And Away We Go 

By Jane Voigt

Joe Nardini Jr., a rising junior tennis talent, has joined Down The Tee as a guest contributor. He is 15 years old, ranked No. 20 in the Mid-Atlantic for 16 & Unders, and 94 for all freshman in the United States. He loves the game and has been playing tennis since he was 10. 

January 11, 2014 -- The drought is over. It's time for The Happy Slam, most commonly recognized as The Australian Open. Let's everybody please stand up and cheer!!

The first major of the year features sun so bright it glares, warm to hot temperatures and giddy tennis-crazy fans. They paint their faces, wear fuzzy wigs the color of tennis balls, and yell 'Aussie Aussie Aussie' until cameras broadcast the fervor around the world. It doesn't matter that we've seen these folks year after year, either. Their enthusiasm and love of our sport makes us smile nonetheless. 

There's plenty to be excited about, as we await Monday, the official start of the 2014 Australian Open. Of course, it all begins with the draws. 

Men's Singles -- Although we know deep down that anyone can burst onto the scene and throw a wrench in the draw, there's no other way to say it -- this men's draw is lopsided. Way lopsided. 

Novak Djokovic -- seeded No. 2 -- might as well pack a beach bag and hang out for a week with his finance Jelena Ristic while the rest of the field struggles to make it past the third round. He is a combined '51-10 against the top 10 players in his half of the draw,' SI.com reported.

"I think Djokovic has a pretty easy road to the final," Nardini added. "The only people that could possibly threaten him are Tomas Berdych and Stanislaus Wawrinka." 

Berdych is seeded No. 7 and Wawrinka No. 8. 

One of the top three matches of 2013 was the one between Wawrinka and Djokovic in Melbourne. Up to the last second, no one could predict a winner until Djokovic advanced 12-10 in the fifth set. These two replicated their efforts again at the U. S. Open where Djokovic won again.

In fact, Djokovic has never been beaten by Wawrinka, Berdych, or Richard Gasquet, looming as a possible 3rd round opponent, on an outdoor hard court. David Ferrer, seeded third, could stretch Djokovic to his limits with sheer determination and fighting spirit, but the Spaniard does not have the weapons to derail him. 

On the outskirts of reality are those players that could potentially topple Djokovic before his dream materializes. The chances are slim, very slim, given Djokovic's record here, and his momentum coming into Australia. He has not lost a match since the U. S. Open.

Vasek Pospisil, the No. 28 seed, has everything in his court bag to upset the Serb, though. Last year, the 23-year-old Canadian, experienced his break-out year. He rose some 100 spots in the ATP World rankings. At Rogers Cup in August, Canada's national tournament, he faced countryman Milos Raonic in the final. It was the first time in the history of Rogers Cup that two Canadians played for their country's most prestigious title. In Basel, Pospisil thwarted Roger Federer in the semifinal. The home-town favorite was up a set and a break when Pospisil mounted a fierce comeback before Federer pulled off the win in the third. 

Whatever the perspective on Djokovic's breezy draw, our guest contributor Nardini said to be on the look out for these match ups in the bottom half: Jerzy Janowicz, seeded No. 20, and Mikhail Youzhny, seeded No. 14, in the fourth round. Our man Pospisil and Wawrinka in the 3rd round. Plus Gasquet and Tommy Robredo and Ernests Gulbis and Fabio Fognini in the third. 

Now for the top half, a web of clashes. 

Lazing about are Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, and Raonic, the No. 11 seed with a lightening-fast serve that could threaten anyone's concentration and strength of mind. 

Nadal as the No. 2 seed "has many threats," suggested Nardini. He opens against Bernard Tomic. The match-up resonants are a tough first-round encounter especially since the cantankerous Aussie has said he's ready to work and has the means to flatten even the mightiest of foes. His early results for the year are good, too. He flew through the draw in Sydney this week to face Juan Martin del Potro in the final. But that's when the youngster's good fortune came to a halt. Del Potro dismissed Tomic in less than a hour to secure his 18th tour title, 63 61. Such will be Bernard's fate against Nadal.

Gael Monfils, No. 25, will be Nadal's first test in the third round. The athletic Frenchman lost to Nadal two weeks ago in the Doha final, but the match went three sets. Monfils withdrew from Auckland the following week due to exhaustion, but his play in Qatar signaled a willingness to step up. He played more aggressively, shortening points and serving well. 

Nardini suggested the Raonic match against Grigor Dimitrov would be a good one, too. The winner will have the honor of playing Del Potro who will most likely face Nadal in the quarterfinals.

Other early-round battles of note, according to Nardini, are Gilles Simon and Marin Cilic in the 2nd round. Three third-round matches will be fun: Pospisil and Wawrinka; Gasquet and Robredo; and Ernests Gulbis and Fabio Fognini. In the fourth round look for Jerzey Jankowicz and Mikhail Youzhny to entertain. 

Yet, in all probability, Djokovic will play Rafael Nadal for the title. Murray is still on the comeback after back surgery this fall. He should face Federer in the quarterfinal, but the No. 6 seed would first have to defend ground against Tsonga. 

"In the past," Nardini began, "Federer has relied too much on his natural talent and abilities to carry him through matches. That isn't working well now that he is older." 

Therefore if Novak can keep his emotions intact, presenting himself as too big to fail -- taking on Boris Becker's, his new coach, aura -- he will walk away with his fourth consecutive and fifth overall Australian title. 

Women's Singles -- Say it loud and clear: Serena Williams. The American No. 1 seed will be looking for her 18th Grand Slam to equal those of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. 

"If Serena looks hungry and healthy in the early rounds, nobody except [Victoria] Azarenka has even a small chance to stop her," Nardini conjectured. 

He, along with the large percentage of tennis pundits, agree … Serena is the one. 

However, darkness lurks on the top half even though No. 7 seed Sara Errani is the highest in her section; and, Serena thumped the Italian 60 61 in the French Open semifinal last year on a surface Williams admits is her worst. 

Li Na and Sabine Lisicki are potential semifinal opponents for Williams. Li was the 2013 Australian Open finalist and Lisicki upset Williams in the fourth round of Wimbledon last year. Lefties Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber have their chance to trip up Serena, too. However, as Nardini said, the early round results from Williams will foretell the final outcome.


© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013