Novak Djokovic has absolutely dominated the Australian Open in recent times, lifting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup five times in the last six years. History beckons on the Serbian in 2017 as he goes into the first major of the year with the chance of becoming the most successful player ever to grace the competition.
Djokovic already leads the Open Era list with his six Melbourne crowns, but the world number two still needs to shake off Roy Emerson to stand alone at the top of the all-time table.
Djokovic’s below-par second half of 2016 has been well-documented, but Melbourne Park has been a fortress for the Serbian over the last half a dozen years, and a couple of months away from the rigours of the tour, and a return to his most productive hunting ground could be the therapy for the surprisingly subdued performances of the last six months.
The world number two has conceded a substantial psychological ground to rival, Andy Murray in their battle for dominance, and with the streaking Murray- the number one player in the world- cleaning up everything in sight, the Scot will justifiably feel that this is the time for him to end his Australian Open heartbreak and claim his first Melbourne title having lost out in five previous finals.
Like six-time champion, Djokovic, Murray presents a strong case to be considered favourite for the title. He has won his last 24 matches, and fittingly closed out a stunning year with a comprehensive victory over Djokovic at the World Tour Finals in London.
Will the off-season douse his fire, or will it fire him up for more success in the New Year?
The powers of incumbency are with Djokovic, but the form book sides with Murray. These two guys have contested the Australian Open final in the last two seasons, and that trend is likely to spill into 2017.
Nothing in sport is set in stone, and there are a few other men around the draw who are very capable of breaking the Djokovic-Murray duopoly in Melbourne.
Murray and Djokovic are the number one and two players in the world, but they will have to concede a significant portion of the limelight to the returning greats and former champions, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Federer, especially, will fancy a deep run at Melbourne Park. Apart from a freak third round loss to Italian, Andreas Seppi in 2015; the Swiss has not failed to reach the semi-finals at Melbourne Park since 2003. His recent inactivity has led to an inevitable drop in his ranking, but if he manages to avoid the top guys early on, and has a chance to play his way through the draw, he will be very dangerous at the deep end.
Federer will like a shot at Djokovic in his current guise- having lost to the Serbian in three of his last four Slam appearances; and he will not be too perturbed about the prospects of taking on Murray. Federer has beaten the Murray in each of their last five meetings.
While Federer remains a big threat at the Australian Open, it is difficult to make a case for Nadal. At his best, he contested some of the most memorable matches in Melbourne, but he still has just the one title to show for his efforts. Nadal did not make a single Grand Slam quarter final in 2016, and has not been to the last four of a major since his Roland Garros success in 2014. He still looks a decent shout on clay, but he has become more and more vulnerable on hard courts over the last couple of seasons.
Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka are the closest to Murray and Djokovic on the rankings; they are also the most likely to prevent a final between the top two players in the world in Melbourne.
Raonic’s ascent to the status of genuine Grand Slam contender gathered pace in 2016, when he pushed Andy Murray to five sets at the Australian Open and lost the Wimbledon final to the Briton. He is well behind in his head-to-head against Murray and Djokovic, but he showed last season that he is getting closer to the top guys. He lost out in two marginal tie breaks to Djokovic at the World Tour Finals, and held a match point against Murray at the season-ending showpiece. He will be itching to get another bite at the cherry in Melbourne.
Wawrinka was not as consistent as Raonic in 2016, but the enigmatic Swiss has won a major in each of the last three years. His ability flip the switch from redundancy to world-beater has become legendary, and that mere fact makes him a contender in virtually every Grand Slam, regardless in whatever he might have done (or not done) in the preceding weeks.
The rest of the top ten will huff and puff around the draw- Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori being the most likely to make a big mark- but they will need one of the top two to have bad day to have a chance of winning.
Outside the top ten, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has very good memories of Australia. If he is fit and he’s feeling that forehand, he could be a real handful, so will Juan Martin del Potro, who defied a virtually non-existent backhand to record some massive victories in 2016.
Nick Kyrgios will again lead the charge of the young guns, but while Kyrgios, Pouille, Zverev and co. can claim the odd big scalp, a seven-match run to a Grand Slam title is inconceivable, for now at least.
After all said and done, this one will likely come down to another showdown between the world number one and world number two- Murray and Djokovic- with the former looking to drive home his new-found momentum, and the later desperate to re-establish control over the rivalry.