- Chris Wilkinson
Flying the flag for Britain in AustraliaChris Wilkinson January 13, 2011
The season really ramps up a gear when the Australian Open gets underway in Melbourne next week. I have great memories from the Australian Open - I reached the main draw in 1994, where I lost in the first round to No. 16 seed Marc Rosset.
It was the first time I had reached the main draw of a grand slam without a wildcard, and I had earned the right to be there, and I enjoyed every minute - the Aussie Open is one of the nicest grand slams to play in. The crowds are fantastic and the support is really vocal which is great as a player. There is a really good atmosphere around Melbourne Park and everyone stays nearby - at Wimbledon everyone can be quite spread out.
Back in 1994, I was the sole British representative in the men's draw, and this year Andy Murray will be flying the flag for Great Britain after James Ward fell in qualifying. He won't be too worried about that though - he will be 100 per cent focused on the task in hand and navigating his way through the opening rounds without mishap.
This year there is all to play for - Rafael Nadal is looking to complete the 'Rafa Slam' and become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four men's grand slam titles. Meanwhile Roger Federer will be determined to avoid the exact opposite - failure to defend his Australian Open title will be the first time he has not held a grand slam title since 2003.
There is plenty at stake for both of them, and they are equal favourites in the bookies' eyes. If I had to call it I would probably go for Federer. He ended the season on a high with victory at the ATP World Tour Finals and since he started working with Paul Annacone last summer he has rediscovered his drive. He played extremely well in Doha last week and it wouldn't surprise me if he won the Australian Open for a fifth time.
Beyond Nadal and Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are both in with a chance. Murray is seeded fifth which means he could face either Federer or Nadal as early as the quarter finals. It all depends on the draw - he could end up playing the unseeded Juan Martin del Potro in the first round. That said, I think Murray would prefer to face Delpo than someone ranked just outside the top 32 - Del Potro is a good player but he hasn't played enough matches to be a real threat.
I think the positive memories of last year's Australian Open will be a big factor for Murray, and he needs to harness that and push the thoughts of his disappointing third-round exit at the US Open exit out of his mind. Arriving back in Melbourne will have obviously brought back memories of his defeat to Federer, but it will also remind him of how well he played last year, and he will be aiming to emulate that form this time around.
He's had the same build-up this year - playing at the Hopman Cup before playing a warm-up match at Kooyong. I would have liked to have seen him play an ATP tournament last week, either in Doha or Brisbane, but to a certain extent I think it was superstitious of him, wanting to have the same preparation as last year. I can see his reasoning - playing at the Hopman Cup is a guaranteed three matches regardless of the result - although the quality of his opponents may not be as high. But he is doing what he thinks is right for him, and hopefully that will pay off.
I was really impressed with Djokovic last season. I thought he had gone off the boil a little bit but he made changes to his game, tweaked his serve and he is much more aggressive player as a result. He also seems to be mentally tougher and I think he is capable of adding to the Australian Open title he won in 2008.
I would really like to see Robin Soderling win a grand slam this year. There is no reason why he can't win in Melbourne. He has a big game and I would say he has more chance of winning a major this year than the likes of Andy Roddick, Fernando Verdasco or Tomas Berdych.
There is unlikely to be a real shock in the men's draw, but I would expect Ernests Gulbis to put a decent run together. He is a real talent and it is about time he stepped it up. Gael Monfils had a strong end to the season, Stanislas Wawrinka won in Chennai last week. David Nalbandian could be a threat, and Nikolay Davydenko seems to be finding his feet again. It's the guys ranked between about 15 and 30 in the world that can make big leaps in the rankings with a decent performance at grand slams.
In the women's draw, I think Kim Clijsters is the one to beat. If she can stay fit, she holds the edge over the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Vera Zvonareva. With defending champion Serena Williams out, and old foes Venus Williams and Justine Henin lacking match practice, she is the outright favourite in my view. But as we saw last year, the women's draws are always wide open.
Wozniacki could lose her No. 1 ranking if results don't go her way in Melbourne, but I can't see her winning. She lost her opening match in Sydney this week - in fact I'm not sure whether she has what it takes to win a slam at all. There is a real danger she could start to slip down the rankings, and if you look at the number of former world No. 1 players who have done that - Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina - they have all struggled to find their way back up to the top.
Sam Stosur reached her first grand slam final at the French Open last year and she has got the potential to go deep into the second week - she also has the advantage of the home crowd. Keep an eye out for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova - she is the highest ranked teenager and could be one to watch in the coming months.
Heather Watson has done really well in reaching the quarter-finals in Auckland last week, and with Elena Baltacha in the main draw and three women in the qualifying, it's looking pretty positive for the British girls. Given a favourable draw, they could feasibly reach the third round.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1