Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Grand Slam tennis will make its return next week when the Australian Open swings into action at Melbourne Park, where Novak Djokovic is the three-time reigning and four-time overall champion.
The super Serb will head to Melbourne riding a 21-match winning streak there, with his last loss coming in a quarterfinal in 2010.
Last year, Djokovic ultimately handled British star and good friend Andy Murray in four sets in the Aussie final. It marked a rematch of the 2011 title tilt, which also was taken by Djokovic in straight sets.
Djokovic has captured four of the last six titles Down Under, with his first one coming back in 2008. His other finals victims were Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in '08 and Rafael Nadal in 2012 in what was the longest-ever Grand Slam final in Open Era history, a war of attrition that lasted an incredible 5 hours, 53 minutes.
The 26-year-old Djokovic will make his 2014 season debut in Oz with new head coach Boris Becker, after closing out his 2013 campaign on a torrid 24-match winning streak, which included a hardcourt title at the exclusive season- ending ATP World Tour Finals in London.
The former world No. 1 star is currently the premier hardcourt performer on the globe and should be the favorite to nail down another Aussie title in two weeks.
Note: The six-time Grand Slam titlist Djokovic is a perfect 4-0 in Aussie Open finals.
The Djoker's major roadblock in Melbourne could be the great Nadal, the reigning U.S. and French Open champ. The current world No. 1 Rafa beat Djokovic in last year's U.S. Open finale and also outlasted the strapping Serb in a brilliant semifinal at the French last spring.
When it comes to the Aussie, however, Nadal succumbed to the Serb in that epic '12 finale.
Nadal did, however, capture an Aussie title in 2009, so he's proven he can go all the way on his least-favorite (I guess) surface.
And did I forget to mention the 13-time major champion Nadal opened his season last week with a hardcourt title in Qatar?
How about Murray? Can he make another run in Melbourne this time around?
The British star is on the mend after being sidelined for three-and-a-half months because of minor back surgery. He made a much-anticipated return to the tour last week in Brisbane, but crashed out in the second round at the hands of quality German Florian Mayer.
Has Murray brushed off enough rust to compete with Djokovic and/or Nadal in the 'Bourne?
The two-time Grand Slam winner and Olympic gold medalist Murray is still the reigning Wimbledon champ, having upset Djokovic in the final at the All England Club last summer, and gave way to the Serb, of course, in last year's Aussie finale.
The one-time world No. 2 Murray has never captured the Aussie Open, where he's been the runner-up three of the last four years. Djokovic also got him in the 2011 final there.
Another former champion in the field is the legendary Roger Federer. The Fed owns four Aussie titles overall (2004, '06, '07, 2010) and was the 2009 runner-up to his great rival, Nadal.
Believe it or not, the 17-time Grand Slam king is ranked a mere sixth in the world at this point and is fresh off a final loss against Aussie fave and fellow 32-year-old Lleyton Hewitt last week in Brisbane. Does this mean the slipping Swiss will not challenge the likes of Djokovic, Nadal and/or Murray in Oz?
The former No. 1 Federer captured only one title anywhere on tour last year (grass in Halle) and failed to reach at least one Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002.
All indicators would point to another Federer Grand Slam shutout in 2014.
David Ferrer may be ranked third in the world, ahead of the likes of Murray and Federer, but the feisty Spaniard has never been a real threat to run the table in Melbourne.
Sure, the veteran Spaniard was a finalist at the French Open last year, but that was on his specialty surface - clay - which is a far cry from the fast Plexicushion at Melbourne Park. And Ferrer is a two-time Aussie Open semifinalist, including last year, but I don't see him titling at the event any time soon.
Then there's the big boss man, Juan Martin del Potro. This guy has the game and the guts to capture any event on any surface. I know he hasn't fared all that well at the Aussie, with his best finishes coming in the form of quarterfinals in 2009 and 2012, but he's proven that he can win the big one on a hardcourt, as evidenced by a 2009 U.S. Open title.
A Wimbledon semifinalist last season, the 6-foot-6 bruiser del Potro is almost always in the mix at the majors, and this year's Aussie should be no different.
Who else do we need to keep an eye on? Tomas Berdych? Stan Wawrinka? Milos Raonic?
The best guy on this list right now has to be Wawrinka. The "Other Swiss" was one of the best players on the planet over the second half of 2013 and just opened his 2014 season with a hardcourt title in India. I wouldn't be surprised if he was the last Swiss standing in Melbourne in a couple weeks. Sorry, Fed, but "Stan the Man" just appears to be a bigger threat at this point in time.
Wawrinka had a major hiccup by losing in the first round at Wimbledon last year, but he also reached the fourth round at the Aussie, the quarters at the French, and his first-ever Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open.
This 28-year-old is on the move.
A former Wimbledon finalist, Berdych has a tendency to disappoint in the second week at majors. He failed to get past the quarterfinals at any of last year's events and has never reached the semis at the Aussie. He's bowed out in the Down Under quarters the last three years.
Raonic is still an up-and-coming slugger from Canada. He's currently 11th in the world and has his eyes set on the Top 5.
He will get there!
With perhaps the best service game in the world, the 6-foot-5 native of Montenegro seems to be real close to a coming-out party. He's still never reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal, but I expect that to change this year, perhaps even in two weeks ... he's just too good not to.
The ATP, of course, boasts a bevy of quality players, but I think this year's Aussie will be just a two-horse race between Nadal and Djokovic, and I like the Serb to four-peat for a fifth Aussie crown. And if Djokovic can prevail there again, it would give him an Open Era-record fifth men's title in Oz. He's currently tied with Andre Agassi and Federer with four titles apiece.
Note: Aussie great Roy Emerson piled up six Aussie titles in the Amateur Era (before 1968), including five straight at one point (1963-67).
By the way, the last Aussie man to rule the roost at his home major was Mark Edmondson way back in 1976. There have been five Aussie runners-up since then, with the last one being the aforementioned Hewitt in 2005.
The 2014 Aussie will commence next Monday.