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Andy Murray-Novak Djokovic rivalry shapes up to be tennis highlight of 2017

Andy Murray of Britain celebrates a point against Nick Kyrgios of Australia during their men’s singles match on day eight of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Monday, July 4, 2016.
Andy Murray of Britain celebrates a point against Nick Kyrgios of Australia during their men’s singles match on day eight of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Monday, July 4, 2016. AP

Andy Murray comes into the year’s first Grand Slam having finally completed his climb to No. 1 after winning his second Wimbledon title, defending his Olympic gold medal and earning knighthood. Oh, and he also became a father in February.

That might make 2016 hard to top.

Novak Djokovic, the 12-time Grand Slam champion from Serbia, hit a few bumps last year after winning his sixth Australian Open and his first French Open. He never really found his footing after an early third-round exit at Wimbledon. Can he find his old form in 2017?

On the women’s side, Angelique Kerber is coming off a breakout year, winning her first two Grand Slam titles — in Melbourne and at the U.S. Open — and overtaking Serena Williams at No. 1 in the rankings. Kerber became only the 12th new player to finish the year ranked No. 1 since the computer rankings were introduced in 1975, according to the WTA.

And, despite only winning Wimbledon last year and losing the No. 1 ranking, 22-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams remains among the best in the game, even at age 35. To top things off, Williams comes into 2017 recently engaged to be married. Will that be a distraction or a motivation?

We’ll begin to find out how 2017 will go when the year’s first major kicks off Sunday night in Melbourne, Australia.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Rivalry worth watching

Murray and Djokovic come into 2017 head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in the men’s game. It’s a long rivalry that probably will play out in finals around the world, now that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have faded from the upper echelon due to injuries.

Murray arrives in Melbourne ranked No. 1, but looking for his first Australian Open title. He’s reached the final in Melbourne five times, losing each time, including four times to Djokovic, who has won five of the past six Aussie titles. Djokovic leads Murray 25-11 in career head-to-head matches, including last week in Qatar, winning 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. Could the weight of being No. 1 be too much of a burden for Murray?

Quite honestly, I didn’t think he could get there. But it was a hell of an effort to do it.

Patrick McEnroe, on Andy Murray reaching No. 1

“Andy will handle being No. 1 just fine,” said Patrick McEnroe, during an ESPN conference call along with Chris Evert. “He’s been around long enough to know what it takes. He’s worked extremely hard to get there. Quite honestly, I didn’t think he could get there. But it was a hell of an effort to do it.

“I don’t think he’s going to lose it because he can’t handle being No. 1. I think he’s going to lose it if Djokovic steps up and plays better, which is certainly possible.”

Djokovic won six of the previous eight Grand Slam titles before his early exit at Wimbledon against American Sam Querrey last year. He also fell to Stan Wawrinka in the finals at the U.S. Open before taking some time off.

“Djokovic is going to feel like he’s got something to prove, even though he’s had a couple of the greatest years ever in the history of men’s tennis in the last couple years,” McEnroe said.

2. Men who can contend

Federer and Nadal have 31 combined Grand Slam titles. They are rested, and if healthy, they could find a chance to recapture past glory. Established veterans Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic have the experience to win a major, and rising young stars such as Milos Roanic, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Grigor Dimitrov have shown the ability to be contenders for a Grand Slam title.

“You still have the guys knocking on the door — Nishikori, Wawrinka, who has had an unbelievable couple years. ... and the younger guys … Thiem had a great year in 2016. He could be a factor. Zverev is a great young player. I think Kyrgios could definitely be a factor, although you wonder about him health-wise, how fit he is. Obviously, mentally is another story.

“I think there’s a lot of storylines for the men. I do think that having Murray come in there as the No. 1 player, having never won down there, and Djokovic has really been the man the last four, five, six years in Australia, that adds a little extra spice to it in addition to those other guys coming back.”

3. The state of Serena

The year could go one of two ways for Serena. No longer ranked No. 1 and having won only one Grand Slam title last year after coming so close to a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015 could provide motivation. Or 2016 could have signaled her fade from the spotlight. Chris Evert believes the former.

“This is a woman with pride and ego and used to being No. 1, used to being the queen at the top,” Evert said. “I’m sure that’s going to be motivation for her, not liking to see another name up there … I don’t think it’s a matter of if she’s going to win another Grand Slam, I think it’s when, and I think it will happen this year.”

Will she be distracted by her recent engagement to Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of the social network Reddit?

“You can’t predict when somebody gets engaged,” Evert said. “It can be a very pleasant distraction. You can lose your focus a little bit at the task at hand. Or it can be so inspiring, you feel so good, that you’re more settled. You really are in a really good place emotionally, and your tennis can improve. We’ve seen it both ways in tennis players. I don’t think we can predict that.”

Serena will be trying to win a 23rd career Grand Slam title, moving her past Steffi Graf to set an Open-era record. It would also place her one Grand Slam title away from equaling Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 titles.

4. Top women’s contenders

Kerber faces a challenge of picking up where she left off in 2016. Can she keep the roll going? The 2017 season, hasn’t started off great so far — she’s 1-2 this season, including a loss to 19-year-old Daria Kasatkina — but it is early.

Also breaking through in 2016 was big-hitting Garbine Muguruza of Spain, who defeated Williams in the final at the French Open to win her first Grand Slam title. Throw in veterans Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep, Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova and Johanna Konta, and the field is wide open.

Young American Madison Keys will miss the Australian Open after having surgery on her left wrist in October, but she’s back working with Lindsay Davenport, and the 21-year-old could be the story in 2017.

Also on the comeback trail is No. 49-ranked Eugenie Bouchard of Canada, who made a strong showing in Sydney last week in reaching the semifinals. She will be looking to regain the footing that saw her climb to a career high of No. 5 in 2014.

5. Young Americans

One of the main storylines early in the Australian Open could be all the Americans. Sixteen American women and seven men are ranked in the top 100 as the tournament gets underway. However, outside of Serena, and with Keys out of action, none has much of a chance making an impact. Still, by sheer numbers, American tennis is showing signs of life.

Congratulations, U.S. tennis. We have the depth, but where is that Grand Slam champion?

Chris Evert, on a surge of American women in the top 100

“At one point we had hardly any American players in the top 100,” Evert said. “Now women-wise anyway, we have [16]. I think that’s more than any other [country]. So we’ve got the depth. Congratulations, U.S. tennis. We have the depth, but where is that Grand Slam champion?”

After Serena Williams (2) and Keys (8), Venus Williams is next in the rankings at 16, followed by a dropoff to Coco Vandeweghe at No. 38, with Christina McHale at No. 43 and Alison Riske at 44. Sloane Stephens, who reached a career-high of No. 11 in 2013, has slipped to No. 52.

The American men are led by John Isner at No. 19, followed by Jack Sock at No. 20, Steve Johnson at No. 30 and Sam Querrey at No. 32. Ryan Harrison has found his way back into the top 100 at No. 82, along with Donald Young at 85, and 19-year-old Taylor Fritz has reached No. 93.

“There’s a group of seven or eight players, American men, 21 or under, that can be legit Grand Slam players,” McEnroe said. “Out of that group, none of them are ready to be a Grand Slam winner or compete for a title at this point, except for maybe [Jack] Sock. I think within the next two years, it is finally realistic to say we might have someone come out of that group that could do it.”

Australian Open

Sunday through Jan. 29, Melbourne, Australia.

TV: ESPN2 (early rounds); ESPN (semifinals, finals); Streaming at ESPN3.