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Five talking points ahead of the Australian Open

A woman walks past posters of Roger Federer of Switzerland and Serena Williams of the U.S. as Melbourne Park is prepared for the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament.

A woman walks past posters of Roger Federer of Switzerland and Serena Williams of the U.S. as Melbourne Park is prepared for the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament.

The Australian Open always throws up plenty of intrigue as the new tennis season kicks into gear.

With a number of big names returning from injury - although sadly not Andy Murray - and bragging rights very much up for grabs in the women's game, this year's tournament is shaping up nicely.

Here, Press Association Sport picks out five key talking points.

Filling Murray's boots

For the second successive grand slam, there will be no Andy Murray for British tennis fans to cheer. With the former world number one sidelined by a hip problem he has now gone under surgery for, British hopes in the singles will primarily lie with Johanna Konta. Konta has made the semi-finals and quarter-finals the last two years in Melbourne, which was the scene of her great breakthrough in 2016. Kyle Edmund is overdue a top scalp having come close many times while Heather Watson is also in the main draw. Jamie Murray will hope to add to his tally of five slam doubles titles while Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid are among the main challengers in the wheelchairs.

Walking wounded

Murray and Kei Nishikori have not made it but Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic all look set to take their places in the draw after finishing 2017 with injuries. The first three in particular would be expected to be among the big favourites for the title if fit. Neither Djokovic nor Wawrinka - who won six titles in a row in Melbourne between them from 2011 to 2016 - have played a match since Wimbledon and both have massively played down expectations. The form and fitness of Djokovic is of particular intrigue after his problems over the last 18 months. No man has won more singles titles at the Australian Open than the Serbian so it would be a fitting venue for a return to the winners' circle.

Roger that

While his big rivals ended 2017 on the treatment table, Roger Federer was able simply to recharge his batteries for the new season. At the age of 36, he looks a strong favourite to retain his title and become the first man to hit 20 grand slam singles titles. After last year's throwback season, when Federer and Nadal shared the slams between them, can the old guard continue to dominate or will new challengers emerge at last?

Number one on the line

Nadal and Federer are separated by 995 points at the top of the men's rankings, which makes it a fairly close race, yet in the women's rankings that gap covers the leading six. Four of those, including the top two Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, are still looking for their first grand slam titles. Halep and fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina head the betting but it says everything about the unpredictability of the women's game that Serena Williams was the favourite up until the moment she decided competing in a slam four months after the difficult birth of her daughter was too ambitious. At some point, a successor to the great American will emerge. Is this that moment?

Courting controversy

Tournament director Craig Tiley must have known when he invited Billie Jean King to take part in a press conference in association with the Australian Open's new equality initiative that the name Margaret Court would come up. Yet Tiley certainly seemed taken aback as King eloquently explained why she believed Court's inflammatory remarks about gay rights should result in the removal of her name from Melbourne Park's third biggest stadium. An issue that has been bubbling under was suddenly thrust back into the limelight, although there is no hint that any current players will stage a boycott of Margaret Court Arena, as King said she would have done. Tournament organisers have hidden behind the complicated ownership structure of Melbourne Park to avoid having to take a stand. They may be fortunate that today's players are not as political as their predecessors.

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