Now that the draw has just been released, I am ready to make my annual Australian Open forecast. The chief point of curiosity with respect to the men’s draw was where Andy Murray would end up. Much to Roger Federer’s delight, Murray—- the No. 4 seed— fell into Rafael Nadal’s section of the draw. Since Federer has lost his last three meetings with the fast rising British player, and has been beaten by Murray five of the last six times they have clashed, he must have been somewhat relieved to find out that he would not have to deal with Murray until a potential final round collision.

The good news does not end there for the three time Australian Open victor. Federer opens with a comfortable first round assignment against the Italian Andreas Seppi. He routinely handles Seppi, and this time should be no different. In the third round, Federer could conceivably face 2005 champion Marat Safin. Safin toppled Federer in an epic semifinal that year, coming through 9-7 in the fifth set after a spectacular confrontation. Safin is seeded No. 26 this year, and is always a dangerously unpredictable player. But even if he plays reasonably well, Federer is simply not going to lose to the Russian this time around.

In the round of 16, Federer might take on Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, or perhaps No. 20 seed Tomas Berdych. Berdych could be burdensome for Federer for a couple of sets, but he lacks the match playing acumen or consistency to do more than take a set from the No. 2 seed. I fully expect the No. 8 seed Del Potro to confront Federer in the quarters. Del Potro might have to avenge a Davis Cup loss he suffered against the wily, left-handed Feliciano Lopez in the third round, but he should survive in four sets. In the round of 16, either Marin Cilic or David Ferrer could take on Del Potro.

The guess here is that Cilic will be the one Del Potro plays in that round, and that could be quite a skirmish. But I like Del Potro’s more consistent and explosive ground game and his superior match playing temperament. Del Potro would advance and meet Federer for a place in the semifinals. Federer could have his hands full from the back of the court. Del Potro will push him hard during the rallies, and send a barrage of balls to his opponent’s backhand side. But Federer’s serve will be the determining factor in the contest. He will come from behind and win in a fourth set tie-break.

The No. 7 seed Roddick opens against a qualifier, and might have to play the man who beat him at this tournament a year ago— Philipp Kohlschreiber. I don’t see lightening striking twice. If Roddick plays the German this year in the third round, he wins in four sets. In the round of 16, Roddick figures to meet old rival David Nalbandian, the No. 10 seed. Nalbandian will have some difficult foes to overcome along the way, including a tricky first round duel with the Frenchman Marc Gicquel. But I believe Nalbandian will muddle through his section of the draw.

The Roddick-Nalbandian round of 16 clash would be a spirited encounter. Roddick will need to attack forcefully and persistently. From the baseline, Nalbandian is the markedly superior player. His two-handed backhand is a much better shot than Roddick’s, and he will contain the American and prevent him from penetrating too much off the forehand. In the end, Roddick will get the job done in five exhilarating sets because his great first serve and willingness to go forward will give him the slightest of edges.

That will set up an enticing quarterfinal for Roddick against the defending champion Novak Djokovic. Djokovic opens against a qualifier and could meet No. 28 seed Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round. Djokovic just handled Mathieu easily in Sydney, and will beat him again if they meet in Melbourne. In the round of 16, the Serbian figures to play either Mardy Fish or Robin Soderling. Fish played a respectable final against Djokovic at Indian Wells last year, and his attacking game could bother his adversary for a while. But Djokovic is too solid from the baseline to lose a best of five set match to Fish. He would prevail in four sets, as he would against the big hitting yet entirely too erratic Soderling.

So, the way I see it, Djokovic and Roddick will test each other for the second straight time in a Grand Slam event. At the U.S. Open last September, Djokovic was obliterating Roddick for two sets before the American struck back boldly to nearly take the match into a fifth set in the quarters. Djokovic hung on to win in a fourth set tie-break. I envision a similarly hard fought match in Melbourne. Roddick will throw a big mixture at Djokovic from start to finish, taking chances off the forehand to end rallies early, attempting some daring two-handed, down the line backhands whenever possible.

