In the five years since Marat Safin secured an emotional and unexpected Australian Open triumph, only two of the 19 grand slams have failed to go the way of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - undisputedly the top two players of the current era. Looking outside that dynamic duopoly for an alternative champion of Melbourne Park in two weeks' time is possibly a misguided venture but here we go.
Novak Djokovic, the unpredictable Serbian, is a course and distance winner, having captured a maiden major by deposing Federer on the way to a final victory over Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Juan Martin Del Potro, the formidably built Argentine, is the form horse having won the most recent grand slam by depriving Federer of a record-extending 16th at Flushing Meadows four months ago. Andy Roddick, a revitalised American who came so agonisingly close to spoiling Federer's record-breaking big day at Wimbledon last summer, is another who knows what it takes to prosper in the big events, having tasted glory in his own New York back yard seven years ago and reached four other finals before losing to an in-form Federer on all those occasions.
Andy Murray, an outstanding British contender, is regarded as one who should have joined the grand slam winners' club by now, but has so far not been able to take that crucial extra step to graduate from major pretender to the real deal. A 2008 US Open final defeat by Federer is the nearest the Scotsman has come to ending his frustrating spell of underachievement. Nikolay Davydenko is a hard-working Russian who has held his place among the world's elite for several seasons without seriously threatening to snatch any of the top honours.
He can be justifiably added to that list of potential Melbourne champions on the strength of his encouraging success in the ATP's end-of-season Tour finals in London and this month's excellent performances in Doha when he beat Federer and Nadal on the way to the first important title of the year. All five of those talented players have a genuine chance of upsetting the form book over the next fortnight.
However, the nagging feeling that remains is that there will be a repeat of last year's epic final, in which Nadal reduced Federer to a tearful wreck, for those who will fill the Rod Laver arena on Sunday week. Federer has not looked his imperious best preparing for his latest grand slam challenge but similar observations have been made during the build-ups to several of the previous 15 majors that he has won. Nadal was well below his best in the latter half of last year as his baseline dominance was seriously undermined by chronic knee problems.
But the indications during his recent visit to the Middle East - victory in the exhibition Capitala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi preceding a Doha final which he had in his grasp before succumbing to a tenacious Davydenko - were that he is, for the time being at least, over his injuries. An in-form and fully-fit Nadal has proved more than a match for Federer when it really matters. That gripping five-set victory a year ago was the third time in four grand slam finals that the Spaniard had prevailed over the Swiss in a top-two showdown.
Nadal, who begins his challenge for a seventh grand slam title this evening against 78th-ranked local hope Peter Luczak, warned that he is not certain of his physical condition. "I think I'm playing much better than what I did in the last four months," he said. "I'm ready to play my best tennis, I think. "But I don't know for sure. I don't consider myself favourite for this tournament." The world No 2, who could meet Murray in the quarter-finals for the possible right to take on Del Potro in the last four, added yesterday that: "The only way to have confidence is through winning matches and winning important matches.
"I did that in Abu Dhabi and I did that in Doha. So I think now I'm really in the right way." Federer, who has Djokovic in his half of the draw, insisted that the fulfilment of a lifetime's ambition - when he went past Pete Sampras's grand slam record at Wimbledon last year - and the birth of twin daughters shortly afterwards have not deflected him from his relentless pursuit of honours. "The hunger is still there," he said.
"I'm working just as hard as before. I haven't been just baby sitting. "I also like to go out in the morning and put in the big hours on the practice court. "I feel my game is really were it is supposed to be." So, despite making every effort to look beyond the best two players of the last decade, a 21st episode - and an eighth grand slam final - of a captivating personal rivalry is starting to take shape on the Melbourne horizon in the coming week. @Email:email@example.com Abu Dhabi Sports 2, starting at 4am