Djokovic and Ser­ena chase per­sonal mile­stones in Mel­bourne TEN­NIS

▶ Gra­ham Cay­gill looks at the sto­ry­lines likely to gain at­ten­tion at the sea­son’s first ma­jor in Aus­tralia

The National - News - - SPORT -

Djokovic’s big chance

Back in Jan­uary 2016 No­vak Djokovic ar­rived in Mel­bourne on the crest of a wave.

Hav­ing won Wim­ble­don and the US Open he was half­way to­wards pos­sess­ing all four ma­jors at one time.

He would pre­vail for a sixth time in Aus­tralia and would then go on in June to win the French Open for the first time.

That suc­cess at Roland Gar­ros, as well as achiev­ing his ca­reer grand slam, made him only the third male player to hold all four ma­jor ti­tles at one time, and it is re­ferred to as a Nole Slam.

Do­ing some­thing that nei­ther Roger Fed­erer or Rafael Nadal have achieved is pretty spe­cial but the Serb, 31, is now in a po­si­tion where he can achieve the feat again.

He was vic­to­ri­ous at Wim­ble­don and New York last sum­mer and is now in Aus­tralia with the same sce­nario fac­ing him as three years ago.

He starts as favourite in Aus­tralia and not just be­cause he is world No 1.

Mel­bourne is his most suc­cess­ful ma­jor, hav­ing won it six times, and he ended 2018 as the dom­i­nant man on the ATP Tour with a streak of 22 vic­to­ries in a row be­tween Au­gust and Oc­to­ber.

While he did lose some matches to­wards the end of the year there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween claim­ing two sets at a Mas­ters or a 500 event off the Ser­bian and win­ning that ex­tra third set in a high-pres­sure en­vi­ron­ment at a ma­jor.

A record sev­enth Aus­tralian Open ti­tle is a very real prospect and that opens up the door for Nole Slam No 2 at Roland Gar­ros, which would only fur­ther un­der­line his cre­den­tials when stacked up against Fed­erer and Nadal in the years to come.

Wil­liams can­not be dis­counted

Ser­ena Wil­liams is back in Mel­bourne for the first time since she won the most re­cent of her 23 ma­jors in 2017.

Wil­liams did not play for the rest of the year as she stepped away from the WTA Tour to be­come a mother for the first time. Speak­ing in Abu Dhabi last month she con­ceded she had sur­passed her own ex­pec­ta­tions in 2018 by not only re­turn­ing, but reach­ing two grand slam fi­nals at Wim­ble­don and the US Open.

She lost both and the un­der­ly­ing theme of the year was that she could still hold her own against most of the op­po­si­tion in the top 50, but she was a level below the cur­rent top play­ers.

The way she was beaten so com­fort­ably at Wim­ble­don by An­gelique Ker­ber and then by Naomi Osaka at the US Open was a re­al­ity check. The power in her game is still there at age 37, but the move­ment from the back of the court was an is­sue.

Judg­ing by her ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mubadala World Cham­pi­onships at Zayed Sports City with older sib­ling Venus, it still is in 2019.

Aus­tralia may be a lit­tle soon for Wil­liams to be near her best, with the lim­ited build-up to the sea­son.

But even not at her best she can still go far. She was still early in her come­back trail last year and still reached two big fi­nals so ma­jor No 24 in Aus­tralia is a very real sce­nario.

Op­por­tu­nity knocks for fresh faces

Kyle Ed­mund and Hyeon Chung were both sur­prise semi-fi­nal­ists in the men’s draw 12 months ago. The first ma­jor of the year, com­ing early in the sea­son, of­ten throws up a chance for play­ers to break through if they can hit the ground run­ning.

Ed­mund and Chung will do well to re­peat their suc­cess, with both strug­gling for form, but there is still a chance for some new faces to go deep at the tour­na­ment. Alexan­der Zverev, de­spite be­ing world No 4, has never been be­yond the quar­ter-fi­nals at a ma­jor.

It is surely a case of when, not if, he makes his break­through and Mel­bourne is as good an op­por­tu­nity as any.

Like­wise Karen Khachanov beat Djokovic in the Paris Mas­ters fi­nal and knows he can beat the best play­ers so that con­fi­dence, in the­ory, should push to make a name for him­self again here.

There will be for­tune needed, of course. Be it the draw it­self, or get­ting kind sched­ul­ing times to avoid the worst of the heat, it is not just about per­for­mance lev­els.

But with Nadal com­ing back from in­jury and Juan Martin del Potro ruled out there are gaps at the top of the draw and a real chance for fresh faces to step up. The fun part is see­ing who it will be.

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