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Posted: Friday January 16, 2009 8:58AM; Updated: Friday January 16, 2009 8:51PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
INSIDE TENNIS

Australian Open: Red-hot Murray ready to break through at Slam

Story Highlights

Apart from nagging injuries, it's doubtful Rafael Nadal's playing well enough to win

Andy Murray is the flavor of the month, but it's not hard to see Federer winning

A finalist last year, Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, if healthy, is a real threat

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No. 4 seed Andy Murray is the favorite in Melbourne after collecting recent wins.
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WERTHEIM: Dementieva looking to make long run

How long has it been since a player other than Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal has been touted as a favorite to win a major? If his current form holds, Andy Murray has a real chance to win the first Grand Slam of his ascendant career:

1. Rafael Nadal: Spaniard is unlikely to face much of a test in the first few rounds. But, apart from the usual nagging injuries, it's doubtful he's playing well enough to win his first hardcourt Major.

2. Roger Federer: Sorry, it's still jarring to see Federer as a second seed. Murray may be the flavor of the month, but it's not hard to see Federer winning his fourth title in Melbourne, equaling Pete Sampras' mark. First round opponent, Andreas Seppi, could make Fed work. And Marat Safin lurks in round three. But realistically, Federer has a real chance here. One senses all this Murray-mania is fine with him.

3. Novak Djokovic: Defending champion has already had a busy season. Good for him taking a wild card this week in Auckland in hopes of generating some mojo; but is it too much tennis? Sure can't complain about his draw, but it's still hard to see him repeating.

4. Andy Murray: All eyes on the hottest player in the sport. Hard to believe Murray was a first-round loser in Australia 2008. Comes in with all sorts of momentum; and he, too, fared well with the draw. With both his confidence and fitness at all-time highs, we'll climb aboard the bandwagon and pick him to break through.

5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: A finalist last year after playing six rounds of "zooming tennis," Tsonga is a real threat. The question, as always, is his health; his lower back, in particular. Potential quarterfinal against Murray has the makings of great theater.

6. Gilles Simon: Frenchman will last long enough for Brad Gilbert to make some cracks about his "mispronounced name." We like his elegant, flowing game, but he still needs to prove himself at a Major.

7. Andy Roddick: Tends to play well in Australia and seems recharged under new coach Larry Stefanki. Possible third-rounder against Sam Querrey or Phil Kohlschreiber, his conqueror in 2008, is intriguing. Roddick ought to live up to his seeding and then hope his serve is clicking against Djokovic. (Call locker room security.)

8. Juan Martin del Potro: One worries he's still paying the price for overplaying in the fall. (At this writing he remains alive in Auckland.) He's a hard court menace, but stamina/injuries could be an issue.

9. James Blake: American was a quarterfinalist last year and he is due for a strong result. Could start out playing qualifiers in his first two matches; but Ernests Gulbis lurks, which is cause for concern.

10. David Nalbandian: Argentine has regressed from a threat to an annoying opponent.

11. David Ferrer: Maybe the most fit player in tennis will be fine in the heat. But still lacks the weapons to compete for big titles off of clay.

12. Gael Monfils: Unquestionably, a player to watch. Capable of beating anyone. Unclear if he's capable of doing so seven times in two weeks.

13. Fernando Gonzalez: Gonzo is a former finalist in Melbourne. But A) He is Gonzo. B) He is without Stefanki and C) He faces Hewitt off the bat.

14. Fernando Verdasco: Big potential here. Davis Cup hero ought to win a few matches on the basis of the big forehand alone. Could give Murray fits in round of sixteen.

15. Stanislas Wawarinka: Swiss Mister has cooled off since last spring. Capable of living up to his seeding but won't reach quarters, not with countryman Federer so close to him in the draw.

16. Robin Soderling: Erratic Swede is dangerous and the surface is well-tailored to his game. But it's hard to see him getting past Djoker in round of 16.

Seeds 17-32:

19. Marin Cilic: The palindromic teenager keeps zooming, like a "racecar."

20. Tomas Berdych: We're about ready to give up on talented underachiever --and he comes in playing poorly -- but we'll offer him one more chance.

22. Radek Stepanek: Thirtysomething Czech comes in on a hot streak.

24. Richard Gasquet: "Tete case" slowly rebuilding his fragile confidence.

27. Felician Lopez: Go with the F-Lo.

Dark Horses:

Ernests Gulbis: A future top 10er.

Lleyton Hewitt: Days of winning Slams are long gone, but could still captivate the crowd.

Marat Safin: Like buying insurance at the blackjack table. And he gets bonus point for being the first tennis player in recent memory to suffer a black eye.

Marcos Baghdatis: Fallen off the map lately but he is a former finalist.

First Round Matches to Watch:

Hewitt v. Gonzalez: Anyone else think this has the makings of a Hewitt five-set win?

Querrey v. Kohlschreiber: Querrey is playing well and this would represent a quality win.

Gilles Muller v. Feliciano Lopez: Lefties delight.

Blue Plate Upset Special:

Gremelmayr d. Ferrer

Doubles Winners:

Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic. You gotta go with the reigning champs until proven otherwise.

Semis:

Federer d. Djokovic

Murray d. Monfils

Final:

Murray d. Federer

Champion:

Murray

 
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