The Australian Open draw is out, and the tennis gods have spoken. Unless I'm mistaken, what they've said is: "Not so fast, Andy Murray. You're going to need Ivan Lendl -- and a whole lot more -- in order to get to the final for a third year in a row and finally win this thing."
Murray has the toughest first-round match of the top four seeds, unless Pete Sampras has been practicing under cover of night using a different name, and made it through qualifying. The other members of the big four (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer) all get to play qualifiers in the first round in Melbourne, while Murray drew bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, assertive and sincere Ryan Harrison.
But wait. If Murray gets by Harrison, he may face unpredictable shot-maker Xavier Malisse, followed by Michael Llodra or Ernests Gulbis. Llodra is a wild man with a huge serve and a fearless attacking game. If Llodra gets by Gulbis, a talented head case, you know he's playing well enough to threaten anyone. So if Murray says that he's not looking beyond his first round, that he's taking it one match at a time, blah-blah-blah, take his word for it. He's no dummy.
The Murray-Harrison match is right up at the top of my list of must-see first-round confrontations. But if I were an Australian, I probably would sub that one out with local favorite Bernard Tomic versus Fernando Verdasco. Seeded No. 22, Verdasco has a big game (he's been in the top 10) but an unstable temperament.
Tomic is just 19, but a few days ago, John McEnroe said he was the best young prospect in the men's game. However, Australians of recent vintage have struggled to play up to their potential at home. Even Lleyton Hewitt, a guy on the short list of all-time competitors and a Wimbledon champ, couldn't close the deal in Melbourne.
Andy Roddick, seeded No. 15 and struggling to remain relevant, also has his work cut out. He opens against Robin Haase of the Netherlands, a tall, powerful, talented ball striker who hasn't lived up to his potential. Haase, 24, lost to Roddick in four sets in the third round of the Australian Open last year, but Roddick was No. 8 then, and now he's No. 16 and 29 years old. It's the kind of match that could do wonders for Haase and has to make Roddick a little anxious.
On the women's side, No. 2 seed Petra Kvitova opens against No. 84 Vera Dushevina. It's not the toughest match imaginable for Kvitova, but it bears watching because of the way she collapsed while leading Li Na in the semis at Sydney the other day -- with the world No. 1 ranking there for Kvitova's taking.
Granted, Li is a Grand Slam champion and an unpredictable factor, but you have to wonder whether Kvitova really is ready to unseat Caroline Wozniacki at the top of the WTA. It will be interesting to see how Kvitova responds to the pressure at a major after making a hash of it in Sydney.
No. 6 seed and U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur is another of those Aussies who has crumbled under the pressure of playing at Melbourne Park. She's the U.S. Open champ and a French Open runner-up, but she's been as far as the fourth round at the Australian Open just twice in 11 tries (most recently in 2010, when she lost to Serena Williams). Stosur plays Sorana Cirstea of Romania, who's No. 80 -- with nothing to lose.
Then there's Williams, a deceptive No. 12 seed, going up against Tamira Paszek, a 21-year-old Austrian who put up a few eye-opening wins last year. Paszek prevailed over Francesca Schiavone in a third-round match at Wimbledon (11-9 in the third set, no less) and upset former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in Beijing later in 2011. Serena will need to pay attention.
It's a pity that we've flagged the two best American players (Roddick and Serena Williams) of the past decade as endangered in the first round of the first Grand Slam of 2012. Call it a sign of the times, and if you're an American partisan, keep your fingers crossed for Ryan Harrison.