Novak Djokovic believes this year's race for the Australian Open crown is as unpredictable as it has been in years. As many as half a dozen players will believe they have a chance for the title, with perennial favourites Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal joined by the likes of reigning US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, Scotland's Andy Murray and in-form Russian Nikolay Davydenko as potential winners. Former Australian Open finalists Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Fernando Gonzalez, Andy Roddick and Robin Soderling can also not be discounted, having all reached the sharp end of major tournaments in recent years. Djokovic, the 2008 champion at Melbourne Park, forecast a tough battle for the year's opening grand slam event which starts on January 18.
"I think that the top of men's tennis has more players that are able to win the grand slams and big events, and I think it's a very good thing for the sport," he said after demolishing the German veteran Tommy Haas 6-2 6-3 in his debut at the AAMI Classic at Kooyong. "It's definitely great for the sport because the attention doesn't go only to two players; it goes to a group of eventually 10 players." Haas concurred with his conqueror, saying any number of players could win the tournament. "There's a lot of great players out there. Some players are not going to be seeded that are dangerous and maybe have a great tournament," he said.
"Obviously there are the best players in the world, so it should be a very exciting Australian Open this year, that's for sure. Maybe the most exciting one in a while." Djokovic, who finished 2009 as the world's No 3 player for the third consecutive year, said the gap between Federer and Nadal ? winners of 17 of the past 19 major titles ? and the chasing pack had started to close. The Swiss proved he was still the world's best player with a first French Open crown and a sixth Wimbledon title last year but suffered a slight dip in form towards the end of the year with a surprise loss to Frenchman Julien Benneteau in the Paris Masters and a semi-final defeat to Davydenko at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Nadal, meanwhile, continued to have knee and abdominal problems and struggled to recapture the form that saw him hold the No 1 ranking for 46 weeks.
"Davydenko I think is underestimated too much as a player," Djokovic said. "You have to give him credit for being already, for four, five years, in the top five in the world, top 10 in the world. "It's an amazing achievement for somebody like him, and right now he feels that he is in the best shape of his career, and that he is able to win a grand slam. "Then you have Del Potro who already won a grand slam; Murray, who has amazing quality as a player and who is yet to win a grand slam. "They're all great players and it's going to be very exciting."
The Serb, who played a tour record 95 matches last year, looked impressive in his comprehensive 57-minute victory over Haas today and said a gruelling physical regime that included intensive training in the Italian Alps and the Middle East meant he was in the best shape of his career. This year's tournament is also, partly, about redemption after last year's Australian Open ended in ignominy when he pulled the pin early in the fourth set of his quarter-final against Andy Roddick because of heat exhaustion. "Heading into 2010, my priority was to rest well and to get prepared in the best possible way for the most important tournament in this period of the year, which is Australian Open," he said. "I didn't finish it in that great a way last year. I had to retire in my match. "But this year, I feel much better, feel fresh, and skipped all the tournaments in the start of the year because of the schedule that I had last year, and I didn't need more matches, didn't need (to play more) tournaments. "I just need a couple of matches under my belt here before I go to Melbourne Park." Joining Djokovic on the winners' list on the opening day at Kooyong were world No 4 Del Potro, Spaniard Fernando Verdasco and Frenchman Tsonga. In blustery conditions, Del Potro overpowered the Croatian veteran Ivan Ljubicic 6-3 6-3 to push his case as one of the favourites for the Australian Open. "The conditions were tough, a lot of wind. I returned very good, served good," said the world No 4. "That's important for this kind of match, this kind of surface. It's a good victory for the beginning of the season." Left-hander Verdasco saw off the Chilean Fernando Gonzalez 7-5 6-1 and will take on Djokovic tomorrow for a berth in Saturday's final. Tsonga, who was beaten by Djokovic in the Australian Open final in 2008, later defeated the Swede Soderling 7-6 (7/0) 6-1. Gonzalez and Haas kick off proceedings at Kooyong tomorrow, followed by the Djokovic-Verdasco clash and Ljubicic v Soderling. World No 5 Murray, who led Great Britain to the Hopman Cup final last week, will play a one-off exhibition match tomorrow against the American Sam Querrey. * PA Sport