Djokovic, Federer and Serena are tipped to win opening Grand Slam
Dominant Serbian world No 1 and his long-time Swiss opponent have won eight of the nine titles at the Rod Laver Arena since 2010
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer loom over Melbourne Park for the year’s opening Grand Slam as favourites for the Australian Open as questions remain about whether one of Generation Next could finally end their stranglehold.
The Serbian world No 1 and his Swiss opponent have won eight of the nine titles at the Rod Laver Arena since 2010 and 11 of the last 13 on the courts in central Melbourne.
Both have six titles each, and are seeking to break a three-way tie for the most victories with Australia’s Roy Emerson. While Federer has won the tournament for the past two years — with the 2017 victory at the age of 35 a surprising return after knee surgery in 2016 — Djokovic’s history in Australia and rediscovery of his form midway through 2018 means the world No 1 will be the man to beat.
The 31-year-old went into a bewildering slump in mid-2016 that only ended when he won Wimbledon in 2018 before he went on to claim his third US Open crown and move to 14 Grand Slam titles, three behind Rafa Nadal.
The Spanish world No 2, however, is battling with another leg injury that forced him out of the Brisbane International last week.
While he told local media on Tuesday he did not feel any pain from his thigh strain, it is apparent that hard courts are putting undue stress on the 32-year-old’s body.
He retired in the quarterfinals against Marin Cilic 12 months ago in Melbourne and suffered yet another knee injury that forced him out of the US Open semifinals at Flushing Meadows before he had ankle surgery in November.
Federer, however, continues to defy the odds at 37 and prepared for his title defence with some convincing performances in the Hopman Cup in Perth last week.
The 20-times Grand Slam winner’s victories over Greece’s world No 15, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and world No 4 Alexander Zverev prompted the German to playfully quip that he is tired of Federer winning everything.
“I mean, you’re 30-whatever. Why? Just why?” Zverev asked jokingly of Federer at the Hopman Cup trophy presentation. The 21-year-old Zverev appears the most likely of the younger generation of players hoping to end the world top three’s domination of Grand Slams, having beaten Federer and Djokovic at the ATP Tour Finals in London last November.
While others in “Generation Next”, such as Austria’s Dominic Thiem and the 22-year-old Russians Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev, could cause upsets, it is debatable whether they can win seven matches over 14 days.
Two of the older generation who have shown they do have that ability — Britain’s Andy Murray and Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka — could be dangerous floaters in the draw as they make their way back from injury-plagued seasons.
Murray, a five-time finalist at Melbourne Park, spent most of 2018 recuperating from hip surgery and looked rusty last week in Brisbane but declared himself pain free.
Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, is also coming back from knee surgery and a back injury in the second half of 2018, but typically flies under the radar through Grand Slams and is unlikely to have any pressure, which makes him more lethal.
Williams chasing 24
The women’s draw looks more open even with Serena Williams, the most dominant force in the sport, back chasing a 24th Grand Slam singles title to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record. The American was eight weeks’ pregnant when she won her 23rd title at Melbourne Park in 2017 and returned to action in 2018 where she reached finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.
Williams, who played at the Hopman Cup in Perth, enters the year’s first Grand Slam ranked 16th but still remains the favourite in Melbourne even if she lost to Naomi Osaka in the Flushing Meadows final.
World No 1 Simona Halep, with a huge burden off her shoulders, will hope to go one better this year having lost the 2018 final to Caroline Wozniacki. The Romanian, who lost to Ash Barty in the second round of the Sydney International on Wednesday, broke her Grand Slam duck at the French Open in June 2018 and finished the season at No 1 for the second consecutive year.
Halep will expect her back to hold up after a herniated disk curtailed her 2018 season.
Wozniacki also has a question mark over her fitness after the 28-year-old Dane revealed her battle with rheumatoid arthritis last October but has since claimed that she has learnt to live with it.
A second Australian Open title will be a perfect birthday gift for world No 2 Angelique Kerber, who turns 31 in the first week of the tournament.
Kerber beat Williams in the Wimbledon final to become the first German woman to win the grass court title since Steffi Graf in 1996.
She has looked sharp at the Hopman Cup and maintained her 100% singles record even though Germany lost to Federer’s Switzerland in the final.
Also in the mix is the popular Osaka, who stunned Williams in New York. The 21-year-old Japanese, however, had an inconsistent build up to the year’s first Grand Slam.
Osaka suffered a straight set loss to Lesia Tsurenko in the semifinal of the Brisbane International and withdrew from the Sydney International in frustration.