HAPPY SLAM IS HERE

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ROGER FED­ERER and Novak Djokovic are both gun­ning for a record sev­enth Aus­tralian Open crown from Mon­day, but Andy Mur­ray will make his last ap­pear­ance in Mel­bourne as the era of the Big Four draws to a close.

Num­ber one Djokovic and third seed Fed­erer face a stern chal­lenge from the likes of youth­ful force Alexan­der Zverev (seeded four) who is still look­ing for a first ma­jor to ce­ment his place as torch-bearer for the next gen­er­a­tion.

But Mur­ray dropped a pre­Grand Slam bomb­shell, break­ing down dur­ing a tear-filled press con­fer­ence as he re­vealed chronic hip pain means he will re­tire af­ter Wim­ble­don — if he can carry on that long. And ques­tion marks re­main over the fit­ness of world num­ber two Rafael Nadal who pulled out of his Bris­bane warm-up but ar­rived in Mel­bourne pro­fess­ing he was fully fit and promis­ing to un­leash a re­mod­elled serve.

It all means the era of the Big Four is al­most over af­ter a sea­son in which Fed­erer — who opens his ti­tle de­fence against De­nis Is­tomin on

Mon­day —

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rolled back the years on Rod Laver Arena to lift an emo­tional 20th Grand Slam. It put him on a par with other six­time Aus­tralian Open win­ners Djokovic and Roy Emer­son — al­though the Aus­tralian great’s vic­to­ries all came be­fore the Open era. By con­trast, the 31-yearold

Djokovic en­dured a

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mis­er­able early Mel­bourne exit in 2018, fol­lowed by el­bow surgery and a string of dis­ap­point­ing re­sults that saw him drop out­side the top 20. But since win­ning a fourth Wim­ble­don in July, the Serb rose in­ex­orably back to num­ber one by los­ing only three fur­ther matches — one of which was to Zverev at the ATP Fi­nals.

Djokovic won his third US Open in Septem­ber to put him on 14 Grand Slams — three be­hind Nadal and six be­hind Fed­erer.

Sec­ond-ranked Nadal, 32, pulled out of Bris­bane with a thigh strain al­though he re­turned for an ex­hi­bi­tion in Syd­ney and in­sisted at the week­end his fit­ness woes were be­hind him.

“I feel good. If I am not feel­ing good, I will not be here,” he said be­fore re­veal­ing he had re­mod­elled his serve.

“There are al­ways things to

im­prove,” said the Spa­niard, who faces Aus­tralian wild­card James Duck­worth on Mon­day.

Djokovic picked young guns Zverev of Ger­many, Borna Coric of Croa­tia, Karen Khachanov of Rus­sia and Greece’s Ste­fano Tsit­si­pas as key threats to the top three.

“It’s just a mat­ter of time when we will see some of them com­pet­ing in the last stages of Grand Slams,” said Djokovic.

AFP

Novak Djokovic with Peppa Pig char­ac­ters at Kids Ten­nis Day on Satur­day.

*Alex Zverev (4) *Roger Fed­erer (3) Andy Mur­ray

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