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 and bragging rights very much up for grabs in the women’s game, this year’s tournament is shaping up nicely.
Here, we pick out four key talking points.
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. The form and fitness of Djokovic is of particular intrigue after his problems of 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.
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. Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza heads 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 giving birth was too ambitious. At some point, a successor to the great American will emerge. Is this that moment?
Tournament organisers no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when Margaret Court revealed she would not be attending the event this year. Yet the debate surrounding the name of Melbourne Park’s third-largest arena is sure to hit the headlines again. Tennis has been almost universally condemnatory of Court’s anti gay marriage stance while there have been calls for a boycott of the Margaret Court Arena. Whether that comes to bear remains to be seen but the issue is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Known as the ‘Happy Slam’, this year’s Australian Open is also the comeback slam for a number of big names.
The tournament has come too early for Serena Williams, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori, but the men’s tournament will have no shortage of returning stars.
Here, we look at tennis’ walking wounded.
The world number one stayed injury free until the final stages of his brilliant 2017 campaign, when familiar knee problems returned. After pulling out of a tournament in Basel, Nadal played in the Paris Masters and ATP Finals but withdrew during both, playing just one match in London. Alarm bells rung when he then pulled out of his scheduled opening two tournaments of 2018 in Abu Dhabi and Brisbane but the signs are positive that the Spaniard should be fully fit for the Australian Open. Nadal came agonisingly close to winning a second title in Melbourne last year, losing in five sets to Roger Federer in the final.
Djokovic lost only once at the Australian Open between 2011 and last year, when he suffered a shock second-round defeat to Denis Istomin. It was the latest stumble for the former world number one but his 2017 took a more serious downward turn in the summer when, after pulling out during his Wimbledon quarter-final against Tomas Berdych, he announced he would be taking the rest of the season off to rehabilitate an ongoing elbow problem. The signs were less than positive when he suffered more pain in the elbow and withdrew from his scheduled opening tournament of 2018 in Abu Dhabi. But there has been more optimism since and how Djokovic, now ranked 14th, performs in Melbourne will be one of the most fascinating aspects of the tournament.
Another player who has not competed in a match since Wimbledon. Wawrinka reached his fifth grand slam final at the French Open but struggled with a knee problem in a first-round loss to Daniil Medvedev at SW19 and then announced he would be going under the knife. The 32-year-old Swiss, who won his first slam title in Melbourne four years ago, did not make as swift progress as he would have liked with his rehabilitation and goes into the Australian Open without having played in a warm-up event. But he has been remarkably consistent at the biggest tournaments in recent years and will hope to play himself into form.
After ending 2016 ranked third and with a first grand slam title a very realistic prospect, 2017 was pretty much a write-off for the big-serving Canadian. He could not find any momentum and, after missing the US Open with a wrist problem, was forced to cut his season short when he injured his calf in his first tournament back. Now ranked 23rd, Raonic was at least able to play his scheduled warm-up tournament in Brisbane but lost his opening match to Australian teenager Alex De Minaur. At 27, Raonic could still have plenty of time left to fulfil his potential, if his body allows.
– PA and Digital desk