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Australian Open: Five things to watch in 2016

Serena Williams withdrew from the Hopman Cup with a nagging knee injury. Is it a sign of age or just caution?
Serena Williams withdrew from the Hopman Cup with a nagging knee injury. Is it a sign of age or just caution? AP

Serena Williams was the story of 2015 during her quest to become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win a calendar-year Grand Slam, but it was Novak Djokovic who came closest to the sport’s ultimate prize last year.

While Williams won the first three legs of the Grand Slam and had her dream in sight, only to have it dashed by Roberta Vinci of Italy in the U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic also won three Grand Slam titles last year, and he reached the finals of all four, falling to Stan Wawrinka at the French Open.

Novak Djokovic has reached 16 consecutive Grand Slam finals. The all-time record is 17 held by Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer.

Djokovic and Williams enter 2016 ranked No. 1, and they are again the favorites to win the year’s first major, the Australian Open, which gets under way Sunday in Melbourne.

“Right now [Djokovic] is ‘the Taxman,’ he’s just collecting, plain and simple,” ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert said during a conference call.

Nonetheless, tough competition, the ever-present risk of injury (Serena already has a knee problem) and the grind of a long season make a Grand Slam one of the toughest challenges in sports. And it will be made tougher this year with a “fifth major” thrown into the mix at the Rio Olympics this summer.

Here are five things to watch at the Australian Open and during the rest of 2016:

He’s an incredibly young 28, he’s in the prime of his career. To me, he’s set to do some unbelievable damage the next couple of years.

Brad Gilbert on Novak Djokovic

1. Grand Slam quest

Djokovic has been ranked No. 1 for 80 consecutive weeks and he served notice last week in Qatar that he’s ready to roll, overpowering Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in the finals. However, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Wawrinka and a growing list of rising stars could challenge the 28-year-old Serb in 2016.

“He’s an incredibly young 28, he’s in the prime of his career,” Gilbert said of Djokovic. “To me, he’s set to do some unbelievable damage the next couple of years. He had one of the most dominant years last year. I said at the start of the year I thought he would win at least three. Right now he is as complete of a tennis player as I’ve ever seen. … Joker has it all.”

Djokovic has won 60 singles titles, including five Australian Opens, three Wimbledon crowns and two U.S. Opens. The French Open is the only major to elude him, but he has reached the finals at Roland Garros three of the past four years. It took Federer three losses in the finals before he won his only French Open title in 2009.

While Serena didn’t capture the Grand Slam last year, she moved within one major of equaling Graf’s Open Era record of 22, and she is three away from Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24. A nagging knee injury forced her to pull out of the Hopman Cup, however, putting a large question mark on her chances of making another run at a calendar-year Slam at 34.

“For me, it’s simple: She’s been the greatest player, bar none, from 30 and older. She’s been the oldest player No. 1 in the last three years, 32, 33, 34. Never underestimate a Williams,” Gilbert said.

ESPN commentator Chris Evert, however, sees signs that the game is catching up to Serena.

“She can’t have another year like she had last year,” Evert said. “She narrowly escaped so many matches, down a set, down a set and a break. It can’t happen again like that. That would be like immortal for that to happen. … She just has to manage herself, manage her body, manage her schedule, manage her intensity when she’s out there. I just felt like last year she showed signs of not being motivated.”

2. Injuries: fact or fiction?

Nine of the top 10 women are injured or have become ill in the past two weeks. Oddly, the only member of the group not injured or ill seems to be Venus Williams, who has fought her way back into the top 10 despite suffering from Sjogren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping autoimmune disease. The severity of injuries in the days before a major are hard to determine, however. Players commonly err on the side of caution before the sport’s biggest events.

Among the list of walking wounded are Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, who pulled out of Sydney with a stomach bug that seems to be going around among the players. Both Serena and Kerber also have a history of skipping tournaments the days before a major.

“I don’t think anybody really knows [how bad Serena’s injury is],” Evert said. “Obviously, as you get older, she’s having more and more injuries. I think that knee was a niggling injury last year on and off. I would think with the time off that she had, she took the whole fall off … I’m surprised she has an injury, to put it bluntly. … It might be precautionary where she just wants to save herself for the Australian Open.”

Fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska pulled out of Sydney with a leg injury, along with No. 6 Petra Kvitova (stomach virus). Daria Gavrilova of Australia, winner of last week’s Hopman Cup, has an abdominal strain. A week earlier in Brisbane, No. 2 Simona Halep pulled out with an ankle injury, No. 3 Garbine Muguruza withdrew because of foot problem, and No. 5 Maria Sharapova continues to struggle with a forearm injury. Ninth-ranked Lucie Safarova has already withdrawn from the Australian Open with a bacterial infection.

I think she’s a player that, if she’s healthy, she’s the one to watch. She’s going to be dangerous.

Chriss Evert on Victoria Azarenka

3. Comeback kids

When it comes to comebacks, 2016 could be the year that some key players shake off injuries or sophomore slumps. Tops on the list is Victoria Azarenka, a former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open winner who fell off the tennis map last year after wrist injuries and a split with her longtime boyfriend.

“I think [Azarenka is] a player we should be talking about and focusing on right now because she’s the best player out there as of now with all the injuries [to players in the top 10].” Evert said. “I think she’s a player that, if she’s healthy, she’s the one to watch. She’s going to be dangerous.”

