Melbourne - Thirtysomethings Roger Federer and Novak
Djokovic share the Australian Open record with six wins, but either could make
history with a magnificent seventh when the first Grand Slam of the year begins
in Melbourne on Monday.
The pair face a stern challenge from youthful force
Alexander Zverev, looking for a first major as the torch-bearer for the next
But there are question marks over the fitness of Rafael
Nadal and Andy Murray, meaning it remains to be seen if all members of the
"Big Four" will again prove a force to be reckoned with.
Twelve months ago Federer rolled back the years once more at
the Rod Laver Arena to beat Marin Cilic in five pulsating sets and lift an
emotional 20th Grand Slam.
It put him on a par with other six-time Australian Open
winners Djokovic and Roy Emerson - but the Australian great's victories all
came before the Open era.
By contrast, the 31-year-old Djokovic endured a miserable
early Melbourne exit, 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 number one 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.
Ageless Swiss master Federer, now 37, will remain a chief
threat to the Serb but the other two members of the Big Four look to be
struggling after an injury-plagued 2018.
Second-ranked Nadal, 32, pulled out of his Brisbane warm-up
tournament with a thigh strain although he returned for an exhibition in Sydney
and insisted he was healthy.
Murray, 31, looked way below his best in a second-round
straight-sets Brisbane defeat to Daniil Medvedev.
"I think if we are healthy and playing well, the four
guys still have probably the best chance to always win Slams," said
The Serb warned however that "the next generation is
already there" and picked young guns Zverev of Germany, Borna Coric of
Croatia, Karen Khachanov of Russia and Greece's Stefano Tsitsipas as key
threats to the Big Four, who have won a staggering 49 of the last 56 Grand
Slams stretching back to 2004.
"It's just a matter of time when we will see some of
them competing in the last stages of Grand Slams," said Djokovic.
Zverev, 21, starts the Australian Open full of confidence
after an impressive warm-up in Perth's mixed teams Hopman Cup, despite his
terrible record at Grand Slams.
The German has never got beyond the third round in
Last year, seeded four, he crashed out in the last 32 to
South Korea's Chung Hyeon and has only reached one quarter-final in his 14
Federer seems to thrive at the start of the year and begins
his campaign on the back of winning the Hopman Cup. He is hunting a third
successive Australian Open after last year becoming the oldest world number one
in the 45-year history of the ATP rankings.
"(Pete) Sampras once upon a time said, 'If you win a
Slam, it's a good season'," said Federer, now ranked three, who skipped
Roland Garros and had disappointing exits at Wimbledon and the US Open.
"I played super well in Australia again. So obviously I
can't wait to go back there. I'm very proud that at 37 I'm still so
Murray's hip surgery meant he played just six events in
2018, and Nadal's truncated 2018 campaign was bookended by injuries that forced
to him to retire in both the Australian and US Opens.
But the Spanish king of clay still managed to win five
titles including a record-extending 11th French Open.
World number five Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, beaten by
Djokovic in the US Open final, will miss Melbourne after fracturing his patella
in Shanghai in October.
And Cilic, who pushed Federer all the way in the final last
year, heads into the tournament after pulling out of a warm-up event in India
last week with an injured knee.
Home fans will look to Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios, but
the latter is searching for form after a troubled 2018 and tumbled out of the
Brisbane warm-up, where he was defending champion, in the second round.