A year ago, Novak Djokovic’s very public claim that he was heading to the 2022 Australian Open, despite being unvaccinated against Covid-19, on the basis of a medical exemption, was the first domino to fall. The drama that ensued on his arrival in Australia cast him as a villain worldwide and a poster-boy for anti-vaxxers. What was essentially a tussle between his personal, arguably selfish beliefs, and the Australian government, ended in the Serb being deported from the country on the eve of the Grand Slam. Though Djokovic is used to being a lightning rod for controversies, he saw it as a “humiliation on the global stage”.
The Serbian, and most of the tennis world, is banking on that sting to fuel his run at this year’s Australian Open, which begins on Monday, 16 January. “You can’t forget those events, it’s one of those things that stick with you,” Djokovic said on his return to Australia earlier this month. “It stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s something I’ve never experienced before and hopefully never again, but it is a valuable life experience for me.”
With Australia overturning his visa ban, Djokovic was allowed to play in the country once again. Though he made a more low-profile entry into Australia this time around, he was given a raucous reception in his first match at the Adelaide International. Having marketed the event around his comeback, the tournament drew a record crowd, with fans queueing up from seven in the morning to catch a glimpse of the 21-time Grand Slam champion. He walked out for his opening match, a doubles contest, to a full house, ringing with chants of “Novak! Novak!”.
The men who could
Djokovic wanting to right the perceived wrongs of last year may be the dominating narrative, but he is also eying Rafael Nadal’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles. Due to his vaccination status, the 35-year-old was not allowed in two of the four Grand Slams last year—the US Open being the other one. Both of these are played on his favourite hard courts. Despite the stops and starts in the season, the Serb won Wimbledon to extend his major tally to 21 titles and finished the year on a high by winning the elite ATP World Tour Finals.
Djokovic, who is bidding for a 10th Australian Open title, has built quite a momentum for the season’s first major. He has won 23 of his last 24 matches, with his only loss coming in the final of the ATP Paris Masters to teenager Holger Rune. On his return to Australia, he won the Adelaide Open by bouncing back from a match point down to defeat Sebastian Korda in the final. While Djokovic is not the No. 1 player in the world anymore, he is the best hard courter there is and arguably still the best in the world.
He will start as the favourite in Melbourne once again this year, but that’s also because his competition seems to be in disarray. World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz has pulled out of the Australian Open due to a leg injury. The Spaniard broke through the ranks in 2022 by winning the US Open and, at 19, became the youngest player to be ranked No. 1 on the ATP charts. But he picked up a freak injury during training and had to withdraw from the Grand Slam.
Uncertainty also surrounds the participation of local hope Nick Kyrgios. After years of under-performing, the maverick Australian seemed to have cracked the Grand Slam code by reaching the Wimbledon final. But Kyrgios, who plays some of his best tennis at his home Slam, pulled out of the United Cup and the warm-up event in Adelaide with an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, Nadal is still struggling to find his form since withdrawing from Wimbledon at the semi-final stage due to an abdominal injury. The Spaniard, 36, started 2022 with a 20-match winning streak. In a dramatic final, Nadal came back from two sets down to defeat Daniil Medvedev and win his first Australian Open since 2009. Despite struggling with a foot injury, he went on to win the French Open to claim the first two Grand Slams of the season for the first time in his career.
But Nadal, whose wife gave birth to their first child in October, was unable to sustain that drive in the second half of the season. After Wimbledon, when the tour shifted to the indoor hard courts, he was able to win only four of the nine matches he played. At the ATP Finals, a title that continues to elude him, he lost the first two round-robin matches, before scoring a consolation win over Casper Ruud. The 2023 season has begun much in the same vein, with Nadal losing his first two matches of the year—to Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie and Australia’s Alex de Minaur in the United Cup.
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“Honestly, I'm not too alarmed or too negative about what happened,” said Nadal, refusing to read too much into the results. “There was a real chance to lose these kinds of matches. There is room to improve. I really believe I can do it. I can't say the situation is ideal, but I can't say that it's very negative. For moments I was playing well. I arrived needing a little bit more time.”
A battery of younger players, including Paris champion Rune, Jannik Sinner, Ruud and the slightly more experienced athletes like Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has caused some of the biggest upsets in recent Australian Open history, are also preparing for Grand Slam glory. 2022 saw a seismic change in the men’s tour landscape: Big 3 definitively became the Big 2 with Roger Federer retiring. Present and future stars have injected new hope and energy. But as the tour gets ready for a post-Federer life, Nadal and Djokovic are still fighting the fading light.
A league of her own
The forever-in-flux women’s tour has a new leader. Last season, Serena Williams and 2022 Australian Open champion Ashleigh Barty retired from the sport. Venus Williams, 42, is on the wane and Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from this year’s Melbourne Grand Slam, is still finding her way through the maze of pro sport. Iga Swiatek has been quick to fill the void.
The 21-year-old won two majors last season—the French Open and the US Open. More importantly, after taking over as the World No. 1 from the retired Barty, she strung together the longest winning streak in women’s tennis in 25 years. She was unbeaten for 37 matches and 135 days. During that time, she won six titles on the trot, including her second at Roland Garros. By winning on US Open’s hard courts, Swiatek proved she could dominate on surfaces other than clay as well.
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Though a few big names are missing this Australian Open, the WTA is bubbling with exciting talent. Tunisian trickster Ons Jabeur made a breakthrough last season by reaching the finals at Wimbledon as well as US Open. She is wildly talented and wildly entertaining, and has labelled herself the ‘Minister of Happiness'. With Swiatek at the forefront and players like Jabuer, Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegulia (who played a big part in USA winning the United Cup), and Aryna Sabalenka yearning for their first major, this Australian Open may well be one of the more dramatic ones in recent times.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.