Sev­enth heaven beck­ons for Fed­erer, Djokovic at Open as Mur­ray bows out

Djokovic to open his as­sault on sev­enth crown against Amer­i­can Krueger to­mor­row

Kuwait Times - - Sports -

MEL­BOURNE: Roger Fed­erer and No­vak Djokovic are both gun­ning for a record sev­enth Aus­tralian Open crown from to­day, 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 pre-Grand 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 to­day-rolled back the years on Rod Laver Arena to lift an emo­tional 20th Grand Slam.

It put him on a par with other six-time Aus­tralian Open win­ners Djokovic and Roy Emer­son-al­though the Aus­tralian great’s vic­to­ries all came be­fore the Open era. By con­trast, the 31-year-old Djokovic en­dured a 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.

And Djokovic said yes­ter­day he was de­lighted to be back in Mel­bourne where his rise to great­ness all be­gan in 2008 with his first Grand Slam win. “It was my first ma­jor tro­phy, that ob­vi­ously served as a great spring­board for my ca­reer,” Djokovic said as he pre­pared to open his as­sault on a sev­enth crown against Amer­i­can Mitchell Krueger to­mor­row.

“It opened a lot of doors for me. It al­lowed me to be­lieve in my­self that I can ac­tu­ally win the big­gest tour­na­ments in the world, chal­lenge the best play­ers in the world.”

NADAL ‘FEELS GOOD’

Fed­erer, now 37, re­mains the chief threat to the Serb and he sounded a warn­ing yes­ter­day. “I’m play­ing good ten­nis. I’m con­fi­dent that I think it needs a good per­for­mance by my op­po­nent prob­a­bly to beat me,” said the Swiss master, who warmed for Mel­bourne with vic­tory in Perth’s Hop­man Cup.

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 to­day. 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. Zverev, 21, starts the Aus­tralian Open full of con­fi­dence after an im­pres­sive warm-up to reach the fi­nal of Perth’s mixed teams Hop­man Cup, de­spite his ter­ri­ble record at Grand Slams.

He has never got be­yond the third round in Mel­bourne and faces Slove­nia’s Al­jaz Be­dene in his opener to­mor­row. Last year, seeded four, he crashed out in the last 32 to South Ko­rea’s Chung Hyeon and has only reached one quar­ter-fi­nal in 14 ma­jor ap­pear­ances. Home fans will look to new Syd­ney cham­pion and 27th seed Alex de Min­aur, who faces Por­tu­gal’s Pe­dro Sousa to­day, and the tem­per­a­men­tal Nick Kyr­gios. Kyr­gios has a tough open­ing match against for­mer world num­ber three Mi­los Raonic and then a pos­si­ble clash with for­mer Aus­tralian Open cham­pion Stan Wawrinka in round two. — AFP

MEL­BOURNE: Ser­bia’s No­vak Djokovic hits a re­turn dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion ahead of the Aus­tralian Open ten­nis tour­na­ment in Mel­bourne yes­ter­day. — AFP

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