The Australian Open starts on Monday, with Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka as the defending champions and 18 Australians in singles, including Ash Barty, the first local top seed in 17 years.
Peering through the smoke and haze, The New Daily‘s tennis expert Linda Pearce says prepare for more on-court fireworks as the best players in the world get into action from Monday morning.
The atmosphere – and not in a good way
Bushfire smoke is an unprecedented complication at a major where the previous climate-related issues were limited to extreme heat and, uniquely, the 2005 floods.
Look no further than the qualifying controversies for confirmation of how fraught playing tennis in such hazardous air can be, and expect some major scheduling challenges should there be a repeat.
Young Canadian Denis Shapovalov has already said he won’t risk his health, career or life, while Roger Federer was unusually defensive when responding to criticism that the senior players had not done enough for the qualifiers.
Time to take a deep breath (if you can – perhaps check the local particulate matter rating before you do. If it exceeds 200, stop immediately).
An Australian on line one of the draw
This time last year, Barty was yet to even reach even a grand slam singles quarter-final.
She returns to Melbourne Park fresh from her first home-soil title in Adelaide and as the first Australian No.1 seed since Lleyton Hewitt in 2003.
Barty may be the unassuming Vegemite kid from Ipswich, but don’t be fooled by that humble, gracious exterior, for a fierce and uncompromising competitor lurks within her small frame.
The girl-power ambassador is is highly capable of adding a new Australian name to the singles honour board for the first time since 1978.
Let the Barty party begin.
Coco and friends
What’s not new in the men’s game is the talk of the gathering forces of #NextGen bicep-flexers preparing to overthrow the long-reigning monarchs by starting to win majors.
And nor is what follows, which is that the old guard rules on.
Fellow 30-somethings Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro (both absent), Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic remain the only other active slam winners. So who can challenge the status quo?
Dual French Open finalist Dominic Thiem is at his best on clay, and Alexander Zverev is better at sledging Nick Kyrgios than winning best-of-five matches.
So, expect more progress from ATP Finals champ Stefanos Tsitsipas, Canadians Shapovalov and Felix Auger Aliassime, 2019 bolter Jannik Sinner, Italy’s new top-tenner Matteo Berrettini and the Russians (see below).
With Serena Williams’ major drought stretching to three years, there is far less predictability in the women’s game, which has been a revolving door of slam winners in the past two years. See Barty (above).
The most recent, Canadian revelation Bianca Andreescu, will be missing from Melbourne Park due to a knee injury, but teenagers such as Coco Gauff, Amanda Anisimova, Dayana Yastremska and Iga Swiatek are already making an impression.
Gauff, the tournament’s youngest player, will be seeking to reprise her Wimbledon upset of the oldest, Venus Williams, in a standout opening round.
The Russians are coming
US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev snuck into fourth spot behind The Big Three on the seedings list off the back of four wins at the ATP Cup and is John McEnroe’s pick as the gatecrasher-most-likely.
There are more Russians in the men’s top 20 (three) than any other nation, with Karen Khachanov (16) and Doha/Adelaide champion Andrey Rublev (18).
Medvedev’s exceptional showing at Flushing Meadows that won over the crowd – and, almost, Rafael Nadal in a five-set final – was one of the breakout performances of a season in which he twice beat Novak Djokovic and won four titles from a tour-high nine finals.
THE MORE THINGS STAY THE SAME …
The GOATs are back in town
The fact that the Big Three are still, rankings-wise, the top three after all this time is truly remarkable, as Federer (20 slams), Nadal (19) and Djokovic (16) extend their so-call “tri-valry” into a new decade, having shared the past 12 major titles since Wawrinka’s US Open effort in 2016.
Few would bet against Rafa sweeping a 13th Roland Garros title to potentially tie with Federer, given that seven-time Australian Open champion Djokovic is at short odds to win an eighth Norman Brookes Challenge Cup on Sunday week and further improve a phenomenal 68-8 record at Melbourne Park.
As Sports Illustrated tennis guru Jon Wertheim wrote recently, the Serb “usually wields more power in Australia than Gina Rinehart”. Hits a better backhand, too.
Rainbows, dreams and more GOATs
The handling of Margaret Court’s 50-year grand slam anniversary – it’s a recognition, not a celebration, remember – was the big news of the pre-Christmas period.
Bigger still, in a fortnight, would be Serena Williams’ achievement to tie the Australian’s all-time record of 24 singles majors after losing five finals (including four majors) in the three years since Melbourne Park hosted No.23.
With her triumph in Auckland last Sunday, the 38-year-old has now won titles across four different decades, 73 overall since 1999 and one as a mum.
Nothing more to prove, but perhaps still a little more to achieve.
Two stages down, one still to be finished in Melbourne Park’s $974 million redevelopment.
The official precinct has been extended from Birrarung Marr to Richmond station, but there is a worksite where the function centre once was with some logistical manoeuvring to be done.
Still, air quality permitting, expect another record attendance.
Only 3565 more spectators than last year are needed through the gates to crack 800,000 for the first time, and a deep run by Barty should make sure of it.
Sightings of Nick Kyrgios
The pet subject of amateur psychologists everywhere endeared himself with his bushfire charity suggestion, then impressed with his attitude during Australia’s early rounds of the ATP Cup and his recent off-court perspective, too.
It unravelled slightly against Spain in the semi-final, after which Tortured Nick admitted he can only wonder how different the past six years would have been had he competed as part of a team rather than as an individual, when “I find it hard to get up. My motivation levels are pretty low most of the time”.
When the mighty Federer spoke on the subject, it was to reiterate that the issue is not with the Kyrgios’ game, for he has shown he can beat anybody.
That includes Nadal, with the pair seeded to meet in what would be a must-watch fourth round.
AND THE WINNERS ARE …
Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.
Yes, Djokovic is my pick, but if pushed I could mount a case for a sneaky shout out to Daniil Medvedev, just for something completely different, and Karolina Pliskova.