Five hot topics for the Australian Open

AFP , Wednesday 13 Jan 2016

Five talking points ahead of the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the tennis season which starts on Monday

Novak's great, but is he golden?

Novak Djokovic reached 15 finals in 2015 and became just the third man in the Open era -- after Rod Laver and Roger Federer -- to play in the last round of all four Grand Slams in a single year.

Despite his heroics, the Serb just failed to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam, when he lost in the Roland Garros final for the third time.

This year the stakes are even higher with the Olympics looming, giving the 28-year-old the chance of winning the first men's "Golden Slam".

Steffi Graf is only player to ever scoop all four Gland Slam titles and an Olympic gold in a single year, when she did it aged 20 in 1988.

Djokovic has started the year on form, thrashing arch-rival Rafael Nadal in straight sets to take his first title of the year at the Qatar Open.

A forlorn Nadal said after the match there was nothing he could do in response to Djokovic's "perfect" performance.

The world number one is the firm favourite to scoop the title at Melbourne Park next week -- where he has five wins from five finals -- and to start his bid for a perfect win record in 2016.

Is Serena fit and firing?

Twenty-one time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams won three of the four Grand Slams in 2015 and remains well clear of second-placed Simona Halep in the world rankings.

But she has not played a full match in nearly five months after she shut down her 2015 season early following her surprise defeat in the US Open semi-finals to Italy's Roberta Vinci.

This year has not got off to a great start for the veteran, who still seems to be suffering the effects of her calendar-year Grand Slam near-miss.

The world number one pulled out of her first tie at the Hopman Cup citing a knee injury, and then retired when she was trailing 7-5, 2-1 in her second match against Australian Jarmila Wolfe.

But Williams has insisted that the injury is minor and that she will be ready to defend her title at Melbourne Park next week.

She has also repeatedly said she has her sights firmly on defending her Olympic singles title in Rio in August.

Williams turned pro before her closest two rivals in the rankings -- Halep and Garbine Maguruza -- were even four years old, and it could be that time is finally catching up with the American great.

Vika on the march

Former world number one Victoria Azarenka has had a difficult couple of years. She sustained a foot injury in 2014 and only played nine tournaments. In 2015, she suffered a thigh strain that saw her slip down the world rankings to close the year at 22.

But the two-time Australian Open champion is showing signs of a renaissance, storming to her second Brisbane International crown last week -- her first title since she beat Williams in Cincinnati in 2013 -- and has even released a Rocky-style training montage announcing her comeback.

With the women's draw blighted by injuries, a fit Azarenka could be the most likely person to challenge Williams' bid for a 22nd Grand Slam title.

The music-loving Belarusian, who likes to imagine the tennis court is a dance floor, said she was excited at the prospect of potentially facing the American veteran.

"I'm excited to face my biggest challenge, if (a match against Williams) happens. It excites me every time I have that opportunity," the 26-year-old told The Times.

At last year's US Open, Azarenka added a new word to the tennis lexicon -- "pinish", a combination of "punish" and "finish". All eyes will now be on whether she can "pinish" her opponents in Melbourne.

From here to paternity

World number two Andy Murray is due to add another title to his collection: that of father.

His wife Kim Sears is expecting their first child in February and the two-time Grand Slam winner has said he will fly home if it looks like the baby is going to put in an early appearance -- even if it means missing the Australian Open final.

"I'm going to fly home I think," he said when asked what he'd choose if that scenario unfolded.

"We spoke about it and chatted and obviously it'd be disappointing if I was to get in that position and not be able to play the final.

"But I'd be way more disappointed winning the Australian Open and not being at the birth of the child."

Murray, who has contested four Australian Open finals without a win, added: "Hopefully it doesn't come to that."

So long, Lleyton

The Australian Open will bring down the curtain for former world number one and two-time Grand Slam-winner Lleyton Hewitt, who will retire after his 20th appearance at Melbourne Park.

Hewitt's swansong is far from a token effort -- he's been training hard for the last two months and says he's in good shape -- as you'd expect from the diehard Rocky fan known for his on-court battle cry, "C'mon!"

With his trademark backwards cap, the Aussie became the youngest ever men's number one in 2001 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, a title he held for 17 consecutive months.

Hewitt, 34, is also remembered in Melbourne for his 2008 marathon against Marcos Baghdatis, which he won after four hours and 45 minutes -- at 4:33 am.

Now ranked 306th in the world and having not made a Grand Slam final since 2005, Hewitt looks unlikely to go deep in his last ever tournament.

Hewitt announced his intention to retire a year ago, and has already turned his attention to the next generation of Australian talent.

Hewitt mentored bad boy Nick Kyrgios in the lead-up to last year's US Open, and he has also taken over as captain of Australia's Davis Cup team.

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