By JOHN PYE
AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — It was a sweet deal. After answering an assortment of questions about his coach and his prospects for winning a fourth consecutive Australian Open title, Novak Djokovic halted his pre-tournament news conference and walked around the auditorium offering chocolates to the assembled critics.
He originally offered chocolates as a sweetener last year at Melbourne Park, as a way of apologizing because he had to skip a scheduled photo shoot for the champion.
As he opened the boxes of chocolates Sunday, he explained it as “a little tradition we started last year.”
Then he got up, walked up a flight of stairs and started offering the “chocolate delights” around, joking about diets and insisting “It’s for free, it’s for free!”
Djokovic is aiming to be the first man in the Open era to win four consecutive Australian titles, and to join Roy Emerson as the only man with five or more.
The No. 2-seeded Djokovic starts today against Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko, who is ranked No. 96. That’s a night match on Rod Laver Arena immediately preceding Serena Williams’ opener against Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty.
Much of the attention on the men leading up to the first major of the season has centered on the comeback of some past greats as coaches for leading active players. Djokovic hired Boris Becker last month, but still hasn’t had a hit with the six-time Grand Slam winner, and Roger Federer has recruited Stefan Edberg.
Djokovic denied his decision was influenced by Andy Murray’s success since teaming up with Ivan Lendl, a partnership that helped deliver Britain its first men’s major championships since 1936. He decided it was time for a chance when long-time coach Marian Vijda couldn’t commit to being on tour all year. Djokovic is on a 24-match winning streak since losing the U.S. Open final to Rafael Nadal, and concedes that any tampering with the support network is “a potential risk.”
“But I don’t want to think from that perspective. I’m excited about this partnership that I have with Boris,” he said. “All I see is positive results.”
Djokovic echoed comments from Federer and Murray about the return of past greats to the coaching ranks having a positive impact on tennis.
“Obviously, they have won so many Grand Slams between themselves, they’ve all been No. 1’s of the world, they’ve been champions, they know what we all go through in particular moments, especially in the Grand Slams,” he said. “They can identify themselves through us.”
Becker has gained weight since his playing days, and recently had surgery on his ankle that has prevented him from hitting up with Djokovic. That hasn’t stopped the young Serb from watching replays of matches from the 1980s, trying to analyze Becker’s game.
“But tennis has evolved in a way because of the technology. Now the game is based on the baseline, longer rallies and so forth,” he said. But, “I believe with his great volleys, that aggressive kind of mindset also, from that point of view he can help me.”
The heavily-loaded top half of the men’s draw, featuring No. 1-ranked Nadal, No. 4 Murray, 17-time major winner Federer and No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion who warmed up with a title at the Sydney International on the weekend, starts Tuesday.
Two-time defending women’s champion Victoria Azarenka and No. 4-ranked Maria Sharapova are on the bottom half of the draw and also get a day off today ahead of their first-round matches.
Venus Williams will be among the first players on court in the tournament. She opens the Margaret Court Arena program No. 22 Ekaterina Makarova, the Russian who upset Serena Williams in the fourth round here in 2012.
In other women’s matches Monday, two-time finalist Li Na opens against Ana Konjuh — the reigning Australian Open and U.S. Open junior champion who beat Roberta Vinci in a WTA event in New Zealand last week only four days after her 16th birthday — and 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was taking on Luksika Kamkhum of Thailand.
Serena Williams is on a 22-match winning streak and was the dominant player last year after rebounding from an upset quarterfinal loss to fellow American Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open. She won 11 titles, collected a record amount of prize money and became the oldest player to hold the No. 1 ranking.
She beat Sharapova and Azarenka on consecutive nights last week to defend her title at the Brisbane International, and Azarenka on Sunday agreed the 32-year-old American is the player to beat at Melbourne Park.
“Comparing to her last season, of course, everybody will be motivated to beat her.”