2013 Australian Open: Men's draw preview, from the favorites to the grenade throwers

Pool

Even without Rafael Nadal, tennis' Big Three still dominates. But Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and (especially) Roger Federer will have to deal with quite a few obstacles on the way to the tournament's second weekend.

If you follow the right people on Twitter, you know that the tennis season never actually ends. There is, at worst, always a low-tier tournament or qualifier going on somewhere. The grind never stops for actual tennis players, but for casual-to-intermediate fans, the 2013 season officially begins on Monday, as the Australian Open begins in Melbourne. The year's first slam is without Rafael Nadal, who is still recovering after missing the last half of 2012 to injury, but thanks to the continued, further emergence of Andy Murray, there is still a "Big Three and Everybody Else" feel to this one.

As we did last year, we will break the 128-man field into four "regions" named after the top seeds.

Djokovic Region

Seeds
No. 1 Novak Djokovic
No. 5 Tomas Berdych
No. 11 Juan Monaco
No. 15 Stanislas Wawrinka
No. 20 Sam Querrey
No. 22 Fernando Verdasco
No. 26 Jurgen Melzer
No. 31 Radek Stepanek

This is not the most difficult draw Djokovic has ever had. Berdych has started off the year with a thud, Monaco has already lost and Wawrinka and Melzer are a bit more comfortable on clay. Verdasco, a 29-year-old 2009 Aussie semifinalist, has been on a steady downward slide in the last couple of years. Stepanek, now 34 years old, is an admirable grinder but not a major threat. So barring an always-possible, never-likely upset on par with Lukas Rosol's defeat of Nadal at Wimbledon in 2012, Djokovic should expect to cruise to the semis. The wildcard: 25-year old American Sam Querrey, who was lost to elbow surgery in 2011, was ranked 93rd this time last year, and has risen back to the Top 25. He can do just about everything at least relatively well -- no specific holes in his game -- but he is inconsistent at times. He dropped the first set to Daniel Munoz-De La Nava on Monday, then cruised.

Americans

(First potential match versus seeded player, or higher-seeded player listed in parentheses.)

No. 20 Sam Querrey (third round v. Wawrinka)
Ryan Harrison (second round v. Djokovic)
Brian Baker (second round v. Querrey)
Michael Russell (first round v. Berdych)

Poor Ryan Harrison is a good case for why tennis should use a rankings system based on performance instead of results. He took a set off of Juan Martin Del Potro at the U.S. Open, played Djokovic in three tight sets at Wimbledon, took No. 11 seed Gilles Simon to four sets at the French Open, and took Andy Murray to four at the Australian Open. The problem: he had to face all of them in either the first or second round. On the flipside, young American Sloane Stephens made the fourth round of the French Open last year without playing a seeded opponent.

To be sure, the 20-year-old Harrison still has some work to do on his game. He has lost four of six official matches since the U.S. Open, and his 6-4, 6-4 win over John Isner in Sydney last week was tempered by the fact that Isner is hurt and had to withdraw from the Australian Open. But a lucky draw wouldn't be a bad thing. Instead, he drew Djokovic in the second round. He has already gotten by Santiago Giraldo on Monday (Giraldo had beaten him in each of their two previous meetings), and and if he can play another competitive match versus Djokovic, one should call that a good tournament for him.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Brian Baker. It was going to be 22-year old David Goffin, but he lost in five sets to Verdasco in opening-day action. So instead we'll go with Baker, who did survive the first round and could make some serious noise if he gets past Querrey in the second round.

Most Interesting Early-Round Matchup

Second Round: Querrey v. Baker. Andy Roddick has retired, and neither John Isner nor Mardy Fish is in the Aussie draw. If an American male is going to make a memorable run in this tournament, it will be the winner of this potential second-round matchup. Querrey got past Munoz-De La Nava in the first round, and Baker survived a tricky first-round matchup with Alex Bogomolov Jr., a fiery, inconsistent Russian, in the first round -- Bogomolov came back from two sets down but lost in the fifth. If you're an American tennis fan, you should probably pay close attention to this match (if it takes place).

