Federer, Djokovic aim for seven

Mur­ray and Nadal’s fit­ness may be a prob­lem in the Oz Open — but young­sters are wait­ing in the wings

Mail & Guardian - - Sport - Daniel Hicks

Thir­tysome­things Roger Federer and No­vak Djokovic share the Aus­tralian Open record with six wins, but ei­ther could make his­tory with a mag­nif­i­cent sev­enth when the first Grand Slam of the year be­gins in Mel­bourne on Mon­day.

The pair face a stern chal­lenge from youth­ful force Alexan­der Zverev, look­ing for a first Ma­jor as the torch­bearer for the next gen­er­a­tion.

But ques­tion marks hover over the fit­ness of Rafael Nadal and Andy Mur­ray, mean­ing it re­mains to be seen whether all mem­bers of the “Big Four” will again prove a force to be reckoned with.

Twelve months ago Federer rolled back the years once more at the Rod Laver Arena to beat Marin Cilic in five pul­sat­ing sets and lift an emo­tional 20th Grand Slam.

It put him on a par with other six-time Aus­tralian Open win­ners Djokovic and Roy Emer­son — but the Aus­tralian great’s vic­to­ries all came be­fore the Open era.

By con­trast, the 31-year-old Djokovic en­dured a mis­er­able early Mel­bourne exit, fol­lowed by el­bow surgery and a string of dis­ap­point­ing re­sults that dropped him out- side the top 20. But since winning a fourth Wim­ble­don in July the Serb rose in­ex­orably back to num­ber one by los­ing only three 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.

Age­less Swiss master Federer, now 37, will re­main a chief threat to the Serb, but the other two mem­bers of the Big Four look to be strug­gling af­ter an in­jury-plagued 2018.

Sec­ond-ranked Nadal (32) pulled out of his Brisbane warm-up tour­na­ment with a thigh strain al­though he re­turned for an ex­hi­bi­tion in Syd­ney and in­sisted he was healthy.

Mur­ray (31) looked way below his best in a sec­ond-round straight-sets Brisbane de­feat to Daniil Medvedev.

“I think if we are healthy and play­ing well, the four guys still have prob­a­bly the best chance to al­ways win Slams,” said Djokovic.

But the Serb warned that “the next gen­er­a­tion is al­ready there” and picked young guns Zverev of Ger­many, Borna Coric of Croa­tia, Karen Khachanov of Rus­sia and Greece’s Ste­fano Tsit­si­pas as key threats to the Big Four, who have won a stag­ger­ing 49 of the past 56 Grand Slams stretch­ing back to 2004.

“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 in Perth’s mixed teams Hop­man Cup, de­spite his ter­ri­ble record at Grand Slams.

The Ger­man has never pro­gressed be­yond the third round in Mel­bourne. Last year, seeded four, he crashed out in the last 32 to South Korea’s Chung Hyeon and has only reached one quar­ter­fi­nal in his 14 Ma­jor ap­pear­ances.

Federer seems to thrive at the start of the year and be­gins his cam­paign on the back of winning the Hop­man Cup. He is hunt­ing a third suc­ces­sive Aus­tralian Open af­ter last year be­com­ing the old­est world num­ber one in the 45-year his­tory of the ATP rank­ings.

“[Pete] Sam­pras once upon a time said, ‘If you win a Slam, it’s a good sea­son’,” said Federer, now ranked three, who skipped Roland Gar­ros and had dis­ap­point­ing ex­its at Wim­ble­don and the US Open.

“I played su­per well in Aus­tralia again. So ob­vi­ously I can’t wait to go back there. I’m very proud that, at 37, I’m still so com­pet­i­tive.”

Mur­ray’s hip surgery meant he played just six events in 2018, and Nadal’s trun­cated 2018 cam­paign was book­ended by in­juries that forced to him to re­tire in both the Aus­tralian and the US Opens.

But the Span­ish king of clay still man­aged to win five ti­tles in­clud­ing a record-ex­tend­ing 11th French Open.

World num­ber five Ar­gen­tinian Juan Martín del Potro, beaten by Djokovic in the US Open fi­nal, will miss Mel­bourne af­ter frac­tur­ing his patella in Shang­hai in Oc­to­ber.

And Cilic, who pushed Federer all the way in the fi­nal last year, heads into the tour­na­ment af­ter pulling out of a warm-up event in In­dia last week with an in­jured knee.

Home fans will look to Alex de Min­aur and Nick Kyr­gios, but the lat­ter is search­ing for form af­ter a trou­bled 2018 and tum­bled out of the Brisbane warm-up, where he was de­fend­ing cham­pion, in the sec­ond round. — AFP

Age­less: At 37 Roger Federer is still very com­pet­i­tive and one of the ‘Big Four’ likely to bag the Aus­tralian Open. Photo: Wil­iam WEST/AFP

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