Australian Open: The male contenders

Novak Djokovic (AFP)
Novak Djokovic (AFP)

Melbourne - The top five men's contenders for the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the tennis season, which starts in Melbourne on Monday:

Novak Djokovic (SRB), 28. Ranking: 1

Grand Slam titles: 10

The supreme Serb may need to suffer an off-day if anyone is to prevent him from winning a sixth Australian Open title. Djokovic was virtually unstoppable in 2015, when he put together one of the best seasons ever seen: three Grand Slam titles among 11 tournament victories, and a win-loss record of 82-6. As the season closed, it was only the rapier backhand of Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final that had stopped Djokovic compiling the first men's calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969. The world number one also became the first player to top 16,000 rankings points, and currently stands on 16,790 -- nearly double the total of second-placed Andy Murray. All this in the year after he got married to his long-time partner Jelena Ristic, and became a father. Djokovic's upbringing in war-torn Belgrade may have grounded him emotionally and in the midst of last year's terrific run, he was a picture of composure and calm. He has picked up where he left off at the start of this season, beating Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in the Qatar Open final, a result which edged him closer to becoming the first player to reach $100 million in career prize money. Certainly Nadal was in no doubt about the quality of the opposition he faced in Doha. "I know nobody playing tennis like this ever," said the 14-time Grand Slam winner. "Since I know this sport I never saw somebody playing at this level."

Andy Murray (GBR), 28. Ranking: 2

Grand Slam titles: 2

Murray has contested four Australian Open finals without winning any, a statistic he would dearly love to improve. Yet the Scot faces some significant hurdles at this year's tournament. Not only does Murray face the potential challenge of Djokovic, his former boyhood friend whom he has never beaten in four attempts at Melbourne Park, including three finals. But he also has the impending birth of his first child to consider. Murray has promised to fly home if his wife Kim Sears, who is due next month, goes into labour -- even if that means missing the final. "I'd be way more disappointed winning the Australian Open and not being at the birth of the child," he said. "Hopefully it doesn't come to that." Murray won four tournaments last season, including two Masters titles, and finished the year as world number two for the first time. But his runner-up finish behind Djokovic in last year's Australian Open final turned out to be his best performance in a major tournament. Murray's partnership with coach Amelie Mauresmo, who took maternity leave last year, is set to resume in earnest and it could be just the boost the Scot needs as he presses for Grand Slam title number three. Murray is also riding high after leading Britain to their first Davis Cup title since 1936, against Belgium in November.

Roger Federer (SUI), 34. Ranking: 3

Grand Slam titles: 17

Retirement talk has all but abated for Federer but attention will be firmly fixed on how the superlative Swiss crafts the next stage of his late-career surge. The all-time Grand Slam record-holder has parted ways with former advisor Stefan Edberg and brought in Ivan Ljubicic in what will be their first major tournament together. Croatia's Ljubicic, a former world number three, has also worked with Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych -- and is credited with an intimate knowledge of Djokovic's game, as well as those of Federer's other rivals. Federer lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon and US Open finals last year, and piercing the armour of the world number one is a key challenge as he looks to add to his collection of major titles. Top of Federer's list this year is the Olympics, where he is yet to win singles gold, and as preparation he has scrapped most of his clay court season. Federer, the oldest man in the top 10 and without a Grand Slam title since 2012, says he is virtually recovered from from the flu-like illness he suffered at the Brisbane International, where he lost to Raonic in the final. Federer disappointed his many fans in Melbourne last year when he was ousted in the third round by Andreas Seppi, and he will want a far stronger performance this time around at a tournament he has won four times.

Stan Wawrinka (SUI), 30. Ranking: 4

Grand Slam titles: 2

One of the few men to hurt Djokovic in recent times will be watched warily by his rivals in the men's draw. Wawrinka stunned the Serb on his way to winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2014, breaking a four-year stranglehold over the Grand Slam titles by the men's "Big Four". The rest of that year was indifferent but Wawrinka is firmly back in the reckoning after putting together his best season yet in 2015. He took four titles including another chastening upset of Djokovic in the French Open final as he chalked up his second major win. As so often for Wawrinka, it was his fearsome one-handed backhand that made the difference as he floored Djokovic in a defeat that ultimately denied the Serb a rare calendar-year Grand Slam. Wawrinka is known for the tattoo on his arm, a quotation from Samuel Beckett which reads: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." But that is advice he is needing less and less these days, underlined by his third straight win at this month's Chennai Open.

Rafael Nadal (ESP), 29. Ranking: 5

Grand Slam titles: 14

A wretched spell last year prompted Nadal to wonder whether his Grand Slam-winning days were over as the oft-injured Spaniard looked a busted flush. But through sheer hard work, the indomitable Mallorcan looks to have fought his way back, if not to his very best, then at least to form that is capable of winning more titles. Nadal failed to win a major tournament last year for the first time in a decade, and saw his ranking drop to 10th before he clawed his way back up late in the season. Runner-up finishes in Beijing and Basel, and victories over Wawrinka, Murray and David Ferrer at the World Tour Finals proved that all is not lost for Nadal. His big problem, as for the rest of the men's tour, is Djokovic, as last week's dispiriting 6-1, 6-2 reverse in Doha showed.

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