MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — On the eve of the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic revived what he called his “little tradition” — a moment where he stops talking about tennis, rises from the chair at his pre-tournament news conference and distributes chocolates to the media.
A crowd-pleaser on court and off, Djokovic glided through the aisles of the auditorium Sunday chatting about how many languages he spoke (“a lot”) and delighting a Chinese journalist by saying “Ni hao,” or hello, as he graciously offered sweets with a smile.
“I have a strict diet. This is only for you. You can have two if you like,” he quipped during his pre-tournament performance, a repeat of his press conference before the 2014 Australian Open. “This is not bribery, just good spirits. A little delight. Why not!”
Of course, chocolates aren’t the only tradition the top-ranked tennis star wants to restore.
Djokovic is vying for his fifth Australian Open title, an accomplishment that would raise his overall number of Grand Slam trophies to eight.
The 27-year-old who became a new father in October arrived in Australia feeling ill and canceled a practice session Saturday, raising concerns about his fitness for the season’s first Grand Slam. But Sunday he was back on the court for a training session, hitting hard and moving well around the court, and said he was feeling better.
“I had a tough couple of days. But it’s all behind me now. I’m ready for the Open,” he said, adding he’d picked up a virus in the Middle East where he played matches recently in Abu Dhabi and Doha, Qatar. “(It was) a little bit of flu and stomach,” he said. “But now it’s good, it’s passed.”
Djokovic is coming off of a strong season that included winning his second Wimbledon title, a return to No. 1 in the rankings and a few personal milestones. A few days after winning Wimbledon in July, Djokovic married his longtime girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, and the couple welcomed their first child, a baby boy, in October.
But after a “good off-season,” his focus is now on work.
Djokovic is scheduled to play his first-round match Tuesday against Slovenian qualifier Aljaz Bedene.
As the tennis season gets underway, the big topic of conversation is whether the “Old Guard” of champions will continue to dominate — No. 2 Roger Federer, No. 3 Rafael Nadal and Djokovic — who have shared most of the Grand Slam trophies of the past decade. Or if the new generation of occasional winners will make more headway.
Stan Wawrinka, who for years was known as “the other Swiss star,” won the Australian Open last year but doesn’t want to dwell on that.
“I have a lot of memories. They’re incredible memories,” Wawrinka said Sunday, during a news conference conducted in English and French. “But it’s 2015, we’re all starting from zero. Everyone wants to win.”
Wawrinka begins his title defense against Marsel Ilhan of Turkey. He could meet U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals before a potential semifinal against Djokovic. Marin Cilic who won the U.S. Open won’t play in Melbourne because of a right shoulder injury.
Federer, Murray and Nadal are on the other half of the draw and are scheduled to play Monday.
Federer’s place in history is still taking shape.
The Swiss star has 17 Grand Slam titles and is a strong contender for his 18th in Melbourne. He opened his season by winning the Brisbane International and recording his 1,000th career match win with victory over Milos Raonic, another upcoming star, in the Jan. 11 final.
Asked how close he felt to his top form, Federer said he thinks he might be improving with age.
“I am 33, so things are a bit different today than they were 10 years ago,” he said about his training and fitness routines. But he said his game feels strong after a few tweaks he made last year including playing with a new racket and a new coach, six-time major winner Stefan Edberg, who has honed Federer’s attacking game.
Federer will play Lu Yen-hsun of Taiwan in the first round and could meet sixth-seeded Murray in the quarterfinals. Murray plays a qualifier, Yuki Bhambri, in the first round.
The biggest question mark through the opening week, at least, will be Nadal’s fitness after he spent three months out with a right wrist injury after Wimbledon, and later had appendix surgery.
Nadal himself is not optimistic.
“I don’t consider myself one of the favorites here,” Nadal said. He defers this time around to the other usual suspects: Djokovic “a fantastic player,” Roger “the same story” or Murray — “he’s playing well,” said Nadal. “We’ll see.”
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