Melbourne: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are both gunning for a record seventh Australian Open crown from Monday, but Andy Murray will make his last appearance here as the era of the ‘Big Four’ draws to a close.
No.1 Djokovic and third seed Federer face a stern challenge from the likes of youthful force Alexander Zverev, seeded four, who is still looking for a first major to cement his place as torch-bearer for the next generation. But Murray dropped a pre-Grand Slam bombshell, breaking down during a tear-filled press conference as he revealed chronic hip pain means he will retire after Wimbledon if he can carry on that long.
And question marks remain over the fitness of World No.2 Rafael Nadal who pulled out of his Brisbane warm-up but arrived in Melbourne professing he was ‘fully fit’ and promising to unleash a remodelled serve. It all means the era of the ‘Big Four’ is almost over after a season in which Federer, who opens his title defence against Denis Istomin Monday rolled back the years on Rod Laver Arena to lift an emotional 20th Grand Slam.
It put him on a par with other six-time Australian Open winners Djokovic and Roy Emerson although the Australian great’s victories all came before the Open era. By contrast, the 31-year-old Djokovic endured a miserable early Melbourne exit in 2018, followed by elbow surgery and a string of disappointing results that saw him drop outside the top 20.
But since winning a fourth Wimbledon in July, the Serb rose inexorably back to No.1 by losing only three further matches one of which was to Zverev at the ATP Finals. Djokovic won his third US Open in September to put him on 14 Grand Slams — three behind Nadal and six behind Federer.
Second-ranked Nadal, 32, pulled out of Brisbane with a thigh strain although he returned for an exhibition in Sydney and insisted at the weekend his fitness woes were behind him. Djokovic picked young guns Zverev of Germany, Borna Coric of Croatia, Karen Khachanov of Russia and Greece’s Stefano Tsitsipas as key threats to the top three.
Zverev, 21, starts the Australian Open full of confidence after an impressive warm-up to reach the final of Perth’s mixed teams Hopman Cup, despite his terrible record at Grand Slams. He has never got beyond the third round in Melbourne and faces Slovenia’s Aljaz Bedene in his opener Tuesday.
Last year, seeded four, he crashed out in the last 32 to South Korea’s Chung Hyeon and has only reached one quarterfinal in 14 major appearances. Home fans will look to new Sydney champion and 27th seed Alex de Minaur, who faces Portugal’s Pedro Sousa Monday, and the temperamental Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios has a tough opening match against former World No.3 Milos Raonic and then a possible clash with former Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka in round two.
No.1 Novak Djokovic and third seed Roger Federer face a stern challenge from the likes of youthful force Alexander Zverev
Andy Murray will make his last appearance in Melbourne as the era of the ‘Big Four’ draws to a close
Question marks remain over the fitness of World No.2 Rafa Nadal