After staging a remarkable comeback in 2013, Spanish buccaneer Rafael Nadal has his eye on more Grand Slam silverware this year and is shaping up as the biggest threat to Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open reign.
While Nadal reasserted his hegemony over Roland Garros with an eighth French Open triumph last year and Roger Federer has won seven Wimbledon crowns, Djokovic has made Melbourne Park his own Grand Slam banker with four titles in the last five years.
The Serbian last tasted defeat on the banks of the Yarra River almost four years ago and if he can extend his unbeaten run on the blue plexicushion to 28 matches this year, would become the first man in the professional era to take the title five times.
“The Australian Open is definitely my most successful Grand Slam, my favourite Grand Slam. I love spending time here,” Djokovic said after being drawn to face world number 90 Lukas Lacko in the opening round on Friday.
“It’s the start of the season and I think most of the players are sharing the same opinion. We love the atmosphere, the easy energy that flows around, and of course the tennis fever.”
Nadal missed the tournament in 2013 when a bout of stomach flu capped a miserable run of injuries but made a remarkable return with 10 titles, including his 12th and 13th in Grand Slams, to knock the Serb off the top of the world rankings.
So while Federer, also a four-time Australian Open champion, and Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, a finalist in three of the last four years, cannot be written off, Nadal looks the man most likely to usurp Djokovic.
Nadal opened the new season with another title win in Qatar and few tennis fans would be too disappointed if the two weeks of competition at Melbourne Park, which start on Monday, climax with a re-match of his six-hour 2012 final defeat to Djokovic.
The Spaniard certainly has the tougher draw with the talented but inconsistent Australian Bernard Tomic up first and Juan Martin del Potro, who beat him at the Shanghai Masters last October, his potential opponent in the last eight.
While Nadal has never been coached by anybody other than his uncle Toni, Djokovic has followed the trend of elite players adding former tennis greats to their support staff by taking on six-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker. Federer then followed suit by persuading Stefan Edberg to join him in Melbourne.
If players, pundits and bookmakers are to be believed, Serena Williams has already sewn up her sixth Australian Open title and the other 127 women in the draw may as well pick up their racquets and head home.
Riding a 22-match winning streak, the American juggernaut arrives in Melbourne Park fit, fresh and ravenous for more Grand Slam success at a tournament where injuries and illness have robbed her of yet more silverware in the past three years.
Age has not wearied the 32-year-old, who after winning her second French Open crown last year became the oldest woman to win the US Open when she raised her 17th Grand Slam trophy at Flushing Meadows.
The winner at Melbourne Park in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010, another triumph would see Williams equal Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s tally of 18 major titles and draw her closer to German great Steffi Graf’s 22. Australian Margaret Court leads the all-time list with 24.
Williams’s place in the tennis pantheon is assured but her coach Patrick Mouratoglou believes the American could secure a calendar Grand Slam, which would make her the third woman after Court in 1970 and Graf in 1988 to achieve the feat in the open era.
“Look at the level she plays at the moment,” Mouratoglou told the BBC this week. “She’s beaten all the top players many times, so you can aim that high.”
Second seed Victoria Azarenka, who will bid for a hat-trick of titles at Melbourne Park, and third seed Maria Sharapova are again the most credible threats to Serena.
Azarenka underlined her toughness last year with an impressive title defence, beating China’s Li Na in front of a hostile crowd in Rod Laver Arena. Tellingly, Azarenka avoided Williams during both her runs to the Australian title, with the American eliminated after being hobbled by injuries.
Azarenka also dodged Williams at last year’s Brisbane International in the leadup to Melbourne Park but there was no hiding at this year’s warmup where she was beaten in straight sets by the American in the final.
That match followed Williams’ straight sets win over four-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova, her 14th in succession against the glamorous Russian.
While a Williams win would seem virtually assured, the American, who faces Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty in the first round, would be wary that the crackling energy of major tournaments often tears up the script.
German Sabine Lisicki’s fourth-round upset of Williams at Wimbledon last year was also a timely reminder that the majors can turn the most unfancied of players into warriors capable of humbling the world’s best with one inspired hour.