The question asked in the title of this post was racking my brain the last few days. Unfortunately, when the draw came out Thursday night Federer and my finalist pick Novak Djokovic both landed in the same bottom half, so that eliminated any chance for a Fed-Djokovic final.
Now I need a new finalist to fall to Fed in the final in two Sundays, and in the top half there are plenty of worthy replacements. There’s Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling, JW Tsonga, Marcos Baghdatis, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin Del Potro among other top tier contenders who’ll bid for a spot in the title bout.
So who will it be from the top half to make the final? Here are my thoughts.
Soderling is the a hot guy right now after winning in Brisbane, but the Swede has won a grand total of two more matches at the Australian Open than I have. In five tries Robin has never made out of the second round in Melbourne, a pretty shocking statistic. Perhaps it’s the slow surface, the warm conditions, bad draw or maybe he’s just a slow starter. I don’t know.
While impressive, Soderling’s Brisbane win was indoors and he beat a player in Andy Roddick who that day didn’t put up much of a fight, unless you call returning the ball back into the court a fight. And Soderling, as we know, is quite a good indoor player, but the majority of his matches if not all in Melbourne figure to be played outdoors in slower conditions.
So despite a favorable draw and a promising start to the new year, Robin’s past Australian Open history weighs down his chances; so I can’t pick him to suddenly break through this time.
Cilic was the hot guy a year ago, and now what? Twelve months later the big Croat comes limping into the Australian Open all but ready to relinquish those semifinal ranking points he amassed in 2010. Cilic does have a good draw in the beginning but in his current state does it even matter? Probably not. So best for Marin is maybe a fourth round though I’d love to see him rebound here and get his game back on track, but I just haven’t seen much life from the guy.
Speaking of limping in, Baghdatis injured his groin in Sydney so there is a minor injury concern with the charismatic Cypriot. But because Melbourne is where he plays his best I still expect a good run from the former finalist, maybe to the fourth round. But I can’t put him into the final either.
Tsonga was under his own injury cloud much of last year. The streaky, hard-hitting Frenchman plays well in Melbourne and has the offense to beat anybody on any given day. My concern, however, with JW is his fitness level and his overall confidence. Remember, Tsonga hasn’t played a best-of-five match since Wimbledon! That said, if he gets hot he could go far but the finals is a long reach.
Another player returning from serious injury is DelPo. Like Tsonga, the Argentine’s biggest concern might very well be his fitness and his ability to play best-of-5. So I could see him winning and winning a few matches, but I would feat that eventually the pounding on his body would catch up. Dudi Sela will make him work in the first round and then a meeting with Baghdatis would be a treat, but I don’t think he can beat a healthy Marcos in Melbourne.
If you read the press clippings from yesterday night, Nadal had some interesting things to say. Nadal’s called winning a Rafa Slam “impossible” and he adds that he’s still got a little bit of the flu bug still in his system.
So is Nadal lying here to take some of the pressure off or does he really think that winning four straight is impossible and that he’s really sick. Whatever the truth, Nadal doesn’t sound like a confident guy here, and mentally he’s already telling himself winning the Australian Open is in fact “impossible” this year. I know he’s gracious, etc., but that’s not the mindset a World No. 1 should have.
And this flu thing, why mention it if it’s so minor as he makes it sound?
Still, could Nadal reach the final? Of course. He’s got a great first two rounds to play himself into form before either Jeremy Chardy of his buddy Feliciano. Then it could get dangerous in the fourth round against Radek Stepanek, Cilic or Isner (I’d rate their chances in that order), before a collision with Ferrer, Nalbandian or Youhzny in the quarterfinals. Against his countryman Nadal, you would think Ferrer would fall over, but Nalbandian and Youhzny could present a threat, especially the Argentine. Although I still like Rafa out to the semifinal, but the final? Not really. And here’s why: Andy Murray.
I think among the top players Murray has the easiest path to the quarterfinals. He should breeze in his first three rounds before bumping into Melzer or Baghdatis in round four. Both very winnable. On paper, his quarterfinal opponent looks like Soderling but I think I’ll go Tsonga here who’ll be battling fatigue (after beating Soderling) going in the Murray quarterfinal.
In the semifinals, that means Murray v. Nadal, this time no serious injury issues – let’s hope! We remember how Murray blew out Rafa a year ago in Melbourne and I think this year Murray gets the job done again. (part of me can’t believe I’m saying that!)
Murray played well in London and really pushed Rafa in that epic semifinal so I think his game is there. And if Rafa is feeling any illness and mentally he’s still talking himself out of an “impossible” accomplishment, Murray can sneak in get that win.
Andy said he trained hard over the off season and really this year he comes in a little under the radar. And I think he wants to make up for that dismal showing in New York and preventing a “Rafa Slam” would be a heck of a way to do it.
So Murray is my guy to make the finals.
As for all this doomsday talk of Federer’s harrowing draw, please.
“Oh noes, Roger plays Lukas Lacko!”
“Oh noes, Roger might play Gilles Simon!”
“On noes, Albert Montanes beat Roger!”
“On noes, it’s Mardy Fish!”
“On noes, this time Andy Roddick’s even fitter!”
And on and on.
It’s true, Federer does have a bunch of guys who have wins (some with multiple wins) over him. But how many of these guys earned those wins in best-of-five set matches?
For me, that makes difference.
I’ve said this before and it’s worth repeating, perhaps Federer’s greatest asset in Grand Slam play is the best-of-five format. Against Federer, winning that third set is exponentially tougher than the second set. Ask Alejandro Falla. Ask Igor Andreev. Ask Janko Tipsarevic. Ask Andy Roddick.
That said, Simon, Fish, Roddick, etc., are good players who have put up some wins in big matches – Simon just won Sydney – but remember this is best-of-five and looking at Federer’s recent results – he ripped through the London finals and Doha – it’s hard to see any of them threatening the Fed.
If Fed’s going to be pushed in his half it’s going to be by Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. But I still like Fed in that one.
The Swiss has always performed well in Melbourne and he comes in this year with Paul Annacone at his side, so for me I just see no reason to go against him.
Federer d. Djokovic
Murray d. Nadal
Federer d. Murray
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