MELBOURNE, Australia: Serena Williams definitely doesn’t want to talk about the No. 23. She doesn’t really want to think about planning a wedding, either, while she’s pursuing a Grand Slam record.
Newly engaged Williams brushed off concerns about the 88 unforced errors she had in a loss in New Zealand last week in her only warmup tournament ahead of the Australian Open, which starts Monday and where she’s aiming for Open-era record 23rd major title.
“I’ve moved on,” she said. “I’m feeling relaxed, calm, ready and poised.”
Williams responded to questions about milestone achievements last year when she had 21 Grand Slam titles, and it didn’t help ? she lost the final here to Angelique Kerber and to Garbine Muguruza at the French Open before winning Wimbledon to equal Steffi Graf’s Open era mark of 22. She’s being more superstitious this time.
“I’m not talking about that,” Williams, a six-time Australian Open winner, said as she shut down questions during a promotional activity this week. “I said I’m not talking about that. Move on.”
Another Australian title is also high on the agenda for Novak Djokovic, who already has won six. But he isn’t thinking much beyond his opening match after drawing Fernando Verdasco.
A first is the priority for Andy Murray, recently knighted in Britain after finishing 2016 at No. 1. He is looking at the draw from the top for the first time at a major and is hoping it comes with a change in fortunes at Melbourne Park. He has lost five Australian Open finals ? the first to Roger Federer in 2010, the other four to Djokovic.
Federer could again stand in his way, only at the quarterfinal stage this time. The 17-time major winner slipped down the rankings during six months off last year recovering from an injured left knee and was seeded No. 17.
Williams took time off after the U.S. Open, where she lost in the semifinals for the second year running and lost the top ranking to Kerber.
The big news during her break was her engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian last month, when she posted a poem on the news website to confirm she’d accepted his proposal.
After hitting this week with 16-year-old Destanee Aiava, who will be the first person born in the 2000s to play in the main draw of a major when she meets a qualifier in the first round, Williams said her mind was back entirely on business.
“I told (Ohanian) my main goal was to win this title,” she said. “Yeah, it really doesn’t feel like anything different.”
No date has been set for the wedding, with Williams’ mind on one major thing, so she’s not thinking about a dress or a cake, and she’s not wearing a ring to practice.
“Oh my God. I don’t think about it really,” she said, responding to questions about her marriage plans. “I’m just … I don’t know I’ll have to ask him that. I have a job ? I mean, he does too. I kinda gotta focus.”
Kerber won the Australian and U.S. Open titles last year, so will be attempting to defend a major for the first time in Melbourne. She may be feeling pressure as the No. 1 seed, having won only one match in two warmup tournaments in Brisbane and Sydney.
That doesn’t take any pressure off Williams.
“I am No. 2, I guess. I definitely don’t feel like anyone’s saying that, ‘Oh, there’s no pressure on Serena,'” she said. “It’s always there, I’m used to it.
“I feel like I’ve been No. 1 for so long, so many times. I’ve done things that are amazing. Sometimes that ranking really means a lot, but also I feel like sometimes just winning events … means just as much.”
That’s something Djokovic understands. His 122-week streak at No. 1 ended amid Murray’s incredible finish to last season, when he won Wimbledon and defended the Olympic gold medal among eight titles he won after reuniting with Ivan Lendl as coach.
Before then, Djokovic had beaten Murray in the Australian and French Open finals, his 11th and 12th major titles.
Half of those have come in Melbourne, where his victory last year equaled the record six Australian titles Roy
Emerson won (1961 and 1963-67).
“I’m feeling phenomenal,” Djokovic said after arriving in Australia following a win over Murray in his season-opening event at Doha. “Maybe this is the year ? 2017 for seven. I’m not a numerologist, but it sounds good.”
Murray jumped on a flight almost immediately after last year’s final to be with his wife, who was expecting their first child. There have been plenty of changes for him since, becoming a father for the first time, No. 1 in the world for the first time, and reuniting with Lendl.
“Each time I come, I think I’ve got a chance of winning but it’s just never happened,” he said. “Hopefully, this year will be different.
“I do think the last few months of last year can help me with giving me confidence ? other players look at that and see you’re playing well and (I) feel physically and mentally strong.”
Fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka, who ended the run of wins by Djokovic and Murray when he won the U.S. Open last September, said the next generation of players such as Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and 2014 U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori would be among the contenders for the Australian title.
But he thinks it will be difficult for any new champion to emerge against the likes of the in-form Murray and Djokovic, and the returning Federer and Rafael Nadal.
“So far, last 10 years, the ‘Big Four’ was really strong,” Wawrinka said, “so it’s going to be interesting to see this year how Novak, Andy, Rafa, and Roger will play.” -AP