- Chris Wilkinson
Murray's right - he won't win the Australian OpenChris Wilkinson January 10, 2014
Happy New Year. It's good to be back.
You get that lull in the pre-season between the World Tour Finals and the Australian Open and I'm pleased we're about to get underway in Melbourne and we can all start getting fired up for the season ahead.
Where else can we start but Andy Murray? In my last column of 2013 I highlighted that it would be interesting to see how he gets on, having been away from competitive action since September following back surgery.
I thought he might struggle to do well at the beginning of this year because it will take some time for him to get some matches under his belt, so it's a testing period to try and get back to full fitness so he can compete at the highest level.
That was proved at his first tournament in Doha where he lost in the second round to Florian Mayer. He just needs court time, he needs to play.
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He made no secret of the fact that he just wanted games in Abu Dhabi, but he would have gone into the Qatar Open looking to do well and get to the latter stages. He's ranked where he is for a reason and he has a good record against players like Mayer, who came from a set down to beat him. He will have wanted to get that match tightness back but, of course, he would have also been cautious about how his back was going to be.
At the Australian Open - and I know it's clichéd - he will be taking one match at a time. When you've been out injured you've got to play each match and then assess it.
If he wins a few matches then there's no reason why he shouldn't do well - and he's been handed a decent draw, facing world No. 112 Go Soeda first and then the winner of a first-round match between two qualifiers.
But he said in an interview last week that he's not expecting to win and he's right.
The early rounds are very, very important for him. If he can get some court time and three wins then he'll start forgetting about the back and he'll start playing better tennis.
The main problem Murray faces is if he gets through to the latter stages, he is set to come up against Roger Federer in the quarters, Rafael Nadal in the semis and Novak Djokovic in the final. You have to assume that he will need four or five sets to get past these guys and will his back be up to it? Nadal and Djokovic are incredible athletes and it's going to be so much more testing. I would expect him to struggle.
It's a shame Murray will be the only British representative after Dan Evans was knocked out in qualifying. This boy has a promising future in the game. He has bags of talent, but he needs to continue pushing himself on a daily basis and show commitment for every ball.
That showed in his second-round qualifier defeat to Marton Fucsovics and ultimately cost him a shot at the tournament proper. The problem for these guys nowadays is that there are so many players about and strength in depth is high, so you might come up against someone in a qualifier who you would expect to beat, but if you're not quite on it on that given day then you're heading home.
It's between Djokovic and Nadal
On to the tournament itself, one thing's for sure: it's going to be an interesting Australian Open.
It's hard to see past Djokovic and Nadal - particularly with Murray's fitness concerns. Roger Federer I'm not sure about. It wasn't a popular opinion but I said toward the end of last year that I expect this to be Federer's final season on tour and for him to finish 2014 outside the top ten. There are still question marks over his form and his year hasn't started well, losing the Brisbane final to Lleyton Hewitt - a player who has only beaten him once in the last decade.
The Australian Open is often a tournament that sees younger players coming through - take for example 2002 champion Thomas Johansson, as well as Rainer Schuttler and Marcos Baghdatis, finalists in 2003 and 2006 respectively. These are players who capitalised on the big guns being a bit rusty at the beginning of the year.
With Murray's fitness and Federer's form, Juan Martin Del Potro will fancy his chances of a second grand slam title - but the draw has not been kind to the Argentinean, who faces the prospect of a quarter-final with Nadal.
It also provides an opportunity for some of the up-and-coming guys to step up and offers them a chance to get a grand slam semi-final on their CV - the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. Then there's Jerzy Janowicz, who reached the last four at Wimbledon in the summer. He is certainly one to keep an eye on.
You have to remember, too, that with the ever-shortening off-season period, a lot of players are coming in to the Australian Open still carrying injuries. Long gone are the days when players would get plenty of time off to recover and I've been surprised by the amount of withdrawals in the tournaments leading up to Melbourne.
But will we see a Nadal-Djokovic final? This tournament may throw up some surprises, but Djokovic started his season with victory in Abu Dhabi and Nadal matched the feat in Qatar and I have no doubt they will carry on where they left off last year.
Na could stir up women's draw
I would be foolish to bet against Serena Williams, who has just won again in Brisbane and is in formidable form, and Victoria Azarenka, who has a great record here and is the defending champion.
But I quite fancy the chances of Li Na. She's been a runner-up twice in the last three years and a semi-finalist the year before that - and she's started this season by successfully defending her Shenzhen Open title in China.
Sam Stosur is another player to keep an eye on. It's always nice to see a home player doing well at a slam but she's never ventured past the fourth round in this event and it would be good for the tournament to see a run from her.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis.