MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — After a year which featured eight Grand Slam singles champions, there’s been plenty of talk ahead of the Australian Open about the new guard vs. the old guard in both men’s and women’s tennis. The champions recently have been, well, just different.
Stan Wawrinka claimed his first career major last year in Australia. Strike one for the new. Then Rafael Nadal won the French Open, his ninth at Roland Garros, and Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon for his seventh major. The next generation struck back when Marin Cilic won the U.S. Open.
Four women shared the Grand Slams, too — the now-retired Li Na at Melbourne last year, Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open.
So what can we expect in 2015?
At the Australian Open, at least, the top-ranked players who also have nine Australian titles between them are reliable options. That would be Djokovic with four titles in Melbourne and Williams with five.
Still holding court for the men’s side is 33-year-old Roger Federer, aiming to add to his 17 Grand Slam titles — four of them also at Melbourne — and who just notched his 1,000th career match win to capture the Brisbane International with a victory over Milos Raonic on Jan. 11.
“Clearly I do believe I have a shot in Melbourne, otherwise I would go home,” Federer said in Brisbane.
Federer received good news in that department Friday during the tournament draw — he will play Lu Yen-hsun of Taiwan in the first round, a player he has beaten all three times they’ve played.
Rafael Nadal’s appendix surgery in early November has left him uncertain of his match fitness ahead of Monday’s start of the tournament. He’ll have a tough first-round match against former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny of Russia.
Then there’s Andy Murray, who seems to have recovered from back surgery late last year and a minor left shoulder complaint at the start of this one. A three-time Australian Open finalist, Murray drew a qualifier in the first round and could play Federer in the quarterfinals.
Add Wawrinka, along with the so-called “young guns” — among them Grigor Dimitrov, U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori, Raonic and Australian Nick Kyrgios, who beat Nadal at Wimbledon last year — to the potential trophy winners.
Djokovic and Raonic, who both open against qualifiers, are in the same quarter of the draw.
Serena Williams hasn’t been back to the Australian Open final since her last title here in 2010, but can never be ruled out of contention — even with the kind of indifferent preparation she’s had.
No. 2 Sharapova warmed up with a win at the Brisbane International last weekend, beating Ana Ivanovic in the final.
Sharapova drew a qualifier in the first round here and could meet 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard, who reached the Wimbledon final and the semis in Australia and France last year, in the quarterfinals.
Two-time winner Victoria Azarenka, unseeded after an injury-hit 2014, faces Sloane Stephens in the first round in a rematch of their acrimonious semifinal two years ago when Azarenka left the court for a medical timeout and Stephens questioned her reasons for doing so. Stephens was coming off a big upset win over Serena Williams at the time.
Until 2014, there’d been very few surprises in men’s majors for nearly nine years as three players ruled: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic combined for 32 of the 35 titles in that span. The exceptions were Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open and Murray’s wins at the 2012 U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2013
Then Wawrinka won here last year and Cilic in New York. Cilic won’t play in Melbourne because of a right shoulder injury.
Del Potro drew one of the toughest first-round assignments in Melbourne this year, taking on 24-year-old Jerzy Janowicz, who won last week’s Hopman Cup with Poland teammate Agnieszka Radwanska.
As he reviewed results of tournaments at the start of 2015, Federer paid the new breed of players such as Janowicz and Dimitrov a compliment, but then appeared to take it away.
“I do believe there is a group of guys right there that can make a break again and can do special things,” Federer said in Brisbane. “I just think it’s too early to say in the season just because Novak and Rafa lost in Doha that there is something on the horizon.
“I don’t read into any of those results. I think (Djokovic and Nadal) are going to be tough to beat, and favorites for the Australian Open.”
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 the appendix trouble.
Nadal, however, looked fit this week, enduring a strenuous training session before taking part in a night for his children’s charity to officially re-open the Margaret Court Arena, now Melbourne Park’s third venue with a retractable roof.
“I’m working as hard as I can,” Nadal said. “I’m back, and I am healthy.”
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