It all points to Djokovic
Our Andy Schooler feels Novak Djokovic has almost everything in his favourite at the Australian Open and backs the Serb to win.
- Related Content
Just as he did 12 months ago, the Serb started the season by winning a competitive exhibition event in Abu Dhabi and looked in good shape as he beat Juan Monaco at Kooyong upon his arrival in Melbourne.
That simply confirms the form of the autumn - after the US Open Djokovic won 24 consecutive matches and by the time he lifted the ATP World Tour Finals trophy in London, most pundits had the Serb as the world number one in all but name.
Since the current Plexicushion courts were laid at Melbourne Park prior to the 2008 tournament, Djokovic has won four of the six renewals of the opening Grand Slam of the season and simply has to be the man to beat.
That was the case before Friday's draw and the way the names were pulled out of the famous trophy simply enhanced the likelihood of 'Nole' retaining his crown.
While main rival Rafael Nadal has been handed a nightmare run through to the final, Djokovic's path looks a relatively smooth one with only Stanislas Wawrinka, a potential quarter-final opponent, looking to have the tools to truly trouble the second seed in the bottom half.
Djokovic's price has contracted accordingly but he definitely looks the most likely winner and so the only decision to be made is whether the price or not is right for you.
I'm happy to back him given his record here and the way the draw has panned out.
He's Mr Reliable when it comes to Grand Slams too. Unlike his fellow Melbourne title favourite, Serena Williams, Djokovic isn't prone to throwing in the odd shocker.
He's now played in 14 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals with a last-eight loss at the French Open in 2010 being the last time he failed to make the semis.
Essentially only the very best tend to beat Djokovic in the Slams and there are question marks surrounding many of that 'best' group right now.
The ones surrounding Nadal may not be huge, but there are good reasons as to why he's available at more than 3/1.
The world number one may have won in Doha in the opening week of the ATP season but he was hardly at his brilliant best, losing a set in three of his five matches.
The draw is also a major factor in his price increasing to the level it has.
Sydney finalist Bernard Tomic is his first opponent - one of the most dangerous players he could have drawn - and Gael Monfils is a tricky player to face at the third-round stage. Such a meeting would be a repeat of the Doha final, which Nadal won in three sets.
Juan Martin Del Potro, capable of hitting anyone off the court on his day, is scheduled to be Nadal's quarter-final foe, while Andy Murray could await in the last four.
I'd be surprised if one, if not more, of those names doesn't at least trouble the Spaniard.
Although Nadal's fitness levels are renowned, even he won't want to face Djokovic with plenty of miles in his legs. And remember it's the hardcourts which cause Nadal's knees the most grief - he retired injured in Melbourne in both 2010 and 2011 and didn't play here at all in 2013. He won't want to spend a minute more than he has to on this surface.
The aforementioned Murray arrives with little match practice under his belt following back surgery in September and while it's not impossible he'll be competitive at an event in which he's reached the final three times in the past, it's more likely he'll come up short.
He's failed to convince in the matches he's played so far this season and while the Scot will welcome the fact that the draw has handed him some very winnable early matches, I'd expect him to come up short when the going gets tougher with John Isner and Roger Federer both in his path in the second week.
The fact that Betfred and totesport are offering money back as free bets if Murray gets to the final speaks volumes.
Federer may not get to the last eight, of course. He's no longer the reliable force he was for such a long time and I'm not the only one who thinks his Grand Slam-winning days are behind him.
It all leaves Djokovic a firm favourite in my book with the aforementioned Wawrinka, who pushed the Serb all the way both here and at the US Open last season, looking his biggest threat.
Wawrinka has started the season well enough, winning the title in Chennai, so if you're backing Djokovic outright, it may be worth considering a saver that he is the man to win the bottom quarter - that can be backed at 7/1.
In other quarter markets, it is the third that many will head to given it is the one without a member of the 'Big Three' - David Ferrer is the top seed in the section, which also contains Tomas Berdych.
Both are pretty short prices though and rightly so, with potential challengers Kevin Anderson, Tommy Haas and Jerzy Janowicz all having been nursing injuries in recent times.
Instead I'd rather head to the second quarter in search of some value.
This is the section of Murray and Federer, whose vulnerability has already been suggested above.
They are taking up a large part of the book so there could be an opportunity for a rival to strike at a big price.
Isner, who has made the Auckland final this week, will be hopeful of doing something big, but the man I like the look of is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has a proven record of playing well at Melbourne Park.
Tsonga made his major breakthrough here six years ago with his surprise run to the final and he's since been to the quarter-finals (2009) and semis (2010).
The Frenchman should be fresher than most having missed a large chunk of the second half of last season. He returned with some decent-enough results and has hit the ground running in 2014, winning all four of his singles matches at the recent Hopman Cup as his country lifted the trophy.
He also beat Murray in Abu Dhabi and gave both Nadal and Djokovic a decent match there, so looks primed for a good run.
At 5/1 for a place in the semis, he's worth a punt - you may even get a bigger price as other firms price up over the weekend.
- The tournament gets under way at 0001 GMT on Monday and is being televised live in the UK on British Eurosport.