Court in the crossfire
The battle for Melbourne supremacy could be more intense than ever this year, says Barry Cowan.
Last Updated: 15/01/10 3:13pm
I can't remember an Australian Open that from a men's perspective is as wide open as this one.
Each of the top six seeds will believe they have a realistic chance of winning the title and given the rivalry at the top end of the game they each know that shortcuts aren't an option.
That level of intensity and competition should add up to a fascinating fortnight in Melbourne.
Defending champion Rafael Nadal and Nikolay Davydenko are the two players who are taking some form into the tournament.
Nadal has enjoyed a really good start to the year and, for me, he and Roger Federer rightly deserve their top billing at Melbourne Park.
Spaniard Nadal played exceptionally well to win the Capitala World Tennis Championship exhibition title in Abu Dhabi and looked in great shape again last week even if he couldn't prevent Davydenko from walking away with the Qatar Open title.
In terms of his tennis, he looks back to his best and it surely can't be long until he loses that monkey on his back by winning his first singles title since May.
Nadal was talking so positively after that Doha defeat to Davydenko - in which he seized the first set 6-0 - that I can't help but feel that if he gets one win against a top-10 player under his belt that he couldn't put two or three back-to-back such victories together.
Andy Murray will be happy with a decent draw up to the last-16 where he could then face the injury-troubled Gael Monfils.
The Scot is talking up his chances of winning a first Grand Slam title but first he's got a little bit to prove to himself and the other guys because as good a year as he had in 2009, he'll be the first to admit that he underperformed when the major titles were on the line.
Murray has come in for some criticism after opting not to defend his Qatar Open title and play in the Hopman Cup instead - a decision that cost him 250 ranking points, dropping him down to fifth in the world.
To me that's irrelevant. If as a player you are going into a Grand Slam thinking 'I need to be four rather than five to avoid one of the top players' then I don't think you have the right mentality to go on and win it.
Instead, by making the change Andy showed that he is always willing to re-evaluate his schedule and make the requisite adjustments if he thinks there is room for improvement.
I expect he feels that playing at night and in the cold in Doha last year didn't give him enough time to acclimatise to the extreme heat you can experience in Australia, in Melbourne in particular.
Given that earlier this week Melbourne recorded its equal-hottest night in history, with the temperature reaching a brutal 34 degrees, I'd say he's got a point!
Despite what anyone might say the Hopman Cup wasn't a stroll in the park. Murray played well in three of his four matches and although he'll be disappointed to get turned over by Tommy Robredo in the final, he is right to go to the Australian Open full of hope.
That's just as well because for my money Murray is in the tougher half of the draw with a possible match-up against Nadal in the quarter-finals, followed by matches against del Potro and Federer.
The Swiss has to start as favourite to reclaim the title because despite his semi-final defeat to Davydenko in Doha last week he looks as though he's done plenty of work in the off-season.
But you can't rule out del Potro on the basis of what he achieved at last year's US Open and the way he played at the ATP Tour Finals in London. Just like Davydenko, he is a big-time player who can produce great tennis when it matters so let's hope the wrist injury that forced him to pull out of the AAMI Classic earlier this week is not serious.
The middle section of the draw comprising Fernando Verdasco and Davydenko looks tougher than the line-up below it, which features Djokovic, the inconsistent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling, who struggled with injuries last season and had to withdraw from last week's Kooyong Classic with a wrist problem.
Andy Roddick will also consider himself a contender at the start of the tournament after winning the Brisbane International but I can't see him adding to his one Grand Slam title here.
None of the players outside of the top six have proved that they can beat the elite players consistently and that goes for Roddick too; if, say, he had to beat Nadal in the semi-finals he'd have a shot but could he beat del Potro, Nadal and Federer to win the title? I can't see it.
For him, like all of the other big-hitters, the tournament starts from the quarter-finals so his primary aim will be to negotiate his way safely through to the second week and then re-evaluate.
All eyes will be on Justine Henin in the women's championship, and rightly so because her return to tennis is a great story.
To say it was a surprise to see her retire in May 2008 as the world's No 1 shortly before the start of the only major she hasn't won - Wimbledon - is to rather understate the case.
Consequently, it was no revelation to see her perform so well in reaching the final of the Brisbane International, even if she couldn't topple Kim Clijsters.
The 27-year-old is still a class player and has obviously spent a lot of time getting herself into great physical shape.
Her potential second round match against fifth seed Elena Dementieva has got everyone talking.
Dementieva has proved she is a great tennis player but has also shown at stages in her career that she is susceptible when the pressure is really on.
Playing Henin so early on in the event will be a real examination for her.
While it was disappointing from a British perspective to see Laura Robson's bid to reach the main draw end in the second round of qualifying, we can take plenty of heart from the progress made by Elena Baltacha and Katie O'Brien - both of whom made it into the tournament directly.
If she can get past France's Pauline Parmentier in the first round, Baltacha will go on to play 30th seed Kateryna Bondarenko (not to be confused with Alona Bondarenko who she beat at Wimbledon last year).
It's a tough ask, but if the Briton does get through a couple of rounds then she could play Danira Safina in the third round and anything is possible there!
This tournament represents a great chance for both Baltacha and O'Brien to gain some valuable experience and boost their ranking, so hopefully they can take advantage.