Australian Open, where it all begins

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Records are broken wherever Rafael Nadal goes these days, and Melbourne will be no exception.

It’s an all new year but the battlefield is the same as the quest for Grand Slam glory starts all over again at Melbourne Park. The opening Grand Slam tournament of the year is on the wish list of players for various reasons. Andy Murray and Caroline Wozniacki are still chasing their maiden Major title, Roger Federer is looking to re-establish his dominance with a record 17th one.
World No.1 Nadal could become the first man in 42 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once, while former world No.1 players Lleyton Hewitt, Justine Henin are trying to resurrect their injury-marred careers.

The main draw drafted by legendary Aussie Ivan Lendl makes for two weeks of pulsating action on the Plexicushion Prestige, a medium-paced, acrylic surface. Already holding the other three Major titles, Nadal could become the first man after Rod Laver (1969) to have all the Slams under his belt. Successful at all surfaces by now, the only concern for Nadal could be his fitness. He also lost in the semi-finals last year due to ill-health.

The top-seeded Spaniard opens his campaign against Brazilian Marcos Daniel. But the test starts third round onwards where he could cross paths with marathon man John Isner. Another Spanish powerhouse, world No.7 David Ferrer and Sweden’s fourth seed Robin Soderling are also in the top half of the draw. However, a more anticipated challenge could be in the last-four where he could get a chance to avenge his last year’s defeat against 2010 runner-up Murray.

The 23-year-old has been biding his time to break the Grand Slam duck but seems to fizzle out when he gets the opportunity.

Leading the way in the bottom half of the draw is defending champion and second seed Federer. He might be eyeing a record fifth AUS Open trophy to become the most successive player in Melbourne in the Open era but the Swiss has a long way up. World No.99 Lukas Lacko might not be a threat in the opening round but Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals could surely be one. His 2008 tormentor and eventual champion Novak Djokovic, in a possible semi-final, will be an even bigger test.

But the 16-time Grand Slam champion has been playing well on hard courts and his title-winning Qatar journey served as a perfect morale-booster. His game has bettered, confidence is renewed and the urge to improve comes from the fact that he is world No.2, and that is not where he belongs!

But the contest to look out for in the first round will be when home-favourtie Lleyton Hewitt battles with red-hot David Nalbandian. Both are trying to perfect their comebacks after injuries pushed them way down in the rankings and in dominance.

Who grabs the women’s title would be just as much a treat to watch. Defending champion Serena Williams will be missed because of an injury, while top seed Wozniacki carries the tiresome tag of ‘world No.1 without a Grand Slam’. There are big names in her draw but fifth seed Franchesca Schiavone hasn’t been in an extra-ordinary from since her French Open triumph and fourth seed Venus Williams is playing only her first tournament since a knee injury after the US Open. Not been in the best of form, Wozniacki opens against the unpredictable Argentine Gisela Dulko.

But the real trouble could be 11th seed and last year’s runner-up Henin. The Belgian, on a comeback from elbow injury, has been extremely impressive in the recently-concluded Hopman Cup.

The other half of the draw makes for some top-class fights. Clijsters is certainly the favorite and will play her first match against former No.1 Dinara Safina. But second seed Zvonareva is another big name. She might not be everyone’s bet but no one would be counting her out as well. The talented Russian will be determined to make that her very strength. And, carrying the local hopes is fifth seed Samantha Stosur. Successful, consistent but still without a Major, this could be Stosur’s moment. The Aussie is a big-server who will have the crowd behind her as well.

Will it be the dynamic youngsters like Wozniacki and Zvonareva who start the year with a bang or the experienced and classy Henin, Venus or Clijsters? And could a record eighth Grand Slam final between Nadal and Federer be on the cards? Twenty-one of the last 23 Grand Slam titles have been won by Federer or Nadal but they haven’t had a face-off in a final of a Major event since 2009 Australian Open. Perhaps it is time for their rivalry to be renewed.
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This post was submitted by Mudit Agrawal.

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