No­vak back to take crown off Open king

Shepparton News - - TENNIS -

No­vak Djokovic is lay­ing siege to Roger Fed­erer’s two-year rule of Rod Laver Arena, as the two ten­nis ti­tans chase a record sev­enth Aus­tralian Open men’s sin­gles crown.

Fed­erer, who faces De­nis Is­tomin tonight to launch his quest for an Open hat-trick, has owned the Open since his stun­ning re­turn to grand slam glory with an epic vic­tory two years ago against Rafael Nadal.

But his lat­est reign co­in­cided with Djokovic’s mys­ti­fy­ing slump dur­ing which the Serb dropped to No. 22 in the world and was barely a fac­tor at the ma­jors.

Djokovic, 31, is un­doubt­edly back, re­dis­cov­er­ing his mojo in win­ning Wim­ble­don and the US Open last year to re­gain the No. 1 rank­ing and top seed­ing sta­tus for the Open.

Even af­ter an­other Fed­erer un­de­feated Hop­man Cup cam­paign and a crush­ing vic­tory against world No. 4 Alexan­der Zverev — the Ger­man lead­ing the next-gen chal­lenge of try­ing to end the big three’s grand slam dom­i­na­tion — the great Swiss in­sists Djokovic is again the man to beat in Mel­bourne.

‘‘No doubt about it, No­vak is the favourite,’’ he said.

Stranded on 17 slams for al­most five years be­fore his ex­tra­or­di­nary re­nais­sance in 2017, Fed­erer al­ways be­lieved Djokovic would cool af­ter his white-hot run and give him an­other grand slam look-in.

‘‘He chal­lenged me time and time again and I think I played him in his ab­so­lute prime, when he was vir­tu­ally un­beat­able, when he was hit­ting slid­ing back­hand pass­ing shots on the line time and time again,’’ the Swiss said.

‘‘So, for me, it was im­por­tant not to get frus­trated by it (and hope) that maybe it was just a mo­ment in time.’’

But it is ap­par­ent Djokovic’s un­touch­able touch was no such ‘‘mo­ment in time’’, with Fed­erer declar­ing the 2019 model Serb back to his best af­ter adding ma­jors num­ber 13 and 14 last year to his col­lec­tion.

Be­tween them, Fed­erer and Djokovic have won eight of the past nine Aus­tralian Open ti­tles, and 12 of the past 15, with Marat Safin (2005), Nadal (2009) and Stan Wawrinka (2014) the only gate­crash­ers to their an­nual Mel­bourne Park party.

No player has suf­fered more despair in Mel­bourne at the hands of the dom­i­nant duo than Andy Mur­ray, the Brit los­ing five fi­nals to Djokovic and Fed­erer.

With the for­mer world No. 1 con­ced­ing this will be his last Open be­fore re­tir­ing this year with chronic hip pain, the odds are long that Mur­ray will get a sixth chance this fort­night to claim the Nor­man Brookes Chal­lenge Cup.

‘‘I hope that he can play a good Aus­tralian Open and he can keep play­ing beyond that, re­ally fin­ish the way he wants to at Wim­ble­don,’’ Fed­erer said. ‘‘That’s what I hope for him.’’ Slated to square off with Fed­erer in the semi-fi­nals, sec­ond-seeded Nadal also opens his cam­paign to­day, the Span­ish su­per­star play­ing Aus­tralian wild­card James Duck­worth.

Pic­ture: EPA/Lynn Bo Bo

No­vak Djokovic

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