• What the Deuce

Mouthwatering Melbourne fortnight in prospect

Jo Carter January 11, 2011

Six weeks is a long time in sport. A team can plummet from the top of the league into mid-table mediocrity, and in tennis a player can rediscover the winning formula; or find themselves in a barren spell, unable to break out of a demoralising winless streak.

The tennis season gets back into the swing of things Down Under, but while a month off is just what the doctor ordered for the weary Rafael Nadal, it could not have come at a worse time for Roger Federer, who was just beginning to find his rhythm.

The off-season can make or break a player's season, or at least the start of it. And with the first major of the year just three weeks into the new season, players need to hit the ground running.

The Australian Open is arguably the most unpredictable of the grand slams. While the French Open favours the clay-court specialists; Wimbledon the serve-and-volley experts and the US Open is reserved for the hard-court connoisseurs, the Australian Open is typically a red herring in the tennis calendar.

Glancing down over recent champions of the Melbourne event, with the exception of Roger Federer, the roll of honour is dominated by names who have won the title just once - the likes of Marat Safin, Novak Djokovic, Thomas Johansson and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

It is the hardest grand slam to call - any 'form' is based solely on a couple of weeks' observation. And this year, we also have the return of a handful of players to mix things up.

Juan Martin del Potro is on the comeback from a serious wrist injury © PA Photos
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Juan Martin del Potro - one of only two men to have beaten Federer in a grand slam final - could be a real dark horse. Having slipped outside of the world's top 250, the 2009 US Open champion did not win a single match after the 2010 Australian Open having picked up a nasty wrist injury in January. He was unable to defend his title at Flushing Meadows, and he claimed his first victory in nearly a year at the Sydney Invitational on Monday.

While he is unlikely to be challenging for the title, Delpo has the potential to reach the quarter-finals. His lowly ranking means he will not be seeded in Melbourne, and a favourable draw could see him cause a number of upsets.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is another player whose return to fitness has not come too soon. The 2008 Australian Open finalist missed four months of the season with a knee injury, and never really got back into the swing of things when he returned to action in October.

The world No. 13 will be seeded for the event, but he could face one of the favourites as early as the fourth round. Tsonga gave a good account of himself in Qatar last week, falling to eventual champion Federer in the semi-finals. He has a good record in Melbourne - reaching the semi-finals last year - and could be another one to watch out for.

A year after beating Federer in the final in Doha, Nikolay Davydenko suffered a reverse at the hands of the world No. 2 in Sunday's Qatar Open final, but his win over world No. 1 Nadal in the semi-finals suggests he is capable of handing out an upset or two.

Nadal suffered only the tenth bagel of his career in Qatar at the hands of Lukas Lacko. The world No. 1 will not be pressing the panic button just yet, but there are definite signs of cracks in the armour that were not there during the height of the 2010 season.

Robin Soderling gave his Australian Open chances a massive boost by claiming his first ATP Tour title on Australian soil in Brisbane on Sunday. The result sees him leapfrog Andy Murray into No. 4 in the world rankings. It means he will avoid playing Federer and Nadal until at least the semi-finals, while Murray, for the second year running will be seeded fifth.

However, it is not all doom and gloom for the Scot. Murray is unbeaten in 2011, having won all three of his Hopman Cup singles matches in Perth - including a tough clash against John Isner. While he is no means the favourite, a favourable draw could see Murray reach the semi-finals, and even have another crack at claiming his maiden grand slam.

And as Federer proves, time and time again, he cannot be written off, and the defending champion has plenty to play for in Melbourne. Federer's pride is on the line - he will have no intention of letting Nadal claim the one accolade that still eludes him - the honour of holding all four grand slam titles at once.

With plenty to play for at the top; and a handful of players looking to cause a stir, it set things up for an intriguing fortnight at Melbourne Park.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk