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Dominant Serena guns for 18th major title Nadal to test Djokovic, star coaches at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Jan 9, (AFP): World number one Rafael Nadal will attempt to dethrone Novak Djokovic and put a new wave of celebrity coaches to the test when he returns to the Australian Open next week. Nadal missed last year’s edition during a seven-month injury break with knee trouble before making a stunning comeback to win 10 titles in 2013, including the French Open and US Open. Now the rampant Spaniard will take aim at Djokovic’s three-year reign at Melbourne Park, the longest of the Open era, and try to avenge his epic, six-hour loss to the Serb in the 2012 final. He also arrives as the only “Big Four” player without a star coach, after Djokovic and Roger Federer, aping Andy Murray’s move in hiring Ivan Lendl, hooked up with Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg respectively.

However, with Murray returning from injury and Federer now 32, the door could be open for a group of other contenders, led by Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer. Nadal, still coached by his uncle, Toni Nadal, underwent a new but undisclosed form of treatment on his injury-prone knees in the off-season, and he appears confident he can stay healthy in 2014. “I feel that this (treatment) really makes me feel more comfortable,” he said in Doha, where he started his season by winning the Qatar Open. “Because I don’t have pain like I had, no?” Nadal’s 2012 Melbourne appearance ended in the small hours and defeat to Djokovic following a Slam-record five-hour, 53-minute final, after which the Spaniard told the crowd: “Good morning!”

In Nadal’s absence last year, Djokovic showed similar powers of endurance when he ground down Murray in a physical four-setter to clinch his third straight Melbourne title. It turned out to be the high point of Djokovic’s year and after losing the Wimbledon and US Open finals, he ceded the top ranking to Nadal at the China Open in September. However, he sent out a message by beating Nadal soundly in the Beijing final, ending the year with a four-title run culminating in another big win over the Spaniard to take the World Tour Finals in London. Despite this strong finish, Djokovic sprang a surprise by hiring Becker, the German great with little experience of coaching, in a move thought to be aimed at adding more adventure to his game.

He is not the only one, with 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer acquiring the services of childhood hero Edberg as he seeks to extend his stay at the top of men’s tennis. Federer, also sporting a new, bigger racquet this year, kicked off the new season by reaching the Brisbane final, only to be shocked by fellow 30-something Lleyton Hewitt. And with Murray only just returning to action after back surgery, there could be an opportunity for the likes of del Potro, Ferrer, Tomas Berdych or Stanislas Wawrinka. The timing of the year’s first Grand Slam, just days into the new season, also makes it unpredictable, with players not always into their rhythm and match fitness. “It’s difficult because the Australian Open is very early. It would be better to play it a bit later,” admitted Nadal.

“It can be only the second tournament (of the year) that you are competing in, and it’s one of the most important, so it’s a bit strange.” Japan’s Kei Nishikori has followed the celebrity trend by hiring Michael Chang, while Richard Gasquet has enlisted two-time French Open winner Sergi Bruguera. Talented but wayward Australian number two Bernard Tomic will be followed closely by home fans, and Wawrinka has shown he’s a man in form by winning last week’s Chennai Open. Serena Williams is gunning to match Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova by winning an 18th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, with her blistering form suggesting she can reach the milestone. The world number one cemented her dominance of the sport with 11 titles last year, including the US and French Opens.

And she picked up where she left off by winning the Brisbane International on Saturday, beating reigning Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the final, with her powerful serve proving the difference.
Williams also beat world number three Maria Sharapova en route to the title — the 58th of her remarkable career — to ensure she enters the season-opening Grand Slam as red-hot favourite. “It was a great test, it showed me where my level was, and I feel like I definitely have some room for improvement and things that I want to improve on going into Melbourne, and things I have to improve on if I want to win,” she said in Brisbane. Despite her rich vein of form, Williams, 32, is not taking an 18th Grand Slam title and sixth Australian Open crown for granted, knowing she needs to start from scratch at Melbourne Park next week. Last year, an injury-hit campaign ended with defeat to young fellow American Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals.

But Czech-American great Navratilova believes Williams is not only poised to equal her career Grand Slam haul, but could even catch Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22. “If she can stay healthy there is no doubt she can go into the 20s. The sky is the limit,” Navratilova said this week. Belarusian Azarenka, who won an incident-packed Melbourne final last year against Li Na to successfully defend her title, appears best placed to halt Williams, despite the 6-4, 7-5 Brisbane defeat. Azarenka was responsible for two of Williams’ five losses last year but knows she faces a major battle against a player who won the Australian Open in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010. She nevertheless remains confident of clinching a third successive Australian Open crown. “I’m a perfectionist. I want to play better, I want to win,” Azarenka said.

Sharapova is another former Melbourne winner searching for her next major title and she will be hoping to avoid Williams until the final, with the American having a 15-2 record over her long-time rival. The glamorous Russian, now under coach Sven Groeneveld after a failed, one-tournament partnership with Jimmy Connors, endured a frustrating 2013 when a shoulder injury forced her off the tour in August.
But she made her comeback in Brisbane and said her enthusiam was as strong as ever. “I’ve had a really healthy off-season, something quite unusual because in the last few years I always had a little injury here and there,” she said in Brisbane.

“I know when I’m healthy how I can play and what I’m capable of doing. I needed to get healthy. So that was the motivation on its own.” Like Williams, China’s Li also started the season with a win, successfully defending her Shenzhen Open title against compatriot Peng Shuai. Asia’s lone Grand Slam singles champion is a crowd favourite in Melbourne, winning hearts in the final last year when she battled on despite twice going over on her ankle and banging her head so hard that she blacked out.
Other contenders include Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova and even veteran Jelena Jankovic, a former world number one who believes she still has he game to unsettle Williams. “If you were able to beat her in the past, you can do it again. That’s my mentality and that’s how I always play,” said the Serb, currently eighth in the world.

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