Roger Federer continues to defy the ageing process but even the great Swiss will know the window of opportunity to add to his Grand Slam haul is growing narrower every passing month. Yet when the 38-year-old begins his 21st Australian Open campaign next week only the foolhardy would write off his chances of another Melbourne miracle.
Federer is bidding for a seventh Australian Open title and a record-extending 21st Grand Slam trophy but will require a near-perfect fortnight and a slice of fortune to achieve it. His path is littered with obstacles, some more familiar than others. Champion Novak Djokovic, fresh from leading Serbia to the ATP Cup title, will loom over the draw while world number one Rafael Nadal arrives fighting fit. Then there are the likes of Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and Russian Daniil Medvedev, the leaders of a fearless next generation, both desperate and destined to land a first Grand Slam title.
Unlike all of his rivals Federer, who last tasted Grand Slam glory at the 2018 tournament Down Under, opted against playing for Switzerland at the ATP Cup, preferring to pack in some more family time before launching his 22nd season. His last match was a defeat by Tsitsipas in the ATP Finals in November. Then again Federer usually hits the ground running in Melbourne, memorably three years ago when, after a six-month injury lay-off, he beat Nadal in an epic final to win the title.
In 2018 his first official tournament was the Australian Open and he won that too. “I had two incredible years in 2017 and 2018 when I won there,” Federer said in the buildup. “It’s not that long ago so it gives me the belief I can do it again. “I’ve trained long and hard in the off-season and I didn’t have any setbacks, which is crucial.”
Since beating Marin Cilic in the 2018 final it has been a tale of ‘what might have been’ for Federer. He squandered two match points against Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final and knows Nadal, with 19 Grand Slams, is now breathing down his neck in the race to end their respective careers with the most major silverware. Djokovic has 16.
He will arrive refreshed though and with the fast Melbourne courts suiting his game down to a tee, Federer will view the next fortnight as a realistic opportunity to put a little daylight between himself and Nadal.
Tsitsipas toppled him in the fourth round last year, after which he reached the semi-finals at the French, the final at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last eight. Former Australian Open champion Mats Wilander does not regard Federer as a favourite, but says he will be dangerous.
“I think the Tsitsipas loss will be a sour memory,” Wilander told Reuters. “But the surface, being a bit quicker, makes his serve a weapon. The biggest problem is that Novak and Rafa are so prepared this year and that’s the biggest problem for Fed. But he won his most surprising Grand Slam in 17 and miracles still happen in Melbourne for Roger.”
Whatever happens the world number three will almost certainly chalk up a few more milestones in Melbourne. His 21st consecutive main draw appearance will put him ahead of Lleyton Hewitt and if he wins three rounds he would reach the 100 mark for matches won at the tournament.
The one record he will really care about though is to become the oldest Grand Slam champion in the professional era — edging out Ken Rosewall who won the 1972 Australian Open aged 37.
Buoyed Djokovic banking on history repeating itself
Champion Novak Djokovic will be gunning for his eighth Australian Open title in Melbourne under circumstances strikingly similar to those when he lifted his second after being inspired by success with his country.
A 23-year old Djokovic, looking to break the domination of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, clinched the 2011 title Down Under after leading Serbia to their maiden Davis Cup victory in December 2010 on home soil. That triumph in Belgrade, when Serbia were roared on by a fervent home crowd to a 3-2 win over France in the final, catapulted Djokovic’s personal career as he went on to win three grand slam tournaments the following year.
Nine years later, the Serbians, again led by an equally galvanised Djokovic, lifted the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney after beating favourites and reigning Davis Cup champions Spain 2-1 in Sunday’s dramatic final. Once again, Djokovic and his team mates thrived on noisy support from a sea of Serb fans in the stands, namely expats who made Team Serbia feel as if they were reliving the memorable 2010 Davis Cup final in the Belgrade Arena.
