Three-time overall and two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic will lead the charge into the 2013 Australian Open when it commences next week in Melbourne.
The world No. 1 star captured last year's Aussie hardware by outlasting 2009 champion Rafael Nadal in an epic five-set final, this after holding off Andy Murray in a brilliant five-set semifinal that was arguably the best tennis match of 2012.
The Djokovic-Nadal finale finally ended after 5 hours, 53 minutes of heavyweight tennis, with Djokovic prevailing 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 7-5 at 1:37 a.m. local time at Rod Laver Arena. Unfortunately for Nadal, he became the first-ever man to fall in three consecutive Grand Slam finals (all against Djokovic).
Note: Djokovic was denied a "Nole Slam" when he lost to Nadal in last year's French Open finale.
The 25-year-old Djokovic owns five major titles overall, with his first one coming in Oz in 2008. He's nailed down three of the last five Aussie championships overall (going 3-0 in his Down Under finals), which probably makes him the favorite heading into the '13 edition.
The super Serb has won four of the last eight Grand Slams on the men's side.
Djokovic closed out his great 2012 campaign by winning three of his last four events overall, including the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals in London and a Masters tourney in Shanghai, beating Federer and Murray, respectively, in a pair of marquee finales.
Former No. 1 stalwart Roger Federer will head to Melbourne as a second seed and four-time champion. The 17-time Grand Slam king captured four Aussie titles from 2004-2010 and was a runner-up in 2009 (Nadal).
The reigning Wimbledon champ should make it to at least the semis in Melbourne, where he could encounter a surging third-seeded Murray. The amazing Swiss icon has reached at least the semis at the Aussie every year since 2004. Federer lost to his fierce rival Nadal in the final four at last year's Aussie.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Murray is fresh off his season-opening hardcourt title in Brisbane last week, is the reigning U.S. Open and Olympic champion, and has already appeared in a pair of Aussie Open finals. The athletic British star lost back-to-back Aussie finals in 2010 (Federer) and 2011 (Djokovic).
The native of Scotland Murray is certainly among the favorites this month, and is a co-favorite in this scribe's eyes ... along with Djokovic.
The fourth seed in Melbourne will be a Spanish star, but it won't be Nadal, who said he will miss the Aussie Open for the first time since 2006 due to an illness (stomach virus). Nadal hasn't played on tour since losing in the second round at Wimbledon in June, as he had been sitting out with a bad left knee.
Instead, David Ferrer will lace 'em up as the fourth seed and potential semifinalist. The gritty Spaniard has enjoyed a lot of success against just about everybody on the ATP tour, unfortunately for him with the exception of the "Big Four." Ferrer, who is this week's top seed in Auckland, reached his lone Aussie semi two years ago, only to lose to Murray.
A couple of massive hitters, Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych, could have a shot in Melbourne. Del Potro closed out 2012 as one of the hottest players on tour, including a couple of match wins over the legendary Federer, while Berdych, like "DelPo," can beat anybody on a hardcourt when his powerful groundies are landing in. Del Potro was the U.S. Open champion in 2009, while Berdych reached a Wimbledon final in 2010.
The top 10 in Melbourne is rounded out by 2008 Aussie runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, last week's Chennai champion Janko Tipsarevic, last week's Doha winner Richard Gasquet, and another capable Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro. I expect all four of these men to venture into the second week Down Under, but the only guy in this group with a solid chance to land in the final four would be Tsonga, although the world No. 10 Gasquet has been coming on like gangbusters since last summer.
This week's top seed in Sydney, "Big" John Isner, appears to be America's best chance in Melbourne. The 6-foot-9 slugger, however, has never advanced beyond the fourth round at the Aussie, and hasn't typically played his best tennis at the majors.
Trivia: The last American man to run the table in Melbourne was four-time winner Andre Agassi back in 2003.
Some dark horses on the men's side could be 13th-seeded massive-serving Canadian Milos Raonic, 17th-seeded Japanese Kei Nishikori and "Baby Fed," Grigor Dimitrov. I think Raonic is still a star in the making, while the grinder that is Nishikori can frustrate just about anybody, and, if healthy this year, could make a run into the top 10. The 21-year-old Dimitrov may be ready to deliver on his promise as a future top-10er and is fresh off his first-ever ATP-level championship match appearance in Brisbane just last week.
According to a report, the talented Dimitrov is dating women's superstar Maria Sharapova. Last year, he supposedly courted another women's great, Serena Williams.
Note: The Aussie Open was first held in 1905, at Warehouseman's Cricket Ground (of course), which is now known as Albert Reserve Tennis Centre.
The first Grand Slam event of the year has produced some surprise winners in the past, like Thomas Johansson (2002), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (1999), Petr Korda (1998), but I don't see a surprise winner coming this year.
Expect the usual suspects -- Djokovic, Federer and Murray -- to reach the semis and don't be surprised when Djokovic comes through for the three-peat to clutch the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup once again.
The 2013 Aussie champ will enjoy a windfall of $2.5 million.