After weeks of exhibitions, the real tennis finally starts up again with three ATP 250 tournaments. The first we are focusing on is the Brisbane International. Last year’s winner Andy Murray returns to defend his title, with two more of the 2012 semi finalists in Gilles Simon and Alexandr Dolgopolov also appearing this year. The other, Bernard Tomic, will be unable to defend his semi final place due to his commitments at the Hopman Cup where he is playing with Ashleigh Barty. While the origins of this tournament stem back to the 70’s, it has only been a fixture in Brisbane since 2009 with the now retired Andy Roddick, Robin Soderling and Radek Stepanek the others to win the title.
Full of confidence after ending 2012 with his first major and a gold medal, the draw appears to pose little threat to Andy Murray if he is full focused on taking the title here. His performance at the Mubadala Tennis Championships seemed to indicate his mind was elsewhere as he tamely exited to Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets. He opens up against either Tatsuma Ito or a qualifier. Murray defeated Ito for just the loss of six games at the French Open and would probably prefer to play the Japanese over a list of potentially dangerous qualifiers that include Ricardas Berankis and Ryan Harrison. Two times winner (98,00) and home favourite Lleyton Hewitt will kick off the new year in style with an intriguing night encounter against 2009 champion Radek Stepanek. Hewitt currently leads the head to head 3-1 although one was due to a retirement, and more notably Stepanek was an easy winner in their most recent encounter with a victory in straight sets 7-5 6-1 in Shanghai 2012. The winner of the 2012 Newcomer of the Year Martin Klizan will hope to push on after a successful year that saw the Slovak establish himself on the main tour and also pick up his first ATP Tour title. He plays Denis Istomin – the Uzbek showed some of his best form in the Australian tournaments last year, making the semi final of Sydney. As Klizan played challenger for almost half of 2012, a good run here could set him on his way for a big push towards a spot in the top 20.
Losing finalist in 2012, Alexandr Dolgopolov will hope to go one better this time round but will most likely find Murray waiting for him in the semi final if he were to get there. It is definitely no given considering the Ukranian’s wild swings in form all year round and if he were to slip up possible second round opponents Jarkko Nieminen and Julien Benneteau have the experience to take advantage. The head-to-head is surprisingly lopsided between these two 31 year-olds with Nieminen winning all five times on three different surfaces mostly recently a straight sets victor at Sydney 2012. Tommy Robredo plays a yet to be decided qualifier for the chance to take on either Kei Nishikori or Marinko Matosevic. Matosevic is the only Australian player to qualify directly but the draw has not done him any favours pitting him against one of the best young players on the tour. Nishikori ended the season well and took his first ATP title in Tokyo.
In the bottom half of the draw, Milos Raonic is favourite to make the final but will have a tough task making it there. The Canadian, who is on the verge of the top 10, is surprisingly choosing not defend his Chennai title and therefore will need a great performance here to avoid a drop in ranking points. Raonic is the highest ranked player 21 years old or younger and we could possibly see a match between him and the second highest ranked 21 and under in Grigor Dimitrov. Brian Baker stands between the two men – after his great comeback in the summer he appears to have hit a brick wall and has struggled late in the year. It will be interesting to how much the off season will benefit him. If Raonic makes the semi final, he will be hoping to avoid Jurgen Melzer. The Austrian usually copes well with big servers and defeated the Canadian in Memphis as he lost in the final for the second time running there. A qualifier awaits Melzer first before either another Australian wildcard in Matthew Ebden or David Goffin. After bursting onto the scene at Roland Garros, where he took a set from Roger Federer, Goffin has been fairly consistent. Goffin’s last main draw action of the year was in Valencia where he made the quarter finals, defeating in straights by Melzer.
Third seed and 2012 semi finalist Gilles Simon rounds off the top 4 seeds who have byes and he opens up against Alejandro Falla or a qualifier. While much of Falla’s success has come on the challenger circuit (mainly on clay), it is a notable that four of his six 2012 hard court victories came in the first month of the year on the hard courts of Auckland and Melbourne. However, it would be a massive surprise if the Colombian were to be victorious in the potential round two tie. The final Australian wildcard is Benjamin Mitchell who has played just twice on the main tour – as a result of wildcards in this very same tournament in 2012 and the following Australian Open. He was defeated in straight sets in both but kept up with John Isner in Melbourne, only losing 4,4 and 6. The experience of Marcos Baghdatis should be enough to see off the youngster. Baghdatis still performs fairly well on hard courts and went 17-12 in 2012 including semi finals in Zagreb, Sydney and Tokyo. Florian Mayer will look to reverse his slump of last year against Santiago Giraldo. Other than making the quarter finals of Wimbledon, it wasn’t the best of years for the 28th ranked player who ended the season with a losing record on all three other surfaces than grass. Meanwhile, Giraldo was a quarter finalist at this stage and of all the seeds to draw – he would fancy his chances most if the German continues the form he ended the season with.