The final week of preparation before the first slam of the year sees two tournaments, both in Oceania. The Apia International in Sydney is one of the oldest tournaments in the history of tennis, dating back to 1885. The tournament boasts an extraordinary list of winners including the likes of Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver during the 50s and in more recent times Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt and James Blake have been multiple winners here. Last year’s winner Jarkko Nieminen will be participating here, but will not be seeded.
John Isner is seeded No.1, at least for the time being. He withdrew from the Hopman Cup through injury, and with the Australian Open just next week he may decide it isn’t worth the risk. The first round bye gives him extra recovery time before a match with either qualifier Ryan Harrison or Roberto Bautista-Agut. Harrison strolled through qualifying without losing a set in three matches and will be hoping it is third time lucky against his fellow American who he has failed to defeat in their last two meetings. Bautista-Agut comes off an astonishing run in Chennai – making the final and taking the first set against Janko Tipsarevic as an unseeded player. The Spaniard earlier knocked out seeds Tomas Berdych and Benoit Paire. Julian Benneteau, a losing finalist last year, will be glad not to see Jarkko Nieminen in his side of the draw. The Frenchman made it 0-6 against the man who defeated him in the final this year with another straight sets defeat in Brisbane. Despite the 0-2 head to head, Benneteau will be happy facing Pablo Andujar to kick off his challenge this year. Andujar is on an eight match losing streak and finding it hard to gain wins off of clay (his two victories against Benneteau were on clay). Radek Stepanek, whose year ended in glorious style with the all important win in Czech Republic’s Davis Cup tie against Spain, begins against another Spaniard in Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Despite qualifying with three straight sets victories, it wasn’t quite as comfortable as the score suggested with Garcia-Lopez going down breaks to much lower ranked players before finally coming out on top. The pair have split their two meetings but have never faced each other on clay. Stepanek definitely has to be favoured as long as he has recovered from the eye infection that saw him withdraw from Brisbane.
Part of the Hopman Cup winning team, Fernando Verdasco should be high on confidence but in reality much of the success can be attributed to his partner Anabel Medina Garrigues. Verdasco only won one singles match in the whole tournament – against the 16 year old alternate Thanasi Kokkinakis. It is possible that he could start his tournament here against another highly rated Australian prospect in James Duckworth who has been granted a wildcard entry. After taking a set of Janko Tipsarevic in Melbourne last year, Duckworth has been slogging away on the Challenger Tour with middling success suggesting that he is not quite ready for the main tour just yet. An inform Denis Istomin should be enough to send the Australian out in the first round. Istomin, who pushed eventual Brisbane winner Andy Murray close in his straight sets defeat, has lost three of his last four encounters against Verdasco but will be encouraged by the fact the last meeting was his only victory. Another played granted a special exemption entry after a shock run in Chennai is Aljaz Bedene. Bedene defeated Stanislas Wawrinka on his run to the semis and looks a good bet to rise up the rankings this year. Bedene takes on Kevin Anderson in what could be an intriguing clash. Anderson’s big serve is always deadly and saw him contest five tie breaks in Hopman Cup last week – winning three of five including one against a possible quarter final opponent in Verdasco. Feliciano Lopez will be hoping to avoid the wrath of the officials this week, after time violation issues in his defeat to Lukasz Kubot. Lopez was called for wasting time down set points and eventually lost the set. In the second a visible annoyed Lopez didn’t look too interested and exited without a fight. He begins with a rather tough clash against Jeremy Chardy, the seventh seed. Chardy was dumped out in the first round by an inspired Daniel Brands - who made the semi final as a qualifier in Doha.
Four Australians compete in the bottom half of the draw but Matthew Ebden is the only one unlucky enough to start his tournament with one. Ebden plays Spain’s Marcel Granollers in a repeat of last year’s draw. Ebden was victorious last time out, moving on to the next round with a 6-1 3-6 6-3 victory. Quite bizarrely, Granollers has maintained a 50% winning record on hard courts in each of the last three years. Grigor Dimitrov finally looks to be delivering on his promise after he made his first ATP final in Brisbane. Unfortunately, he was defeated by defending champion Andy Murray 7-6 6-4. The Bulgarian needs to kick on now with Fabio Fognini, his first round opponent, being the types of players he needs to win fairly comfortably against to prove he can move to the next level especially considering the Italian is in the midst of a six match losing streak in main draw matches. Andreas Seppi, another Hopman Cup competitor, is seeded third here and is rewarded with an opening round bye before taking on Tommy Robredo or John Millman in round two. Millman was the only player to take a set from Andy Murray during the defense of his Brisbane title while Robredo picked up a surprise win over Ryan Harrison.
The final quarter of the draw looks wide open with two seeds prone to upset. Florian Mayer still continues to struggle and was a straight sets loser in round two against Marcos Baghdatis in Brisbane. He faces Joao Sousa (not to be confused with Joao Souza) in the opening round. Sousa made it through three qualifying rounds to get here and it will be interesting to see how much success he has against Mayer considering his lack of experience on the surface at all levels. For me, one of the most interesting matches in the first round is Bernard Tomic against Marinko Matosevic. After contrasting years for the pair, it was Matosevic that ended the year as Australian No.1. Tomic has been suffering disappointing defeats left, right and centre and criticism flew his way after the debacle at the US Open where he pretty much admitted not making an effort. Tomic began his year playing Hopman Cup and looked inspired. He was playing a much more aggressive style and it paid off as he defeated Novak Djokovic, Tommy Haas and Andreas Seppi. The relevance of the Hopman Cup is debatable but if Tomic can take this form into Sydney and Melbourne then a surprise run is very possible. Gilles Simon rounds off this draw as No.2 seed and faces a very tough task in his first match if Jarkko Nieminen defeats Bjorn Phau as expected. Nieminen won the title last year and has a 50% winning record against Simon so it definitely could go either way. Unfortunately though, Nieminen pulled out of Brisbane injured so there will have to be question marks over his fitness.