Djokovic, who has since boosted his tally to 16 major honours while taking a stranglehold on the Australian Open, made it clear he hoped history would repeat itself as he gears up for the Jan 20-Feb 2 tournament in Melbourne.
“After that final against France in 2010, our individual careers rocketed and I hope the ATP success we’ve just achieved will have the same effect,” Djokovic said after engineering Serbia’s comeback win over the Spaniards. “We all achieved our biggest individual wins after we lifted the Davis Cup.”
Djokovic beat Nadal in straight sets on Sunday to put Serbia on an even keel after Dusan Lajovic had lost to Roberto Bautista-Agut in the opening singles, and then teamed up with Viktor Troicki to win the decisive doubles.
Troicki was another survivor from the 2010 feat, when he clinched the showdown for Serbia after winning the tie-breaking singles rubber against Michael Llodra.
Djokovic also credited the support from the terraces as a galvanising factor, and will be hoping he gets similar backing when he takes centre stage in Melbourne. “Tennis is an individual sport but when you’re playing a singles rubber for your country with all your team mates roaring you on from the bench, it feels as if you’re not on your own out there,” he said.
“They give you the strength and the courage and I will carry all of that in my heart. Fan support was crucial in winning the ATP Cup. The fan support I got in Brisbane and Sydney while representing Serbia was the strongest I’ve ever seen.”
Rafa in good shape to equal Federer 20-Slam record
After finally beginning a season with no injury concerns, Rafael Nadal has as clean a shot at the Australian Open as he could hope for as he takes aim at equalling Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles.
Melbourne is the Slam that the 19-times champion has found the hardest to win, with his only triumph coming in 2009 when he overcame Federer in a five-set epic that left his Swiss rival in floods of tears. He has reached the final four times in the last decade and lost on each occasion, twice to Novak Djokovic, including a trouncing last year, once to Federer and one shock reverse at the hands of Stan Wawrinka in 2014.
Nadal has previously spoken out against the timing of the Australian Open so soon after the Christmas break and has often found himself battling fitness problems as the tournament approaches.
Familiar knee problems stunted his preparation in 2018 and led to him withdrawing in agony in the fifth set of a quarter-final with Marin Cilic. Last year, he underwent ankle surgery before the tournament, which made his run to the final without dropping a set all the more impressive. This year, though, the world number one appears to be in fine shape, having spearheaded Spain’s victory at the Davis Cup in November and helped his country into the recent inaugural final of the ATP Cup where he lost a classic to Djokovic.
Nadal has remained relatively injury-free since recapturing last year’s U.S. Open title, with the only recent setback an abdominal injury that forced him to withdraw during the Paris Masters.
“Rafa is in spectacular form and now it’s just a question of maintaining his level,” said coach Francis Roig after arriving in Australia with Nadal ahead of the ATP Cup. “He is feeling very confident because of how he has been playing and because his serve is helping him a lot.”
Staying in prime shape is crucial to Nadal’s chances in Melbourne where he suffered his heaviest Grand Slam final loss last year and was left admitting that his defensive game was unable to counter Djokovic’s precision attacks. He will be emboldened, then, by the ruthless physical shape he found himself in at the end of the season, which saw him win eight matches in six days at the Davis Cup as he led Spain to victory.
Talk of chasing down Federer’s 20 Slams will gather pace as each day passes in Melbourne, although Nadal maintains that drawing level with the Swiss is not something he obsesses over. “I make my own path because you can’t always be frustrated or over-ambitious,” he told Spanish newspaper AS in December. “When you do everything you can, you’re aren’t obliged to do anything else. At the end of the year I want to be able to say I’ve done enough to make things go as well as possible.”
Maverick Medvedev looks to build on stellar 2019 in Melbourne
US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev will be expected to build on his breakthrough 2019 season at the Australian Open but will need to keep his cool in the Melbourne heat for a chance win his first Grand Slam title.
