Novak Djokovic arrived in Australia last January a one-Slam wonder, an extremely promising, charismatic player known as much for his spot-on impersonations as anything he had done on the court. He was trying desperately to break what seemed to be an impenetrable hold Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had on men’s tennis.
He did that, and then some.
The Serb knocked off Andy Murray in straight sets in the Australian Open final and went on to a 70-6 season that included three Grand Slam titles, a 41-match win streak and a rise to No. 1, surpassing Nadal and Federer. Djokovic beat Nadal in six consecutive finals last season, and though he limped to the finish line toward the end of the year with a shoulder injury and general exhaustion, he enters the 2012 season as the man to beat at the Australian Open.
“People will be looking for chinks in the armor, straightaway,” ESPN commentator Darren Cahill said. “People are going to be expecting there might be a letdown. People are going to be looking for him to be a little bit mentally tired. If he doesn’t show that, if he comes out and puts a beat down on the players and wins the Australian Open and we see him in the same form as we saw him for the best part of last year, that’s going to be a real problem for the other players.”
Djokovic said he welcomes the challenge and is happy to be back where it all began.
“I think mentally I gained that necessary strength (at the Australian Open) in 2011,” he said during the draw ceremony Friday. “I started to believe more that I could win these events next to two big names, Federer and Nadal, and be so dominant. So, it’s great. I’m only 24, and I believe I can stay here.”
To do so, he’ll have to get past Nadal, Federer and Murray, all of whom are among the favorites to win the first major of the season.
Nadal won his sixth French Open last year and reached the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, but has been struggling with a sore shoulder, and Djokovic seems to have a psychological edge over him.
Federer is eager to prove he isn’t yet in the twilight of his career. He finished 2011 well, and though he pulled out of the Qatar tournament with a back injury, he is expected to be in good form.
“He was definitely the most consistent player of this last year, and he looks like he’s in good shape again for this upcoming season,” Federer said of Djokovic.
Murray is still waiting for his first Grand Slam title, and he hired former great Ivan Lendl as his coach. But he faces a tough road with a possible quarterfinal against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and a semifinal against Djokovic. Juan Martin del Potro is also tough.
The women’s side is hardly as predictable. The top-ranked player continues to be Caroline Wozniacki, who has yet to win a major and comes in with a wrist injury. Defending champion Kim Clijsters is a fan favorite Down Under since the days she dated Lleyton Hewitt, but she has also been hampered by injuries and didn’t play much last year. Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova has the weapons but lacks the helpful experience.
Li Na, last year’s runner-up, and Victoria Azarenka also could be in the mix.
And then there’s Serena Williams. The 30-year-old, 13-time Grand Slam champion is always a wild card.
She has won in Australia when she has been fit. She has won there when she has not been fit . Williams turned her ankle in the tournament in Brisbane last week, but don’t count her out just yet.