<
>

It can't get any better than the Aussie, right?

If the viewers of this year's Australian Open were first-time home buyers, they were just shown the renovated colonial on a cul-de-sac, with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, crown molding, hardwood floors and a finished basement. The season's first Slam was abundant in quality and satisfaction -- any one of the four semifinals was worthy of a final-round match. Then Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal gave us a six-hour encore to cap off a tennis magnum opus.

To continue with the analogy, the house we saw is well over budget. What that means in reality is that we should temper our expectations for future majors, lest disappointment by comparison. The same applies to the participants in this Oz opera, the players. In the wake of Melbourne '12, its champions have been extolled to great heights, not just for what they achieved, but what we think they should achieve later on. A lot of that talk is premature, unrealistic, or hyperbolic. So I'm here to offer a reality check, as the excitement of the 2012 Aussie Open begins to wear off.

Novak Djokovic: After the Serb's record-setting 2011 and herculean effort Down Under, everything appears to be on the table. A prominent website even asked if he should he considered in the GOAT discussion. In some ways, it's hard to blame people for thinking big, but I would be shocked if Djokovic repeated or bested last year's accomplishments. Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have all improved since last season, and as we've seen with Rog and Rafa, the sport's pecking order can change quickly.

Saying that, I do think that only one thing will do for the world No. 1 at Roland Garros: A title. He's never reached the final and has never beaten Nadal there, but it seems like the logical next step. If he does, he'll simultaneously complete the career Slam and the Nole/Djokovic/Serbian/call-it-what-you-want Slam. Then we can start talking about a true Grand Slam.

Victoria Azarenka: Vika has been anointed as a long-term solution to the WTA's No. 1 problem, but is that only because, mercifully, Caroline Wozniacki has been ousted from the top spot? Azarenka has won two high-profile tournaments in 2012 and hasn't lost a match, but it remains to be seen how she'll deal with this new pressure outside the friendly confines of Australia.

Should she win a second Slam this season, Azarenka indeed may be the woman many longtime observers and critics have been looking for. But it's asking a lot of her to repeat this feat so soon. A manageable goal would be to reach the second week of the next Slam, the French Open. If that sounds underwhelming, consider that the past three first-time WTA major champs, Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur, failed to make it past the second round of the next Slam they played.

The ATP's non top four: Twenty-seven of the past 28 Grand Slam tournaments have been won by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. Picking against those three, and bridesmaid Murray, is as good as concession these days. Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling have all looked good enough to win a Slam in the recent past, until they reminded us why they haven't.

But the non top four can make progress at other prestigious events. Masters 1000s events seem a likely stage for a breakthrough, with the top four dominating the Slams. Plus, the best-of-three-sets format allows for more upsets. Perhaps Miami would be a fitting place after the top 4 wear themselves out in the later rounds of Indian Wells. It will be difficult for someone from outside of the top tier to prevail there -- but not nearly as much as at the top-heavy Slams.

Juan Martin del Potro: It took Djokovic three years after his first major title win to win another. The three-year anniversary of del Potro's 2009 U.S. Open championship isn't far off, but the jury is still out on whether the Argentine can recapture his once-overpowering form. Federer humbled del Potro at the Australian Open, a bit of a surprise considering their history and del Potro's spirited play in the Davis Cup final.

So what should we expect from del Potro in 2012? Better than what we've seen. If you saw del Potro push Nadal around on clay in raucous Seville, you know the big man still has his big game. It's Slam-winning good, but del Potro still lacks the necessary consistency. It may take him longer than three years -- if at all -- to claim another major title, but as long as we get a taste of his potential every so often, tennis remains better for it.