If it wasn’t for the guy who almost everyone agrees will win the thing, there would be a swag of legitimate contenders for this year’s men’s Aus Open. Here’s who to look out for if Roger Federer is struck by lightning some time before Sunday week.

Marat Safin and Andy Roddick have tough draws, in the same quarter of the field as each other and ninth seed Mario Ancic. Safin’s low seeding (26) will make his job harder, but if he beats Roddick in their expected third round clash he is a chance. He is fit, proven here, appears as focused as he can ever be said to be, and on his day is unstoppable*.

Roddick’s coach Jimmy Connors is on bereavement leave, something which may hurt the American or motivate him. Roddick has already pointed out that his best performance in 2006 was August’s Cincinnati Masters, when Connors contributed only phone-in advice, so perhaps having your full-time coach courtside isn’t a prerequisite for trophy-hoisting.

This can only be good news for Lleyton Hewitt. There are a stack of reasons why Hewitt can’t win: he lacks match fitness, he is fighting off a calf injury, his coach is ring-in Scott Draper.

The main reason he can is that he is the tennis world’s pit bull terrier. He thrives on being underestimated and once he has his teeth into a match never lets go*. If results go as expected he will meet Chilean Fernando Gonzales in the third round, then steady improver but also slim title chance James Blake (assuming that Blake today beats Carlos Moya) in the fourth.

The big question mark over Rafael Nadal is whether he can boss a fortnight on any colour surface but red. The French Open is Nadal’s own, and his other big triumphs last year were also on clay; Masters Series wins at Monte Carlo and Rome.

His chances haven’t improved with Melbourne Park’s new surface, which plays lower and faster or is just the same as last year, depending on who you listen to. Tommy Robredo is in the same boat.

Andy Murray, Marcos Baghdatis, David Nalbandian and Nikolay Davydenko are all reasonable semi-final chances. Baghdatis and Murray can count on the most support, but on form and paper expect big-hitting, tour-hardened Nalbandian or Davydenko to reach the last four.

It was only a few years ago that part two of the Aus Open felt like wilderness week, with the likes of Jiri Novak, Rainer Schuettler, Stefan Koubek and Thomas Johansson filling semi-final berths. That the current flock of also-rans is so strong can only be a good thing.

*unless playing Federer

Peter Fray

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