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2015 Australian Open champions Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams return to defend their titles when the 2016 Australian Open begins on Monday 18 January in Melbourne. Serena Williams must bounce back from the disappointment of failing to secure the calendar-year Grand Slam at the 2015 US Open and face down a strong field led by Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova if she is to win an incredible 22nd Grand Slam title and tie Steffi Graf’s Open Era record.
As it happens, Serena and many of her leading competitiors have been struck down by illness and injury at the beginning of a new season. Knee inflammation forced the world no. 1 out of her warm-up tournament - the Hopman Cup - although the American is now confident of her physical state. Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza also withdrew from tournaments with injury, but Romania's Halep is already back in action at the Sydney International. Other casualties heading straight to Melbourne like Muguruza include Maria Sharapova - who had to skip her Brisbane title defence - Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska. The latter successfully completed a title run at the Shenzhen Open to begin her 2016 campaign, whilst trophies in Brisbane and Auckland went to a resurgent Victoria Azarenka and talented Sloane Stephens, respectively.
Novak Djokovic with the 2015 Australian Open trophy (Getty Images)
Over with the men, Djokovic has dominated the Australian Open in recent years, winning the title five of the last eight years - including in 2015, when he subjected Andy Murray to a fourth runner-up finish. It was the beginning of arguably the most dominant season men’s tennis has ever seen. But with the ageless Roger Federer, the resurrecting Rafael Nadal, the unpredictable but occasionally unstoppable Stan Wawrinka and the dogged Murray all determined to bring down the world no. 1, Djokovic will have to play his best to capture a sixth Australian Open title in 2016.
The Serbian star has prepared for the Melbourne fortnight in the best way possible - winning his first title at the Qatar Open by dismantling Nadal in the final: 6-1 6-2. His Spanish victim has not, however, had a bad start to the year himself, winning the exhibition event in Mubadala before making the ultimate round in Doha. Stan Wawrika also experienced success by winning the Chennai Open for the third consecutive time, whilst Milos Raonic - Nadal's Mubadala victim - shocked Roger Federer to claim Brisbane glory. The Canadian and other early 2016 stars such as Borna Coric, Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem will all be contenders in the Melbourne heat of the 2016 Australian Open.
Known as the ‘Happy Slam’, the Australian Open has a history stretching back to 1905. It was then known as the Australasian Championships and then the Australian Championships, before becoming the Australian Open in 1969. The tournament has been staged in five Australian and two New Zealand cities before finding its current home in Melbourne in 1972, when it was played at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club before moving to Melbourne Park in 1988. This was when the event switched from grass to its current surface of hard courts.
Melbourne Park's main stadium is the Rod Laver Arena, seating nearly 15,000 people and equipped with a retractable roof. The Margaret Court and Hisense Arenas roudn out the major stages at the tournament.
Almost every legend of tennis, past and present, has lifted either the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup or the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy at the Australian Open. Roy Emerson holds the record for most men’s titles, winning his first of six titles in 1961 - before dominating the tournament with five consecutive titles between 1963 and 1967. Margaret Court won the Australian Open an incredible 11 times, including four times in the Open Era, finishing in 1973. In the Open Era, Novak Djokovic holds the record for the most men’s titles with five (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015), followed by Andre Agassi and Roger Federer with four each. Djokovic also holds the record for most consecutive titles won in the Open Era.
Serena Williams in action during the 2015 Australian Open final (Photo by Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)
21-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, with her six Australian Open titles (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2015), holds the record for most women’s titles in the Open Era, while Margaret Court (1969, 1970, 1971), Evonne Goolagong Crawley (1974, 1975, 1976), Steffi Graf (1988, 1989, 1990), Monica Seles (1991, 1992, 1993) and Martina Hingis (1997, 1998, 1999) are tied for the most consecutive Open Era titles.
The last Australian to win the men’s title was Mark Edmonson in 1967, while Chris O’Neil in 1978 holds the honour for the women.
The 2016 Australian Open will see former world no. 1 and beloved home hope Lleyton Hewitt bid his farewell to professional tennis as a competitor, but the Aussie crowds will be hoping that one of their new stars – bad boy Nick Kyrgios, talented Bernard Tomic, or feisty Daria Gavrilova – will arise to fill the void left by ‘Rusty’. Teenage star Thanasi Kokkinakis has been forced out of the event due to shoulder injury.
With the biggest stars in tennis all taking to the courts in Melbourne from 18-31 January, the competition for the 2016 Australian Open titles will be fierce. It’s a recipe for an unforgettable fortnight: Take two dominant world no. 1s defending their titles, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams; mix with former champions Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka all trying to take back their crowns; and sprinkle with the likes of Andy Murray, Simona Halep, Rafael Nadal, Garbine Muguruza and Nick Kyrgios, hoping to break through in Melbourne … Anything could happen!
Watch and bet on all the best action from the Australian Open 2016 live via mobile, computer or tablet from 18-31 January.