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Djokovic v. Berdych. Djokovic could face solid challenges from two different Americans (Harrison in the second round, Querrey/Baker in the fourth), but he should still cruise to the quarters. Berdych, on the other hand, is maddening. He is good enough to beat Roger Federer (which he did in the 2012 U.S. Open quarterfinals), and he is inconsistent enough to have lost to someone named Roberto Bautista Agut in a tuneup tournament in India two weeks ago. But despite landmine potential he is still the safest bet. Expect Djokovic to move to the semis, however.

Ferrer Region

Seeds
No. 4 David Ferrer
No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic
No. 10 Nicolas Almagro
No. 16 Kei Nishikori
No. 23 Mikhail Youzhny
No. 24 Jerzy Janowicz
No. 28 Marcos Baghdatis
No. 32 Julien Benneteau

Without Nadal, the players in this "region" once again have a rare opportunity to reach a slam semifinal. When all of tennis' Big Four are rolling, everything before the semifinals is almost a formality. Ferrer is the safest bet here, of course; the 30-year-old Spaniard reached the semis at both the French Open and U.S. Open in 2012, reached the quarters of the other two slams, and made the semis at the Australian Open in 2011. But the draw here is still fascinating, partially because of established players like Tipsarevic and Almagro, and partially because of up-and-comers like Japan's Nishikori and Poland's Janowicz, a 22-year-old who ranked 222nd a year ago and 109th in mid-July. He is enormous (6'8, 200 pounds) and incredibly hot. Oh yeah, and Aussie and former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt could throw everything up in the air if he were to beat Tipsarevic in the first round.

Americans

(First potential match versus seeded player, or higher-seeded player listed in parentheses.)

Tim Smyczek (second round v. Ferrer)
Steve Johnson (first round v. Almagro)

Smyczek ranks 126th in the world, Johnson ranks 175th, and both got pretty awful draws. But they both played well on Monday; Smyczek took out giant Ivo Karlovic in straight sets to get to Ferrer in the second round, and Johnson played beautifully against Almagro, forcing a fifth set before fraying and falling. The odds of either making serious noise were (and still are) minimal, but both looked great on Monday.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Lleyton Hewitt. Now 31 years old, Hewitt is ranked just 82nd in the world. He is limited enough to lose to anybody but salty enough to beat anybody outside of the Big Three/Four. And he beat the world's No. 6 player, Juan Martin Del Potro, just last week. There is nobody on his side of this region that he cannot beat (or lose to, technically); it would not be a surprise to see him bow out to Tipsarevic in the first round or face off with Ferrer in the quarterfinals. (Note: And we take this all back after Hewitt lost to Tipsarevic early Monday morning.)

Most Interesting Early-Round Matchup

First Round: Tipsarevic v. Hewitt. For reasons listed above. (Note: Also, nevermind)

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Ferrer v. Almagro. Almagro didn't look incredible in getting taken to five sets by Steve Johnson in the first round, but he survived. His path to the quarters is slightly easier than Tipsarevic's, though he would still have to potentially get by Jerzy Janowicz in the fourth round. Meanwhile, Ferrer could get any number of challenges -- from resurgent Marcos Baghdatis (who basically looks and plays like Ferrer's paunchier older brother, even though he is three years younger), from Nishikori or Youzhny in the fourth -- but is just so damn steady and consistent.

Murray Region

Seeds
No. 3 Andy Murray
No. 6 Juan Martin Del Potro
No. 12 Marin Cilic
No. 14 Gilles Simon
No. 18 Alexandr Dolgopolov
No. 21 Andreas Seppi
No. 25 Florian Mayer
No. 30 Marcel Granollers

Poor Marin Cilic cannot avoid Andy Murray. He lost to the Scotsman in Wimbledon's fourth round and in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and he would face off with Murray again in the quarters here. That said, he is probably the only serious impediment when it comes to a seemingly inevitable Murray-Del Potro quarterfinal. This "region" has a lot of seasoned pros (Simon, Seppi, etc.) and the ultimate unseeded grenade thrower, but the good money is on the favorites.

