Australian Open: Old guard look to fend off next generation as tennis enters new decade

Men's "Big Three" and Serena Williams on the women's side set sights on more major titles in Melbourne

Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a forehand return during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
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Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams look set to lead the old guard's challenge at the Australian Open as the younger generation aim to make breakthroughs at the grand slam events in the new decade.

After recent bushfire smog largely cleared in Melbourne, the view is all too familiar with Djokovic and Williams, who is seeking a record-equalling 24th major title.

Top seed Rafael Nadal, 33, is celebrating becoming world No 1 in a third decade while Roger Federer, 38, is trying to defy the ageing process and stay ahead of his rivals with a 21st grand slam win.

The start of 2020 is not dissimilar to 2010, when Federer and Nadal shared the four grand slam titles and Williams won in Melbourne and Wimbledon.

Ten years later, the men's Big Three - who have won all but two Australian Open titles since 2004 - occupy the top three rankings, and Williams is one step away from Margaret Court's record for major ictories.

The men's dominance is stark: since Federer won his first grand slam title in 2003, only five major finals have not featured one of the Swiss, Nadal or Djokovic.

Several challengers have come and gone but there is increasing hope for the men's up-and-comers, while nine women have won grand slam titles since Williams, 38, claimed her 23rd in Melbourne in 2017.

While Djokovic and Nadal split last year's big prizes, Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Fabio Fognini won their first Masters trophies and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 21, became the youngest ATP Finals champion in 18 years.

"They're very close. I don't think that's miles, miles away maybe as it was some years ago," Djokovic of the NextGen winning a major title. "I think they are definitely hungry. They're challenging. They're knocking on the door."

The clash between old and new will be epitomised in the first round on Monday, when Venus Williams, who turns 40 this year, plays 15-year-old rising star Coco Gauff - who wasn't even born when her fellow American lifted her first grand slam trophies in 2000.

epa08139867 Serena Williams of United States speaks to media after an Australian Open practice session at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 19 January 2020.  EPA/ROB PREZIOSO AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT  EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Japan's Naomi Osaka, 22, is defending a title for the second grand slam in a row after her repeat bid at last year's US Open fell flat in the fourth round.

World No Ashleigh Barty, fresh from winning the Adelaide International on Saturday, carries Australian hopes of seeing the first home-grown women's winner since 1978.

"Obviously it's the perfect preparation. But regardless of whether I won the title or not last week, I feel like I'm well-prepared," Barty, 23, said.

"I'm happy, I'm healthy. I'm coming into the first Grand Slam of the year with a smile on my face. That's all I can ask of myself."

The tournament is taking place against the backdrop of a bushfires emergency that has swept the nation and ramped up fears over global warming - and billowed choking smog across Melbourne and other cities.

After player anger during qualifying and practice, when several were hit by coughing fits and breathing problems, air pollution returned to 'moderate' levels over the weekend, with rain forecast for the start of the tournament.