2012 Australian Open preview: Djokovic and Kvitova lead charge

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With the Australian cricket team securing a series win against an underperforming Indian side, the nation’s attention turns from the green grass of the pitch to the blue plexicushion of Melbourne Park as the Australian Open gets underway today.

Tennis is a strange sporting beast in Australia. It receives blanket media coverage for the final fortnight of January when the best players in the world hit our shores, yet come February it disappears from view and out of the public consciousness.

That is – of course – unless an Australian player secures some silverware in one of the other three Grand Slam events, when our interest will pique once more.

In recent years men’s tennis has been dominated by the same quartet of players and, barring injury, this trend looks set to continue at this year’s Open.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are a cut above the rest, with only two other players making it to a Grand Slam semi-final last year.

Novak Djokovic took all before him in 2011, winning three of the four Grand Slam titles and amassing ten titles in all. Towards the end of last year it seemed as though Djokovic began to feel the effects of the biggest year of his career, and his form tapered off late in the season.

I expect Djokovic to come out fit and firing in Melbourne and to win the Australian Open men’s title for the third time in his career.

Rafael Nadal had a disappointing year by his lofty standards in 2011, yet still finished as the number two player in the world. Nadal was eclipsed by Djokovic throughout 2011, and appeared to have no answer to the Serbian’s all court game.

A winner at the Australian Open in 2009, it remains to be seen whether Nadal’s physical style of play is beginning to take its toll on his still-young body, or if the Spaniard can continue to amass major titles for some time yet.

The once all-conquering Roger Federer has dropped to world number three, and last year was the first since 2002 that he did not win a Grand Slam title.

Despite no longer being at the peak of his powers, Federer’s ability to go deep into the second week of majors suggests he will add to his sixteen Grand Slam titles at some point. At thirty years of age though, time is against Federer, and I feel Wimbledon may be the more likely stage for any future Grand Slam glory.

Andy Murray has a claim to being the best tennis player in history not to have won a Grand Slam trophy. Murray made the semi-finals or better of all four Grand Slams last year, but has not been able to trump the might of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic thus far in his career when it has mattered most. I expect Murray to again fall one step short of the big prize at this year’s Open.

Our hopes lie with Bernard Tomic, who was impressive in winning the Kooyong Classic in the lead-up to the Open. Tomic faces Fernando Verdasco in a tough first round encounter, but if he can get through, he faces the tantalising prospect of a match against Roger Federer in the fourth round.

While the top four have a stranglehold on the top end of tennis in the men’s game, the women’s side of the draw looks far more open.

Caroline Wozniacki finished 2011 as the top ranked woman for the second year in succession, but is yet to win a Grand Slam title. At present, Wozniacki’s game lacks the big weapon to take out a major title, but at 21 she has time on her side to challenge for Grand Slam silverware for many more years.

Petra Kvitova was a relative unknown when she knocked out Australian Samantha Stosur in last year’s Australian Open, but comes to Melbourne this year as the second ranked women’s player in the world. Kvitova has an excellent serve and a powerful game, and is my tip to take out the women’s title.

Victoria Azarenka is the third ranked woman in the world, and like Wozniacki is yet to secure her maiden Grand Slam title. Famous for her elongated shriek as she strikes the ball, the Belarusian Banshee has excellent form leading into the Australian Open, and with her aggressive ground strokes and never-say-die attitude, Azarenka may be a dark horse in the women’s draw.

Samantha Stosur has the pressure of a nation on her athletic shoulders after winning the US Open last year. Her lead-in form has been patchy at best and the expectations that come with being a Grand Slam champion seem to be weighing her down. I just can’t see her taking out the title this year.

Defending women’s champion Kim Clijsters missed the second half of 2011 with injury, but will surely go deep into the second week as the crowd favourite attempts to defend her title.

Serena Williams sits outside the top ten players in the world and in the twilight of her career she is focusing all of her energy on adding to her thirteen Grand Slam titles including her five Australian Open crowns. Williams had an injury-riddled 2011 but will have the other players looking over their shoulders if she makes it through to the second week of the tournament.

Li Na was almost the story of last year’s Australian Open when she lost to Clijsters in the final and in the process became the first Chinese player to make the singles final of a Grand Slam. Li is sure to attract significant support following strong showings here in the past two years, and may yet go one better than she did at last year’s tournament.

Tips: Novak Djokovic to defeat Rafael Nadal in the men’s final, and Petra Kvitova to defeat Li Na in the women’s final.

You can follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelFilosi

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