MELBOURNE (AFP) – Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer begin their quest for five Australian Open titles while Serena Williams is chasing her 19th Grand Slam crown in the year’s first major starting Monday.
World number one Djokovic looms as the player to beat in the men’s draw having won four of the last seven Australian editions, and he holds an affinity with the hardcourts in Melbourne.
“There are so many players who are contenders to win the title,” said the Serb.
“Considering the success that I had in my career in this tournament gives me enough reason and confidence to believe I can go far.”
While Djokovic has never lost a final in Melbourne, Federer will be again be the sentimental favourite at 33 years old, pursuing his 18th major title having not won one since Wimbledon 2012.
“I would hope that over the years I’ve always improved. I think I’m serving more consistent and stronger than I ever have,” Federer said.
“I definitely think the racquet has helped me with that as well, my concentration I do believe is there, better than it’s ever been and I think my backhand is working better than it has in the past as well.”
There are question marks over Rafael Nadal’s match fitness after playing few matches since Wimbledon last July following a wrist injury and later an appendectomy.
Nadal suffered a shock defeat in his first match of the season in Doha to German qualifier Michael Berrer on the way to Australia.
“I am doing lot of practice and doing the things that we believe we have to do to recover our level,” Nadal said.
“Is true that having a Grand Slam this early in the season after injury like I’ve had is not the ideal thing. But here we are.”
Nadal has won 14 Grand Slams, but only won one of them in Australia where he also had two runner-up finishes, including in last year’s final to Stan Wawrinka.
Britain’s Andy Murray has lost three finals in Melbourne and will have to get past Federer and Nadal to make his fourth.
Defending champion Wawrinka, who shocked Djokovic in the quarter-finals on the way to winning last year, is a last start winner, having captured back-to-back Chennai Opens on the way to Australia.
“I feel great coming here. Been getting a lot of confidence, winning the first tournament of the year,” the Swiss said.
“I know I can do it, that’s not the question. For me the most important is to be ready for the first match.
“You have to be ready, take match after match, and see where you can go.”
World number one Williams is tied with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 Grand Slams behind all-time leader Margaret Court (24) but hasn’t won in Australia since 2010, something she is determined to fix.
“It would be really great. I’ve been going for number six for a number of years now,” Williams said.
“It would be really special for me. I would be really happy. I want it I think more than anyone else here.
“But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get it, so I’ll have to fight hard to get it.”
Adding spice to the women’s side of the draw is that the top four seeds — Williams, Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova — all have the chance to end the tournament as world number one.
“There’s a lot of players that have an opportunity to get there, and I’m one of them,” said Sharapova. “I am, of course, determined to do that.”
China’s Li Na won the women’s crown last year, battling past surprise package Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, but has since retired.