Australian Open is much more than Djokovic

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#2022 Australian Open, #21 Grand Slam titles, #Australian Open, #Novak Djokovic, #Novak Djokovic Australian visa, #Novak Djokovic Covid vaccine, #Tennis

Rafael Nadal at the 2021 French Open. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Nadal are all tied tantalisingly on 20 Grand Slam titles. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

For a second year in a row—or at least in the first two weeks of 2022—world tennis is all about Novak Djokovic. If 2021 was about him trying to get to a 21st Grand Slam singles title, more than any other male player ever, and a calendar Grand Slam which he lost in the final stage of the US Open, this year has highlighted his actions off-court. 

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Whether the vaccine-agnostic Djokovic plays the Australian Open or not—while the Australian government seems to be keen to throw him out of the country, the courts will decide his future—he will remain the biggest news of the event. A 10th Australian Open crown and the 21st major title would reinforce his claim as the greatest male player of all time. If he plays the tournament, he would have a chance to get to the records; if not, much of the conversation already centres around his faux pas leading up to this opportunity. 

Set him aside, and this year’s first Grand Slam event has several players to watch out for. 

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Playing on the international circuit for the first time since August, after a knee injury laid him low, Rafael Nadal last week won the Melbourne Summer Set—without dropping a set. Djokovic, Roger Federer and Nadal are all tied tantalisingly on 20 Slams, which makes this Australian Open as much of a chase for the Spaniard. Federer, who played only five tournaments last year ending with summer’s Wimbledon, will be missing in action in Melbourne along with Serena Williams and Dominic Thiem. 

Twelve of the women’s top 32 seeds have won a Grand Slam title in the past as opposed to just three among the men. US Open finalists, teenagers Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, have to prove that the dream run in New York was not a fluke. Top seed Ashleigh Barty wants to be the first Australian woman to win a title here since Christine O’Neil in 1978.

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Seldom in the last decade-and-a-half has the men’s draw been more open. With Federer’s absence and Nadal’s frequent injuries, this may be the long expected passing of the mantle to the younger generation. 

If Djokovic does play, he will be up against several odds: the loss of time due to the days he spent in detention, his mental state given the legal battles not to mention the overwhelming opposition to his behaviour leading up to the tournament. 

“Obviously his preparation is beyond bad,” his former coach Boris Becker told the BBC. “I don’t think he’s ever been in a worse position entering the week before a Grand Slam, but that’s just the way it is.” But former British No. 1 Tim Henman believes the Serbian, already used to being booed amid the audiences’ love for Federer-Nadal, will thrive in the expected hostile environment.

Hungarian player Marton Fucsovics, for example, has openly said that despite Djokovic’s rightful claim to greatness, he does not have the right to be at the Australian Open. Andy Murray, who reached his first ATP Tour final since 2019 in Sydney this week, said there are still a few questions that need to be answered by the world No. 1. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova told Australian television Djokovic should “suck it up” and return home.

Daniil Medvedev’s win at the US Open last year makes him a favourite here, but Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev are not too far behind. Nadal has won just once here, in 2009, which make his chances seem bleak, considering he is now 35. 

It’s the women’s draw that is a betting person’s delight. Last year had four different champions in each of the Grand Slams: Naomi Osaka, Barbora Krejcikova, Barty, Raducanu, and a fifth player, Garbine Muguruza, won the year-ending WTA Finals. If that’s not unpredictable enough, the US Open was won by a qualifier, Raducanu, who beat the then 73-ranked Fernandez, in one of the most exciting matchups in recent times. While the final itself was underwhelming, the prospect of two promising teens—having crushed a whole lot of established pros along their way to the final—in the last stages of a Slam came as a breath of fresh air in a virus-hit year. 

Both Raducanu and Fernandez have not really set the stage alight since then, which is not surprising. The women’s circuit is democratic, with over a dozen players having a realistic shot at the title. The draw is filled with several one-time Slam champions, like Iga Swiatek, Krejcikova, Sofia Kenin and Jelena Ostapenko. 

Further adding to the mix of unpredictability is Osaka, the mercurial defending champion. She withdrew from the semifinal of the Melbourne Summer Set 1 recently due to an abdominal injury after her body “got a shock from playing back to back matches”. No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka suffered a crushing loss to an 86-ranked player in Adelaide last week while Muguruza last won a Grand Slam in 2017. 

Simona Halep, a former No. 1 now down to 15 due to an injury-ridden year, triumphed in Melbourne last week, signalling a possible return to winning ways. She joins Barty and Muguruza as the three players in form, but that holds limited meaning in the evenly distributed field. 

As for Djokovic, the ball’s in court—not the tennis kind but the legal one. His legacy, as Osaka put it, “is kind of sad that some people might remember him in this way”.

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