TENNIS boffin Mark Stinchombe (@MarkStinchcombe) analyses the men's outright picture ahead of the 2017 Australian Open.
Australian Open | 16-29 January 2017 | Eurosport
Andy Murray begins 2017 as world number one looking to start the year how he finished 2016.
After winning Wimbledon and the Olympics in the summer, in the final part of the season Murray won all five of Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris and the World Tour Finals, culminating in becoming the top-ranked player in the world.
There were a few bumps in the road along the way however, losing the final of Cincinnati when 1/6 v Marin Cilic, knocked out of the US Open quarters by Kei Nishikori when 1/6 having been two-sets-to-one-up and losing from the same position to Juan Martin Del Potro in the Davis Cup at 1/4.
Ignore early season form
I try not to read too much into the tournaments at the beginning of the year before Australia.
Players generally have had at least a month off in the off-season and I find them more of a warm-up after the break and saving their energy for the Slam rather than going all out and having nothing left to give when they most need it.
However, Murray met Novak Djokovic in the final of Doha and it was fascinating that the Scot went off as 4/6 favourite. And despite saving three match points in set two, eventually Murray lost.
All of that means there's barely anything to choose between them in the outright odds with Murray narrowly second favourite at 9/5 (Boylesports). Murray has made five finals here and lost them all, an overwhelming 15-2 in sets.
Djokovic’s peculiar 2016
It seems strange to not be discussing Novak Djokovic first but it's justified with him now residing as world number two. It was a peculiar second half of last season for his standards after his maiden French Open title.
The Serbian suffered a shock loss against big serving Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, which he cited was due to personal reasons, before re-asserting his dominance by claiming the Toronto Masters without dropping a set.
He was then knocked out at the first hurdle of the Olympics to former US Open champion del Potro, although no disgrace being beaten in two tie-breaks to the big hitter. Further losses then came in the US Open final, Shanghai semi, Paris quarters and World Tour final.
There's no definitive reason for these seemingly sudden losses from someone who is usually invincible but he is human at the end of day and sometimes it isn't always possible to maintain perfection.
Those of you may remember a similar pattern of results at the backend of 2011 after winning 67 of his first 69 matches.
Return of the Djok
Australia is where Djokovic (7/4 Betfair) has had his best Slam success, winning this tournament no fewer than six times, including five of the last six years. He dropped just three sets last year and has now won 39 of his last 40 matches here.
He's played Murray on five occasions here, four times in finals, winning every time, a convincing 15-4 in sets and has now beaten the Scot in 11 of their last 12 hard court meetings. He's the master defender and with the speed of the courts down under, it's very difficult to get anything past him over the best of five sets.
Elsewhere in the field
Looking at the other contenders, now three-time Slam champion and 2014 winner Stanislas Wawrinka (16/1 888) must be respected. However, I find him very difficult to trust and he is capable of throwing in some sloppy performances when you least expect it.
After winning the US Open, he lost in his next four tournaments at odds of 1/3, 2/7, 3/10 and 2/7. In my opinion, he's in the tougher half of the draw as well with Murray, Nishikori and Cilic.
Nishikori (40/1 Betfair) is a player I struggle to get right but he's never been past the quarters here and is body is always capable of blowing up.
Cilic (80/1 Coral) has made the semi's once before in 2010 but hasn't been past Round 4 since and I don't think the surface is quick enough for him to cause major problems.
The projected quarter-finalists on Djokovic's half of the draw sees last year’s semi-finalist Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils and Dominic Thiem.
Raonic (22/1 Betfair) worked hard last year to make improvements to his game, particularly his movement, but I think the semi's is his max and better players will show up his ability to get around the court.
It probably says more where the men's game is at at the moment with Monfils seeded higher than the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych, with the top two edging away from the rest.
With Novak Djokovic's match odds seeing him win at 10/11 last year, 11/10 in 2015 and 21/20 in 2013, and with his superior record over Andy Murray here, I have to back him at the 7/4 available.
If he plays his A-game it's difficult to see who can breach him over five sets in Australia.
Australian Open – Novak Djokovic to win outright (7/4 Betfair)