Roger Federer heads into the Australian Open with renewed hope after ending 2011 with three consecutive titles. However, Federer inexplicably lost some really bad matches at Grand Slams last season and more than likely will have to beat Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or both to capture any Slams in 2012. What should we expect from the "Slam King"?
How will Federer's 17-match win streak to end 2011 manifest itself in 2012?
Greg Garber: There are more than a few folks who think Federer has a chance to steal one in Melbourne, as did Djokovic, who ran away with last year's Aussie title after finishing the previous season with a flourish. Djokovic and Nadal both look to be a little out of sorts physically, and you know Fed, even at 30, will be ready to go. Andre Agassi, for the record, out-trained younger players in December, and won three Aussie titles at the ages of 29, 30 and 32. Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach, says Fed can do it, too.
Kamakshi Tandon: Federer had a good fall going into last year, too, but it didn't stop him from going Slam-less for the first time since 2002. With the rest of the big four all subpar during the end of the season, this period didn't provide a true test of anything except Federer's scheduling superiority. But it did show he continues to be right there and poised to take advantage of any window of opportunity during this season.
Ravi Ubha: Federer said himself that 2011 was his best finish to a campaign, which says a lot, given his plethora of fine endings in the past. He thus should have ample confidence, even if he lost to Djokovic and Nadal at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi. But Federer needs to capitalize early on that confidence at a Grand Slam, and that means reaching the final -- at least -- at the Australian Open. After all, he's not going to be able to flash his late 2011 form throughout all of 2012.
Matt Wilansky: Although Federer ended 2011 playing his best tennis of the season, we can't pretend he isn't suffering from a long Grand Slam drought, which now dates back two years. And he won't be able to hop over to Melbourne and run through his two nemeses. Federer played Djokovic and Nadal a combined one time during his 17-match win streak, and neither of those two showed much interest in playing the post-U.S. Open swing.
What does he need to do to snap his Grand Slam drought?
Garber: Just what he's doing. Hang around. Last year, Federer had Djokovic beaten in the U.S. Open semifinals, and that crazy service return on match point kind of blew his mind. He was terrific at Roland Garros, ending Djokovic's winning streak and reaching the final. If Djokovic and Nadal are just 10 percent off, physically speaking, you can chalk up major No. 17, whether in Australia or at Wimbledon.
Tandon: Once, skill was enough. Now he needs a little luck and timing on top of that. There are four things that could get in his way: Nadal, who remains a bad matchup for Federer; Djokovic or Andy Murray being close to the top of his game; a big hitter such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych or Juan Martin del Potro on a day when he is hitting everything in; or Federer going off his game and beating himself. He needs to dodge at least some of those dangers or play his best when any do arrive.
Ubha: Federer needs to play the way he did at the end of 2011. He was serving great, the forehand was working and he was striking the backhand -- his so-called weaker wing -- wonderfully. In short, it all came together. But let's be honest: He also would need a dip from Djokovic and Nadal (which happened at the end of 2011), and has to hope Murray doesn't make his long-awaited Slam breakthrough.
Wilansky: A combination of his current pristine form, confidence and a little luck. At this point, even at his best, Federer cannot beat Nadal or Djokovic when either one is playing at the top of his game. However, both showed frailty in 2011, and Federer proved that even at three decades old, he has enough game to beat anyone else on tour. Federer has transitioned his game to play shorter and lower-percentage tennis, which means it's going to be harder for him to find a consistent groove compared to today's baseline bashers. But if he does
Fill in the blank: Roger Federer is more likely to win Wimbledon or the Olympics (both played at same venue)?
Garber: The Olympics begin only three weeks after Wimbledon ends, which means the winner at the All England club on July 8 is going to be a little tapped out. This especially after going through the clay season, Roland Garros, that awkward transition to grass and seven matches at Wimbledon -- and then trying to recharge and do it all over again. The one thing missing from Fed's résumé is an Olympic singles gold -- he lost to James Blake in the Beijing quarters and Berdych in the second round in Athens. I think Fed, thinking about his legacy, might take the second event at Wimbledon.
Tandon: Wimbledon. Actually, he has an excellent chance at both. Each will be played on grass, which he's arguably more comfortable on than any other top player. But he'll have a day off between matches at Wimbledon, while the Olympics will be busy with both singles and doubles. Lead-up results could play a big role for everyone. A good French Open will mean more confidence but also more fatigue for Wimbledon, and similar rollover effects could apply to the Olympics.
Ubha: The Olympics. I think if Federer could pick only one to win in 2012, he'd opt for gold (in singles) at the Olympics instead of triumphing at Wimbledon. It's one of the few things he hasn't won in his career. Federer will be almost 31 when the Olympics begin, meaning the best-of-three set format (prior to the final) will help, even if the Olympic tennis event is condensed.
Wilansky: There's little question Federer wants to win gold. Aside from an unlikely Davis Cup title, it's the only missing piece from his hulking dossier. But he's going to feel the pressure of the Olympics, and Federer has shown a greater propensity for breaking down during tense moments. After Nadal beats Djokovic in five grueling sets at Roland Garros, both will be pooped at the outset of Wimbledon, leaving the door wide open for Federer and title No. 7 at the All England club.