- Richard Pagliaro, Tennis.com
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With the Australian Open just a hop, skip and a jump away, here are five men's storylines to watch:
Can anyone derail defending champion Novak Djokovic?
He opened 2011 winning seven consecutive titles, residing in the rare air of a perfect 41-0 start. Novak Djokovic figures to be fueled by high-octane confidence as he launches his flight toward a fourth consecutive major championship. If you're concerned about his lack of recent match play, remember Djokovic did not play a grass-court match before winning Wimbledon for the first time last July and was commanding in dismissing Roger Federer and David Ferrer to win the Abu Dhabi exo. Producing an improbable run last season infuses Djokovic with the feeling that nothing is impossible this season.
"My success gives me a reason to believe that I can win again. Why not?" Djokovic said. "It doesn't make any sense to be anything other than optimistic." The top seed has won the Australian Open in two of his last four appearances Down Under, he's elevated his level of play in majors and if he can avoid a turbulent take off at the start of the event, Djokovic is a strong favorite to play on the final weekend in Melbourne.
Will new coach Ivan Lendl help Andy Murray win a major?
If these two stubborn personalities can combine their substantial strengths, Murray can win multiple majors. Eight-time Grand Slam champion Lendl lost his first four major finals, and if he can coax the sometime cranky counterpuncher to assert himself offensively rather than bob and weave at crunch time, hit his forehand with greater ambition and play with purpose and positive emotion instead of punching his racket face and railing at himself and his box for real or imagined injuries, the fourth-ranked Scot has the skills to end Britain's Slam drought.
Can Roger Federer carry his fall rise into Melbourne?
He's two years removed from his last major at the 2010 Australian Open, and he hasn't beaten Rafael Nadal in a major since the 2007 Wimbledon. He's also lost four of his past five matches to Djokovic and conceded just the second injury withdrawal of his career in Doha last week because of back spasms, so why is 30-year-old Roger Federer still a threat Down Under?
Federer has been a finalist in four of his past six appearances in Melbourne; he soared to a 17-match winning streak sweeping three consecutive titles to close the 2011 season and looks to be both fit and eager at the start of this Olympic year. Federer's autumn surge came indoors, where his attacking game is suited to the faster surface. Oz offers a slower surface (even if the roof is closed for matches), but Federer still possesses the most potent serve of the top four. If he's serving well and actively moving forward in the court, he will be a threat. His first-week approach will be interesting: Federer has talked about applying his all-court acumen by playing more attacking tennis but needs to practice it in the first week against lesser-ranked opponents if he's serious about effectively employing his net game at the money-end stages of majors.
How will offseason changes play out in Melbourne?
Aiming to add more sting to his serve, Rafael Nadal has added about three grams of weight to his Babolat AeroPro Drive racket, making it more head heavy. Tweaking weight and balance may help Nadal in the long run, though getting his toss out in front of him more and getting more of his body weight behind the ball, as he did when he served so well winning the 2010 U.S. Open, may well be more important factors to increasing power on serve.
Stanislas Wawrinka and Australian Bernard Tomic are both making more substantial equipment changes having switched from Head rackets to the more rectangular-shaped Yonex sticks. The change comes a year after Caroline Wozniacki switched from Babolat to Yonex. Djokovic changed from Wilson to Head prior to the start of the 2009 season and experienced early struggles before producing the best year of his career with Head in 2011, illustrating the fact even the best players sometimes need time to adjust to new equipment.
Who are the dark horses outside the top 10?
Because it begins weeks into the New Year, the Australian Open has seen its share of surprise champions (Petr Korda and Thomas Johannson) and first-time major finalists (Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez, Rainer Schuettler and Arnaud Clement) in recent years.
Our non top-10 dark horse picks include:
(11) Juan Martin del Potro: In the 2009 Melbourne quarters, Federer flogged a disinterested Del Po, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 in a thrashing that was a turning point in the Argentine's career. Del Potro is one of the year players who can impose his game off both serve and return and is not intimidated by the top four.
(18) Richard Gasquet: If he can assert his all-court skills, the 25-year-old Frenchman owns the game for a second-week run and made his ambition clear by announcing his intent to return to the top 10 this season.
(25) Milos Raonic: Pounding his wrecking ball serve, the powerful Canadian cracked 35 aces in the final to win his second career title in Chennai. Raonic is the first man to win an ATP title without surrendering serve since Federer at the 2008 Halle and will be downright oppressive in Melbourne if he's landing his devastating serve.
How can Andy Murray finally end his Slam-less existence? Hmmm. A no-nonsense coach with a winning pedigree, perhaps?