Australian Open contenders: 5-1

The 2013 Australian Open is a mere two weeks away. In the days leading up to the season’s first Grand Slam, the Grandstand has counted down the Top 25 contenders in five different parts. Part five features contenders 1-5.

5. David Ferrer – At some point, Ferrer is going to slow down. It’s just going to happen. But at 30 years old (turning 31 in April), there is no reason to think 2013 will be the culprit. Ferrer enjoyed the best season of his career in 2012, compiling a ridiculous 76-15 record that included his biggest-ever title at the Paris Masters. He followed that up by decimating Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych in Davis Cup, so his confidence must be sky-high.

The Australian Open may not be on clay, but a relatively slow, high-bouncing hard court is the next best option. Ferrer has reached at least the quarterfinals three times, all in his last five appearances. Now that Rafael Nadal has withdrawn, a second semifinal for the Spaniard is likely.
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4. Juan Martin Del Potro – Now two full seasons removed from his lost 2010, it’s time for Del Potro to get back to the game’s pinnacle—where he peaked at the 2009 U.S. Open. The Argentine went 48-18 in 2011 and 65-17 in 2012; two years does not a trend make, but it’s pretty clear that Del Potro is once again on the upswing. He ended last season by winning two of his last four tournaments, the last of which was marked by a solid semifinal showing at the World Tour Finals.

This will really be the first time that Del Potro is 100 percent for an Australian Open since his Flushing Meadows triumph. With a perfect surface for him under his feat, there are no limits. Just to clarify, Ferrer has a better chance of reaching the semis because his No. 4 seed makes him less susceptible to a bad draw, but Del Potro is the only one of the two who could somehow go all the way.

Del Potro after a win in Cincinnati
Del Potro after a win in Cincinnati

3. Roger Federer – Wimbledon and the U.S. Open have always been Federer’s two best slams, and that is not going to change in the latter stages of his career. A slower surface is not conducive (relatively speaking) to his game, which will have to be in top shape in order for Federer to slug out long, baseline rallies with guys like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Speaking of his form, it was solid but unspectacular late in 2012. The second-ranked Swiss lost in the quarters of the U.S. Open, the semis of Shanghai, and in the finals of both Basel and London. A month’s worth of an “offseason” will help, but it does not benefit Federer like it does other top players. Contrary to what Federer says, he is always fresh; he is always 100 percent. For mere mortals, on the other hand, the offseason is necessary to regain that same percentile. An 18th Grand Slam title is well within the realm of possibility, but it’s not a likelihood.

Federer with his 2012 Aussie winnings
Federer with his 2012 Aussie winnings

2. Andy Murray – Murray is 17-3 in the last the Australian Open installments. That’s a runner-up, another runner-up, and a semifinal. He actually improved in Melbourne last season, because instead of getting humiliated in a final he lost to Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-7(4), 6-1, 7-5 in an absolute epic. Moreover, the Murray who was previously on display was a Murray who knew he was not going to win the title. With a major triumph finally under his belt, this new Murray is a Murray who knows he can be the last man left standing on the second Sunday.

Murray
Murray in action at the 2012 Aussie Open

In addition to his U.S. Open victory, the third-ranked Scot also captured gold in London and made it to the final at the All-England Club. Murray suffered a minor letdown during the fall swing, but that is forgivable in the aftermath of several life-changing moments. Count on the Murray of last summer on display for the Australian summer.

1. Novak Djokovic – Everything about the Australian Open sets up perfectly for Djokovic. For one, it’s on a surface that suits his game and is not ideal for any other top contender. He doesn’t have to deal with clay-court specialists, Federer doesn’t love it, and Murray would like it to be just a tad faster. The one man for whom the surface should work wonders (Del Potro) has never done anything Down Under to inspire much confidence. Secondly, Djokovic ended 2012 on fire (among his performance were titles in Shanghai and at the World Tour Finals).

Lastly, the world No. 1 appears to be the next Andre Agassi of Melbourne Park. He has won it twice in succession and three out of the last five times. The Serb hasn’t lost prior to the quarterfinals since 2007 and he hasn’t bowed out prior to the fourth round since 2006. All he did last season was outlast Murray in five sets, recover in one day, then survive Nadal in the longest match in the history of the tournament. How can Djokovic be stopped at this event? That’s a question that probably won’t be answered anytime soon.
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