Australian Open 2017: Superstars Take Centre Stage

Only an elite few players boast such significant and plentiful milestones as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic – especially at Melbourne Park, where those superstars have each lifted the singles trophy on six occasions.

The journey to claim even more glorious history commences on day two of Australian Open 2017, where a seventh title for Serena would mark her 23rd Grand Slam title, surpassing the Open Era-record 22 that Steffi Graf achieved in her career. For Djokovic, a seventh title in Melbourne would make him the all-time men’s title leader at the Australian Open.

Both players sit in unfamiliar territory as the No.2 seeds – deposed by Angelique Kerber and Andy Murray respectively – but are buoyed by the sense of a fresh start in such a successful Grand Slam settings.

“It feels really good to be back,” said Serena.

“Just hitting on Rod Laver, hitting on all the stadiums, it’s a good feeling. I love it here. It’s such a great tournament for me.”

Djokovic, who suffered a string of rare losses late in 2016, shares that view.

“It’s been the most successful Grand Slam that I've had, of course (it) gives me a lot of thrill, a lot of confidence and excitement to approach it,” he said.

Each player will need that positive outlook, the draw having offered no favours to the modern greats.

Serena starts against Belinda Bencic in Tuesday’s second match at Rod Laver Arena. The 19-year-old hadn’t even celebrated her third birthday when Serena claimed her first Grand Slam at the 1999 US Open but neither experience nor the 57 rankings places that separate the women will be of comfort to the world No.2.

Long tipped to emulate the Grand Slam heights that compatriots Roger Federer and Martina Hingis achieved, Bencic has competed alongside both Swiss stars in doubles and often receives coaching advice from Hingis.

Added to the challenge for Serena is that Bencic won their last match as she surged to her biggest career title at the 2015 Canadian Open.

“All I can do is do my best,” said the American, who holds a 1-1 record against Bencic overall.

“If I can play the way I've been practicing, it will be fine. I know she's been playing well, so it will be good for both of us.”

Djokovic is similarly relishing the challenge as he prepares to meet Fernando Verdasco in the Tuesday night session at Rod Laver Arena. The Serb leads the pair’s head-to-head record 9-4 but had to save five match points against the powerful left-hander in their recent semifinal in Doha.

“I'm expecting a tough one, there's no doubt about it,” said Djokovic, noting the dangers that lurk in every round.

“Nobody is invincible. I never thought of myself as a superior player on the court, even though of course at times I was very confident.

“I still want to put myself in a position where I'm quite even to other players, fight for this trophy as anybody else, even though I'm defending champion.”

Rafael Nadal, who meets Florian Mayer in Tuesday’s third day match at Rod Laver Arena, also understands that past titles are no guarantee of success. On the same day last year, the Spaniard was stunned in five sets by Verdasco; the start of the first Grand Slam season in a decade in which the 2009 Australian Open champion failed to make a major quarterfinal.

Nadal, who is ranked No.9 compared to Mayer at No.49, holds a 1-1 record against the German, his win occurring in their last match at Rome in 2012.

The Spaniard is making every effort to make his 11th campaign at Melbourne Park a successful one, with Carlos Moya – runner-up at Melbourne Park in 1997 – a recent addition to his coaching team. Hampered by a wrist injury for much of 2016, it’s a move that highlights the 30-year-old’s determined approach to 2017.

“If I don't believe that I can be competitive, and when I mean 'competitive', is fighting for the things that I (fought for) during the last 10 years, I will be probably playing golf or fishing at home,” said Nadal, who will instead be making every effort to claim a 46th match win at Melbourne Park.

“If I am here (it) is because I believe,” he added. “I can fight for the things that really motivate me.”

HOT TIP
Dominika Cibulkova ended 2016 by claiming her biggest career title at the WTA Finals. Recently peaking at world No.5, the 2014 finalist should progress without fuss against world No.90 Denisa Allertova.

UPSET ALERT
Agnieszka Radwanska is a two-time Australian Open semifinalist, but the No.3 seed could be made to work hard in her first round match against Tsvetana Pironkova, a former Sydney champion who was also a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2010.

MUST WATCH
Alexander Zverev, still just 19, has come a long way since lifting the 2014 boys’ trophy. A multiple winner over Roger Federer and a recent member of the world’s top 20, the entertaining German begins his Australian Open 2017 campaign against Robin Haase in Tuesday’s first match at Hisense Arena. Potentially adding to the teenager’s growing confidence is that had his first-ever main draw win over Haase, in Munich, in their only previous meeting in 2014.(AO) 



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