Sports

At the Net: Bring on the Aussie

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - In less than a week, Grand Slam tennis will be on the menu once again for the first time in four months.

Stan Wawrinka will return as the defending men's champion, but he certainly won't be the favorite heading into the Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic failed in his bid to capture a fourth straight and fifth overall title in Oz a year ago, but many expect him to return to the winner's circle this time around.

Djokovic's 2015 season got off to a rough start with a loss at the hands of 6-foot-10 Croat Ivo Karlovic in a quarterfinal in Doha last week, but rest assured, he'll be ready to go for another run at his best Grand Slam event.

The top-ranked Serb has won four of the last seven championships in Oz and is 4-0 when reaching the final round at Melbourne Park.

Last year's Wimbledon champ and French Open runner-up probably figures his stiffest competition will come from last week's season-opening Brisbane champion, Roger Federer, who claimed his 1,000th career match win with the victory in Brisbane, joining Jimmy Connors (1,253) and Ivan Lendl (1,071) on that exclusive short list.

The 17-time Grand Slam king is a four-time Aussie champ and former runner-up who hasn't run the Down Under table since 2010.

The former world No. 1 Federer was last year's Wimbledon runner-up to Djokovic and hasn't captured a major title since the 2012 Wimbledon Championships.

Note: If Djokovic or Federer capture this year's Aussie, that future Hall of Famer would set the Open Era record with five such championships.

Then there's the great Rafael Nadal.

The Spanish bull has been sidelined since October before returning to action in Doha just last week only to suffer a first-round setback against German fellow left-hander Michael Berrer.

Rafa was rusty and it showed. Can he shake off the rust in time to make a big run in Melbourne?

The former No. 1 star captured his lone Aussie title six years ago and is a two-time runner-up Down Under, including last year when he was shocked by Wawrinka in four sets in the final. Rafa was slowed mightily by a back injury in the title match and that back problem plagued him for much of the 2014 campaign, as did a wrist injury and a bout with appendicitis, which led to a season-ending appendectomy.

Sure, Rafa captured yet another French Open title last year, but 2014 was basically a lost season for the 14-time Grand Slam champ, as he battled that bevy of physical ailments.

Having said all that, I would still expect Rafa to be in the mix in Melbourne.

The current world No. 4 Wawrinka broke through for his first-ever major title at the '14 Aussie, but he certainly benefited from that Nadal back injury, as the Spanish great was running at less than half speed in that particular final. Don't get me wrong, Stan played great at last year's Aussie, but I'm not expecting a repeat performance. He also had that tremendous gutsy victory over Djokovic in the quarterfinals, as Wawrinka prevailed in arguably the match of the year by outlasting the then-reigning champ in five sets, including a dramatic 9-7 fifth set.

The Swiss slugger opened his latest campaign with a title in India last week.

Note: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal had combined to win the previous eight Aussie Opens before "Stan the Man" broke through last year; and Federer, Nadal and Murray have combined to produce the last six runners-up at the physically demanding major.

Kei Nishikori will look to become the first-ever Asian men's champion in Melbourne ... or at any major for that matter. The world No. 5 was last year's surprise U.S. Open runner-up and just might have enough game to challenge the big boys this month. He reached the fourth round in Melbourne in each of the last two years and was a quarterfinalist there back in 2012.

How 'bout Andy Murray? Is he all the way back from that back injury?

Murray hasn't reached a major final since winning it all at Wimbledon in 2013. The athletic Brit is a three-time Aussie Open runner-up and has reached at least the quarterfinals there every year since 2010. He crashed out in the quarters a year ago while still on the mend from back surgery, but I think he's primed for another big run in the 'Bourne.

Murray is a two-time Grand Slam champion and an Olympic gold medalist who hasn't missed a major quarterfinal (when competing) since the 2010 U.S. Open.

The men's Top 10 is rounded out by last week's Doha runner-up and former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych, rising Canadian Milos Raonic, U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, and last week's Doha champ David Ferrer.

Cilic has already announced he will skip the 2015 Aussie due to a right shoulder injury, which will make world No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov a Top 10 seed in Oz. My favorites out of this lot of players to make a run are Raonic and Dimitrov.

Raonic, who was last week's Brisbane runner-up to the great Federer, possesses perhaps the best service game on the planet right now and is in the best shape of his young career, while Maria Sharapova's beau, Dimitrov, is a Grand Slam ace in the making, with his all-around game and fluid style that has forced the comparisons to Federer, thus prompting the nickname "Baby Fed." Dimitrov reached the Aussie quarters a year ago.

On the comeback front, former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro returned to action this week in Sydney, this after being out of commission since last February with a wrist injury. I don't expect too much from Delpo right now.

FYI: The last American man to capture the Aussie was Andre Agassi back in 2003.

An American will not win it again this time around.

The easy pick here would be Djokovic ... and that's exactly who I'm goin' with.