If you’re going to win a major, you’re probably going to have to beat two of them back-to-back.
“Lendl lost four Grand Slam finals before he finally won the French Open in 1984, so he knows what Murray’s going through and, psychologically, he should be able to get through to Murray and help him win. That’s why he’s been hired.”
Of course, Grand Slams produce upsets and Rusedski concedes there are players outside the top four capable of surprising. In particular, he nominates Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a finalist in Melbourne four years ago, and big-serving Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, who won the US Open in 2009 and has now recovered from a wrist injury that kept him out of the sport for almost a year.
“Tsonga is an exciting guy who always plays well Down Under,“ Rusedski says. “And Del Potro, if he can stay healthy, I think can really challenge those top players. He really has that firepower to be able to hit through guys.”
For the locals, 19-year-old Bernard Tomic appears poised to usurp Lleyton Hewitt as Australia’s lone hope in the men’s draw. Hewitt, who turns 31 next month, has watched his ranking slump to 186, and must surely be reaching the end of a career in which he wrung the absolute maximum from himself, often besting more talented, more athletic opponents through sheer force of will. Tomic, meanwhile, is the world’s highest-ranked teenager and impressed en route to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2011. At 193cm, Tomic has the frame to monster most opponents but his game relies more on finesse than one might expect. It is a combination, Rusedski says, that may take a little time to bear fruit.
“He puts the ball in awkward positions and he’s got a very unusual game. He reminds me a little bit of Miroslav Mecir, with his change of pace and that variety from the back of the court,” Rusedski says. “He’s different to Hewitt, who was as tough as nails and was mentally ready from about the age of 16. Tomic, I don’t think is ready yet. I think he’s another two years away from really being able to push against the top guys, but maybe if he plays well in Melbourne he can make it through to the fourth round.”