Australian Open: Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic the men to beat in Melbourne
We have gone from the big four to the big two in men’s tennis and all eyes will again be on Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open.
Murray will play his first grand slam as the number one seed after overhauling his rival at the top of the rankings at the end of last season.
After five final losses in Melbourne, four of them to Djokovic including both of the last two years, one could either take the view that surely his time has come or that the Serbian holds the upper hand again.
Djokovic will certainly head into the tournament full of confidence after putting his disappointing end to 2016 behind him by beating Murray in the final of the Qatar Open last weekend.
The 29-year-old was a different player to the one who succumbed so unexpectedly meekly to Murray in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November, cementing the Scot’s place at the top of the standings.
The fire had clearly returned to Djokovic’s belly, his superlative movement was back and he outlasted Murray in many of the long rallies that define matches between the two warriors.
Djokovic won his sixth Australian Open title in 2016 and that remarkable record plus the Doha win sees him installed as narrow favourite at 29/20.
Although he would undoubtedly have wanted to win in Doha and keep alive his 28-match winning streak, losing has taken a bit of the pressure off.
Murray is clearly playing the best tennis of his life and will fully believe this can be his time.
Last year he played the most stressful tournament of his career with wife Kim heavily pregnant back home and the collapse of his father-in-law Nigel Sears in Melbourne, yet still reached the final.
Could it be an omen that the men’s trophy is named after Sir Norman Brookes, tennis’ only previous knight of the realm?
All could become clearer after Friday’s draw, which will carry more intrigue than most thanks to the relatively lowly rankings of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer following injury.
Both are 12/1 for the title but Nadal, ranked ninth, and Federer, 17th, could meet as early as the third round while they lie in wait for the likes of Murray and Djokovic from the fourth round onwards.
Stan Wawrinka, the champion in Melbourne in 2014, added his third grand slam title at the US Open last summer and is always a dangerous customer.
The Swiss is available at 12/1 while an even more tempting outside bet is Milos Raonic, the Canadian now ranked world number three, at 15/1.
Raonic might well have beaten Murray in the semi-finals last year had his body not let him down again before losing to the Scot in his first slam final at Wimbledon.
Raonic is both ambitious and highly intelligent and has made impressive improvements to a game that had appeared one dimensional. If he can stay fit, he will be tough to beat.
A form horse, meanwhile, and worth a small risk is Grigor Dimitrov at 33/1.
The Bulgarian has not lived up to his talent in recent years but, under the stewardship of Murray’s former coach Dani Vallverdu, he looked back to his best in winning the key warm-up tournament in Brisbane.