Golden era questions over tennis summer

If 2016 marked the changing of the guard in men’s and women’s tennis, then 2017 may well spell the end of a golden era.

Or will there be one final twist in the Fed-era and more slams too perhaps for fellow 35-year-old living legend Serena Williams?

These are but two of the burning questions heading into the Australian summer of tennis and the start of a new season.

Will there be, as he hopes, an “Indian summer” for Roger Federer in his much-anticipated comeback after an injury-enforced six-month layoff?

We already know she has the heart and desire, but does Williams have the legs to go the distance and match and possibly even eclipse Margaret Smith Court’s all-time record 24 grand slam singles titles?

Or are Federer and Williams, arguably the two greatest men’s and women’s players the sport has seen, finished as grand slam forces?

Federer touched down in Perth on Thursday feeling “super pumped” to begin preparations for his 18th straight Australian Open campaign – a run second only to Lleyton Hewitt’s record 20 in a row – at the Hopman Cup exhibition event.

But even Federer is wondering if this will be his farewell summer, the 35-year-old father of four unsure about how much longer the left knee that went under the knife in February and which he re-injured at Wimbledon will cope with the demands of top-level tournament tennis.

“Let’s say the knee won’t be good; I have no regrets. I feel I did everything this year to get my body back in shape and now only time can tell,” Federer said of his enforced layoff and recovery period.

Now ranked 16th in the world and without a grand slam triumph in four-and-a-half years, Federer would be the oldest major winner since Ken Rosewell won the 1972 Australian Open at 37 should he finally land another big one.

But while an 18th slam continues to evade Federer, a first Australian Open crown has proven historically elusive for new world No.1 Andy Murray, the only man ever to lose five finals at the same slam.

Federer once and Novak Djokovic four other times, including the past two years, have denied Murray at Melbourne Park.

Never before, though, has Murray arrived in such hot form, with the Scot usurping Djokovic from the rankings summit with a stunning nine-title 2016 season to guarantee himself the Open’s top seeding for the first time.

An elbow injury and self-confessed troubles in his private life undermined the second half of Djokovic’s year, almost from the moment the Serb became the first man since Rod Laver almost half a century before him to hold all four grand slam singles trophies simultaneously.

Djokovic, a week younger than Murray and also turning 30 in May, returns hungry for an unprecedented seventh Open title and to regain his world No.1 status.

Until he does, though, doubts around the 12-times major champion’s ability to rise to his extraordinary, at times superhuman, heights of 2015-16 will persist – especially after dispensed coach Boris Becker claimed his ex-charge took his eyes off the ball following his French Open breakthrough in June.

“He has not spent as much time on the practice court as he should have in the last six months and he knows that,” Becker said after their late-season split.

“Success doesn’t come by pushing a button.”

Even Bernard Tomic knows that, with Australia’s one-time grand slam quarter-finalist vowing to push harder in 2017 in a bid to finally make the move into the world’s top 10 and beyond.

In reality, if the new year does mark the end of the golden decade of Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal dominating the majors, it’s more likely Tomic’s combustible countryman Nick Kyrgios will usher in the new era.

Kyrgios, after a breakout three-title year and rise to world No.13, Austrian big-gamer Dominic Thiem, explosive German Alex Zverev and Croatian prodigy Borna Coric lead the young brigade snapping at the rankings heels of mid-20s grand slam dreamers Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori.

Serena’s heir apparent is more difficult to identify in the less predictable world of women’s tennis.

After dethroning now newly-engaged Williams with a second slam of the year at the US Open in September, Angelique Kerber turns 30 during her Australian Open title defence next month.

But with 30 the new 20 in tennis, time appears on the German’s side.

A dramatic shake-up at the top, namely Maria Sharapova’s doping suspension, Petra Kvitova’s stabbing by an intruder, motherhood for two-time Open champion Victoria Azarenka and the retirement of fellow former world No.1 Ana Ivanovic also add to the air of uncertainty.

With grand slam glory for years proving beyond Agnieszka Radwanska, Simon Halep and Dominika Cibulkova – the world’s No.3, No.4 and No.5 behind Kerber and Williams – opportunity knocks for Gen-Y challengers Maddison Keys, Belinda Bencic, Elina Svitolina and Flushing Meadows finalist Karolina Pliskova.

Then of course there’s Serena Williams, a 22-times grand slam champion, who loves to have the final say.

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