It’s that time of the year when the eyes of the sporting world turn their collective gaze to Melbourne. This is the 111th edition of the Australian Open and for the second year in a row, one man is grabbing most of the attention — Novak Djokovic.
But this year, it’s for an entirely different reason than in 2022.
This time last year, Djokovic was sent packing by the Federal Government for flouting this country’s COVID vaccination rules.
Fast forward to January 2023 and the controversial Serbian superstar is back in Australia. Despite being at the ripe old age of 35, he is again a raging hot favourite to win the first Grand Slam event of the year. What a difference 12 months makes.
However, after winning the Adelaide International last week, a spanner was thrown in Djokovic’s works with a hamstring concern threatening to derail his participation at his favourite event, which he has won a record nine times.
The former world No 1 cut short an exhibition match with Russia’s Daniil Medvedev during the week as a precaution and has been seen practising with his left hamstring heavily bandaged. But after getting through his exhibition match against Nick Kyrgios on Friday night, those fears have subsided to a large degree.
If he manages to play through the discomfort, he will have added motivation to become the first man to win the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup ten times, as he currently trails Spanish legend Rafael Nadal by one on the all-time major list.
Nadal has 22 Grand Slam titles to his name; Djokovic 21. The fact that Djokovic was denied the chance to add to his grand slam tally both in Melbourne and New York last year due to vaccine rules will no doubt be spurring him on to make up for lost time.
Making his job that much easier will be the absence of new world No 1 Carlos Alcaraz, who has withdrawn due to a leg injury.
But as always, there is a ravenous chasing pack nipping at Djokovic’s heels, all desperate to prevent the king of Melbourne Park from triumphing again — none more so than Medvedev.
The seventh seed has fallen at the final hurdle the last two years, losing the 2021 and 2022 finals to Djokovic and Nadal, respectively. He will be determined to add to his solitary major victory at the 2021 U.S. Open, where he denied Djokovic a coveted calendar-year Grand Slam.Then there is emerging Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas who has also been on the receiving end of Djokovic devastation when he squandered a two-set lead at the 2021 French Open final to succumb to the Serb in a five-set epic.
Could local hope Nick Kyrgios become the first Australian man since Mark Edmondson in 1976 to win the title?
The number 19 seed has been in career-best form recently, reaching back-to-back Grand Slam quarter-finals last year for the first time, including a run to the Wimbledon final, which he lost to, you guessed it, Djokovic.
You never know what to expect from the polarising but wildly entertaining Aussie. He will certainly be made to earn it, given he is on a collision course with fifth seed Andrey Rublev in the fourth round and Djokovic in the quarters.
Nadal, of course, can never be ruled out either, while the exciting crop of "next-gen" talent featuring the likes of Felix Auger-Aliassime, Jannik Sinner, Taylor Fritz and Casper Ruud is sure to shake things up.
Meanwhile, the women’s tournament will have a different look to it this year, with reigning champion Ash Barty having retired and now pregnant, former two-time champion Naomi Osaka also preparing to give birth, and the legendary Serena Williams absent, too.
Top seed Iga Świątek is the warm favourite to win her maiden Australian Open and add to the three majors she has already won since 2020, but as is always the case in the women’s game, competition for the title is wide open.
The likes of fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka, Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia, two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist Jessica Pegula, American teenage sensation Coco Gauff and second seed Ons Jabeur, fresh from back-to-back Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, are all right in the hunt for a maiden Melbourne Park triumph.
Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.
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