MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic shelved the conventional preparations for a while, warming up for a shot at a third consecutive Australian title with a bit of weekend hit-and-giggle and a Gangnam Style dance with Serena Williams.
That was for kids’ day, when thousands of people flocked to Rod Laver Arena to see 2012 Australian champions Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka hitting in a just-for-fun match with players including past champions Roger Federer and Williams, a cast of human-sized cartoon characters and a marching band that played the tune to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
The No. 1-ranked Djokovic went back to work today (late Sunday night Pacific time), winning his opener against Paul-Henri Mathieu at the venue where he’s had the most success in Grand Slam tennis. He defeated the Frenchman 6-2, 6-4, 7-5.
His five-set, 5-hour, 53-minute win over Rafael Nadal in the final last year has already been written into Australian Open folklore, and followed his titles at Melbourne Park in 2008 and 2011.
The fun matches, the joking around and the break from official tournaments in the offseason are crucial ingredients to Djokovic’s success in Australia.
“You get time to recover, regroup, recharge your batteries mentally, physically, try to get ready for the new season,” said the 25-year-old Djokovic, the day before his first match. “You come here fresh. You’re motivated and inspired to play some good tennis.
“This is my most successful Grand Slam. But this Grand Slam is also known for a lot of surprises, players who have been reaching the final stages who are not expected to. We’ll see.”
No man has won three successive Australian titles in the Open era, which dates back to 1968 – Jack Crawford (1931-33) and Roy Emerson (1963-67) did it before then.
Williams also has three on her mind, as in three majors in a row. The No. 3-ranked Williams is a hot favorite to win her sixth Australian Open title after a run of 35 wins in her last 36 matches since a shocking first-round defeat at the French Open. She finished off last year by winning at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open and the season-ending championships.
She started this year by winning the title at the Brisbane International, where she was due to face Azarenka in the semifinals before the 23-year-old Belarusian withdrew due to treatment for a toe infection.
Williams and top-ranked Azarenka, who are in the top half of the women’s draw and could meet in the semifinals, get today off before starting Tuesday.
Djokovic was the only leading man in action on the first day, with No. 2 Federer and third-seeded Andy Murray on the opposite side of the draw and not due on court until Tuesday. Nadal is still yet to return to tennis, which has critics and fans speculating on who might capitalize among the other men.
Djokovic, who lost a singles match to Australia’s Bernard Tomic in an exhibition tournament last week, was asked to pick the best of the potential challengers and politely named quite a few.
“It’s probably expected that the three of us, and Nadal of course, would still be main candidates to win all the major titles. But, you know, I wouldn’t underestimate (Juan Martin) Del Potro, (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga, (David) Ferrer, (Thomas) Berdych, anybody who is in top 10,” he said. “I don’t think it’s nice for me to predict that us three will be champions of all Grand Slams this year.”