What a curious tournament this Australian Open could turn out to be. The 100th edition of what began as the Australian championships (and, with a world record pot of nearly A$10m, it could hardly be further removed in spirit and ambition from the original) brings together three players whose hall-of-fame pedigree is undisputed but who lately have looked vulnerable.
Novak Djokovic is legitimately regarded as favoured to keep the title he won when beating Andy Murray last year, Roger Federer comes to Melbourne on an unbeaten run of 20 matches and Rafael Nadal is Nadal. The Spaniard looks weary, even before the season has properly started. His smile is reluctant, his shoulder sore, his confidence down. Federer has concern about his back, and Djokovic must hope his own shoulder problems of 2011 have passed.
If there is a power vacuum, who will fill it? The fourth player in the equation, Murray, clearly, has made a menacing move at the start of his campaign – his impressive comebacks to win the Brisbane International last weekend. At 5-1 or 11-2 in most equations, the Scot promises much.
The other obvious contenders — David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and, perhaps, Mardy Fish — will nevertheless entertain genuine hopes of shocking the world and their peers. The former Wimbledon and US champion Neale Fraser, who always embellishes these occasions with his charm from a distant era, reckoned: "This is the most open men's and women's championships for many years, but normally the cream rises to the top."
Platitudes or on the money? For all that ex-players and legends make such declarations – often carried away with the celebration of history and a grand occasion – the big tournaments almost without exception fall into the hands of the established triumvirate. Juan Martin del Potro was a rare interloper in 2009 at Flushing Meadows. That is what tennis needs: a few more interlopers.
For the first time since 2005, Federer is on the same side of the starting ledger as Nadal. The other side of the draw ought to belong to Djokovic. Can Murray unseat him, with the wise counsel of Ivan Lendl? We should know much earlier than that how the partnership is working.