A year after Novak Djokovic was on top of the world, on his way to winning everything there was to win as a men’s singles tennis player, things are slightly different. Starting Monday, the 2017 Australian Open begins in Melbourne, a week after the traditional warm-ups at Qatar, Brisbane and Chennai concluded.
To start with, though, Djokovic enters the 128-man field the next week as defending champion, and as reigning Qatar Open champion again. He defeated World No. 1, Sir Andy Murray, in three tight sets in the Doha final, starting his season the only way he hoped to.
Here are some of the talking points of this year’s first Grand Slam:
Djokovic is a six-time champion, tied with Roy Emerson at the top. Nobody has ever won this slam seven times. Roger Federer won it four times.
Andy Murray is yet to win the Australian Open. He lost last year’s final to Djokovic. This is the first Slam he will play as the top seed.
‘Baby Fed’ Grigor Dimitrov won the Brisbane Open, his first tournament in two years. He defeated World No. 5 Kei Nishikori in the final, as well as three top-10 players on his way to the final, including Milos Raonic (who defeated Rafael Nadal in the quarters).
This will be the first Slam since 2002 in which Federer will enter ranked outside the top 10. He is ranked 17, and made his comeback to tennis at the Hopman Cup in Perth last week. He won two singles matches against Dan Evans and Richard Gasquet, but lost to upcoming star Alexander Zverev.
Many consider the 2012 five-set final between Nadal and Djokovic to the greatest Australian Open match ever played.
Murray and Djokovic are slated to meet each other in the final. The second line of favorites who could stop this consists of Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic and Gael Monfils. The dark horses are Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic.
Federer lost to Djokovic in last year’s semifinals. Murray lost the first two major finals of the year at Melbourne and Paris in 2016, both to Djokovic. Stan Wawrinka won the year’s last Slam in 2016 in New York, defeating Djokovic in the final.
World No. 1 Angelique Kerber is the defending women’s champion. She won two majors in 2016, and dethroned Serena Williams from the top. She was beaten by teenaged Russian Daria Kasatkina at Sydney earlier this week. Along with World No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 2 Serena Williams, she is the favorite. Williams is still tied on 22 Slams with Steffi Graff, one short of breaking the record for the Open Era. She is now 35 years of age.
Melbourne is famous for having “unlikely” finalists challenge the favorites. Many will remember Marcos Baghdatis facing Federer in 2006, Fernando Gonzalez facing Federer in 2007, Stan Wawrinka winning his first Slam against Nadal in 2013, Rainer Schuttler losing to Andre Agassi in 2003, Thomas Johansson defeating favorite Marat Safin in 2002, Arnaud Clement losing to Agassi in 2001, Thomas Enquist losing to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the 1999 final.
The semifinal between Marat Safin and Roger Federer in 2005 was perhaps one of the greatest Australian Open matches in terms of quality of that decade. Federer was at the peak of his powers, at age 24, halted by a marauding Safin in five pulsating sets. This was to be Safin’s final hurrah – his second and last Slam victory, when he defeated home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Safin reached the Australian Open final thrice in his career.