De­pleted field has tough act to fol­low

Last year’s fi­nals fea­tured ri­valry matches of Nadal vs. Fed­erer and Ser­ena vs. Venus Wil­liams.

The Citizens' Voice - - Australian Open - BY JOHN PYE

MELBOURNE, Aus­tralia — With Rafael Nadal and No­vak Djokovic among the walk­ing wounded and Ser­ena Wil­liams al­ready de­cid­ing not to de­fend her ti­tle, in­juries and ab­sen­tees have been the fo­cus of at­ten­tion ahead of the Aus­tralian Open.

That’s not both­er­ing Roger Fed­erer, who is re­turn­ing as de­fend­ing cham­pion just 12 months af­ter en­ter­ing the sea­son-open­ing Grand Slam tour­na­ment seeded 17th and un­cer­tain of his prospects af­ter six months off the tour with an in­jured left knee.

He beat Nadal in a five-set fi­nal for his 18th Grand Slam ti­tle — and his first since 2012 — and later won Wim­ble­don.

“I just thought that the game and the wins weren’t go­ing to come ... be­cause I would just run into a red-hot Djokovic or Mur­ray or Nadal or some­body and my game wasn’t go­ing to be good enough,” Fed­erer re­called. “I had all th­ese great five-set­ters and, at the end, the epic match against Rafa. Af­ter six, seven matches, you start feel­ing like a dif­fer­ent player, that you can’t miss any­more. The fifth set (of the fi­nal) was maybe the best set I ever played.

“What a come­back it was and it was def­i­nitely the high­light of the year.”

Sec­ond-seeded Fed­erer and No. 14-seeded Djokovic have al­most traded places.

This time, Fed­erer breezily walked into the Aus­tralian Open draw car­ry­ing the tro­phy just a few days af­ter help­ing Switzer­land win the Hop­man Cup mixed team even. His 2017 come­back could be in­spi­ra­tion for the likes of Djokovic, who has won the Aus­tralian ti­tle a record six times but has been side­lined since Wim­ble­don with a right el­bow in­jury.

They’re in the same half of the draw — along with No. 4 Alexander Zverev, No. 5 Dom­inc Thiem, No. 7 David Gof­fin and No. 9 Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 Aus­tralian Open win­ner who is also re­turn­ing from in­jury.

Nadal skipped the yearend cham­pi­onship last Novem­ber and de­layed the start of his 2018 sea­son, so he’s also had only ex­hi­bi­tion matches to see how his right knee has re­cov­ered.

“If I’m not feel­ing good, prob­a­bly I will not be here,” Nadal said af­ter his er­ror­filled loss to Richard Gas­quet in an ex­hi­bi­tion this week. “So that’s the good news.”

Five-time fi­nal­ist Andy Mur­ray with­drew more than a week ahead of time, de­cid­ing to have surgery on a right hip prob­lem that had kept him off the tour since Wim­ble­don. Kei Nishikori also with­drew.

And so if the 2017 Aus­tralian Open was one for the ages — the re­vival of the Fed­erer-Nadal ri­valry and another Wil­liams sis­ters fi­nal — the 2018 edi­tion is shap­ing as a sur­vival of the fittest.

Ser­ena Wil­liams, who was preg­nant when she beat Venus here last year to claim her 23rd ma­jor ti­tle, gave birth to her first child — Alexis Olympia — in Septem­ber. She said it didn’t leave her enough time to feel con­fi­dent of win­ning a ma­jor.

The No. 1-rank­ing changed seven times in 2017, with five dif­fer­ent women as­sum­ing top spot — three for the first time.

Venus Wil­liams says Ser­ena is “here in spirit” sup­port­ing her in Aus­tralia, where she’s hope­ful of end­ing an al­most decade-long Grand Slam ti­tle drought. At 37, Venus is seeded No. 5, com­ing off a loss to former No. 1 Anglique Ker­ber in Syd­ney and has a tougher opener against Belinda Ben­cic, who com­bined with Fed­erer last week to win the Hop­man Cup.

“I feel my big­gest ex­pec­ta­tion is from my­self,” Venus Wil­liams said, dis­miss­ing any no­tion that age or ex­pec­ta­tions will weigh heav­ily on her. “No one ever wants to let them­selves down.”

She led the WTA Tour in prize money last year ahead of Wim­ble­don cham­pion Gar­bine Mugu­ruza and Si­mona Halep, who ended the year at No. 1.

En­ter­ing as the No. 1 seed for the first time at a ma­jor and at a tour­na­ment where she’s had back-to-back firstround ex­its, two-time French Open fi­nal­ist Halep opens against teenage wild­card en­try Des­ta­nee Ai­ava. She could face two-time Wim­ble­don cham­pion Pe­tra Kvi­tova in the third round and Karolina Pliskova in the quar­ters.

Mugu­ruza, who with­drew from the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional be­fore the quar­ter­fi­nals with a sore right thigh af­ter re­tir­ing dur­ing her first match at the Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional be­cause of cramp­ing, is in the same quar­ter as U.S. Open fi­nal­ist Madi­son Keys, Aus­tralian Open 2016 cham­pion Ker­ber and five-time ma­jor win­ner Maria Shara­pova, re­turn­ing to Melbourne two years af­ter a failed dop­ing test here led to a 15-month sus­pen­sion.

Mugu­ruza is ex­pect­ing the con­stant changes at the top of the women’s game to con­tinue in 2018.

“I don’t feel there’s some­body that dif­fer­ent from the rest,” Mugu­ruza said. “This is go­ing to be a very in­ter­est­ing year. A lot of chang­ing, I feel.”

No. 2 Caro­line Woz­ni­acki, who hasn’t won a ma­jor and last ap­peared in a Grand Slam fi­nal in 2014, is on the bot­tom half of the draw with Wil­liams and has French Open cham­pion Je­lena Ostapenko and last year’s Aus­tralian semi­fi­nal­ist CoCo Van­deweghe in her quar­ter.

While there were four dif­fer­ent Grand Slam sin­gles win­ners on the women’s side, with Ostapenko (French) and Sloane Stephens (U.S. Open) claim­ing their first ti­tles, the men’s side rolled back the years with Fed­erer and Nadal each win­ning two apiece.

Djokovic, a sur­prise sec­ond-round loser here last year, is hop­ing he can get fit enough to change that in 2018.

“I’m still not 100 per­cent — hope­fully in three or four days I will be there,” Djokovic said af­ter beat­ing Thiem in an ex­hi­bi­tion match at Kooy­ong this week. “I played bet­ter than I thought might hap­pen, and most im­por­tantly I played without pain.”

The 12-time ma­jor win­ner said he was do­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to be ready in time for the Aus­tralian.

“I’ll be over the moon if I can play,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing at the mo­ment is go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

From left, Rafael Nadal, Maria Shara­pova, Roger Fed­erer, Venus Wil­liams and No­vak Djokovic are all con­tenders at this year’s Aus­tralian Open.

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