Defending champions back for more in Melbourne

Sam Price looks ahead to the Australian Open – the opening Grand Slam of the tennis season – which sees Novak Djokovic and Angelique Kerber back to defend their crowns

The pristine hard courts of Melbourne Park will be the scene of some titanic tussles over the next two weeks, as the world’s best tennis players roll into town for the first Grand Slam of the year.

Known as the “Happy Slam” because of the level of satisfaction enjoyed by the players in terms of facilities and hospitality, organisers have also increased prize money to US$36 million for this year’s event – up 14 per cent on 2016 – with US$2.7 million going to the respective winners of the men and women’s singles tournaments.

Heightened anticipation for the 2017 edition reflects the compelling rivalry at the top of the men’s game. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have contested four of the past six men’s finals in Melbourne, with Djokovic coming out on top in every one. But this time, the Serb returns to his favourite tournament as the world No. 2.

Having followed up his sixth Australian Open success by completing the career Grand Slam with victory over Murray at Roland Garros, Djokovic suffered an uncharacteristic slump in form – and Murray took full advantage. In a sensational run that coincided with the return of his coach Ivan Lendl, the Scot won a second Wimbledon championship and a second Olympic gold medal, followed by four more titles and a season-ending victory over Djokovic at the ATP World Tour Finals, which cemented his No. 1 ranking.

Dethroning Djokovic, who in years gone by has seemed to have a mental and physical edge over his rival, was the result of punishingly hard work and extraordinary self-belief. But now Murray has reached the summit, his next challenge is to stay there – and battle for a Grand Slam that Djokovic has made his own.

Refreshed after a break, the Serb laid down a marker with a thrilling 6-3 5-7 6-4 victory over Murray in the final of the Qatar Open this month, in a performance which said, “I’m back’, and whetted the appetite perfectly for the next two weeks.

Can the rest of the field land a blow? Roger Federer, now 35 and returning from a sixth-month injury absence, didn’t resume full practice sessions on court until November during his pre-season training block in Dubai, and will do well to reach the quarter-finals and set up a potential clash with Murray. As Rafael Nadal continues to struggle on hard courts, the biggest threat to the duopoly is surely 2014 champion Stanislas Wawrinka, whom Djokovic will be pleased to see on the opposite side of the draw.

Over to the women’s tournament, and powerful left-hander Angelique Kerber, who kicked off a stunning 2016 of her own with a memorable three-set triumph over Serena Williams in last year’s final, looks sure to make a bold defence. But Serena is back for revenge, and victory would take her past Steffi Graf to a record 23rd Grand Slam title – so motivation will surely be high as, like Djokovic, she also bids to reclaim her No. 1 spot.

Elsewhere, last year’s semi-finalist Johanna Konta, who played superb tennis to triumph in Sydney this week, looks a threat despite a tough draw, as does Karolina Pliskova, who in September reached her first Grand Slam final on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, where she lost to Kerber.

With records on the line and fascinating rivalries set to play out over the next two weeks, the opening Slam should tee up the season perfectly, before players turn their attentions to the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships at the end of February.

The Australian Open runs from 16-29 January