Serena launches next quest for calendar Slam

Williams is the defending champion at the Australian Open. Last year, she defeated Maria Sharapova for her sixth title at Melbourne. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

The first major of the tennis season is upon us. Serena, Genie, Milos, Roger, Rafa, Novak — the gang is all back.

The Australian Open kicks off Jan. 18 in Melbourne, with the finals slated for the last weekend in the month.

Here are five players, including a healthy dose of Canadian content, to keep an eye on:

1. Serena Williams. Obviously. The American is a six-time winner at Melbourne Park, and the defending champion. Williams withdrew from a tune-up event earlier this month in Perth due to inflammation in her left knee, but she recently told reporters she’s feeling good. The 34-year-old hasn’t played a full tournament since her crushing semifinal defeat at the U.S. Open in August, which derailed her chance for a calendar Grand Slam (four Major titles in one year). You have to bet if Williams can win a seventh title in Melbourne, that possibility will be all the tennis world is talking about. Again.

Williams has a tough draw, though—she could face her good friend and 16th-seed Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round, and fourth-seeded Maria Sharapova in the quarters. Williams and Sharapova played in the final here last year. In winning the Australian Open at age 33, Williams became the oldest winner of the tournament in Open Era history. She could break her own (old) record this year. Because, as is often true, it’s Williams’s tournament to lose, even if she’s a little rusty. She opens against world No. 35, Camila Giorgi of Italy.

2. Novak Djokovic. Obviously. Like Serena, he’s the defending champion here. Djokovic, the world No. 1, is also on an absolute tear: He won three of four majors last year, finished 2015 with a ridiculous 82-6 overall record, and welcomed 2016 with a crushing victory over Rafael Nadal to win the Qatar Open Final. Djokovic beat Nadal 6-1, 6-2. After the match, Nadal told reporters: “I played against a player who did everything perfect… I know nobody playing tennis like this ever. Since I know this sport, I never saw somebody playing at this level. When I say perfect, it’s not one thing in particular. It’s everything.”

Djokovic opens the Australian Open against Korea’s Hyeon Chung, ranked 51st in the world, who ATP players named Most Improved Player of the Year in 2015. Still, we don’t like his chances.

3. Milos Raonic. He’s perfect in 2016 after winning his tune-up earlier this month, the Brisbane International. Not only that, but he beat the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Roger Federer, in straight sets in the final. Federer, we should mention, was coming off some flu-like symptoms. But still, Raonic is the only player born in the ’90s to have beaten Federer twice.

The 25-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., needed a good start to this year. He is the Australian Open’s 13th seed, and No. 14 in the world after battling a slew of injuries last season and falling from world No. 4. Raonic, who missed the French Open in 2015 due to foot surgery, and then battled back problems later in the summer, is also working with a new coach in former pro Carlos Moya. He opens the tournament against Frenchman Lucas Pouille, who he beat earlier this month.

4. Daniel Nestor. The 43-year-old doubles player from Toronto is coming off win No. 1,000, a feat that puts him in fine company: Only Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Federer have ever reached that milestone. Nestor is the first doubles player to do so. The tournament’s 18th seed, he’ll be playing in his 23rd Australian Open. He won the doubles tournament here in 2002, and is a three-time mixed doubles winner. Nestor made the final in mixed doubles in 2015 with partner Kristina Mladenovic. Look for Nestor, who lost in the quarterfinals of the Apia International Sydney earlier this month with Marcelo Melo, to keep adding to the wins column.

5. Eugenie Bouchard. She just qualified for her first WTA Tour final since 2014, on Jan. 15 at the Hobart International. And despite the fact that the field was lacking in world top-10 talent, that win has to be huge for Bouchard’s confidence. Last year was not a memorable season for the 21-year-old: She fell and hit her head at the U.S. Open, got a concussion, and sued the USTA. Her WTA ranking fell to 49, and she made it past the first round in only five of 17 tournaments. But Bouchard is coming off a finals appearance that saw the former world No. 5 play as well as she’s played in a long time. While she enters this tournament unranked and surrounded by questions, Bouchard has fared well at the Australian Open in the past: It’s where the Genie Army, her fan base, started back in 2014, when she went on a run to the semifinal. And last year she lost in the quarters to Sharapova, who went on to the final.

Bouchard opens the tournament against Serbian Aleksandra Krunic, ranked 121 in the world. Expect the Genie Army to be in attendance, too.

6. A bonus note: World No. 2 Andy Murray has never won the Australian Open, and he says it’s his No. 1 goal. So look out for that. And Federer is still chasing Major No. 18.

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