SERENA WILLIAMS SEEKS 24TH GRAND SLAM TITLE AT AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Serena Williams is the firm favourite to win the Australian Open as she again bids for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title.

The 38-year-old American is aiming to match the record set in 1973 by Australia’s Margaret Court, who will be recognised at the tournament on the 50th anniversary of her calendar Grand Slam.

Old guard Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are still expected to be the men to beat in Melbourne, while Britain’s former world number one Andy Murray is missing because of a pelvic injury.

The first Grand Slam of the 2020 season is set to go ahead as planned, despite the backdrop of raging bushfires that have devastated parts of Australia.

For the eighth time in the past 10 Grand Slams, three-time major champion Andy Murray is unavailable to lead British hopes.

Murray, 32, was hoping to make a poignant return to Melbourne – where he tearfully admitted last January he thought his career was coming to an endbecause of chronic hip pain.

Since then, the Scot has had “life-changing” hip surgery, returned to competitive action and won ATP Tour titles in singles and doubles events.

Now he must wait a bit longer to return to Grand Slam singles competition after picking up a pelvic injury while playing for Great Britain at November’s Davis Cup finals.

“Unfortunately I’ve had a setback and as a precaution need to work through that before competing,” said the former world number one, who is planning to be back in action in February.

“I’ve worked so hard to get myself into a situation where I can play at the top level and I’m gutted I’m not going to be able to play.”

Britain’s best hope of winning a first Australian Open singles title since Virginia Wade did so in 1972 looks to be Johanna Konta – if she is not hampered by a long-term knee issue.

Konta, ranked 13th in the world, reached at least the quarter-finals in three of the four Grand Slams last year.

Although the Australian Open was the only major where she did not compete in the last eight, the 28-year-old does have previous success in Melbourne, having reached the 2016 semi-finals.

The knee problem has disrupted the British number one’s build-up, however, ruling her out of this week’s Adelaide International and limiting her to only one tournament since September’s US Open.

Joining Konta in the women’s draw will be Katie Boulter, who is using her protected ranking of 85 to play after an injury-hit 2019 meant she dropped to 317th.

British number two Heather Watson is ranked 101 in the world, and was just outside the initial cut for direct entry, but has moved into the main draw automatically following several withdrawals by higher-ranked players.

Harriet Dart and Samantha Murray Sharan are seeking to join them by coming through the qualifying rounds.

In Murray’s absence, British hopes in the men’s singles are in the hands of 30th seed Dan Evans, Kyle Edmund and Cameron Norrie.

Evans, 29, is the nation’s leading male player after a fine 2019 in which he climbed back into the world’s top 50 by getting to his first ATP Tour-level final and playing in the main draws of all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year for the first time.

Now, having reached a career-high ranking of 33 on Monday, he goes into a Grand Slam for the first time as Britain’s leading male player and a seed.

Edmund, 25, is hoping a new coach in Franco Davin, who notably helped his fellow Argentine Juan Martin del Potro win the 2009 US Open, can help him replicate the form that took him to the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018.

The Yorkshireman slid down the rankings during a 2019 where he suffered for form and fitness before ending the year on a high by being Britain’s standout player in their run to the Davis Cup semi-finals.

In the men’s doubles, Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski will be seeking to build on the promise they showed in their new partnership last year, when they reached the US Open semi-finals.