By Rebecca Bryan
New York (AFP) — World number one Novak Djokovic, seeking to consolidate his Wimbledon win, is one of four former champions in action Monday on the first day of the U.S. Open.
The Serbian star ended a maddening spate of near-misses in majors with a five-set triumph over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final.
With his seventh Grand Slam title in hand, the 27-year-old will be trying to claim a second title at Flushing Meadows, where he won the title in 2011 but finished runner-up in 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2013.
“It’s going to be a long two weeks’ journey for all of us,” said Djokovic, who will play 79th-ranked Argentinian Diego Schwartzman under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
The two have never met, and Djokovic said he’d be relying on scouting reports from his team to prepare.
“Obviously it’s never easy when you play against somebody you have never played against,” Djokovic said. “He’s a young player from Argentina, and, sure playing on the center court for him is a great experience. He has nothing to lose.”
The absence of defending champion Rafael Nadal with a right wrist injury has opened up the men’s draw somewhat, but many reckon the second-seeded Federer stands to benefit the most from the Spaniard’s absence.
The Swiss great, who claimed the last of his 17 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 2012, is enjoying a resurgence that included a picture-perfect build-up to the U.S. Open.
“Favorites? I leave it to the people to really judge who is the one, two, three, or number four favorite,” said Djokovic, who on paper faces a tougher path to the final with 2012 champion Andy Murray, French dangerman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and big-serving American John Isner in his quarter.
“I know that there is one thing for sure,” Djokovic said. “Everybody is starting from scratch. Everybody starts from Monday.”
Murray, seeded eighth, hasn’t reached a final of any kind since his Wimbledon triumph last year, but he says he has at last regained the level of fitness he had before back trouble slowed him late in 2013.
He was pleased to be getting underway on Monday with a potentially tricky first-round match against Dutch veteran Robin Haase on Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Former women’s champions Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams are also in action on Monday, along with reigning Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, Tsonga, U.S. hope Sloane Stephens, and rising Canadian star Milos Raonic.
While younger sister Serena Williams manages the pressure of expectations as the two-time defending champion, Venus Williams — who lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001 — will be trying to make it past the second round for the first time since 2010.
The 34-year-old American, ranked 20th in the world opens against a veteran she has beaten in three past encounters — 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm.
– Dangerous opponent –
Sharapova won the title in 2006 but missed last year’s U.S. Open with a shoulder injury. The reigning French Open champion will take on fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko on Monday night.
Kirilenko, 27, is a former top-10 player who is currently ranked 113th and has endured an injury-plagued season.
Sharapova, who has won five of her seven career meetings with Kirilenko, said it was nevertheless a potentially awkward match-up.
“You never know because I think it’s also an opportunity for someone like that to come in and have no expectations because they haven’t really played a match and (they can) go out and swing away,” she said.
“Sometimes that’s a very dangerous opponent.”
The glamorous Sharapova has long been a favorite of the New York crowds, whose boisterous behavior is part of the fabric of the U.S. Open.
Fifth-seeded Raonic thrives on the hectic atmosphere at the final Grand Slam of the year.
“I like the rowdiness here particularly,” said Raonic, who was warily looking forward to a meeting with Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel on Monday.
“Especially being the first match for me and he’s already played three matches, it’s going to be about finding myself in that first match, figuring out what I need to do, and sort of finding my range and keeping it very simple and not really trying to do much,” Raonic said.
AFP Photo/Carl Court
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