Murray ready to tackle the Big Three

1/16/2009 - Tennis

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The first question asked of every men's Grand Slam draw in 2008 was: Did Novak Djokovic land in Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal's half? Whichever it was, the side with two of the Big Three automatically became the tougher half, and the top seed on the other end was considered a virtual lock for the final.

The emergence of the "Big Four" has made that question defunct. In recent months, Andy Murray has become a threat equal to Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, guaranteeing that the draw for next week's Australian Open would be relatively balanced.

As it happens, Murray has ended up in Rafael Nadal's half while Novak Djokovic is in Roger Federer's, setting up a possible repeat of the Nadal vs. Murray and Federer vs. Djokovic semifinals from the U.S. Open. But none of them can expect to sail smoothly through to the last four, with plenty of dangerous players looking to knock them off and continue the recent Aussie tradition of unexpected finalists.

Here's a look at how the four quarters of the draw break down:

First Quarter

Top seeds include: Rafael Nadal (1), Gilles Simon (6), Gael Monfils (12), Fernando Gonzalez (13), Richard Gasquet (29)

Dark horses: Lleyton Hewitt, Tommy Haas, Ivo Karlovic (25), Mario Ancic

Rafael Nadal says he'll have to feel out his way the first couple of matches, and he should be able to do that thanks to some easy-looking openers. But then follows a French trio who have made a habit of giving Nadal a tough time.

In the fourth round would be the supremely talented but erratic Richard Gasquet, who is 0-6 against his juniors rival on the ATP circuit but has at least frequently played Nadal close. The quarterfinals could bring the supremely athletic but erratic Gael Monfils or the quick and clever Gilles Simon. Monfils defeated Nadal in Doha last week, while Simon edged the Spaniard at Madrid in a fall thriller that was one of the better matches of the year.

Gasquet won't find it easy to get through to his meeting with Nadal, however, because 2007 finalist Fernando Gonzalez and local favorite Lleyton Hewitt are also in his section. And a couple of Croats, Mario Ancic and the giant-serving Ivo Karlovic, could wreak havoc in the bottom half of this quarter.

First-round match of note: Fernando Gonzalez (13) vs. Lleyton Hewitt

Quarterfinal projection: Nadal def. Monfils

Second Quarter

Top seeds include: Andy Murray (4), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (5), James Blake (9), Fernando Verdasco (14), Radek Stepanek (22)

Dark horses: Ernests Gulbis, Kei Nishikori

Andy Murray, too, should sail through the first couple of rounds, and then could face Davis Cup foe Jurgen Melzer of Austria or teen phenom Kei Nishikori in the third round. His fourth-round opponent could be decided by a repeat of last week's Brisbane final: Radek Stepanek vs. Fernando Verdasco.

The bottom half of this quarter has been thrown into flux by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's back injury. He should live up to his No. 5 seeding if fully recovered by the time the tournament starts, but if not, it could open up the door for the likes of James Blake or Ernests Gulbis. Blake and Gulbis are scheduled to meet in the third round, an intriguing clash given that the talented young Latvian won both of their encounters last year and began this season by defeating Djokovic.

A Murray-Tsonga quarterfinal would be a repeat of last year's first-round matchup between the two, won by Tsonga in five exciting sets. Both have come a long way since, and this encounter would likely be the highlight of the final eight this year.

First-round match of note: Jurgen Melzer vs. Kei Nishikori

Quarterfinal projection: Murray def. Tsonga

Third Quarter

Top seeds include: Novak Djokovic (3), Andy Roddick (7) David Nalbandian (10)

Dark horses: Marcos Baghdatis, Robin Soderling (16), Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent, Juan Carlos Ferrero

Color this the American quarter, with Andy Roddick leading a group of opportunistic compatriots. Significant progress is expected from the 21-year-old Sam Querrey this year, and his Australian Open campaign will be helped by the fact that his seeded first-round opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber, has a dodgy shoulder. That's also good news for Roddick, who was knocked out in the third round by Kohlschreiber here a year ago and was scheduled to face him again at the same stage this year.

Mardy Fish will have to negotiate a tricky section that also features the tough Robin Soderling and 2006 finalist Marcos Baghdatis, who feels he's finally on the upswing after a nasty stretch of injuries last year. Robert Kendrick and Bobby Reynolds have tough openers against seeded players, but Taylor Dent faces a qualifier as he makes his Grand Slam return after three (count 'em) back surgeries.

But let's not forget defending champion Novak Djokovic, who recently switched racket companies and has been having some trouble adjusting to his new stick. Losing in the Sydney semifinals this week cost him a chance to come into the tournament as No. 2 in the world (though it wouldn't have affected the seedings). Now the pressure is on him to defend his points from last year and avoid slipping to No. 4 behind Murray.

The unpredictable David Nalbandian is lurking here as well, a possible fourth-round opponent for Andy Roddick

First-round matches of note: Sam Querrey vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber (32), Julien Benneteau vs. Marcos Baghdatis

Quarterfinal projection: Nalbandian def. Djokovic

Fourth Quarter

Top seeds: Roger Federer (1), Juan Martin del Potro (8), Stanislas Wawrinka (15), Marin Cilic (19), Feliciano Lopez (27)

Dark horses: Marat Safin (26), Gilles Muller, John Isner, Philipp Petzschner, Bernard Tomic

If Roger Federer is feeling as good as he says he is, he should have little trouble till he reaches the quarterfinals. Marat Safin would be an interesting but probably limited test in the third round, and it would be a major surprise if fellow Swiss and doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka could summon the gall to take him out in the fourth.

But then could come an interesting test against Juan Martin del Potro, the current leader of the next wave. But in the fourth round, Del Potro himself could face one of his fellow young guns, Marin Cilic. Both have done well in the lead-up events, with Cilic winning Auckland and Del Potro going strong in Auckland.

Two other big servers, John Isner and Kevin Anderson, are in Cilic's section, while Aussie prodigy Bernard Tomic starts against a qualifier.

First-round matches of note: Tomas Berdych (20) vs. Robby Ginepri, Feliciano Lopez (27) vs. Gilles Muller

Quarterfinal projection: Federer def. Del Potro

Semifinal projection

Murray def. Nadal, Federer def. Nalbandian

Final projection

Murray def. Federer

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.