While Novak Djokovic won’t be able to defend the crown he has won the last three years, there is no shortage of star power in Melbourne ready to take the Serb’s place on the throne, writes Ronny Lerner.
IT IS HARD to remember a more controversial lead-up to an Australian Open tennis tournament.
As of Sunday evening, the involvement of the men’s world No.1, winner of a record nine titles at Melbourne Park, 20-time grand slam winner and arguably the greatest player of all time, Novak Djokovic, was still up in the air.
The controversial Serbian superstar found himself in that predicament – and in immigration detention for a chunk of time – after entering the country unvaccinated and taking part in a media interview while knowingly infected with COVID.
He also admitted that his Australian Travel Declaration form incorrectly stated he had not travelled in the 14 days prior to arriving here – despite being in Spain – and he tested positive on 17 December despite his sworn court affidavit saying he was “tested and diagnosed” on 16 December.
Ultimately, after having his visa cancelled twice by the Federal Government (the first time due to his medical exemption – a prior COVID infection – not being valid, the second “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”) a full bench of the Federal Court denied the 34-year-old’s appeal and ruled unanimously in favour of the Government.
Approximately 17 hours before the tournament was due to begin (that’s right, there is actually some tennis planned to take place in the next fortnight), Djokovic’s fate was sealed and on Sunday night he was deported in sensational circumstances.
Unquestionably, this is one of the biggest sports stories of the past decade.
But as the saying goes, the show must go on and while Djokovic won’t be able to defend the crown he has won the last three years, there is no shortage of star power in Melbourne ready to take the Serb’s place on the throne.
For starters, look no further than Djokovic’s fellow 20-time major winner Rafael Nadal.
A twist of fate has ensured the door has been opened a little further for Nadal, who is also locked with Roger Federer on 20 grand slams, to become the men’s all-time record holder with 21 majors.
Under normal circumstances, Djokovic would have been widely viewed as a great chance to go out on his own in a fortnight’s time and claim the record for himself, but, in many respects, he has become the author of his own demise.
However, if Nadal is to clinch his second Australian Open crown – and first since 2009 – the five-time finalist is going to have to fend off a hungry, exciting, new generation of players.
Fresh from winning his maiden grand slam at the 2021 U.S. Open, and preventing Djokovic from completing a calendar-year grand slam, Russian star, and No.2 seed, Daniil Medvedev sits at the top of the list of serious threats for this year’s title.
After losing to Djokovic in last year’s final, Medvedev will have no shortage of motivation to go one better this year.
Nipping at Medvedev’s heels is Germany’s Alexander Zverev — still searching for his first major win after four grand slam semi-final appearances and a runner-up at the U.S. Open in the past two years.
Beyond those three, crowd favourite Stefanos Tsitsipas (who lost to Djokovic in last year’s French Open final), Italian duo Jannik Sinner and Matteo Berrettini, and Russian fifth seed Andrey Rublev, are right in the mix too. As is Canadian prodigy Félix Auger Aliassime who looks set for a huge 2022.
From an Australian perspective, Nick Kyrgios is sure to provide plenty of entertainment — the fact nobody ever quite knows how far the mercurial talent can go makes him compulsive viewing. His compatriots Alexei Popyrin, 32nd seed Alex De Minaur and new Adelaide International champion Thanasi Kokkinakis will be hoping to progress beyond the first week, too.
But in the women’s tournament, expectations for Australian glory are much higher. All eyes, as they always seem to do at this time of year, will turn to golden girl Ashleigh Barty.
The world No.1 and reigning Wimbledon champion will be looking to not only clinch a third grand slam title but also become the first local player to win the Australian Open since Chris O’Neil became women’s champion back in 1978.
After three consecutive trips to the quarter-finals and a final-four appearance in 2020, Barty is the red-hot favourite to finally break through in 2022.
You’d think as the top seed there wouldn’t be too many landmines on the way to the quarter-finals, but Barty actually finds herself in a very tricky part of the draw.
A potential fourth-round meeting with the tournament's second favourite and reigning champion, Naomi Osaka looms if both women win their first three matches — after the latter slipped to 14th in the world. Ordinarily, that would be a match-up you’d expect to see at the semi-final stage at a minimum.
And with the likes of two-time grand slam champions Garbiñe Muguruza and Simona Halep; recent French Open winners Barbora Krejčíková and Iga Świątek; No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka; sixth seed Anett Kontaveit and American teenage sensation Coco Gauff, all with their eyes on the prize, Barty will certainly be made to earn it if she does happen to reign supreme in Melbourne this year.
Ronny's tips: Medvedev (men), Barty (women)
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