OPINION: Novak Djokovic’s return from injury and peculiar scheduling mean his status as favorite for Australian Open 2020 may not be warranted.
The Australian Open 2020, at least at first glance, does not seem too much different to the Grand Slams of this year.
But who is the real favorite to win the Australian Open?
The event starts from January 20, with the men’s final scheduled for February 2.
Record seven-time winner Djokovic goes in as the defending champion and at this stage is considered by many, including the bookmakers, to be favorite.
But should he really be favorite this time?
Nadal, a 19-time major winner, has won two of the last three Slams. Despite not having a great winning record at the first major of the year, he has gone on to make the final in two of the last three Australian Opens.
Federer, meanwhile, is a six-time winner in Melbourne and won the Australian Open in 2017 and 2018.
Djokovic schedule causes concern
Djokovic, the 16-time Grand Slam winner, therefore faces significant competition and it will not help that he is on a peculiar schedule in terms of his Australian Open preparation.
He will play in the Mubadala World Tennis Championship exhibition tournament which starts next week. After that, he plays the ATP Cup representing Serbia and he follows that up by appearing in the Adelaide International, which he has recently added to his calendar.
It is a strange choice of tournaments because Djokovic does not usually play in ATP 250 level events at this stage of his career. It is even more rare for him to play the week directly before a Slam.
There is no doubt that he will arrive in Australia with a lot of matches under his belt but the flip side is that his body, which like Federer and Nadal is ageing by this point, gets no valuable rest.
The Swiss star, by contrast, will not play at all before the tournament.
Fitness is a worry
Djokovic has battled a shoulder issue for the past few months. He retired mid-match in the US Open against Stan Wawrinka with the problem, which he said had bothered him for a while and would occasionally flare up without warning.
In the ATP Finals, Djokovic appeared to have hyper-extended his elbow in the match against Federer and then in the Davis Cup, he received treatment on his shoulder while Serbia were losing to Russia in the quarterfinals.
Simply put, it would be a stretch to suggest his body has had enough rest to recuperate from a draining 2019 season and he is doing the situation no favours by playing every week leading up to the first Slam of the year.
Nadal on incredible form
Add to that, Nadal has been in scintillating form going into Australian Open 2020.
He has just had his best year on Tour in terms of Grand Slam performances since 2010 and his only major losses came against fellow members of the Big 3 in Djokovic (Australian Open) and Federer (Wimbledon).
He is high on confidence following a successful comeback season in 2019 that saw him win two major titles, secure a return to the top spot in the world rankings and to cap it all off, a Davis Cup win for Spain.
Fighting fit and showing more consistent form than ever, Nadal will be motivated to win what would be just his second Australian Open title and equal Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slams before they reach the major he has dominated at Roland Garros.
Federer too showed signs of life for 2020 by beating Djokovic at the ATP Finals and has recent successes to his name in Melbourne.
Number 2 a bad omen for Novak
Djokovic is poised to enter the Australian Open as the second seed.
An interesting omen: he has never won the Australian Open from that position.
The first two of his seven triumphs came from number three, followed by five successes as the top seed.
In 2014 and 2017 he was seeded at two and did not make the last four on either occasion.
So despite his status as favorite, the various factors mentioned above mean Djokovic will need to produce a monumental effort to extend his remarkable history at this event.
With his gruelling schedule, fitness concerns and the form of chief rival Nadal, it is should not be considered the likely outcome that he will achieve that at Australian Open 2020.
This year, despite his past Melbourne triumphs, it may just prove a step too far.