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
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.