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Aussie Open: 5 to watch

MELBOURNE (AFP) – Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic will be big favourites for the Australian Open when it begins in Melbourne on Monday. Here are five players who might challenge the world’s top two.

• Milos Raonic
The tall, serious Canadian ended 2016 as world number three as he continued his steady rise up the rankings, and it is surely only a matter of time before he wins a Grand Slam. Raonic, 26, laid down a marker for the season at last year’s Australian Open when he ousted Stan Wawrinka before falling to Andy Murray in a thrilling five-set semi-final in which he was hampered by injury. Six months later, he reached his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon before losing to Murray again.

• Stan Wawrinka
“The Stanimal’’ is riding high after winning his third major at the US Open and the powerful Swiss has the tools to triumph in Melbourne, as he memorably proved in 2014. Wawrinka has forced his way into tennis’s upper echelons in the past three seasons but now aged 31 faces the challenge of staying there – and even improving – as a group of younger players matures.

• Roger Federer
The superlative Swiss has lost none of his popularity but, at 35, only his most ardent fans would rate him as a leading contender for the Australian Open, where he will be making his 69th Grand Slam appearance. Federer is feeling his way back after a six-month injury lay-off, the longest of his career, which he ended with a mixed performance at the Hopman Cup team tournament in Perth last week. Federer does not seem to be contemplating retirement, however, and he remains stubbornly optimistic of a last hurrah to add to his record 17 Grand Slam titles. Federer’s ranking has dropped to 17 after his long absence, meaning he faces a tougher draw.

• Rafael Nadal
Like Federer, Nadal’s aura and results are on the wane and it has been more than two years since he last won a major, at his favoured French Open in 2014. The 30-year-old Spaniard didn’t make it to any of the Grand Slam quarter-finals last season, and his tally of two tournament wins was his lowest in 12 years as he dropped to ninth in the world.
Nadal has won only one of his 14 major titles at the Australian Open, when he beat a tearful Federer in an epic, five-set final in 2009. He will certainly look to improve on 2016, when he was sent packing by fellow Spanish left-hander Fernando Verdasco in the first round.

• Alexander Zverev
Wawrinka dubbed Zverev the “future of tennis’’ after losing to the German in last year’s St Petersburg final, and it is a label that seems apt for the 6ft 6in (1.98 metre) 19-year-old. Nicknamed “Sascha’’, he is already ranked 24th, has a string of scalps to his name including two victories over Federer, most recently at the Hopman Cup.