**UPDATES** #15 seed Gilles Simon has pulled out of the tournament with a knee injury. 17 seed David Ferrer will move into Simon’s spot (Federer’s fourth round) and now-seeded John Isner (#33) replaces Ferrer as Murray’s potential fourth round. A Slovenian qualifier named Blaz Kavic will take Isner’s old spot in Nadal’s section of that quarter (plays Wayne Odesnik in the first round.) **UPDATES**
I have a funny feeling about this year’s Australian Open draw. There are just way too many talented players in it who aren’t ranked #1 or #2.
BOTTOM LINE: We’ll keep watching the Roger and Rafa Show until someone changes the channel. Roger Federer has Nikolay Davydenko in his quarter and Novak Djokovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Robin Soderling could await Fed in the semis. Rafael Nadal has 5th seed Andy Murray in his quarter and Andy Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic are his possible semifinal opponents.
TOP QUARTER: Free Fed
Look out for: Marcos Baghdatis and Lleyton Hewitt in a third round night match (pretty please?)
Dark horses: This feels very 2008, but I say Ernests Gulbis for almost nabbing Federer in Doha. I think Davydenko (who took down Roger in the next round) is doing too well right now to be considered a surprise finalist. But it would still be pretty surprising.
The plot: The next-highest ranked player in Roger’s little section is No. 17 David Ferrer, who he waxed in the Abu Dhabi exo at the beginning of the year No. 15 Gilles Simon. Hewitt or Baghdatis are more likely fourth round opponents, with Doha champ Davydenko or Kooyong Champ Fernando Verdasco worthy quarterfinal competitors for the Swiss. Gulbis could play Davydenko in the third round.
SECOND QUARTER: Shark attack!
Dark horses: Let’s hear it for the one-handers! Richard Gasquet and Tommy Robredo
The plot: The first week should be smooth sailing for Djokovic – but that won’t stop the sharks from circling. Tommy Robredo isn’t necessarily a safe fourth round opponent for Nole right now – the Spaniard is coming off a confidence building win over Andy Murray in last week’s Hopman Cup finals. Richard Gasquet is another sharp-toothed floater in the Serb’s section. Novak’s quarterfinal opponent is anyone’s guess – Soderling and Tsonga are tops in the bottom half of this quarter, but both are dealing with injuries. Jo-Dubs, in particular, has a challenging first few matches. He’ll take on St. Petersburg titleist Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round and possible early round match-ups against Taylor Dent and the winner of Tipsarevic vs. Haas.
THIRD QUARTER: Hey, is that Fabrice Santoro?
Look out for: Del Potro vs. Blake in the second round. Roddick vs. Querrey in the third round. Roddick vs. Berdych in the fourth round. Santoro vs. Cilic in the first round! (The “retired” Fabrice is in with a wild card solely to set the record of playing on tour in four different decades)
Dark horses: Marin Cilic is one of the generally-acknowledged dark horses of the tournament. I nominate James Blake, since time is running out for him and Fabrice Santoro because it would be the best story ever!
The plot: It’s hard to pick out one main storyline in this section – Roddick and Del Potro are seeded to meet in the quarters, but there are plenty of players out to twist the plot. (That said, who else thinks Roddick is thrilled with his draw?) Gonzalez, a former Stefanki protege, is slated for Roddick’s fourth round. The fourth round between Cilic and del Potro will be a battle of young giants. Blake, Berdych and Wawrinka can beat any of these guys on a good day. It will be fun to see what happens.
BOTTOM QUARTER: Defending Champ
Look out for: Stepanek vs. Karlovic in the first round. Monfils vs. Isner in the third round. Monfils (or Isner) vs. Murray in the fourth round. Murray vs. Nadal in a quarter that seems more like a final.
Dark horses: Radek Stepanek and John Isner
The plot: Clay’s cake, but Rafael Nadal has yet to defend any of his hard court titles. With Andy Murray in his quarter, Rafa will have to work extremely hard to break this trend Down Under. He also has two of the tour’s toughest floaters in his section – either Radek Stepanek or Dr. Ivo could play him in the fourth round. Andy Murray will be feeling pretty good about getting to Rafa, unless possible fourth round opponent, Gael Monfils, has magically cured his inflamed shoulder (stranger things have happened.) I also have Auckland champ John Isner (now seeded #33 and moved into Murray’s section) in here as a major dark horse – hey, sometimes you gotta take risks on the ponies!
So it’s an exciting draw, but a little unsettling. With all the rising talent and tricky match-ups, I feel the time is ripe for some major upsets and surprising results. What do you think?