Melbourne’s sporting traditions rub off on world No1 Novak Djokovic

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Novak Djokovic is bidding for a sixth crown at Melbourne Park.

While Roger Federer’s impeccable grass game made him a legend at Wimbledon and Rafael Nadal’s clay superiority saw him reign supreme at Roland Garros, it’s tough to pinpoint the reasons behind Djokovic’s Open Era record five-title haul at the Australian Open. Why there and not the US Open?

Djokovic is dominant on every surface yet half of his 10 grand slam trophies have been captured at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.

It is where he had his first major success back in 2008 and he admits the memories of that maiden victory still rush to him every time he returns to the hallowed blue courts.

It could be that the city caters to Djokovic’s every need. The 28-year-old constantly talks about drawing inspiration from the environment around him. He loves nature, spends lots of time outdoors, and is a people person.

“I think most of the players really enjoy being here in Australia, in Melbourne. It’s a country and city that nurtures sport’s values. Whether it’s professional athletes you see along the way, the facilities that are magnificent around here, or just the regular people that jog, spend a lot of time outdoors, take care of themselves. So when you’re in an environment like this, you feel motivated, you feel inspired to perform at your best,” Djokovic said.

The world No1 commences his title defence Monday against 19-year-old Chung Hyeon of South Korea, chasing Roy Emerson’s all-time mark of six Australian Open crowns.

It will be a battle of present vs future, idol vs admirer, veteran vs rookie.  Chung, who was named the ATP’s Most Improved Player for 2015, is making his Australian Open debut and the teenager could not have been dealt a tougher hand.

Djokovic has lost just one match here in five years – to Stan Wawrinka in the 2014 quarter-finals – while Chung has only played two previous grand slam main draws, winning just one match. But the South Korean is considered one of the main talents coming up on tour and it comes as no surprise that he considers Djokovic an inspiration.

“I didn’t really try to copy someone but I really like Djokovic, not just his game, but I love how he mentally prepares and stays cool during the match,” Chung told the No Challenges Remaining podcast.

No3 seed Roger Federer begins his campaign today as he takes on Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili.

Like Djokovic, Federer has had great success here in the past, winning four titles – the last in 2010.

“I would think the Australian Open is the one where players come in maybe most inspired. It’s also been my most consistent slam  maybe until last year. I always played very well here. I don’t know if it’s the conditions or the court speed,” said the 34-year-old. “It’s a good place for me to start the year. The off-season went well for me. Had no setbacks, which was crucial. I was able to work very hard.”

Also getting the night session treatment is Australian No29 seed Nick Kyrgios who will return to Hisense Arena, the site of his epic come-from-behind five set victory over Andreas Seppi last year that took him into the quarter-finals.

Kyrgios takes on 24-year-old Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, who the Aussie beat in a tight three-setter on the clay of Estoril last year.

On his return to Melbourne, Kyrgios said: “Obviously last year I had a really good run. I just remember it being a really rollercoaster couple of weeks. When I lost against Andy (Murray in the quarters), it almost felt like I was exhausted, mentally and physically drained. Coming back this year, I feel like I’ve grown, physically made a lot of improvements. I feel as if I’m ready for whatever comes.

“I feel as if I’m more relaxed this year. Coming around, I’ve got a lot more confidence in my game. I feel a lot more comfortable playing in front of the crowd this year. I’m definitely playing a lot better.”

Kyrgios admits competing at his home slam is no simple task but the fiery 20-year-old is known to thrive on the big stage.

“There’s definitely a little bit more expectation. The crowd definitely expects any Aussie to play their best tennis here. That’s fair enough. I think every Aussie should step up here and try their absolute hardest to bring the best out of themselves,” he says.

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Reem's Melbourne Diary: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and co. entertain crowds for annual Kids’ Tennis Day

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Support act: The Ninja Turtles.

One great thing about getting to a grand slam a few days early – besides the fact that it gives you a chance to catch up with the players ahead of the fortnight and write decent previews – is that you get to roam around the grounds of some of the world’s most spectacular tennis venues with no one there except for journalists, players and staff.

You can sit in an empty Rod Laver Arena overlooking a Rafael Nadal practice, or enjoy a cup of coffee under the sun in a peaceful Garden Square.

But such moments are brief and fleeting and even though the Australian Open is yet to commence, Melbourne Park was overtaken by fans, families and children Saturday for the annual Kids’ Tennis Day where the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka entertained the crowds on court joined by none other than the Ninja Turtles.

