Spare a thought for all of us suffering tennis writers, who have had to figure out how to properly preview one of the biggest tournaments in our sport in amongst the absolute chaos of the past two weeks. The year’s first major kicks off tomorrow at Melbourne Park with the 110th staging of the Australian Open, in the backdrop of one of the most headed, politicised, polarising sports stories in recent memory. We can finally confirm that men’s world number one Novak Djokovic will not be taking part and defending his Australian Open title, after an off-court saga that will no doubt be talked about for a very, very long time. However, it’s time to put the drama in the rear view and cast our attention to the men and women who will be entering Melbourne Park in search of grand slam glory.
THE MEN’S DRAW
You’d have to think back a long time, maybe all the way back to the days before Roger Federer stormed onto the scene in the early/mid 00’s, since we had a draw that is, on paper, as wide open on the men’s side as this one. However, as always, there are a handful of favourites, three in particular that stick out in the crowd; Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Rafael Nadal. Medvedev will show up as the betting favourite, fresh off of the best year of his career, one that saw him claim his maiden major title at the US Open and rise all the way to world no.2. Zverev saw both of his hard court major campaigns in 2021 ended by Djokovic, and will no doubt be confident in his ability to go all the way with the Serbian unable to halt his progress. 20-major champion and 2009 AO champion Nadal is in some ways the ultimate wildcard, as no-one has anything resembling his stunning resume, but at 35-years-old and returning from a major foot surgery, plenty of questions hover over his ability to last through two weeks of grueling BO5 tennis.
While most of the betting money will likely be laid behind one of these three men, none are anything resembling an overwhelming favourite and a number of outsiders lurk in the draw, looking to make the most of Djokovic’s rare absence. Sixth seed Matteo Berrettini might be the biggest benefactor of the week, with Djokovic’s dismissal making him the top seed in his quarter of the draw. Fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas has plenty of fond memories on Rod Laver Arena, with wins over Nadal and Roger Federer already in his AO resume. Ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime is coming off the deepest run of his short career, a semifinal berth at last year’s US Open, and looked in fine form in helping Canada to their first major team triumph at the ATP Cup earlier this month. In all honesty, I would expect most players seeded in and around the top 15 would fancy their chances of toppling a uncharacteristically vulnerable top three and going all the way.
THE WOMEN’S DRAW
The women’s tour has long been the more unpredictable of the two, exemplified by a truly wild US Open in September last year. Attention will be split among a number of prominent names, though each for quite different reasons. World number one and hometown hero Ash Barty will roll in as the women to beat, though her thus far less-than-stellar record at Melbourne Park (only one semifinal appearance in eight attempts) suggests she has plenty to prove over the next few weeks. Two-time and defending Naomi Osaka, who finds herself lined up to face Barty in the 4th round should they both progress through to that stage, faces many questions of her own after a tumultuous 2021 season, but we know what she can do on these courts if she’s in the right from of mind. A lot of eyes will be on tennis’s newest sensation, 18-year-old US Open champion Emma Raducanu, who is entering her first AO main draw with possibly unreasonably high expectations of a deep run, though those might’ve already tapered after a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing to top-15 player Elena Rybakina in Sydney earlier this week.
Last years’ ATP Finals debutants Maria Sakkari, Annett Kontaveit and Paula Badosa will all be in with a decent shout, as will established slam winners Garbine Muguruza and the returning Simona Halep. Barty will walk in as favourite, and deservedly so after the 12 months she has had, but do not be surprised to see any number of the listed names here come out on top. Such is the level of parity on the women’s tour, a tour which gave us not one, but two unseeded major champions in 2021.
Ultimately, regardless of which two players walk out of Melbourne Park with the silverware in two weeks time, it will probably be a relief for all involved in the sport; players, media, organisers and fans; to have the action on-court take center stage. Here’s hoping for a fantastic two weeks of tennis from the Happy Slam.