Why Djokovic and Azarenka love Australia

Ahead of the Aussie Open, AJE talks to tennis experts about who will prevail in Melbourne and the ones to watch in 2014.

Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka both won their maiden Grand Slams at the Australian Open [Getty Images]

The break between tennis seasons is little over a month but the gulf between Grand Slams stretches far longer.

To be precise its 125 days – or, ‘far too long’, if you are a tennis fan.

On Monday the wait will be over as Novak Djokovic looks to deepen his love affair with the Australian Open. The Serbian is hunting down his fourth title on the bounce at his favourite grand slam, and fifth of his career.

Djokovic is the in-form player of the tour. After losing the US Open final to Rafael Nadal, he finished the season with 22 consecutive victories and the ATP World Tour Finals trophy.

Despite knocking Djokovic off top spot during the World Tours, Nadal was humbled in the final and had no answers to his rival’s power and athleticism. The Spaniard will be desperate to end Djokovic’s Melbourne monopoly and show fans he is worthy of being world number one.

“Given his hardcourt record, Djokovic will start favourite. The surface and his general record in Australia gives him a slight edge over Nadal despite Rafa’s terrific consistency on hard-courts last year,” tennis writer and broadcaster Richard Evans told Al Jazeera English.

“Andy Murray is the unknown factor. He should be moving more freely now after the back operation but will be susceptible to the kind of early round ambush he suffered in Qatar.”

With Roger Federer struggling to compete with more youthful opponents, the Australian Open could herald an end to the worn-out phrase ‘the top four’.

“I expect this year to be between Nadal, Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro. Stanislas Wawrinka is in good form so a semi-final could be on the cards. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is playing with a new racket and that could help from what I’ve seen, plus he’s a previous finalist in Oz,”  says BBC Sport Reporter Simon Mundie.

“Jerzy Janowitz is always capable of doing damage, and possibly a future Grand Slam winner.”

The home fans will be cheering on another outsider, and an old Aussie favourite. However, it will be with more expectation than a week ago, after his recent Brisbane International triumph.

“Lleyton Hewitt played brilliantly but he was helped by a poor Federer. He could easily have a deep run in Melbourne. Definitely the Aussies best bet and one to watch. He played as well as I’ve seen him in many a year,” says Mundie.

American talent

While Australia brings sunshine for Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka reigns under the rays in the women’s competition.

The Australian Open is the only major the Belarusian has won, but she has done it twice, and is hunting her third consecutive title in Melbourne.

Despite Azarenka’s Aussie accomplishments, the spotlight will fall once more on top seed Serena Williams who had a sensational 2013 (even by her standards) with 11 titles and victories at the U.S. and French Open.

However, the world number one is not the only American vying for titles in 2014.

“The powerful American teenager Madison Keys is definitely one to watch amongst the younger women players,” says Evans.

“A Grand Slam winner in the making although probably not this year. Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep and Laura Robson, if her wrist is OK, should also improve along with 16-year-old Ana Konjuh from Croatia who is already showing signs of being able to handle the transition from juniors to full WTA tour.”

While Wimbledon is known for its conservative nature, the atmosphere at the Australian Open is upbeat and colourful. The only worry for the fans is the extreme heat. However, the players are protected from changeable weather with three retractable roofs.

“I love all the Slams because they reflect so accurately the nature of the country in which they are played. (To be accurate one should say the US Open reflects New York),” says Evans, who has covered the event for over 40 years.

“The Aussie Open is wonderful in so many ways, the friendly staff and fans; the magnificent facilities and the fact that it takes just 10 minutes to walk there from Collins Street in the heart of Melbourne.”

Great reasons to love the tournament. But not the reason why Azarenka and Djokovic hold it dear to their hearts.

Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist for Al Jazeera English. You can follow her on Twitter @JoannaTilley or on her blog http://mythoughtonsport.blogspot.co.uk.

Source: Al Jazeera