MELBOURNE, Australia - Novak Djokovic shelved the conventional preparations for a while, warming up for a shot at a third consecutive Australian title with a bit of weekend hit-and-giggle and a Gangnam Style dance with Serena Williams.
That was for kids' day, when thousands of people flocked to Rod Laver Arena to see 2012 Australian champions Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka hitting in a just-for-fun match with players including past champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams, a cast of human-sized cartoon characters and a marching band that played the tune to Michael Jackson's Thriller.
Come Monday, the No. 1-ranked Djokovic will be back to work, hoping his opener against Paul-Henri Mathieu is the first of seven matches this month at the venue where he's had the most success in Grand Slam tennis. His five-set, 5-hour, 53-minute win over Rafael Nadal in the final last year has already been written into Australian Open folklore, and followed his titles at Melbourne Park in 2008 and 2011.
The fun matches, the joking around and the break from official tournaments in the off-season are crucial ingredients to Djokovic's success in Australia.
"You get time to recover, regroup, recharge your batteries mentally, physically, try to get ready for the new season," said the 25-year-old Djokovic, who had a final practice session early Sunday afternoon with fellow Serbian Viktor Troicki . "You come here fresh. You're motivated and inspired to play some good tennis.
"This is my most successful Grand Slam. But this Grand Slam is also known for a lot of surprises, players who have been reaching the final stages who are not expected to. We'll see. The Australian Open always brings something interesting."
No man has won three successive Australian titles in the Open era, which dates back to 1968 — Jack Crawford (1931-33) and Roy Emerson (1963-67) did it before then. Nine players have won back-to-back titles in the meantime, but were unable to complete the hat-trick.
Williams also has three on her mind, as in three majors in a row. The No. 3-ranked Williams is a hot favourite to win her sixth Australian Open title after a run of 35 wins in her last 36 matches since a shocking first-round defeat at the French Open. She finished off last year by winning at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open and the season-ending championships.
She started this year by winning the title at the Brisbane International, where she was due to face Azarenka in the semifinals before the 23-year-old Belarusian withdrew due to treatment for a toe infection.
Williams, who puts her dominating streak down to a new "serene" and calm approach on and off the court since hiring Patrick Mouratoglou as a coaching consultant, will get a chance to watch older sister Venus Williams in the first match Monday at Hisense Arena against Galina Voskoboeva of Kazakhstan. No. 2-ranked and 2012 finalist Maria Sharapova, who withdrew from the Brisbane International with an injured right collarbone, will get the program under way on Rod Laver Arena against fellow Russian Olga Puchkova.
Serena and top-ranked Azarenka, who are in the top half of the women's draw and could meet in the semifinals, get another day off before starting Tuesday.
There was no Williams-like domination on the men's side last year, with four players sharing the majors. After losing the Australian final to Djokovic, Nadal captured his seventh French Open title at Roland Garros. Federer broke a mini drought when he took the Wimbledon title, his 17th major, fending off Andy Murray in the final. Murray beat Federer for the Olympic gold medal before his career breakthrough at the U.S. Open, where he ended a 76-year drought for British men at the majors.
Djokovic is the only leading man in action Monday, with No. 2 Federer and third-seeded Murray on the opposite side of the draw and not due on court until Tuesday. Nadal is still yet to return to tennis, which has critics and fans speculating on who might capitalize among the other men.
Fourth-seeded David Ferrer, a semifinalist at the French and U.S. Opens last year, opens against Olivier Rochus in an evening match on Hisense Arena, and fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist, faces American Michael Russell on Show Court 2. No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, and big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic are in the same half as Murray and Federer.
Djokovic, who lost a singles match to Australia's Bernard Tomic in an exhibition tournament last week, was asked to pick the best of the potential challengers and politely named quite a few.
"It's probably expected that the three of us, and Nadal of course, would still be main candidates to win all the major titles. But, you know, I wouldn't underestimate Del Potro, (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga, Ferrer, Berdych, anybody who is in top 10," he said. "I don't think it's nice for me to predict that us three will be champions of all Grand Slams this year.
Federer will also get an extra break before starting his 53rd consecutive Grand Slam event, second only to retired South African Wayne Ferreira's mark of 57.
He didn't play a warm-up event, preferring instead to rest.
"I can practice as hard as I want, make it feel also like a match," said Federer, who has played every Australian Open since 2000 and has won the title four times. "I have a lot of experience. I feel like if I'm playing well in practice. Today, at this age, I know where my game's at.
"I'm ready to go and eager. That to me right now dominates. It's important to be fresh."
Another 31-year-old with a long history at the Australian Open is former No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt. The former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion first qualified for his national championship at age 15 and is due to start his 17th consecutive Australian Open campaign on Monday night against eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia.
Hewitt's best result at Melbourne Park was a losing final against Marat Safin in 2005 and has he slid down the rankings to No. 81 due to age and injuries.
No Australian man has won the Australian Open since Mark Edmondson in 1976.