Sev­enth heaven beck­ons for Fed­erer and Djokovic at Open

Old guard face stern chal­lenge from youth­ful force in­clud­ing fourth-seeded Zverev, still chas­ing a first Ma­jor

Business Day - - SPORT - Agency Staff Mel­bourne

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.

No 1 Djokovic and the third seeded Fed­erer face a stern chal­lenge from the likes of the youth­ful Alexan­der Zverev, seeded four, who is still look­ing for a first Ma­jor to ce­ment his place as torch-bearer for the next gen­er­a­tion.

Mur­ray dropped a bomb­shell, break­ing down at a me­dia 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 No 2 Rafael Nadal, who pulled out of his Bris­bane warm-up but ar­rived in Mel­bourne pro­fess­ing he is “fully fit”.

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 — rolled back the years on Rod Laver Arena to lift an emo­tional 20th Grand Slam.

It put him on a par with 6the 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 No 1 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 on Sun­day he is de­lighted to be back in Mel­bourne where his rise to great­ness 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 on Tues­day. “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.”

Fed­erer, now 37, re­mains the chief threat to the Serb and he sounded a warn­ing on Sun­day.

“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.

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 are 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.

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 on Tues­day.

Seeded four, he crashed out in the last 32 to South Ko­rea’s Chung Hyeon in 2018 and has only reached one quar­ter­fi­nal in 14 Ma­jor ap­pear­ances.

Home fans will look to new Syd­ney cham­pion and 27th seed Alex de Min­aur, who faces Por­tu­gal’s Pe­dro Sousa on Mon­day, and Nick Kyr­gios. Kyr­gios has a tough open­ing match against for­mer world No 3 Mi­los Raonic and then a pos­si­ble clash with for­mer Aus­tralian Open cham­pion Stan Wawrinka in round two.

/Ju­lian Fin­ney/Getty Images

Warn­ing: Third-seeded Roger Fed­erer, 37, re­mains the chief threat to world No 1 No­vak Djokovic. The Swiss mae­stro warned on Sun­day that he is play­ing ‘good ten­nis’ and that it would re­quire a good per­for­mance to beat him.

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