Djokovic will answer with his customary depth, pace and precision off the ground and he will have the upper hand in the longer rallies. Moreover, he will counter-attack effectively when Roddick inevitably moves forward. And yet, it will be a gripping, pendulum-swinging battle. Djokovic will come through, but he will need the full five sets to complete the job. That will take him into a compelling showdown with Federer as they stage a rematch of their 2008 semifinal. Djokovic, brimming with confidence after a scintillating 2007 season, won that encounter in straight sets after Federer led 5-3,0-30 in the opening set.

It seemed highly likely that Djokovic would meet Federer over and over again in 2008, but that was not the case. Federer beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo when Djokovic quit at a set and a break down. Thereafter, they played only one more time, with Federer overcoming a subdued Djokovic in four tough sets in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Djokovic—clearly inhibited after turning the fans against him with some foolish post-match comments after his win over Roddick— was apprehensive from the start, and Federer played one of his better matches of 2008 to prevail in four sets.

In this contest, both men will like their chances. Federer will be determined to make it to the first Grand Slam tournament final of 2009, while Djokovic will have his heart set on defending his crown and defeating Federer again. The serving efficiency of both men will be critical. There will be at least one and probably two tie-breaks. There will be shifts in momentum. Federer will try to control the climate of the match with his inside-out forehand, but Djokovic will counter with the same tactic. Djokovic will try as much as possible to make this a duel between his two-handed backhand and Federer’s one-handed stroke off that side.

Ultimately, not much will separate these two remarkable players, but Federer will be more confident in the tightest corners. He will recoup from two sets to one down, win a tie-break in the fourth set, and get the win by taking the fifth set 6-4. Nadal should have little trouble until a potential round of 16 meeting with either Richard Gasquet or 2007 Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez. Either way, Nadal will advance without being stretched to his limits, although Gasquet could give him a tougher test. I see Nadal beating Gasquet in four sets or Gonzalez in straight sets. Nadal thus will move on to the quarters. In that round, he might meet No. 6 seed Gilles Simon, or perhaps play No. 12 seed Gael Monfils. Those two Frenchman have both had success over Nadal. Monfils beat Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in Doha a few weeks ago, and Simon stopped Nadal last autumn indoors in Madrid in a magnificent battle that went to a final set tie-break.

If Nadal faces Monfils, he will get revenge in four hard sets, dropping only the second. Should he play Simon, Nadal will pull away after a tight first set and win in straight sets. So Nadal would then be in the penultimate round. Murray, meanwhile, would be on a collision course with the Spaniard. Murray confronts the soon-to-be 34-year-old Andrei Pavel in the first round. He could well face the capable left-hander Jurgen Melzer in the third round. At the U.S. Open last year, Melzer nearly upset Murray before bowing in five sets.

But Murray will be much better prepared if they meet again in Melbourne. He will get the victory in straight sets. In the round of 16, Murray could play either Radek Stepanek or Fernando Verdasco. Stepanek does not have the consistency to stay with Murray from the baseline, and he will be forced to take too many chances. The left-handed Verdasco is a player Murray can handle any time. His explosive style plays well into Murray’s hands. I see Murray defeating either Verdasco or Stepanek in straight sets.

In the quarters, Murray might have to take on 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but the No. 5 seed Tsonga recently hurt his back and it is hard to know how close to the top of his game he will be. Other potential quarterfinal opponents for Murray are James Blake or Igor Andreev. Either of those players—- particularly Blake— could get hot for one set, but Murray has too much versatility for both men and he will advance to the semifinals and an eagerly awaited battle with Nadal.

Nadal had never lost to Murray until the U.S. Open, but Murray won there for the first time in six career head-to-head contests. Recently, he beat Nadal in the final of an exhibition event. Nadal, however, will be fully charged emotionally for a match of this consequence. He will work Murray hard from the baseline, but Murray will counter with well executed risk taking and some timely winners. His first serve will keep Nadal largely at bay, but then again Nadal’s wide swinging lefty slice will cause Murray numerous problems as well.