Can you imagine how mind-blowing it must be for a child to watch Federer and Donatello live on centre court?

It may have been tough squeezing through the masses – and their baby strollers – Saturday to reach the media centre but it’s definitely worth it to see so many youngsters coming to the tennis and taking in the fabulous atmosphere.

Once I finally made it to the media centre, navigating through the crowds outside, and stepped into the nearby Players’ Restaurant for a pre-scheduled interview, I quickly realised that every day is Kids’ Day in the players’ quarters.

There were strollers parked outside the restaurant, the sound of infants crying or laughing providing an interesting soundtrack to a room filled with players and their coaches, grabbing a bite before or after practice.

Just outside the restaurant, Roger Federer is seen carrying one of his adorable twin boys, introducing him to Fabio Fognini and Caroline Wozniacki as he walked through the halls, his twin daughters and other son trailing close behind.

Lleyton Hewitt came to his press conference – the last pre-event one of his career – joined by his kids.

With so many players still competing on tour well into their 30s, it’s no surprise there are more and more fathers – and some mothers – and accordingly their kids, showing up at the tournament’s lounges and dining halls.

Tennis has aged and it is a fact reflected in the expanding 0-36 months demographic present at tournaments.

I asked Maria Sharapova, one of the veterans on tour, whether she’s noticed how many more babies are around and she quickly interrupts me saying: “There are. Oh, my goodness,” the Russian reacts with a smile.

“There are a lot of kids. I don’t know what’s going on. I mean, yeah, it starts at breakfast and it just continues through the day.

“You get used to it. But you start thinking about it. I mean, the mothers that travel with all their children, they’re heroes. It’s really incredible to see what they have to go through, the daily challenges of having kids, being on the road. That cannot be easy. I mean, just the sounds that you hear. That’s just not easy.”

Victoria Azarenka pointed out that you can see more kids around but only because grand slams feature both men and women.

“That’s because it’s combined event. So probably that’s why there’s more kids. I don’t think there’s that many kids when it’s just girls because we kind of play tennis. I mean, there are (some tennis-playing mothers), but there’s not that many,” said the Belarusian.

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Coach Annacone previews Aus Open and predicts Djokovic and Williams will land titles

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Paul Annacone, the former coach of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, and current consultant for Tennis Australia’s performance team, sat down with the media in Melbourne on Friday to take a closer look at the Australian Open draw.

The 52-year-old American named Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams as his favourites for the title and picked Jack Sock and Sloane Stephens – also one of his former charges – as outsiders.

Here’s what Annacone had to say…

So you mentioned Serena Williams is your tip for the title again?

I would think so, she’s my favourite. I think there’s Serena and everybody else. We’ve seen her win major titles last year in particular when she was ill and not playing that well in Paris so for her to be able to do that I think instilled kind of a new level of confidence, so as long as she stays injury-free, she’s the one to beat on the women’s side.

And on the men’s?

I think Novak on the men’s side, just because of what he’s done last year. One of the things that sticks out in my mind is that last year the entire year he didn’t get to the finals only one time, that was the first week of the year. The rest of the year, every week he played he either won or got to the finals – which to me is laughable. He’s played great tennis, to see how he started this year against Rafa (Nadal) in the finals in Doha a couple of weeks ago, I think he sent a pretty clear message that he’s ready to play.

Do you think Djokovic and Serena can win all four grand slams this year?

Yes, I think they can. We saw how close both of them came last year. I think the clock is ticking more quickly for Serena but I think she’s got a bigger talent gap so she’s got a bigger margin for error. I think in the men’s game, Novak is playing against a bunch of legends and Serena is playing against great players but not a bunch of legends, so she has a little bit of a cushion but she has less of a cushion because her age. That’s a very long and winded way to say ‘yes they can’ but it’s difficult.

Who are Djokovic’s main challengers then?

I think style-wise, Roger (Federer) still has the best game against him. Roger beat him three times last year, lost five. All finals matches. But Roger’s style of play is I think the most complex for Novak. I think we saw a couple of weeks ago that he matches up, right now, well with Rafa until Rafa makes an adjustment, and trust me Rafa will make an adjustment. And Andy (Murray) also beat Novak last year, so those three guys…

Paul-Annacone-Roger-Federer

The American helped Roger Federer win Wimbledon in 2012, his last year Grand Slam title.

