MELBOURNE, Australia — The tennis landscape looked much different a year ago. Rafael Nadal was home in Mallorca worrying about his knees, Serena Williams wasn’t the No. 1 women’s player in the world and Andy Murray hadn’t been inducted into the Order of the British Empire. Now, we have a duel at the top of the men’s game between No. 1 Nadal and No. 2 Novak Djokovic, and Williams looks to be on the verge of widening the gap between herself and the rest of the field.
With the year’s first Grand Slam set to kick off in four days, here are eight questions to ponder ahead of the 2014 Australian Open.
• Can Rafael Nadal stop the Novak Djokovic four-peat? The top two seeds will be placed in opposite halves of the draw, so there’s no chance of a meeting until the final — of course, if they both make it that far, setting up a rematch of their memorable 2012 final that lasted nearly six hours.
It’s hard to bet against Djokovic’s doing his part. Four of his six Grand Slam titles have come in Melbourne. The three-time defending champion has the Australian Open down to a science; he opted to limit his preparations to exhibition events once again this year, which guarantee him a few good matches, before spending the last two weeks fine-tuning his game and arriving early in Melbourne.
With questions surrounding 2013 finalist Andy Murray’s fitness and four-time champion Roger Federer’s form, there are few left in the draw other than Nadal to stop the Serb. This is particularly true if No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro lands in the other half of the draw.
• Who or what will plague Serena Williams this time? Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are hyped as being her best Grand Slam tournaments, but Williams’ five Australian Open titles match her haul at those two majors. The only difference is that most of America is asleep when she hoists the trophy in Melbourne.
That being said, she hasn’t made the semifinals since winning the 2010 title. She missed the tournament in 2011 after suffering a foot injury that would eventually land her in the hospital. She turned an ankle during a warm-up tournament in 2012 and lost to Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round. And she rolled an ankle again in 2013, when Williams also dealt with back spasms and lost to Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals. So the question is, Can she stay on her feet this time?
• Will Roger Federer keep his semifinal streak alive? Federer needs a positive start to the season to finally turn the page on his terrible 2013; the Australian Open, where he’ll be seeded sixth, is the perfect venue for it. Federer has a strong history in Melbourne, where he’s made the semifinals or better each year since 2004, and he’s coming off a productive offseason of pain-free training. Losing to Lleyton Hewitt in the final of the Brisbane International last week wasn’t great for his mentality, but Federer is in a more positive mindset now than he was during the indoor season last fall. Regardless of his mood and level, though, doubts remain about Federer’s ability to string together seven best-of-five matches over two weeks.
• What would be a good result for Andy Murray? The three-time finalist enters this year’s tournament fit but a bit rusty after playing just two matches since having back surgery in September. Murray showed he hasn’t honed his competitive edge yet when he blew a 6-3, 3-0 lead in a loss to Florian Mayer at the Qatar Open last week. By my book, a semifinal run would be a tremendous effort.
• Can Sloane Stephens play under pressure of defending her best Grand Slam result? The Australian Open kicks off a pressure-packed Slam season for Stephens. The 20-year-old American made the fourth round or better at all four majors last season — including the semifinals in Melbourne — while doing nothing remarkable in the WTA’s regular tournaments. More than half of her points last year came from the majors (1,960 of 3,185), and she’ll face the expectation of similar or better results this year. Stephens, who finished the season at No. 11, could fall outside the top 20 if she suffers an early upset. To add more stress to the situation, she already withdrew from both the Hopman Cup exhibition and the Sydney International with a wrist injury.
• Can Juan Martin del Potro finally find success Down Under? Del Potro has historically struggled in Australia, and the Australian Open remains the only major at which he hasn’t made the semifinals or better. However, we saw the new and improved del Potro in 2013, as he was the only man to beat each of the ATP’s Big Four at least once. He goes into the tournament with little rankings pressure, having lost to Jeremy Chardy in the third round last year.
• Who will step up from the WTA’s second tier? Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova have won seven of the last eight major titles, and they’re the only active women to have won the Australian Open. It’s safe to say they’ve separated themselves from the pack. As for other challengers, look for two-time finalist Li Na, 2012 semifinalist Petra Kvitova and the always pesky Agnieszka Radwanska to elevate their games in Melbourne. Li’s ever-improving game under coach Carlos Rodriguez continues to impress, Kvitova has looked on balance and in good form during her tune-ups and Radwanska could finally make her first Australian Open semifinal (she’s stalled at the quarterfinal stage the last three years) if the draw breaks her way.
• Will Milos Raonic or Grigor Dimitrov break through to the second week? For all the ribbing that Bernard Tomic gets as an underachiever, the fact remains that he’s reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal, while the two biggest names of his generation — Raonic and Dimitrov — haven’t. Two other members of the 23-and-under set, Kei Nishikori and Jerzy Janowicz, have also advanced to the second week of a Slam. It’s time for Raonic, 23, and Dimitrov, 22, to make their mark.