Five men to watch at Australian Open

Serbia's Novak Djokovic has a record eight Australian Open titles
Serbia's Novak Djokovic has a record eight Australian Open titles Saeed KHAN AFP
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Melbourne (AFP)

Five men's singles players to watch at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament, which starts on Monday after a three-week delay over the coronavirus:

- Novak Djokovic -

The world number one has a chance of ending 2021 as the most successful men's Grand Slam player in history, and has grown used to starting his year with a bang at his favourite major.

The Serb has won a record eight times in Melbourne, the scene of his maiden Grand Slam triumph in 2008, and is unbeaten on the famous blue courts since his shock defeat by South Korea's Hyeon Chung in the 2018 round of 16.

With 17 Grand Slam singles titles, Djokovic is three away from the all-time record of 20 shared by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

The 33-year-old's peerless Australian Open record is tempered slightly by his mixed reputation among fans, who often measure him alongside the ever-popular Federer -- absent this year after two rounds of knee surgery -- and Nadal.

Djokovic has also been guilty of some missteps during the pandemic, including hosting a super-spreader tournament series in the Balkans and asking for special privileges for players quarantining in Australia.

- Rafael Nadal -

Victory this week would take Nadal, 34, past Federer on the men's all-time Grand Slam titles list, a task that has been eased by the Swiss's withdrawal through injury.

However, the 13-time French Open winner has often laboured in vain in Melbourne, despite reaching five finals, and his lone triumph in 2009 now seems to belong to another era.

The king of clay is not usually at his best on hardcourts, although his 20 major titles include four at the US Open. He is also nursing a sore back that kept him out of two days' play at this week's ATP Cup.

But Nadal can hardly have any more motivation than becoming the first man to reach 21 Grand Slam singles titles, while also putting more daylight between him and Djokovic.

- Dominic Thiem -

Thiem was a narrow loser to Djokovic in the last Melbourne final, but this year he arrives as a Grand Slam champion for the first time after his breakthrough win at the US Open.

The Austrian baseliner overcame Germany's Alexander Zverev in five sets at Flushing Meadows to finally get his name on a major trophy in his fourth Grand Slam final.

A first Grand Slam victory had long looked inevitable for the 27-year-old, who led Djokovic two sets to one in last year's Australian final before the Serb fought back to win in five.

Third-ranked Thiem also reached the title match of the ATP Finals in November and he will expect to continue his steady upward trajectory this year.

However, Thiem is in Melbourne without his coach Nicolas Massu, who tested positive for the coronavirus, and is instead working under his father, Wolfgang, Austria's ATP Cup captain.

- Daniil Medvedev -

Thiem's victory in New York made him the first new Grand Slam winner in six years and Medvedev is among those hoping it's another sign the Big Three era is fading.

The 24-year-old Russian is another player who has been knocking on the door, after he reached the 2019 US Open final -- losing in five sets to Nadal -- and the last four in New York in 2020.

Medvedev went on a tear at the end of last season, winning 10 matches in a row and lifting the Paris Masters and ATP Finals trophies.

After beating Djokovic and Nadal in London, and edging a gripping final against Thiem, Medvedev became the first player to account for all of the world's top three at the season finale.

Medvedev, who had a tour-leading 59 victories in 2019, has won all nine of his career titles on hardcourts, and will now want to improve on his fourth-round showings on his last two visits to Melbourne Park.

- Alexander Zverev -

Reaching a first Grand Slam final at the US Open was a big step forward for Zverev, but the German will have a bigger prize in his sights in Melbourne.

Zverev came desperately close to winning his first major in New York in September, when Thiem needed a fifth-set tiebreak to subdue his long-time friend and sparring partner.

Thiem was also Zverev's nemesis at last year's Australian Open, when the German threw away a one-set lead to lose in four in the semi-finals.

The tall, blond Zverev arrives with baggage this year, after allegations of domestic abuse by a former girlfriend. He also split recently with coach David Ferrer.

However, the 23-year-old showed he could deal with off-court distractions last year, when he shrugged off a running row with Australia's Nick Kyrgios to reach the last four.