Aus Open preview
Our man Down Under, Tim Clement, offers his in-depth preview and predictions for the Australian Open
By Tim Clement - Twitter: @SkyTimClement
Last Updated: 11/01/14 12:45pm
The 2014 season begins in earnest at Melbourne Park with the game's top trio expected to consolidate their command of the game.
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray each head into the event with strong cases to be made for lifting the trophy, while it would be a significant upset for any other player to prevail.
Djokovic is Sky Bet's odds-on favourite having won the event four times, including that last three instalments, Nadal holds the number one spot and the most recent major title and Murray is Wimbledon champion and serial finalist here.
The trio cleaned up not only all three Grand Slams in 2013 but also all nine Masters events - making it very difficult to look elsewhere Down Under.
Question marks do, however, surround Murray as he returns from back surgery and heads into the event with just two competitive and three exhibition matches under his belt.
Juan Martin del Potro and Roger Federer might catch the eye of some at double-figure odds but were very inconsistent last year, while David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych offered little to suggest it could be their event.
A variation of hard court called Plexicushion has been use at all courts and Melbourne Park and the Australian warm-up events since 2008, offering a more predictable a lower bounce than the old Rebound Ace. There have been contrasting reviews of how the courts are playing, with Nadal suggesting they are playing quicker while Murray insists they are exactly the same as last year.
Having personally made the difficult adaption from British winter to Australian summer I can confirm it is indeed somewhat warm. Indeed, Australia has just endured their hottest year on record and the heat shows no sign of easing up for the fortnight of action at Melbourne Park. Although night play makes the conditions significantly more bearable for those favourably scheduled, temperatures are forecast to reach close to 40c in the first week.
Djokovic completed a hat-trick of titles in a four-set triumph over Murray, with the first two sets shared before the Serb prevailed in four. Having exorcised so many demons with his US Open win, Murray displayed a clinical edge in saving five break points before taking the first but failed to cease the initiative, a mistake the reigning champion did not make as he edged the second and continually increased his authority to prevail 6-7 7-6 6-3 6-2.
Djokovic was the clear benefactor from the draw, with Sky Bet reacting by cutting his odds from 6/5 to 5/6. With exception to Nadal's dominance of the French Open, it is very rare to see a player go off odds-on for a Grand Slam but his route to the final looks as straight-forward as they come. Murray was handed Federer in his quarter while Del Potro is placed in with Nadal, leaving David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych as the highest-ranked players in the reigning champion's path.
The contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Novak Djokovic (5/6)
The Serb here should be as confident as they come as he arrives on a 24-match winning streak from the back end of 2013 seeking a fourth-successive title here. Indeed, he can make Open Era history by winning at Melbourne Park for a fifth time, while having enlisted the help of Boris Becker as his new coach should ensure complacency will not be an issue. However, that appointment has left plenty questioning the rationale, having enjoyed so much success under a stable support squad. Despite finishing 2013 with a flourish, it was a relatively disappointing campaign with the Australian Open his solitary major win as Nadal recaptured the no.1 spot. The conditions in Melbourne offer the ultimate physical test of endurance and there is no competitor better equipped to endure and prevail.
Rafael Nadal (3/1)
Returning to the Australian Open serves as a perfect reminder of how extraordinary last season was for the Spaniard, having missed the event amid concerns over his long-term fitness. Fast forward 12 months and the 'King of Clay' returns as world no.1, having dominated on the red dirt again before defying all expectations by securing four titles on the American hard courts. The first major has been his least successful to date, with a solitary triumph in 2009 but, after tiring towards the end of the campaign, Nadal heads Down Under looking to capture three of the four top titles are assert himself as the clear leading force of the game.
Andy Murray (9/1)
Murray will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Nadal by reaching new highs after addressing a long-term injury problem. The Scot missed the end of 2013 due to back surgery and will be hoping to rediscover his top form quickly after indifferent preparations. However, with an abundance of experience and confidence of achieving ultimate goal at Wimbledon last summer, neither fitness nor form should be a major concern. Despite having ridden his back of monkeys at Flushing Meadows and SW19, there is certainly a sense of unfinished business at a place where he has thrice ended as the losing finalist.
Juan Martin del Potro (11/1)
We continue to wait to see whether the Argentinian can reach the very top of the game again, having failed to hit the heights of his 2009 US Open triumph since. While he has the weapons to match the best, questions remain over his mental strength and physical durability. 2013 was once again littered with more tough defeats than glorious highs with all of his four titles coming at 500 or 250 level events. Melbourne Park hardly seems to bring the best out of the 'Tower of Tandil' either, having failed to go beyond the quarter-finals in his previous visits.
Roger Federer (12/1)
The 'big four' is increasingly looking absent of its once leading force, with Federer slipping down to sixth in the rankings and failing to reach the semis at any of the last three majors. Cynics might suggest Melbourne Park saw Federer's final chance come and go last year as he crashed out to Murray in the semis, with his form plummeting since. The Swiss star is still able to produce sublime moments of brilliance but his days of prevailing in the epic battles he once stood tallest in seem to be behind him, especially in the gruelling conditions Down Under.
Best of the restIt always feels harsh discounting Ferrer (50/1), especially after such a favourable draw, but it would be a major surprise to see his Grand Slam wait end here. The man who has attracted a range of nicknames due to his remarkable endurance is sure to push the top names to their limits but so often ends empty handed. Tomas Berdych (33/1), who joins him in the third quarter, fails to get the job done on an even more prolific basis, falling at the quarters here the last three years. Stanislas Wawrinka (33/1) enters on the back of the finest campaign of his career but will not take too much joy from the draw having been placed in the same quarter as Djokovic, a man he has lost 14 successive matches to. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (40/1) and Milos Raonic (100/1) both have the weapons to trouble the best but need to make significant improvements on the defensive front to be considered major contenders.
Everything seems to point towards Djokovic lifting the trophy again and it takes a convoluted mind set to justify opposing him. However, that's exactly what I'm going to do in backing Murray to triumph here. The Scot has fresh motivation following his lay-off and is armoured with what should now be an unwavering self-belief. Nadal was the man of 2013 but, having sat in on his press conference on Saturday, you get the sense that he does not feel entirely comfortable at Melbourne Park, having complained about the court speed and his hard luck with injuries. At 9/1 Murray looks overpriced and following his recent achievements he now commands the confidence and experience of getting over the finish line.
Andy Murray to win the Australian Open - 9/1
Andy Murray to beat Novak Djokovic in the final - 12/1