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Who Can Dethrone Djokovic Down Under?

With the continued absence of Rafael Nadal due to his perpetually aching knees, this Golden Age in the sport is slightly less luminous without the Man from Mallorca in the mix. That being said, the unveiling of a draw at a Slam is always a highly-anticipated occasion, even if there is really only one major question – which of the Big Three (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray) will have the more perilous path to preeminence?

For this year’s Australian Open, which starts on Monday (Sunday evening American time), the draw turned out to be extremely kind to two-time defending champion Djokovic, but downright cruel to Federer and, to a lesser extent, Murray.

In fact, Federer’s draw is that much more difficult than his top rivals that it would be a superb accomplishment for the 17-time Slam champion to even make the final – which he likely won’t. Things are relatively dicey starting in the second round for Federer and it stays difficult for the duration of the fortnight. Though he’d likely dispose former top-5 member Nikolay Davydenko in his second match and should subdue the already-underachieving Australian, 19 year-old Bernard Tomic, in the third round, it is the possible round-of-16 encounter against Canadian Milos Raonic that may spell the end of Federer’s hopes in Melbourne.

Like many tennis observers, I have been touting Raonic since he first burst on the scene three years ago. With his Pete Sampras-like ease of a service motion, potent groundstrokes, and nimble net play despite being so tall, Raonic seemed destined to have already reached a Slam final by this point (he just turned 22 in December). And while it’s too soon to say he isn’t reaching his full potential, now is definitely the time to take that extra step; consider that 22 is when Federer and Andre Agassi both won their first Slams and it was also the age at which Sampras started his run of brilliance (though he won the U.S. Open at the age of 19 in 1990, Sampras laid low for a couple of years until winning Wimbledon in 1993).

Though Raonic has never beaten Federer in their three meetings – all taking place in 2012 on three different surfaces - all went the distance, with two of the three decided in final-set tiebreaks. If Raonic is feeling healthy after a series of nagging injuries, I believe his game will be too much for Federer to absorb on a relatively fast court. More to the point, if Raonic is serving up to his capability, Federer will be pressing more on his own serves and will be forced to take chances on returns as well. There are few great pure servers left in tennis and Raonic is one of them. The only way to beat Federer is via relentless pressure, be it in the form of Nadal’s topspin lobs to the backhand side or Djokovic’s returns.

And while Federer has, up to this point, pretty much defied the aging process which usually claims tennis players in their late 20s (Federer will be 32 in August), there’s no question that the man many consider to be the greatest that ever played will find it more arduous to have to dig deep in consecutive matches during a Slam. And even if Federer were to survive Raonic, he’d still have to likely contend with a supposedly rejuvenated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters and then Murray in the semis, before meeting Djokovic in the final.

Murray, finally a Slam titlist after his victory at the U.S. Open in September, has his work cut out for him, mainly because of his potential quarterfinal opponent – Juan Martin Del Potro. Both Murray’s and Del Potro’s path to the quarterfinal round is relatively obstacle-free (although Del Potro may face a stiff challenge in the fourth round against Marin Cilic) so this could be a superlative encounter if both players are well rested. Del Potro has only beaten Murray once in six tries and while it should be a battle, Murray will move on to face Raonic in the semis.

There’s almost no need to analyze Djokovic’s half of the draw except for his possible quarterfinal foe, Tomas Berdych. There is nary a worry in sight for Djokovic – except for overconfidence. Before the draw was announced, it was conventional belief that whoever was “lucky” enough to draw David Ferrer in the semis would be the lucky one. And not to in any way diminish the ever-consistent and surprisingly powerful Ferrer, but he has no chance against Djokovic in a three-of-five-set match.

But if Djokovic were to indeed sleepwalk through his first six matches in Melbourne, would that have in ill effect? One can look back to the French Open of 2011 when Djokovic was putting together one of the finest seasons the sport has witnessed. But he had three extra days off before being shocked by Federer in the semis in Paris that year. While I doubt Djokovic will allow himself to feel overconfident, nevertheless it does bring up an interesting scenario if he were to meet Raonic in the final – they’ve never played each other. And while Djokovic is armed with arguably one of the two or three greatest returns the sport has seen (Jimmy Connors and Agassi are the others), to have to face a hot-serving Raonic for the first time in a final would be daunting.

In 2012 it was Murray’s turn to finally crack the code that Federer and Nadal – and then later Djokovic – owned for the past 10 years. It is my belief that Milos Raonic will seize upon his vast potential and defeat Novak Djokovic in their first ever meeting to claim the Australian Open championship. 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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