Another player primed for a comeback is Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, who plummeted from the top 10 to No. 47 last year. She went through a coaching change and sustained a head injury when she slipped in the locker room at the U.S. Open.

On the men’s side, Milos Raonic is lurking just outside the top 10 at No. 14, and if not for foot and back injuries, he would be solidly in the top 10. At 25, the hard-hitting Canadian is poised to become the face of men’s tennis in the coming years, along with Grigor Dimitrov and American Jack Sock, who has climbed to No. 26 after missing last year’s Australian Open while recovering from hip surgery. Sock could easily finish the year as the top-ranked American on the men’s side.

“[Raonic] struggled last year with his health, the foot, the back,” Gilbert said. “The second half of the year, he couldn’t sustain his level because he just really wasn’t that healthy. I watched him play in Abu Dhabi. I watched him play a couple matches in Brisbane. I thought he played very well. ... I do expect him, as long as he’s healthy, to get back in the top eight.”

Sloane had an up-and-down year last year. I think she needs to sustain the commitment to her game. She’s, again, up and down. Some days she looks like — well, she did beat Serena Williams. Some days it looks like it’s a real effort for her to be out there.

Chris Evert on Sloane Stephens

4. American hopes

When it comes to Americans making noise on the world stage, 2016 could be a big year. Serena is still the best in the game. Venus has climbed back into the top 10, and a new wave of young talent is starting find the spotlight.

Sloane Stephens experienced a sophomore slump in 2015, after a breakout year in 2014, but she has had early success this season, winning the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand. The victory included a semifinal win over former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Madison Keys is also climbing, to No. 17, and sits No. 3 among American women.

“Sloane had an up-and-down year last year. I think she needs to sustain the commitment to her game. She’s, again, up and down. Some days she looks like — well, she did beat Serena Williams. Some days it looks like it’s a real effort for her to be out there. … I think she’s getting to the point where you are starting to see her make a little bit more of a commitment. There’s a little more sense of urgency.”

On the men’s side, 30-year-old John Isner remains the top American at No. 11, but 23-year-old Sock is No. 26 and could quickly close the gap with no points to defend in Australia. Two-time NCAA champion Steve Johnson is ranked No. 32, and Donald Young is inside the top 50 at No. 46. And there is a large group of young Americans poised to break out of the Challenger ranks this year, including 22-year-old Bjorn Frantangelo, 19-year-old Jared Donaldson, 18-year-old Taylor Fritz and 17-year-old Frances Tiafoe.

5. The age game

Tennis has changed in many ways in the past 10 to 15 years, but nowhere is the change more evident than in the age of the game’s top players. Half of the men in the top 10 are in their 30s. No. 7-ranked Kei Nishikori, at 26, is the youngest. No. 3-ranked Federer is the elder statesman at 34.

It is only slightly younger on the women’s side, thanks to 22-year-old Garbine Muguruza at No. 3 and 24-year-old Simona Halep at No. 2 skewing the average age of a top 10 featuring Serena at 34, Venus at 35, and a 33-year-old Flavia Pennetta, who still holds No. 8 as she heads into retirement with a U.S. Open crown.

“I think the biggest change is the game has gotten more physical and it’s gotten more mentally demanding.” Gilbert said. “I just think that the way guys and women are taking care of themselves, it’s no problem now playing into your early 30s.”

Speaking of ageless wonders, the Bryan brothers — Bob and Mike — are 37, and for the first time in a decade, they failed to win a major last year and lost their No. 1 ranking. Could age be catching up with the best doubles team of all time?

“They’ve had an amazing run,” Gilbert said. “Bob has been pretty busy. He’s got, what, three kids. He’s got a family. He’s got a lot more going on. But the guys they’re chasing, it’s not like they’re chasing any young guys. If all of a sudden you told me they won a Slam in 2016, won the Olympics, got back to No. 1, I wouldn’t be surprised, because they’re still a dynamic team.”

Rusty Hall: 817-390-7816, @RustyHall10s

Australian Open

Sunday-Jan. 31, Melbourne, Austrialia

TV: Live first-round coverage starting at 6 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2 and running into early Monday morning. Tennis Channel will provide daily replays beginning at 6 a.m. Monday.

Top 10 singles rankings

Men

Rk, Player

Age

Points

1. Novak Djokovic

28

16,790

2. Andy Murray

28

8,945

3. Roger Federer

34

8,165

4. Stan Wawrinka

30

6,865

5. Rafael Nadal

29

5,230

6. Tomas Berdych

30

4,560

7. Kei Nishikori

26

4,235

8. David Ferrer

33

4,055

9. Richard Gasquet

29

2,850

10. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

30

2,635

Women

Rk, Player

Age

Points

1. Serena Williams

34

9,945

2. Simona Halep

24

5,101

3. Garbine Muguruza

22

4,670

4. Agnieszka Radwanska

26

4,670

5. Maria Sharapova

28

4,542

6. Angelique Kerber

27

3,710

7. Petra Kvitova

25

3,642

8. Flavia Pennetta

33

3,621

9. Lucie Safarova

28

3,590

10. Venus Williams

35

3,511

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