Americans

Rajeev Ram (second round v. Cilic)
Rhyne Williams (first round v. Mayer)

Rajeev Ram is a longtime pro, a big guy (6'4) who has never really broken through. He ranks 130th and should exit in the first few days. Williams, meanwhile, is at least a name to watch for the future. The 21-year-old from Knoxville, and former Tennessee Volunteer, is only beginning his ascent as a pro.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Gael Monfils. I said it a year ago, and it still rings true:

On the football side, I've taken to calling Vanderbilt your bookish, nerdy younger brother. Well, Monfils is your other younger brother, both incredibly lovable and mentally unstable. He will come up with some of the greatest shots you've ever seen, and he will spend the rest of a given match trying (and failing) to blow your mind. At least once per Monfils match (and probably once per set), you will find yourself saying, with complete resignation, "Oh, Gael, no. No, no, no."

Monfils fought injuries in 2012 and dropped far enough in the rankings that he is currently unseeded. He would be a complete wildcard as a seed, too, however. He faces Dolgopolov in the first round and could take on countryman Simon in the third.

Most Interesting Potential Early-Round Matchup

Second round: Murray v. John-Patrick Smith. Why is this match, one that Murray will almost certainly win easily, interesting? Because Smith, like Rhyne Williams, is a former Tennessee Volunteer and, in 2011, became UT's first SEC Athlete of the Year since Peyton Manning. He was an absolute stud in the college ranks and is just beginning his career on the senior circuit. An Aussie, he will also have pretty strong crowd support. So this match could be fun, if futile.

Also interesting: every Monfils match. Hopefully there's more than one.

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Murray v. Del Potro. And it could be a doozy.

Federer Region

Seeds
No. 2 Roger Federer
No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
No. 9 Richard Gasquet
No. 13 Milos Raonic
No. 17 Philipp Kohlschreiber
No. 19 Tommy Haas
No. 27 Martin Klizan
No. 29 Thomaz Bellucci

Roger Federer basically got all the iffy breaks in his draw that Djokovic did not. He is the clear favorite to make the semis, obviously, but he could face former Top 5'er Nikolay Davydenko (and four-time Aussie quarterfinalist) in the second round (Davydenko has looked very good in recent weeks); either rising 23-year-old Martin Klizan or young Aussie Bernard Tomic in the third; and big-serving Milos Raonic in the fourth before reaching Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals.

Americans

None.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Bernard Tomic. Considered one of tennis' hottest prospects a year ago, Tomic spent 2012 rising to 27th then falling to 64th, randomly turning his brain off on the court, and becoming tennis' Mario Balotelli off it, driving fast cars, getting into fights (both with police and in spas) and generally pissing off anybody who supported him. But then he went out and won the ATP's Sydney tournament this past week, reminding everybody why they bought into him in the first place. The 20-year-old would face Klizan in the second round and Federer in the third.

(It also bears mentioning that the grenade thrower to end all grenade throwers, Lukas Rosol, is in this "region," too. He could face Raonic in the second round.)

Most Interesting Potential Early-Round Matchup

Third Round: Federer v. Klizan. Klizan, a 23-year-old from Slovakia, was ranked 121st this time last year. He made the fourth round at the U.S. Open, then won his first ATP tournament, in Russia, a couple of weeks later. His career has exploded (and in the good way, not in the Tomic way) in recent months, and he could be the toughest of many tough challenges early in Federer's draw.

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Federer v. Tsonga. Of all the quarterfinal heavyweight matchups, this one might have the largest chance to fall apart before it occurs. Players like Raonic, Klizan and Tomic could set the bracket afire, or old hands like Gasquet or Haas could beat anybody they face. The end result could still be the predictable one, but this is quite easily the most fascinating "region" in the tournament.

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