AussieOpen
Tennis is back after a brief hiatus and we’re a little anxious.

Let me clarify, I’m a little anxious.

This year’s holiday season saw your correspondent consume far too much alcohol. To make matters worse was the rampant cigarette abuse. As a smoker for sometime I knew about the highs and lows. One smoke one day can be followed by the decimation of a pack the next. This wasn’t that. My mouth was the equivalent of a landfill found near a McDonald’s rendering plant.

I decided to quit. I had to.

Seven days later I’m still going strong, and aside from lashing out at 2-3 people a day for no reason I’m doing well.

My relationship with the Australian Open goes back a long way, with most of my memories consisting of smoking a cigarette at 4 am while watching a quarterfinal.

I won’t have my vice this year, but the excitement is still there. The most wide open major of the year falls in the month of January, where rust is constant and upsets remain bountiful.

Who won’t win

Maria Sharapova has a new coach, feels healthy and Serena Williams isn’t in her half of the draw.

Though all of the above should bode well for the Russian it’s unlikely to come together for Sharapova over the next two weeks.

First the good news. She’s been in pretty good form in the leadup to the tournament, reaching the semifinals in Brisbane where she lost to Serena.

What doesn’t bode well is her lack of match preparation. Brisbane was her first tournament since August. She faces a tough first round match-up against Bethanie Mattek-Sands. If she does make it to the business end of the tournament you have to like Victoria Azarenka’s chances of making her third consecutive final.

Andy Murray is facing a similar problem. Last season’s Wilmbledon champion had surgery on his lower back that kept him out of the Asian year-end tournament swing, the Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals.

Murray has played five matches since returning in late December, and three of those were exhibitions. His route to glory is a tough one. Beginning in the fourth round the Scot could face an Isner-Federer-Nadal path to the final. There he would likely meet Novak Djokovic.

We like his chances in 2014, just not in Melbourne.

Smokers choice

One of the most taxing sports on the lungs has a dark secret. Tennis has a long history with the cigarette, and while you won’t see a John Daly type smoking on the court, a number of top professionals have enjoyed a devil stick now and then. We present the all-time tennis smoker power rankings.

5. Bill Tilden

‘Big Bill’ won 10 grand slams and is still considered one of the greatest American players of all-time. He also appeared in advertisements for Lucky Strike, in which he claimed smoking ‘protected his throat.’ Living in the 1920s must have been incredible. Alive one day and dead the next, was it the smokes, Doc? I don’t know, here, drink this almost poisonous bourbon.

4. Marat Safin

Arguably the coolest player to ever grace the tennis court, Marat Safin’s lifestyle off the court could be summed up in one word: damn. Named the hottest man alive in numerous scientific polls commissioned by some of the smartest minds in the world, Safin was elected to the Russian Parliament in 2011 as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. He could also probably have you killed. Some guys have it all.

3. David Ferrer

The hardest working man on tour is a smoker. That revelation took me aback, but if you consider Usain Bolt’s McNugget addiction some athletes are just like that. Ferrer enjoyed a fantastic 2013 season, reaching the semi-finals in Australia, the final at the French and the quarters at Wimbledon and the US Open. Outdoing that in 2014 will be tough.

2. Anna Kournikova

Kournikova was on the level about her habit. “My smoking has nothing to do with my tennis,” she once told an interviewer. Perhaps Anna was wrong, as her career never reached expected heights. Tobacco is wacko if you’re an underachieving phenom with good looks.

1. Karsten Braasch

Braasch was a character in every sense of the word. The man who beat both Williams sisters in one afternoon had a training regiment that centered around ‘a pack of cigarettes and more than a couple bottles of ice cold lager.’ John McEnroe said Braasch would smoke on changeovers during tour matches. The German, somehow, made it to No. 38 in the world.

On the cusp

The man who can break the big four’s stranglehold on men’s tennis isn’t a newcomer. Stanislas Wawrinka has been around for a while, but only now is his potential becoming a reality. Fresh off a win in Chennai, Wawrinka is primed for a 2014 to remember.

The Swiss understudy came close to knocking off the eventual champion last year. Novak Djokovic was put to the test in a grueling five set encounter that was easily the match of the tournament.

The two would meet again in New York, where they staged yet another classic that went the distance. Once again Djokovic prevailed. “Wawrinka was a better player for most of the match because he was aggressive and played better tennis,” Djokovic said following the match. “I just tried to hang on and fight and be mentally tough and believe all the way through [that] I can actually win.”

Wawrinka will need to find that belief this year in Melbourne with Djokovic lurking in the quarters. Rocky III was pretty bad. Let’s hope the third installment of this burgeoning rivalry doesn’t follow the same path.

The hard road

Roger Federer followed in the path of Murray (Lendl) and Djokovic (Becker)  in the off-season, linking up with Stefan Edberg to aid his efforts in fighting the inevitable. His road to the final is littered with formidable foes, though he should make it to round four before things get real. There he will likely face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga,  a notorious fast starter who plays some of his best tennis in Australia. Then it’s Murray in the quarterfinals followed by Nadal in the semifinals.

If this was six years ago you would have to give Fed a fighting chance, but he’ll need to play his best tennis in years to get through this gauntlet.

On the women’s side Li Na, coincidentally the same age as Federer, is coming off her most consistent year to date, but she faces a daunting challenge in Melbourne. A potential third round clash with Lucie Safarova could be sneaky tough. Petra Kvitova awaits in the quarters and then it’s Serena next. Li will need some divine intervention down under. As someone that is so easy to cheer for let’s hope she gets it.

The favourites

Serena Williams enters Melbourne on a roll after beating Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka in Brisbane. The American will face her strongest test in Azarenka, who is the two time defending champion in  Melbourne. Their last meeting at a Grand Slam came at last year’s US Open. There we witnessed a captivating final that saw Williams prevail in three sets. Odds are we’re in for another installment of the best rivalry in women’s tennis.

On the men’s side Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal are expected to meet for the title. Their path to the final will not be a cakewalk, however.

Nadal faces Bernard Tomic, Australia’s native son, in the first round. Young Bernie plays his best tennis at home and a raucous evening crowd at Rod Laver Arena will help his chances. If he gets past Tomic, it says here he will, Nadal could then face Gael Monfils in the third round. From there Juan Martin del Potro is the biggest threat, but a rested and healthy Rafa is still the choice.

Djokovic’s half of the draw is far less muddied, but there is potential for a  major upset. Wawrinka is the pick to get past Nole in the quarterfinals.

The picks

Nadal d. Wawrinka

S. Williams d. Azarenka

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