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.

Federer, playing with a larger racket head and a new coach, Stefan Edberg, potentially would see Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round and Murray in the quarters. This is his 57th consecutive Grand Slam appearance.

"I definitely have less pressure this year, less to lose," Federer said. "I'm not the defending champion or any of that. So, yeah, I should be able to play more freely, and other guys are supposed to make their move or defend again, all these things."

Is he in shape to win?

"We'll find out," he said, smiling. "I don't know yet."

No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych: The 28-year-old from the Czech Republic has been relentlessly consistent Down Under. He reached the quarterfinals here three years in a row from 2011 to 2013 -- before losing to Djokovic (twice) and Nadal.

Looking at it a different way, Berdych has failed to reach the fourth round here only once in the past seven years.

"Yeah, I like to play here," he said. "I like the crowd, the people, the courts, the atmosphere. So I hope that I'm going to be able to make another successful run here in Melbourne."

Although a few dangerous fellows lurk early -- Kevin Anderson, Mikhail Youzhny, Jerzy Janowicz -- Berdych should arrive in the quarters again, opposite No. 3 seed David Ferrer.

No. 10 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Once upon a time, the flying Frenchman advanced to a Grand Slam singles final. He lost in a fourth-set tiebreaker to a 20-year-old named Djokovic.

That was six years ago, but it feels a lot longer. The window is closing on Tsonga, but the Aussie remains his best chance for a first major title.

No. 3 seed David Ferrer: The feisty Spaniard will turn 32 in April, but he continues to defy gravity with his highest seeding ever in a major. His past three results here -- semifinals, quarterfinals, semifinals -- represent a terrific run.

Ferrer rolled through Alejandro Gonzalez in straight sets in the first round but could face Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third and, potentially, Berdych in the quarters.

This is Ferrer's 45th consecutive major appearance.