Five dark horses you'd better watch


There was a time in the dark, distant past when predicting the Australian Open was truly open to suggestion.

In the 1998 final, No. 6-seeded Petr Korda beat No. 9 Marcelo Rios for the only Grand Slam singles title of his career. A year later, No. 10 seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov and unseeded Thomas Enqvist met in a final that went to Kafelnikov, one of the two majors on his résumé.

One-hit wonder Thomas Johansson (2002), 32-year-old Andre Agassi (2003) and the mercurial Marat Safin (2005) all found their way into the winner's club before order was restored. The No. 1 seed has since won six of the past eight men's titles in Melbourne; Novak Djokovic was the exception, winning as the No. 3 seed in 2008 and 2011. Now he's looking for his fifth title in seven years.

The Big Three of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray -- regrettably, we have taken the liberty of downgrading  Roger Federer -- have made the "Happy Slam" their personal amusement park, filling seven of the past eight spots in the final. Federer, a four-time Aussie champion, finds himself among a handful of players hankering to crack that code again.

Is there still a belief among the other top-10 players, Federer was asked before the tournament, that they can knock Djokovic and Nadal off their perches?

"Of course," Federer said, maybe a little too quickly. "We do believe we can knock them off, yes."

Nevertheless, the gap is so pronounced that Djokovic, seeking his fourth straight title, and Nadal are monstrous favorites to win the tournament. A dollar bet on the Serb will bring you only $1.85 and a middling $3.50 for Rafa. Murray, who missed three months of tennis after back surgery, is the third favorite, albeit from a great distance. He's rated by the bookmakers as a 11-1 shot.

So even though the oddsmakers aren't feeling it, here are five guys with the best chance to channel Kafelnikov and sneak off with this thing.

No. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro: He started the year off nicely, winning the title at Sydney, but didn't beat anyone ranked in the top 30.

The 25-year-old Argentine is the only ATP World Tour player not named Nadal, Djokovic, Federer or Murray to win a Grand Slam singles title in the past nine years, going back to Safin's victory in the 2005 Australian Open. This is the only major in which he hasn't reached at least the semifinals. He made the quarterfinals in 2009 and 2012.

Del Potro has a clear path through three rounds but likely would see Milos Raonic or Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth. No. 1-seeded Nadal is the projected opponent in the quarterfinals.

Djokovic believes that del Potro has addressed his greatest weakness.

"He's fitter," Djokovic said before the tournament. "I feel that on the court he's ready to go the distance. I believe he has the potential to win Grand Slams and to be definitely one of the players to fight for No. 1. Why not? In this year or next year, that's something that I don't know exactly."

No. 6 seed Roger Federer: To his credit, Federer, 32, found a way to get to the final four in Melbourne in each of the past three years. He's coming off a rare recent finals appearance in Brisbane, where he lost to No. 60-ranked Lleyton Hewitt.

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