Australian Open to start in Melbourne

MELBOURNE (AFP) - Novak Djokovic will seek an unprecedented third straight title and Serena Williams is hot favourite for the women's trophy when the Australian Open gets under way in Melbourne on Monday.

Play starts at 11am (8am Singapore time) at Melbourne Park tennis complex for the year's first Grand Slam, with Djokovic in action on day one.

The Serb takes to centre court, the Rod Laver Arena, where he faces France's Paul-Henri Mathieu as he seeks to become the first man in the professional era to win the Australian Open three times in a row, with record prize money of US$2.56 million (S$3.13 million) awaiting the singles winners.

"I feel this is a point where everybody starts from the same line, so I don't really put myself in a position to have more pressure than the others have, to be honest," Djokovic said. "I've been faced with this particular kind of pressure, defending the title in major events, a few times. So I know how it feels like, what I need to do. As I said, I'm trying to keep it very simple, take it day to day, see how far I can go."

Andy Murray is considered Djokovic's biggest threat after winning his maiden Grand Slam at the US Open last year, but the Briton must battle through a difficult draw including a possible semi-final with Roger Federer.

Last year, Djokovic won a titanic final against Rafael Nadal which clocked in at 5hr 53mins, the longest Grand Slam decider in history. But Nadal is a no-show this year, extending a six-month absence through injury and illness.

In the women's draw, Williams is the clear favourite after sweeping to the Wimbledon, Olympic, US Open and WTA Championships titles last year and losing just twice since April.

Williams, tipped for the first calendar-year Grand Slam since 1988, did her best to dampen expectations before she begins her bid for a sixth Australian Open title, and 16th major win, against Edina Gallovits-Hall on Tuesday.

"Well, for me, my goal is just to do the best I can. Like I love playing. I want to be out there on centre court hopefully doing the best I can," said the American.

"I set my goals per tournament, go with it from there." Top seed Victoria Azarenka is defending a Grand Slam title for the first time and Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska is on a hot streak after winning two titles already this year.

Maria Sharapova plays fellow Russian Olga Puchkova on Monday as she starts her bid for a fifth Grand Slam title, while China's former French Open winner Li Na, the 2011 runner-up in Melbourne, is also among the top contenders.

Despite weeks of hot weather and bushfires in Australia, cool temperatures are forecast for Monday's start, with 22 deg C expected in Melbourne.