The gangly 23-year-old, who last year became the first Russian man to reach a Grand Slam final since Marat Safin in 2005, has stunned opponents with unconventional tactics, exhausting them with flat backhands and endless rallies. His unique style and enigmatic persona left few people indifferent in the tennis world last year.
Currently fourth in the rankings, the Russian has carved out a love-hate relationship with fans who have commended him for his skill but have sometimes chided him for on-court tantrums that have angered opponents.
Medvedev led the ATP Tour last year with 59 overall wins, capturing two consecutive ATP Masters titles. He kicked off his best-ever season with a strong start at the last Australian Open, where he lost to Novak Djokovic in the round of 16. But his most memorable performances came in his US Open run, where he lost in the final to Rafael Nadal in a gruelling five-hour match in which he rallied from two sets down.
But Medvedev’s consistency and endurance on the court are paired with a fiery temper that has at times antagonised crowds and jeopardised his concentration – something he will need to steer clear from at the Australian Open.
“Obviously after my last season, I have a lot of big expectations for 2020, but first of all I need to stay lucid and take it all match-by-match,” Medvedev told Ubitennis website.
Medvedev’s erratic court behaviour at the US Open, which included a middle finger directed at crowd, verbal abuse and a thrown racket among other offences, saw him consistently booed by spectators in New York.
Medvedev, who later apologised profusely for his conduct and made up with fans, said the negative energy had given him the boost he needed to reach the final. The boos, then, were replaced by cheers.
He will arrive in Melbourne full of confidence after pushing Djokovic to the absolute limit in marathon match at the ATP Cup where he helped Russia reach the semi-finals.
“It seems like he’s a machine,” Djokovic said after his two-hour 48 minute duel. Perhaps in Melbourne Medvedev will surround himself with more positive than negative energy and if he does he could well be the one to break the stranglehold of the game’s top silverware by the big three of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. If not, that’s the strength of these guys that they are always there, always in the semi-finals, finals of Slams, and that’s the most important,” Medvedev said.
“I think I’m not that far, but to stay not that far and maybe get even closer, I have to continue to work hard.”
Tsitsipas poised for Grand Slam breakthrough in 2020
Few players have looked capable of breaking the stranglehold Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have had on Grand Slams over the last 15 years but if anyone can end their reign in 2020 it is likely to be Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The 21-year-old Greek has exceeded expectations in each of his campaigns, shooting up to number six in the world rankings and ending 2019 by winning the coveted ATP Finals crown.
With an exciting all-round game and incredible athleticism, Tsitsipas has quickly become the player to watch on the men’s Tour, taking much of the spotlight from other young Grand Slam contenders including 26-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem and German Alexander Zverev, 22.
Tsitsipas broke into the top 50 in 2018, winning his first ATP title and finishing the year with the NextGen trophy. He topped that last year by reaching the Australian Open semi-finals and winning three more titles, including the ATP Finals.
Tsitsipas said recently one of his goals for 2020 was to win a Grand Slam title. “But it is not a matter of life or death for me. My goals are to win a Grand Slam title, finish inside the top three by the end of the year, qualify for the ATP Finals again and win a Masters 1000.”
Tsitsipas, who bounced back from a mid-season slump last year, started the season with a straight sets win over Zverev after losing to Denis Shapovalov in his ATP Cup opener. That defeat will no doubt serve as a warning that the 20-year-old Canadian lefthander is also one to reckon with after leading his country to the Davis Cup final last year and also winning his first title in Stockholm.
Thiem, who lost to Nadal in the last two French Open finals, will have his work cut out to make an impact at the Australian Open but the clay-court specialist says the top three have not had it all their own way in the last couple of seasons.
“I think we challenged them already a lot. We also beat them especially on Masters 1000 stages and the ATP Finals,” said Thiem. “I think the last stage we have to conquer is the Grand Slam stage, and I really think we’ll see a new Grand Slam champion in 2020.”