Commentary

Djokovic on a path to three-peat

Updated: January 11, 2013, 1:21 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

With Rafael Nadal still absent from the men's tour, the question come draw time at majors is: Which half will Andy Murray land in?

To the delight of Novak Djokovic on Friday, it wasn't his at the Australian Open.

Roger Federer will have to deal with Murray in the semifinals -- if they get that far -- with Juan Martin del Potro also in a stacked bottom half in Melbourne.

Here's how the draw shapes up:

First quarter: Comfy for Novak

The only way Djokovic, the two-time defending champion, won't reach the quarterfinals is if he gets hurt signing too many autographs. Like that ever happens.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Greg Wood/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic, on the precipice of defeat in last year's Australian Open final, found a way to fight back and beat Rafael Nadal.
That's not to say the world No. 1 will crush journeyman Paul-Henri Mathieu in a 90-minute first-round cakewalk. The veteran, who is back from an injury, is much better than that. And in the second round, Djokovic could meet American Ryan Harrison, who is never one to be intimidated against the elite and coming off an uplifting week in Sydney.

But Djokovic last failed to advance to the third round at a major in 2008, when a former No. 1 (Marat Safin) sent him packing at Wimbledon.

Sam Querrey, the highest seeded American man thanks to the absence of John Isner, upset Djokovic at the Paris Masters in October. Thus, if they battle in the fourth round, there's bound to be some intrigue. Yet Djokovic wasn't fully focused in Paris because of an illness to his father. How else to explain blowing a 6-0, 2-0 lead?

The bottom half of a quarter filled with talented players who have mostly disappointed in their careers (Stanislas Wawrinka, Fernando Verdasco, Jurgen Melzer and Radek Stepanek) belongs to Tomas Berdych. Kevin Anderson is the Czech's only serious obstacle prior to the quarterfinals.

Prediction: Djokovic def. Berdych

Second quarter: Spaniards lead the way

David Ferrer is a humble guy. Maybe too humble.

Discussing his 2013 goals recently in the Middle East, Ferrer set the bar a little low when he said he merely wanted to stay in the top 10.

David, it's time to start thinking bigger, especially after your 2012 season. We know it's tough, but getting to a first Grand Slam final should be the target instead.

OK, so it won't happen in Melbourne with Djokovic in his half, yet Ferrer is on course for a fifth consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal. But given Marcos Baghdatis, a former Australian Open finalist, is a crowd favorite in Melbourne and usually makes things interesting against top seeds at majors, his potential clash with Ferrer would be the highlight of the third round. Rackets beware.

Nicolas Almagro, Ferrer's fellow Spaniard, doesn't lack consistency in Melbourne, reaching the fourth round the previous three years. Here's his opportunity to achieve a first Grand Slam quarterfinal away from clay and soften the blow of losing the deciding match in the Davis Cup final to Stepanek.

If Jerzy Janowicz, who broke through at the Paris Masters, progresses to the third round and a potential match against Almagro, he should be pleased: This isn't indoors or the best of three sets. Give the Pole time.

Two of the juiciest first-round matches stem from the second quarter -- Janko Tipsarevic versus Lleyton Hewitt, which should be a prime-time showcase, and Grigor Dimitrov versus Julien Benneteau.

As for Kei Nishikori, his health (again) is a question mark.

Prediction: Ferrer def. Almagro

Third quarter: Murray and Delpo collide

A different type of pressure now confronts Murray.

Having won his first Grand Slam title in New York, can he back it up? If he does and makes it two straight at majors, he'll be the top player on the tour, no matter what the rankings would suggest.

He'll have to be sharp from the outset, because free-swinging, big-serving Robin Haase is up first. The Dutchman won the first of their two meetings and led Murray by two sets at the U.S. Open in 2011 before Murray upped his game and Haase wilted. Plus, the last time Murray lost his Grand Slam opener was in Melbourne in 2008.

Not so encouraging for Haase is Murray's recent record in Melbourne -- two finals and a semifinal in his past three visits.

Murray's toughest challenger ahead of a possible blockbuster in the quarterfinals (del Potro) would be Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth round. He is a former Australian Open quarterfinalist. But there's no guarantee Dolgopolov will get to that stage. He plays Gael Monfils in the first round.

With back-to-back titles, two wins over Federer and an appearance in the year-end championships semifinals, del Potro had a productive fall. He's healthy -- and his confidence is back.

Prediction: del Potro def. Murray

Fourth quarter: Jokers in the pack for Roger

The semifinal streak for Federer is alive and well -- at the Australian Open. Every year since 2004 the Swiss has found himself in the final four, going on to win the event four times.

His path to the semis this year won't be easy.

Federer's first foe, and potentially his ensuing two, would have to be classified as dangerous players capable of winning a set -- or even more -- against the Swiss. Federer begins with Benoit Paire, a brooding Frenchman with a massive game. A resurgent Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Klizan (or Bernard Tomic) might follow in the second and third rounds, respectively.

Mind you Federer could coast through his first three rounds in under two hours, considering Paire, Davydenko, Klizan and Tomic are all mentally suspect.

The locals will be expecting Tomic to get to Federer in the third round after his positive week in Sydney. Last year, it wasn't quite a passing-of-the-torch moment in Melbourne, as Federer surrendered a mere eight games to the controversial 20-year-old in the fourth round.

If they live up to their seedings, Milos Raonic and Federer will tangle in the fourth round. Raonic is predictable. Bring on the tiebreakers.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga already has plenty of fans, but in Australia, his partnership with coach Roger Rasheed will get him a few more. Tsonga or French compatriot Richard Gasquet, who bettered Davydenko in the final in Doha, Qatar, figure to play Federer in the quarters.

Prediction: Federer def. Tsonga

Semis: Djokovic def. Ferrer; del Potro def. Federer

Winner: Djokovic

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.