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Australian Open 2014: What to watch out for

Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park
by Alexandra Willis at Melbourne Park
Saturday 11 January 2014

Grand Slam tennis begins again on Monday as the Australian Open 2014 gets under way. Wimbledon.com takes a look at the major storylines heading into another fortnight at the Happy Slam. With apologies for all the questions.

1. Djokovic and Becker

Anyone who has been observing Boris Becker's social media presence over the past week or so will have noticed that the three-time Wimbledon champion is brimful of excitement at his new responsibility as Novak Djokovic's head coach, posting photos of the pair on court with merry abandon, and doing his best to look the part of serious mentor. But how will that translate on the match court when the defending champion begins his campaign for a fifth Melbourne Park crown, and fourth in a row? Djokovic, who has been busy himself announcing two new major sponsorships with Seiko and Peugot, has clearly decided that he needs something else in his armoury if he is to wrest the Grand Slam momentum back from Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, despite going unbeaten from the US Open onwards. The draw has been kind to him here, seeded in David Ferrer's half, with little to trouble him in the first four rounds other than Ernests Gulbis. So perhaps it is not here that Becker's role will fully reveal itself. Perhaps we have to wait till Paris to see if the partnership will produce the sorts of shift up in gear that Djokovic has in mind. 

2. Can Rafa keep rolling?

Rafael Nadal had one of the years of his career in 2013, despite not starting till February. On his return to these bright blue courts for the first time since 2012, what are the chances that Nadal will do the same as he did in New York? He has already begun by winning a tournament in the first week of the season for the first time in his career. But the draw has not cooperated as it might have, pitting Andy Murray in Nadal's half, and, a not exactly easy first round against Bernard Tomic, or potential third round against Gael Monfils, whom Nadal had to battle hard to win Doha. And then there could be Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarter-finals. But then again, perhaps Nadal likes having the chips more stacked against him than not. 

"He's a good player to start the tournament," Nadal said about facing Tomic. "To be through in that first round is because I'm ready to compete well. If not, I'm going to be ready to be practicing at home. Most important thing for me is be able to be competitive in every tournament that I going to play. I was not lucky in this tournament in the past. I'm going to try and find the feelings, positive feelings."

3. Roger's racket. And Edberg's presence. 

Meanwhile, there is the latest in the Does Roger Federer Still Have It debate. The Grand Slam record holder has attracted attention during the off-season for his appointment of Stefan Edberg as a coaching consultant, his move to a larger racket frame, and the announcement that he will be a father again this summer. The first and second of those prove that he is taking seriously suggestions that his game style no longer allows him to compete at the top of the game, that his plan B and plan C cannot compete with Nadal, Djokovic and now Murray's ability to simply work harder and harder. After his disappointing US Open, the rumour-mongers are eagerly anticipating a repeat, especially since Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could be the one across the net from him in the fourth round. 

"It's the same like before, I just hope to play good tennis and be successful. I've had tough draws in the past. I've had easier draws in the past. You want to play good tennis. That's what my goal is for the first week. I feel good. My confidence is there. I definitely have less pressure this year, less to lose. So I should be able to play more freely."

4.  Murray's back

Pun intended. The Wimbledon champion and last year's finalist returns to Grand Slam action on what has been a happy hunting ground for him, the surface, ambiance and atmosphere all to his liking. Reports suggest that he is moving well, and moving freely, and that any lingering worry about his back has been pushed from his mind. But the fact remains that this tournament is likely to have come a little too soon, and that he simply doesn't have the matches under his belt to do as well here as he might in say a month's time. His draw is nice enough to allow him to ease his way through the opening rounds, before potentially meeting either Federer or Tsonga in the quarters. And then there would be Nadal. But that's a long way away yet. 

"I feel good. Obviously I need to be pretty patient with myself and not expect too much," Murray said. "But you never know.  I've done a lot of training the last few months; it's just I haven't played many matches.  So, you know, if somehow I can work my way into the tournament, feel a little bit better every day, then I might start to raise those expectations. But for now they're not going to be obviously as high as they were the last few years.  Just concentrate on my first match."

5. Serena streaking

The last match Serena Williams lost was...in Cincinnati last August. She has said that 2013 would have been a better year had she won more Slams. But it was still a year with just four losses. Is 2014 going to be something similar? Better? And if not, why not. She hasn't made the semi-finals here in Melbourne since 2010, but she does have five titles. If she does win here, that would be Slam No.18, equalling Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Serena starts off against Australian youngster Ash Barty in the night match on Rod Laver Arena.  "She's extremely talented," Serena said. "I was actually super impressed with her game. I thought she was a really, really great player. I just try to play the best I can, I try not to do too much to change my game." Anything can happen, but she sounds motivated.

6. Third time lucky for Azarenka?

The Australian Open has been to Victoria Azarenka what it has been to Novak Djokovic. The Belarusian successfully defended her title here last year, and is on for a hat-trick. But, Cincinnati aside, Serena is winning their mental battle. Azarenka barely won a match after losing the US Open final, and was defeated by Williams again in Brisbane last week, ending her streak of wins on Australian courts. It's time for a new twist in the tale. 

7. Sharapova's back

Much like Andy Murray, all eyes are on the returning Russian, deemed to have fully recovered from her troubling shoulder, and with new coach Sven Groenfeld in her camp. But, again, Serena looms large as a blot on Sharapova's copybook, although for once they are slotted in different halfs. Losing before the second week would be a big disappointment. 

"I'm happy to be back playing at a Grand Slam," Sharapova said. "You obviously have to lower your expectations a little bit and be a bit realistic about the first few mathces. You have to grind, work through them, hope to get better as the tournament goes on. There's no easy opponent in this tournament, no matter what round you're playing."

8. Is there anyone else out there?

Are we destined to see the Big Four in the last four? Or will there be a different face to change things up. Del Potro, Ferrer, Tsonga, Berdych? Someone new? The same applies for the ladies. Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka have won seven of the last eight majors. It's time for Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, or someone else to have a go. Where are you Marion?

"I really wish I can win another Grand Slam," Li said. "This is the goal for me."


For all the reports and results from Melbourne Park, visit the Official Australian Open website

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