Triumphant Djokovic returns with target on his back
Melbourne: Like a Roman general feted after a glorious campaign, Serb conqueror Novak Djokovic returns to Melbourne Park after one of the most successful seasons in tennis, while covetous rivals plot his downfall in the wings.
Djokovic`s crushing straight sets victory over Andy Murray in last year`s Australian Open final was the springboard to a 70-6 season boasting three grand slam trophies and a 41-match winning streak, a once-unthinkable prospect in the era of Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer.
"I think mentally I gained that necessary strength (at Melbourne Park) in 2011," Djokovic said at the draw ceremony on Friday. "I started to believe more that I could win these events next to two big names, Federer and Nadal, and be so dominant.
"So it`s great, I`m still only 24 and I believe I can stay here."
A one-slam wonder a year ago and the joker in the pack, Djokovic now holds all the aces over the chasing pack.
Djokovic has grabbed the number one ranking from 10-times grand slam champion Nadal and now holds a psychological edge over the Spaniard, having beaten him in six straight finals last year.
Streaks inevitably come to an end and Djokovic finished the season exhausted and nursing a shoulder injury after an early exit at the World Tour Finals.
Such was his dominance in 2011, however, Djokovic could theoretically be bundled out of the first round at Melbourne Park and still retain his number one ranking.
That is highly unlikely given his favorable draw, playing 108th-ranked Italian Paolo Lorenzi first up, with a possible fourth-round match-up with one of two big servers in Andy Roddick and Canada`s Milos Raonic.
Standing in his way of his fifth grand slam title, and third at Melbourne Park, are the usual suspects, 2009 champion Nadal, 16-times grand slam champion Federer and a refreshed Andy Murray, who has turned to the services of Ivan Lendl to help him claim his maiden major.
The latter pair might seem a match made in heaven given the Czech overcame a crippling 0-4 record in grand slam finals at the start of his career to finish with eight major titles.
Scotsman Murray, 0-3 after his second straight loss in the final at Melbourne Park last year, will target Djokovic in the semi-finals if he can negotiate a likely quarter-final against sixth-ranked Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Federer also cannot be discounted as he bathes in the long sunset of his glittering career, despite a back injury forcing him to pull out of the Qatar Open in the leadup.
The Swiss maestro takes on a qualifier first on the road to a potential quarter-final match-up with dangerous former US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.
The mouth-watering prospect of a semi-final against great rival Nadal then looms should the Spaniard overcome a nagging shoulder problem, an ugly draw and the perception that he has lost his mojo after being worked out and worked over repeatedly by Djokovic.
The 25-year-old notched his sixth Roland Garros title in 2011 but finished the year by being bundled out of the ATP World Tour Finals with a stinging defeat by Federer and surprise loss to Tsonga.
His leadup form has been no less concerning, dumped out of the semi-finals of the Qatar Open last week by 15th-ranked Frenchman Gael Monfils.
Struggling to adjust to a heavier racquet while dogged by questions over his fitness and motivation, Nadal will need to negotiate a possible third-round hurdle against Croatian former world number three Ivan Ljubicic, with big-serving American John Isner a likely fourth round opponent.
While few expect a men`s champion from outside of the "big four," the women`s draw is once again a lottery with top contenders hampered by injuries.
The women`s game has long been dogged by Caroline Wozniacki`s status as world number one without a grand slam title, but the Dane`s reign could be set to end.
Wozniacki suffered a wrist injury at the Sydney International during her quarter-final exit this week and would have lost her number one ranking to Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova but for the 21-year-old Czech`s loss in the semi-finals.
Champion Kim Clijsters remains the sentimental favorite as the Belgian drags her battle-weary body through a last season before her second "retirement," but all eyes will be on Serena Williams to see whether the American great can will herself to a 14th grand slam crown.
The tempestuous 30-year-old twisted her ankle in Brisbane last week in the leadup, her first tournament since she lost the US Open final to Australia`s Sam Stosur after a sensational rant at the chair umpire.
But few dare to write off Williams, whose injury-forced absences are mourned deeply and often seen as lay periods before the queen returns.
"To me she`s going to go down as the greatest female player ever," said seven-times grand slam champion John McEnroe.
"She`s got to keep it together for another two-three years but I think she`s going to win another four or five majors."
The year`s first grand slam has been famous for being wars of attrition in scorching summer heat for years and players can expect no less with the temperature expected to soar to 33 degrees Celsius in the first two days` play.