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Australian Open is Djokovic’s lion’s den

MELBOURNE — Age is just a number, they say. Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic would both agree.

Djokovic, 36, has won more grand slam titles than any other player in his 30s, having won 12 of his 24 since his 30th birthday. Only Serena Williams has reached double figures as well, and in the men’s game Rafael Nadal is the only other one to have won more than four in his fourth decade.

He is still younger than Ken Rosewall, the oldest-ever Australian Open champion at 37, but you would not put it past him to come within 100 days of that record this year and break it in 2025.

Alcaraz meanwhile was not even five years old when Djokovic started winning majors here in Melbourne, but is actually already ahead of the Serb in one regard: at the age of 20, he’s already got two grand slams to his name. Djokovic did not bag his second until he was 23.

It’s even more significant that Alcaraz did it against Djokovic himself at Wimbledon, a tournament he has won seven times and has a win percentage of 89.

But this – Australia, Melbourne, Rod Laver Arena – is the lion’s den. Djokovic’s last defeat here was in the federal court after a visa dispute. Before that you have to go back to 2018 and an injury-hampered defeat to Hyeon Chung. If Alcaraz faces Djokovic in two weeks’ time for the title, all the numbers will be in the latter’s favour.

“It’s an extra motivation for me,” Alcaraz said.

“I’m an ambitious guy. I always want to play against the best players in the world to see what is my level.

“Obviously it’s a good test, playing against him in the places or in the tournament that he’s almost unbeaten.

“Yeah, I’m looking for reaching the final and hopefully playing a final against him. It would be great.”

Alcaraz missed the last Australian Open with a leg injury, meaning this is the first time he comes to Djokovic’s adopted tennis home as a grand slam champion and a previous world No 1.

And while the Spaniard seemed to welcome the idea that this tournament is a two-week preamble to a Wimbledon final re-run with the defending champion, Djokovic was more coy, especially when asked, by the first questioner of his pre-tournament press conference, who his biggest threat might be.

Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 13, 2024 Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during practice ahead of the Australian Open REUTERS/Issei Kato
Djokovic was also spotted training with a compression sleeve on his elbow (Photo: Reuters)

“Myself always first,” he joked, “and then of course all the other best players in the world.

“Any player is here with, I’m sure, intentions to achieve the dream of winning a grand slam. Some players are obviously more expected to go further than some others. It’s 128[-player] draw.

“It’s a grand slam. We know what grand slam represents for our sport. It’s where every player wants to play their best tennis.”

Coyness, though, turned to shortness. Djokovic is usually a legendary filibusterer, able to stretch answers well past two or three minutes with ease and minimise the number of questions that can be asked within the time limit.

On this occasion though, he was uncharacteristically brief. He coughed several times, was audibly congested, more than half an hour late, and his word count was half that of his equivalent news conference at Roland Garros.

But the rest of the field know better than to believe Djokovic is hindered. He won last year’s Australian Open with a three-centimetre tear in his hamstring and in 2021 had a torn abdominal muscle but still claimed the title. Two weeks ago he had treatment during defeat to Alex de Minaur on a right wrist that has been simmering for years, and was wearing a compression sleeve on his elbow in practice on Saturday.

“My wrist is good,” Djokovic insisted.

“I had time from the last match against De Minaur in the United Cup to my first match here to recover.

“I’ve been training well. Practice sessions pain-free so far. It’s good. It’s all looking good. Let’s see how it goes.”

How it usually goes here is, to paraphrase an old joke, they play for two weeks and then Djokovic wins. Alcaraz will hope he can buck that trend.

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