“On a personal level, I'd much rather he didn't play!” Rafael Nadal said after Novak Djokovic was released from detention on Monday. He was joking, of course.
It came at the end of bizarre five days or so in the lead up to the first Grand Slam of the season. Last Tuesday, Djokovic had revealed that he had been given medical exemption to play at the Australian Open. As Australia stewed in indignation at this piece of news, the tennis star’s situation turned into an antagonist in a piece of political theatre. The Australian government cancelled his visa and put him into immigration detention. But a federal court overturned their decision on 10 January, thus giving Djokovic the license to defend his Australian Open title.
One might argue that spending four days in detention may not be the ideal way to prepare for a major. But Nadal knows, as does the rest of the tennis world, that Djokovic is most dangerous when cornered.
Perhaps Djokovic could have been less brazen about his disregard for Australian Open’s vaccination mandate. Maybe he needed to be more forthright about the reason for his medical exemption and the veracity of it. He was not the first star athlete to use his position of privilege, but the treatment meted out to him means he, and his very vocal fans, can legitimately play the victim. He feeds of adversity, and the Australian government laid out a buffet of reasons for him to feel wronged. It was Djokovic versus the world all over again. But bigger, and more real than any drama that has ensued on the tennis court.
“Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try to compete @AustralianOpen,” Djokovic tweeted on Monday. “I remain focused on that. I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans.”
This is not a battle he wants to lose. Not just because it will give him a 10th Australian Open title or a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title that will set him apart from his biggest rivals Nadal and Roger Federer, who have also won 20 majors each. This will be a resurrection story like no other. Even better than Djokovic fighting back from two match points down and beating Roger Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final, in front of Federer’s most adoring fans on Centre Court.
This unsavoury prelude to the 2022 Australian Open apart, Djokovic has form going in to the Slam. He has won the three past editions of the Australian Open and is the most decorated male player at the major. The World No 1, who narrowly missed out on winning a calendar Grand Slam last year, will try to reassert his dominance once again.
While Nadal will return to Grand Slam action, he may not be the biggest threat on the bright blue courts in Melbourne. The Australian Open is Nadal’s least successful Slam—his only title win came in 2009. The 35-year-old Spaniard missed out the last quarter of the 2021 season due to injury and had contracted covid-19 in December. Though Nadal won the tune-up event in Melbourne on Sunday, he didn’t meet a single player in top-50 en route the title.
The biggest challenge to Djokovic’s reign in Melbourne may come from the young brigade, namely Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev. Last year, the trio made their first real charge at the established tennis order. Tsitsipas capped his successful clay-court season by reaching the French Open final. Though he took the first two sets off Djokovic, he didn’t have the physical or mental resources to challenge the Serb over five sets.
It was Medvedev who established himself as the leading player of his generation by denying Djokovic a calendar Grand Slam at the US Open. The gangly Russian with an ungainly technique had an answer to everything Djokovic threw his way in New York. Having suffered a 5-7, 2-6, 2-6 defeat at the Serb’s hands in the Australian Open final, Medvedev turned to table to storm to a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win at the US Open. The 25-year-old Russian, who finished 2021 at No 2 in the world, excels on hard courts and will be one of the favourites to win the title in Australia.
But it was Olympic champion Zverev who believes that the change of guard has already taken place in men’s tennis. Yet to win a Grand Slam title, Zverev predicted he would be one of the leading contenders in 2022, starting with the Australian Open. “Before, there used to be always talk about Nadal, Federer and Djokovic—now the big titles were the Olympics, US Open, Turin (ATP Finals) and Wimbledon, and they were all won by Medvedev, Djokovic and me. I don't expect it to be any different next year,” he said in December. We are in for an exciting season if Zverev does indeed walk the talk.
With Serena Williams struggling for form and fitness, the women’s field is once again wide open. For the past five years, the four majors have been won by four different players. Naomi Osaka is the only player to have won two successive Grand Slams, twice: 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open and 2020 US Open and 2021 Australian Open. The 24-year-old is the best hard court player in the women’s draw, but she is still treading the water carefully.
Even though the former World No 1 started 2021 brightly, by winning the Australian Open, her season unraveled thereafter. Osaka pulled out of the French Open after she was fined and threatened with default for not attending the mandatory press conferences. The introverted athlete then sparked a conversation on mental health by admitting that she had suffered bouts of depression ever since she won her first major at the 2018 US Open. Osaka did not turn up for Wimbledon and was stunned in the third round of the US Open.
She reached the semi-final of the Australian Open warm-up event in Melbourne but pulled out due to an abdominal injury. But on arriving in Australia, the Japanese player said she is trying to enjoy the game again rather than getting caught up in results and rankings. After going down completely different routes last year, the Australian Open defending champions are back for more. While Djokovic is hoping for salvation, Osaka is looking for solace.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.