Melbourne - Novak Djokovic is hitting ever
greater heights ahead of the Australian Open - posing problems for his rivals,
and raising distant hopes of the first ever men's "Golden Slam".
Picking up where he left off after a
blistering 2015, Djokovic destroyed Rafael Nadal in last week's Qatar Open
final, in a performance the Spaniard called "stratospheric".
"I played against a player who did
everything perfect. I know nobody playing tennis like this ever," said the
14-time Grand Slam-winner.
No male player, and only Steffi Graf on the
women's side, has ever achieved the "Golden Slam": winning all four
major titles and Olympic singles gold in a single year.
Last season Djokovic fell just one victory
short of the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969, after
losing the French Open final to Stan Wawrinka.
Acknowledging his form, the 28-year-old
said in Doha: "I'm hoping that I can actually peak and play as well as I
did today in Melbourne."
A strong performance looks likely in
Melbourne, Djokovic's most successful Grand Slam where he has won five out of
five finals, including last year against Andy Murray.
But the 10-time major champion will not be
looking too far beyond the year's opening Grand Slam, which starts on Monday.
"My thoughts are only directed to
Melbourne and what I need to do there," he said.
Murray, who will be in the bottom half of
the men's draw and seeded to face Djokovic in the January 31 final, sees the
Serb as a huge challenge.
"What Novak is doing... last year he
had an incredible year," he said. "Final of every tournament bar one.
"It's been tough playing in an era
with Novak, Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal) but at the same time to have guys
like that to always be trying to catch up to, to have to improve to try and
beat them, it's a huge challenge."
Murray carries the baggage of losing four
Melbourne finals - three of them to Djokovic - but is continuing his dogged
pursuit of a breakthrough.
"I'm doing everything I can to try and
win here," said the 28-year-old Scot, who has promised to leave early if
his wife Kim Sears gives birth.
"My number one goal is to try and win
here. It'd mean a lot because of how many times I've been close."
Federer, as the third seed on rankings,
could face either Djokovic or Murray in the semi-finals as the 17-time Grand
Slam champion looks to win his first major title since Wimbledon 2012.
The Swiss maestro has won four Australian
Opens, but lost to Djokovic at last year's Wimbledon and US Open finals.
At 34, he is running out of time to add to
his all-time record haul of Grand Slam titles.
"Of course, Novak is the favourite for
the Australian Open. Plus he's played well there historically," Federer
said last week.
Nadal has won once in Australia, over
Federer in a classic five-set final in 2009, and has had some of his career low
points with tournament-ending injuries in Melbourne.
But he maintains he can do well as he
pursues his comeback from a disappointing 2015, when he failed to any Grand
"I am playing well, and I'm gonna keep
working hard to try to be ready for Australia. And I think I will be. I am
motivated for it," the Spanish left-hander said.
Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka will also be a
contender after he conquered Djokovic on the way to winning the 2014 Australian
Open, and beat him again in last year's French Open final.
The world number four tuned up by beating
Croatia's Borna Coric for a third straight Chennai Open title in India last
Outside the top five, Japan's world number
seven Kei Nishikori will be looking to get past the quarters for the first time
Meanwhile, local interest will focus on the
antics of talented but wayward young Aussies Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios.