Djokovic bids for Grand Slam history as Australian Open gets underway

"I'm just hoping I can start the season in a way that I have been starting my seasons, most of my seasons, throughout my career, with a win here in Australia, in Melbourne."

Novak Djokovic will launch his bid for Grand Slam history at the Australian Open on Sunday against an 18-year-old qualifier after Jannik Sinner came through a testing opener in style.

Women’s second seed Aryna Sabalenka starts her own title defence in sunny Melbourne, while men’s fifth seed Andrey Rublev is also in action.

World number one Djokovic is gunning for his 11th Australian Open title and 25th major, which would take him clear of Margaret Court on the all-time list.

The Serbian, with 24 Grand Slams, is already the most-decorated player in the men’s game — two clear of the injured Rafael Nadal and four ahead of the retired Roger Federer.

Djokovic came within a whisker of completing a calendar Grand Slam last year, winning three majors and losing a thrilling Wimbledon final to Carlos Alcaraz.

The 36-year-old, who beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in last year’s title match in Melbourne, is the hot favourite again and will be fancied to breeze through his opener against Dino Prizmic.

The age gap of 18 years and 75 days between the two is the greatest in an Australian Open men’s match since Ken Rosewall downed qualifier Cary Stansbury in 1978.

“I’m just hoping I can start the season in a way that I have been starting my seasons, most of my seasons, throughout my career, with a win here in Australia, in Melbourne,” said Djokovic.

“It’s my favourite place, no doubt — the court where I’ve done great things and achieved my greatest Grand Slam results.”

Sinner, who opted not to play any warm-up tournaments, overcame Botic van de Zandschulp 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 in the opening match on Rod Laver Arena.

The Italian fourth seed, one of a new generation of young guns seeking to dethrone mighty Djokovic, did not have it all his own way against his Dutch opponent but raised his level in the key moments.

“Physically I feel good in good shape, the first round is never easy so I can be happy with today,” he said.

Krejcikova survives

It was tougher for former French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, who survived a scare to beat Japanese wildcard Mai Hontama 2-6, 6-4, 6-3.

The Czech ninth seed, who triumphed at Roland Garros in 2021, dug deep when trailing 3-1 in the second set after losing the opener and eventually turned the tables.

Belarusian star Sabalenka, scheduled on court in the evening session, enjoyed a breakthrough 2023 in which she won in Melbourne, finished runner-up at the US Open and made the semi-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

In doing so, she became the first woman since Serena Williams in 2016 to reach at least the semi-finals of all four Grand Slams in a calendar year.

Currently ranked number two behind Poland’s Iga Swiatek, the 25-year-old, who faces unseeded German Ella Seidel, said she was in good shape mentally and physically.

Former champion Caroline Wozniacki, granted a wildcard to compete, returns to the scene of her greatest triumph four years after her last appearance at Melbourne Park.

The 2018 Australian Open winner has joined a group of tennis mums juggling on-court commitments with the duties of motherhood, including Elina Svitolina, Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka.

The 33-year-old, who plays Poland’s 20th-seed Magda Linette, still believes she can mix it with the best despite her long absence from the tour.

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