This is an awfully difficult match to predict. In the end, I believe it will go right down to the wire. Nadal will be down two sets to one, but then will capture the fourth set and go up a break at 4-2 in the fifth. But Murray will make his move and gain a thrilling victory 9-7 in the fifth and final set.

Fortunately for Murray, he will have at least one and possibly two days off after that exhausting piece of business. He will need it, because Federer will be in a quietly ferocious mood to make amends for his recent string of losses to Murray. He will need to call on all of his big match experience as he tries to tie Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Federer will give it his absolute all, fighting back from a set and a break down and moving ahead two sets to one. But Murray will not be swayed. He will not lose his serve in the last two sets, and Federer will gradually lose his range off the forehand. Murray will win his first major title, stopping Federer in an excellent final 6-4, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.

As for the women, top seeded Jelena Jankovic will move through the early rounds not with ease but with enough confidence to prevail. She could play Ai Sugiyama in the third round, Sybille Bammer in the round of 16 and conceivably Vera Zvonareva (the No. 7 seed) in the quarters. Jankovic will be ready for those meetings and will topple Zvonareva in three rigorous sets to make it to the semifinal round. Waiting for her there will be a woman who has given her all kinds of problems over the last year. I am referring to No. 3 seed Dinara Safina. Safina could have a tough round of 16 collision with Alize Cornet, but the will survive in three sets after dropping the first.

I see Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark taking on Safina in the quarterfinals. No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic has been so unsettled as of late that I can’t see her going too far. Wozniacki will beat Ivanovic in the fourth round in straight sets. But Safina will find a way to upend Wozniacki in a three set quarterfinal. Safina will fully expect to beat Jankovic in the semifinals, but the Serbian—coming off a final round appearance in her last Grand slam event at the U.S. Open— will use her remarkable ground stroke variety and wonderful ball control to wear down Safina. Jankovic will win that one 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 and make it into another major final.

No. 2 seed Serena Williams will gradually get her bearings. She will play Francesca Schiavone in the third round, Victoria Azarenka in the round of 16 and a surprise opponent in the quarterfinals. I don’t believe No. 8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova will make it to the last eight. Although Serena will not be at her best, she will still make it through to the semifinals. In that round, it will be Elena Dementieva standing across the net from her. Dementieva— the No. 4 seed— will have beaten No. 30 seed Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada in the third round and Patty Schnyder in the round of 16. On the quarters, the Russian will have quite a battle on her hands.

No. 6 seed Venus Williams— having overcome rough opposition against Tamarine Tanasugarn in the third round in a three set match— will then barely escape defeat against the Italian Flavia Penetta, the woman who beat her at the French Open last year. But Venus will get out of that clash 7-5 in the final set. Then she will face Dementieva, and this will be a bruising battle under the sun. Venus will win the first set and come close to a straight set victory, but Dementieva will strike back confidently and pull off a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 quarterfinal victory.

And so it will be Dementieva against Serena Williams in the semifinals. Dementieva just beat Serena handily in the semifinals of Sydney, but this will be a much closer showdown. Serena will be looking to serve the Russian wide to the forehand in the deuce court, and will release some thunderous deliveries down the T in the advantage court. That first serve will keep Serena in the match and nearly win it for her, but in the end Dementieva will win because her ground game is much more dependable than Serena’s. That backcourt consistency will allow Dementieva to prevail 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 in the match of the tournament. Serena will squander a 5-3 lead in the third set.

That will set the stage for either Dementieva or Jankovic to win a first career Grand Slam crown. Dementieva will set the pace early on, using the weight of her shots to open up the court and force errors from Jankovic. Dementieva will serve for the first set, but Jankovic will respond ably under pressure. She will take that set in a tie-break and then gradually get control of the match. Jankovic will change pace and trajectories. She will roll her forehand deep and use her two-hander to create acute angles. In the battle of two-handers crosscourt, Jankovic will have the upper hand.

Jankovic will sense her big chance, and reach out and take it. She will beat Dementieva 7-6 (5), 6-4 and prove why she finished 2008 as the top ranked player in the world. She will be a worthy winner.