Djokovic at ‘home’ as 18th Slam beckons; Barty tempers expectations - GulfToday

Djokovic at ‘home’ as 18th Slam beckons; Barty tempers expectations

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic hits a return during a training session in Melbourne on Sunday, ahead of the Australian Open starting on Feb.8. Agence France-Presse

World number one Novak Djokovic declared himself “home” Sunday as he gears up for an unprecedented ninth Australian Open title, warning he grows in confidence the more he plays at Melbourne Park.

The Serbian star won the first of his 17 Grand Slam crowns in Australia in 2008 and Rod Laver Arena has since become his most successful court.

After struggling with blisters during an exhibition in Adelaide on Friday, playing only one of his two scheduled sets, he said he was now “fine” ahead of his season debut in the ATP Cup this week, then the Australian Open on Feb.8.

“It does feel like a home for me in Australia, in Melbourne, particularly in Rod Laver,” said Djokovic.

“That is by far my most successful tennis court in my career. Had some profound memories in the last 15 years, and you know, won my first Grand Slam back in 2008.

“Had probably the most exciting matches played on this court, and definitely the longest match ever that I played was in the finals, almost six hours with Rafa (Nadal) in 2012.”

And he said being back on Rod Laver Arena rekindled “beautiful memories”, which he plans to use to his advantage when the opening Grand Slam of the year gets under way.

Having fans watching is another big motivating factor for the Serb after a year where most tennis has been played in empty arenas.

Australia has kept the coronavirus largely at bay with its aggressive incoming travel restrictions, making it one of the few places in the world where spectators can still attend sports events in significant numbers.

That means daily crowds of between 25,000 and 30,000 will be allowed to watch the Australian Open and Djokovic is thrilled.

“I’m sure that the fans are as excited as players. I mean, was a unique experience I think for every one of us coming to Australia and being 14 days in quarantine.

BARTY UNFAZED BY LOCAL EXPECTATION: World No.1 Ashleigh Barty on Sunday tempered rising expectations of breaking her country’s 43-year Australian Open drought, preferring to simply enjoy her long-awaited comeback.

The Australian last week played her first match in 11 months after opting to remain home in relatively Covid-19 free Queensland state during the pandemic and even decided against defending her French Open crown.

Having not left the country, Barty was not required to undergo a two-week quarantine that was mandatory for players arriving from overseas, leading No.9 Petra Kvitova to suggest she was at an “advantage” ahead of the year’s first Grand Slam.

Barty, however, did not believe her title chances had increased.

“It is what it is. I think you have to abide by the rules that have been put in by the government,” she said.

“I think in a week’s time ... everyone will be ready to go regardless of their preparation.

“I certainly don’t feel like I’m more of a favourite than anyone else.”

In her return to competitive action, Barty showed little sign of rust in a tight loss to world No.2 Simona Halep in an Adelaide exhibition last Friday.

Her preparation continues at the Yarra Valley Classic ahead of the Australian Open starting on February 8.

She had a first round bye in the singles but combined with Jennifer Brady of the United States on Sunday to win her doubles opener.

VENUS, OSTAPENKO START WITH WINS: Ageless Venus Williams opened her 2021 season with a 6-1, 6-3 thrashing of Arantxa Rus Sunday, while former top 10 players Jelena Ostapenko and Caroline Garcia also scored wins.

Williams, 40, showed few signs of having spent 14 days in quarantine in her first-round romp at the Yarra Valley Classic, grinding down her Dutch opponent in 65 minutes -- an amazing 27 years after making her professional debut.

The tournament is one of two WTA events being played concurrently at Melbourne Park as players prepare for the Australian Open Grand Slam starting on Feb.8.

Former Australian Open semi-finalist Danielle Collins needed 75 minutes to secure her first victory of the year, a 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Belgian Ysaline Bonaventure in the same event.

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