By John O'Donovan
The biggest story of 2013 was Rafa Nadal’s return, after nine months out of the game with a career threatening knee injury, to win two grand slams and to finish the year as world number one.
It was also the year when Andy Murray won Wimbledon to become the first British winner in 77 years while Novak Djokovic reached three of the four grand slam finals and also claimed the season ending ATP World Tour Finals in London.
It was a bad year for the great Roger Federer as he won just one title and failed to reach the final of a slam for the first time since 2002.
David Ferrer, who has been a fixture in the top five for many years, finally reached a grand slam final, which he lost to Nadal in Paris, while Stanislas Wawrinka had a breakthrough year reaching the semi-final of the US Open, defeating Thomas Berdych and Andy Murray along the way.
It all kicks off again when the Australian Open starts this Monday in Melbourne.
This tournament was often the hardest to predict as it is the first grand slam event of the season and the excessively warm conditions can make it a battle of physical strength as much as tennis ability.
There is no doubt that Nadal and Djokovic were the two dominant men on the tour last year, as they shared three of the four Grand Slam titles as well as eight of the nine Masters titles.
As a result, this year’s event appears to be a straight shoot-out between the two men with the Serbian is my favourite to take the title.
Both players are aiming to create history. The Spaniard is looking to become the first man in Open history to win every Grand Slam at least twice, while he will also be hoping to move ever closer to Federer’s record of 17 Grand Slams - Nadal currently has 13.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will be aiming to win the title for a fourth consecutive year - already a record - and will be hoping for a fifth triumph which would surpass the record he currently shares with Federer and Andre Agassi.
Djokovic always starts the season remarkably well and when you consider how he finished the 2013 season, with a magnificent unbeaten run through the World Tour Finals and two Masters events in Shanghai and in Paris, he is the man to beat and is currently on a 24-match unbeaten run.
The Serb is an extremely consistent player and has made the final in nine of the last 12 slams.
Significantly, he also beat Nadal in straight sets in their last two encounters in 2013, in the China Open and in the ATP Tour Finals in London.
The hard courts in Australia is the surface best suited to Djokovic’s game, where his relentless ground strokes, stunning athleticism and vigorous defence come to the fore.
Nadal, however, can never be written off as the Majorcan is arguably the greatest competitor in the history of the sport.
Many people doubted whether he would ever come back as a force in men’s tennis after his nine-month absence, but he answered his doubters by returning in the best possible fashion recording one of the most dominant seasons ever, winning ten titles including both the French and US Open.
Nadal realised during his period out of the game that he could no longer compete with Djokovic by playing his defensive game from behind the baseline.
Since his return he has been taking more risks on his return of serve, and standing closer to the baseline allowing him to hit more forehands and backhands just moments after the ball bounces.
To win on faster surfaces, and to stay injury free, Nadal is now hitting fewer recovery shots - those high, spinning balls that might land in the middle of the court and simply keep a rally alive. He's moving forward more often to finish points at the net.
Nadal may put his end of season defeats to Djokovic down to fatigue after a physically and mentally draining year. He has started 2014 by winning in Qatar last week although perhaps in a less than convincing fashion, dropping sets to World Number 162 Peter Gojowczyk and Gael Monfis in the final.
Andy Murray is the third favourite but is not match fit after undergoing back surgery in September. He made his return in Qatar but lost to Florian Mayer in the second round, meaning he will go into the year's first slam having played just two exhibition and two ATP Tour singles matches.
Murray has, however, reached the final in Melbourne three times including last year when he lost to Djokovic in four sets. Reaching the semi-finals will be an achievement for the Scot this time around.
Federer is certainly talking a good game as we enter 2014 but I’m afraid his time at the summit of the game has passed.
Nadal and Djokovic have moved beyond him and he cannot hope to beat either player from the back of the court as they relentlessly target his backhand which cannot stand up to the constant pressure, while age is also a considerable factor. The 32-year-old is coming off his worst season in more than a decade, winning only one title (an ATP event in Halle), failing to make a grand slam final for the first time since 2002 and dropping out of the top five. He also suffered a shock defeat to that great Australian competitor Lleyton Hewitt in the final in Brisbane last week.
David Ferrer is at a career high ranking of third in the world but I cannot see him winning the tournament, even though 2013 was his best year.
The Spaniard is on a streak of eight consecutive slam quarter-finals, which includes the aforementioned run to the French Open final, plus another four semi-finals, including in the US Open for the last two years.
He has started this season promisingly, beating Nadal in the Mudabala Championship in Abu Dhabi, although it should be noted that this is just an exhibition tournament. He lacks the power and force, which Nadal and Djokovic possess, to win the title.
Outside challenges are likely to come from Juan Martin Del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as both players have the power, on their day, to match the top two.
Del Potro has a huge serve and forehand and the 25-year-old Argentine was the only player to beat Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer last year, having his best season since his US Open-winning 2009.
In 2013 Tsonga reached the semi-finals of the French and the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and reached the semi-finals or better in three of his last five tournaments.
It will be fascinating to follow the progress of Wawrinka after his breakthough last year. Grigor Dimitrov will hope to make the headlines for tennis reasons, and not just as Maria Sharapova’s boyfriend, by following on from winning a title last year and beating Djokovic in Madrid.
It will also be interesting to watch Jerzy Janowicza after the Pole’s run to the Wimbledon semi-finals. His explosive game and unpredictability make him one of the most exciting young prospects, while Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis rose 75 places in 2013 to reach 24 in the world and is a player on the rise
An intriguing sideshow to the tournament is that it will mark the commencement of a new order in men's tennis which will see the return of the 1980s as Djokovic, Murray and Federer will have the assistance of yesteryear stars Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg respectively.
While, the Scot had hired the Czech as his mentor some time back, Federer and the Djokovic surprised the tennis world by appointing the Swede and the German as their individual coaches more recently.
In conclusion, my money is on Djokovic to win in what will hopefully be a final against Nadal, reminiscent of their final in Melbourne in 2012 when the Serbian prevailed in an almost six-hour battle, a match considered by many as the greatest of all time.
Also a word of congratulations must go to Ireland’s James McGee who reached the qualifying rounds of The Australian Open. McGee is currently at a career high world ranking of 214 and is a player who is improving and moving up the rankings each year.