Federer only managed to beat Djokovic in best-of-three matches last year. Why do you think Federer hasn’t been able to beat him over five sets at the slams recently?

Roger has only beaten him in the two-out-of-three set matches. To me it’s a style match-up. It shows you that the best defender on the planet is better than the best offensive player on the planet. And over five sets you have to create so many opportunities to succeed that Novak’s defensive skills and wherewithal kind of take precedence, and that’s really what happened in the three-out-of-five set matches in my opinion.

Will we get any surprises in the draw this year in Melbourne?

I think we’ll have lots of surprises. Jack Sock, I’m also very intrigued to see how Bernie (Tomic) and Nick (Kyrgios) do. I think there’s a lot of expectation on both of them and they have the skills to do well. The challenge for Bernie and Nick is can they do it over five sets for seven matches? And that’s what we haven’t seen yet. We know they can do it for one match, and we know that they can beat anybody on a given day, but can they do it through an entire fortnight? And to do it here with this pressure, that’s kind of the next hurdle for them to get over.

How do you rate Tomic’s chances?

I think the thing about Bernard which will be very intriguing for me to see is the number of matches coming in. He did well in Brisbane and beat Kei Nishikori for the first time, that really should give him confidence. And he’s still going in Sydney (Tomic retired from his quarter-final). I think Bernard’s got the capabilities to beat all of the players, my question would be can he do it over five sets, for seven matches?

Annacone coached Tim Henman to a French Open semi-final in 2004.

Annacone coached Tim Henman to a French Open semi-final in 2004.

There’s been a lot of talk about Nick Kyrgios’ attitude and behaviour, what’s your take on that?

I think he’s got a really engaging attitude, engaging kind of temperament; the problem is when he crosses the line. And I think he’s realising now that he needs to monitor it to a point where he can use as positive reinforcement and not destruction. And I think most players take a little bit of time to do that, unfortunately for Nick he’s doing it in front of a microscope and in front of a lot of cameras and that makes it very difficult because the greater the expectation, the greater the magnifying glass. And I think that that’s part and parcel with your responsibilities as a great player but I love the energy he brings, I love the passion he has.

I’d like to reel in some of the detrimental stuff, but I think that will happen in time and it’s a matter of him sorting it out himself. Because everybody’s personality is a little bit different and his is very different. But it can be very engaging and very fun when it’s a little bit more constrained and there are a few more filters. He’s great for the game in so many ways, and the other ways that aren’t so great for the game, you hope that maturity and experience will just kind of snuff those out. I think, as a coach, they have to be tempered a little bit for him to reach his potential, not smothered, just tempered.

Do you think Nadal and Fernando Verdasco will have an epic first round like their marathon five-setter in the semis here in 2009?

Unbelievable that they’re playing first round. I’ll be watching. I’ll be very surprised if that’s not a long battle because they know each other so well and they’re very comfortable. Fernando is not going to be afraid of Rafa. Rafa knows how difficult it will be, so I expect it’s going to be a long match.

Do you think it could be better for Federer to play Djokovic in the semis and not the finals?

It’s probably better for everybody not to play Novak, that would be my suggestion. I think if you get to the semi-finals and you’re a great player, I always feel – my time with Roger (Federer) and with Pete (Sampras) – they always felt that they’ve got to beat those guys regardless where it is. So I don’t know that it comes in. But if you had to make a guess, sure I would think it’s probably better not to play the best player in the biggest match.

Paul-Annacone-Sloane-Stephens-Tennis

Annacone has also coached rising American star Sloane Stephens.

Sloane Stephens started her year by winning a second career title, do you think we’ll see a new Sloane in 2016?

I think we’ve seen a new Sloane already, I think last year when she won Washington DC she saw kind of a new environment, new landscape. Now whether or not she can sustain it throughout a whole tournament and a whole year, that’s the next question. It’s a similar analogy of Nick and Bernard. Sloane can beat everybody, we saw her beat Serena a few years ago. And then for players’ evolution, it’s how do you sustain it for a whole tournament, then for a bunch of tournaments, then for a whole year? So it’s a progression. And now Sloane knows she can win tournaments, so now it’s about her trying to sustain it and I think that comes with maturity. So I think we will see a new Sloane Stephens, and I hope she keeps playing like she has been, because she’s a great talent.

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