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Rising stars raring to stamp their mark

MELBOURNE • Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev, two men who arguably made the biggest steps forward last year, believe they are ready to contend for the title at the Australian Open.

Dimitrov is ranked third following his best year on Tour, winning his first Masters title in Cincinatti and lifting a career-best title at the ATP Finals in London, while Zverev is just a rung below him.

Besides world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and defending champion Roger Federer, they are considered genuine title threats when the tournament begins in Melbourne tomorrow. But Dimitrov is trying not to get ahead of himself.

"Until it's done, I don't want to have any (sixth) sense, to be honest," the Bulgarian said yesterday.

"Obviously I've achieved certain things that I've always wanted to. I always wanted to be a top-five player. I did it. I wanted to win a Masters 1000 event and I did it.

"I haven't dreamt that much about winning at the O2 (in London), but I did it."

His breakthrough 2017 began in Australia, lifting the Brisbane trophy before bowing out at Melbourne Park after an epic five-set semi-final thriller with Rafael Nadal.

  • 12

    The last 12 Australian Open men's singles titles have been won by 

    • Novak Djokovic (6) 

    • Roger Federer (4) 

    • Rafael Nadal (1) 

    • Stan Wawrinka (1)

  • 2

    Maria Sharapova (2008) and Angelique Kerber (2016) are the only two past women's singles champions at this year's tournament.

He could meet the Spaniard in the last four again this time, having taken plenty away from their last Major meeting, when he led 40-15 on Nadal's serve at 4-3 up in the deciding set.

"I think I really, really learnt a lot from it," the 26-year-old said. "There's so many bittersweet memories, but it kind of set up a great year for me."

Zverev emerged from the pack last year with his five titles, including Masters 1000 victories at Rome and Montreal. The only thing lacking from the German's list of honours is success at the Grand Slams, having only made it to the last 16 just once, at Wimbledon last year.

"Improving the Grand Slam performances is one thing (I need)," he said. "The furthest I've got was to the fourth round of Wimbledon. A lot of times not because I played bad, but because I played very good opponents. I lost to Nadal here. I lost to (Milos) Raonic in Wimbledon. Every time in five sets.

"That's nothing to worry about too much. But obviously that's one goal for me this year."

Zverev, now coached by former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, has no doubts about his ability.

"I've shown on multiple occasions over the year that I can play and beat the best guys in the world," added the 20-year-old.

"I mean, I'm No. 4 in the world for a reason. Not trying to sound cocky or anything, but I've always said that I've always been working hard physically, I'm always trying to improve the performance at the Grand Slams.

"Hopefully I can do so this week."

The last man to win his maiden Major title in Melbourne is 2014 winner Stan Wawrinka. But like six-time champion Novak Djokovic, the Swiss has been struggling with injury.

The three-time Grand Slam champion revealed that he feared his debilitating knee injury might end his career and said he had been cleared to play the Australian Open only yesterday.

"The best that I could have dreamt when I had the surgery is to be here sitting in front of you and to say, 'OK, I'm going to play the first match,'" the 32-year-old said ahead of his first-round match against unseeded Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis on Tuesday.

"That's something really good from my side."