Murray, Serena the cynosure

Murray, Serena the cynosure

Tennis Australian Open : In-form Briton will look to end Djokovic's reign at Melbourne Park

Murray, Serena the cynosure

 Having snatched Novak Djokovic's world number one ranking in a thrilling late-season raid, Andy Murray will bid to storm the Serb's Melbourne Park fortress and capture an elusive Australian Open title after five agonising near misses.

Murray enters the year's first grand slam in unknown territory, rated as top seed for the first time in his 12th campaign and with a 'Sir' in front of his name as the recipient of a knighthood from Britain's New Year's honours list.

The Scot also brings the knowledge that 10 years of hard graft to reach the summit of the men's game could end in a heartbeat if defending champion Djokovic has his way.

Few players know how heavy lies the crown as fellow 29-year-old Djokovic, who spoke of hungrier wolves snapping at his heels after his defeat over Murray last year, his fourth in a Melbourne Park final between the pair.

Long the alpha male of the pack, Djokovic completed his sweep of Grand Slam titles at last year's French Open then fell away dramatically in the second half of the season.

Only last week, however, the Serb fired an ominous warning to Murray by snapping his 28-match winning streak in a fiery three-set decider to defend his Qatar Open title.

Djokovic joined Roy Emerson as the most successful men's champion at the Australian Open last year and can take sole possession of the record with a seventh crown, having won in 2008, 2011-13 and 2015-16.

 In Melbourne, Djokovic, seeded two, will be hoping to show he's back to his best after a period of sustained dominance abruptly ended last year after the French Open.

 The Serb bettered Murray in a thrilling final this month in Doha, a performance that suggested he may be regaining his edge -- although he insisted he was never "invincible".

Murray is saddled with a less enviable record, having become only the second man in the professional era to lose five finals at a single Grand Slam when defeated last year.

The other, his coach Ivan Lendl, lost five at the US Open but sandwiched the defeats with a hat-trick of wins from 1985-87.

On opposite sides of the draw, Murray and Djokovic can only meet in the final, with the Scot enjoying a more favourable run in the first week.

Murray plays 93rd-ranked Ukrainian Illya Marchenko in the first round, while Djokovic has a much less palatable prospect in Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco, who upset Rafael Nadal in their opener last year.

Bookmakers see little chance of the title going to anyone other from Djokovic and Murray but US Open champion Stan Wawrinka is the most fancied of the rest.

Beating Djokovic on the blue courts of Melbourne Park invariably means winning the title and Wawrinka managed it in a blockbuster quarterfinal in 2014 on the way to claiming the trophy.

Crowds will clamour for four-times champion Roger Federer to go deep in the tournament as he returns to Grand Slam action after a long layoff from a knee injury. Ninth-seeded Spaniard Nadal, the 2009 champion, can also expect raucous support as he bids to shrug off two barren years at the Grand Slams.

Serena’s pledge

In the women’s event, Serena Williams has vowed to make life difficult for top seed Angelique Kerber and a host of dangerous players out to derail her, warning she is in Melbourne to win.

“I didn’t come here to lose in the first round, or the second round, or at all,” she said. “If I can play the way I’ve been practising, it will be fine,” she said the other day.

The American gets her quest for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title underway in a difficult first-round clash against Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic on Tuesday. But the 35-year-old, seeded two, is in fighting mood despite being bundled out in the second round of her only warm-up tournament, the Auckland Classic.

Germany’s Kerber stunned Serena at Melbourne Park last year, upsetting her in the decider for her first major title before later replacing her as the world number one.

But she has not had a good start to 2017, falling to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina in the Brisbane International quarterfinals, then slumping out in round two of the Sydney International to Russian teenager Darya Kasatkina. Despite this, she is confident of finding her best form over the next fortnight.

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