Strike a pose: Serena shows Novak how it's done
MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams spent time with Novak Djokovic this week, giving him pointers on how to better strike the pose of a Grand Slam champion.
After winning three of the four majors last year to break the stranglehold Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had on men's tennis, Djokovic needs to focus on how to successfully defend a Grand Slam title before he gets too concerned with trophy presentations.
Williams knows how. The 13-time major winner has successfully defended a major title three times.
Federer and Nadal also know what it takes, but they're unlikely to give the 24-year-old Djokovic pointers about defending his Australian Open title. Besides, they have each other to worry about after being drawn Friday into the same half of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since 2005.
Neither can face Djokovic until the final of the season's first major, which starts Monday and ends with the men's championship match on Jan. 29.
Federer withdrew from a tuneup in Doha with a sore back, and Nadal has struggled with a painful shoulder that he plans to rest next month.
The casualty list in the women's draw is more extensive.
Williams sprained her left ankle last week and had to withdraw from the Brisbane International — although she says she's in great shape and is confident she'll be OK by Monday.
"The ankle is better. It's not 100 percent, but it's better than it was last week," Williams said Thursday. "I feel great. And I feel like I'm really fit. And I feel like this is definitely some of the fittest I have been in my career."
Williams missed the 2011 tournament during a prolonged injury layoff, unable to defend the title she won in 2010 and ending a stretch of six straight trips to Melbourne Park in which she won four titles and lost only twice.
Kim Clijsters, who won last year in Williams' absence, retired from her semifinal in Brisbane last week when she began having spasms in her left hip. But she's been practicing in Melbourne and attended the official draw Friday, posing for photographs with a smiling Djokovic and the trophies.
It'll have to be: she was drawn into a tough quarter with French Open champion Li Na, whom she beat in last year's Australian final, and top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki.
Wozniacki hurt her left wrist in a quarterfinal loss at the Sydney International on Wednesday, and Maria Sharapova, the 2008 Australian champion, pulled out of a warm-up tournament and went straight to Melbourne to give her ailing ankle more time to recover.
Venus Williams and No. 10-ranked Andrea Petkovic already have ruled themselves out, while Sam Stosur is dealing with her injured pride after winning just one match in her first two tournaments on home soil since beating Williams in the U.S. Open final.
While nine of the top 10 women were playing at Sydney, Serena Williams and Clijsters were fine-tuning in Melbourne.
Williams kept her fans up to date on the social networking sites, posting pictures of her instruction session with Djokovic as well as tweets about her fashion interests.
"Teaching (at) DjokerNole how to pose. He's getting there. :)" Williams posted, along with the image of herself and Djokovic.
Djokovic is certainly getting the hang of it. He entered the 2011 Australian Open with only one major to his credit — the 2008 Australian title — but fresh from a Davis Cup victory with Serbia.
It was the beginning of a remarkable run. He won the Australian Open at the start of a 41-match unbeaten streak that lasted until he lost in the French Open semifinals to Federer. Djokovic recovered from that to beat Nadal in the Wimbledon final and again in the U.S. Open final.
He beat Nadal in all six finals in which they met in 2011, with a combination of an improved serve, some aggressive defense, a gluten-free diet and a bucket-load of confidence.
That was only enhanced when he won an exhibition tournament featuring an elite field at Abu Dhabi on New Year's Eve.
"It's very important to have high confidence coming against the top players," the Serbian said.
Djokovic won 10 titles and a record $12.6 million last year, replacing Nadal at No. 1 after Wimbledon and becoming the first player other than Federer or Nadal to finish with the top ranking since 2003. When asked if he could repeat his success in 2012, Djokovic answered with his own question: "Why not?"
"It does not make sense to be anything else than optimistic," Djokovic said. "I need to believe in my qualities, in my abilities. I need to believe I can repeat this year again."
Djokovic arrived in Melbourne 12 days ahead of the tournament but stayed out of the public eye except for some occasional tweets, including one to post the photo of himself with Serena.
Federer is also being low-key, but has practiced at Melbourne Park, where has won four championships.
He won the season-ending championship in London among his four titles last year in a signal that he can't be discounted despite coming off his first season without a major title since 2002. He said he thinks his 17th might be "just around the corner."
Nadal came to Melbourne last year as the man to beat, but his quest for a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title ended when he lost to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in the quarterfinals.
On Thursday, he breezed into a promotional event, late, in the rain outside Rod Laver Arena. He duly held the symbolic key to the tournament cars and grinned (Novak, pay attention) for photos for a few minutes before being whisked away from the assembled throng of media.
He had just enough time to look over his shoulder as he ducked into the car, reassuring everybody that the painful joint was fine.
"My shoulder is good — my shoulder is very good," he said. "I'll try my best."
An hour later he had a hitting session with Argentine veteran David Nalbandian inside Rod Laver Arena and didn't show signs of any problems.
Andy Murray is the only man in the top four who played a tournament in Australia this month, winning the Brisbane International.
He lost the last two Australian Open finals and is desperate to end a drought for British men at majors dating to 1936.
He hired eight-time major winner Ivan Lendl as a coach earlier this month to try to help achieve that breakthrough victory. He's been drawn into a potential semifinal against Djokovic.
The pressure on Murray grows with every major, but that's not what has most unnerved him the past.
"The thing is, when you step onto court in the latter stages of a Grand Slam, I'm not worried what ... any of the (critics) think," he said. "It's not them that makes you nervous. It's the chance to play for part of history is what makes it nerve-racking. That's why it's a difficult thing to deal with."
Murray isn't buying into reports of injuries hampering the preparations of his three biggest rivals.
"... Every time, it's the same guys in the semifinals and the final of a Slam," he said. "I'm not really concerned about them.
"I'm sure Roger will be absolutely fine, just like Novak was at the U.S. Open. I'm sure all of them will be fine ... they'll all be playing great tennis come Australia because that's where they plan on playing their best tennis. I'm not different from them, either. I want to play my best tennis there too."
With many of the proven players dealing with niggling injuries, the women's draw is wide open with Wozniacki — who finished a year-end No. 1 for the second time despite never winning a major — and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova among the leading contenders.
Kvitova needed to win the Sydney International to replace Wozniacki atop the rankings, but she lost to defending champion Li Na in the semifinals.
Li, who sprang to prominence with her run to the final here last year and then won the French Open to become the first Grand Slam singles winner from China, is coming out of her post-Paris slump and can't be written off as a contender.