MELBOURNE, Australia — It has been an exhausting two weeks, as if a Grand Slam tennis tournament has been contested already — albeit in courts instead of on them, and with all the focus on two missed shots.
Novak Djokovic’s battle with the Australian government ended on Sunday, when a court in Melbourne denied the unvaccinated tennis star’s request to overturn the government’s decision to revoke his visa. After dominating the news cycle and even delaying release of the match schedule, Djokovic left the country, unable to compete in the Australian Open, which begins Monday.
“Australian Open is much more important than any player,” Rafael Nadal said in his pretournament news conference. “If he’s playing finally, OK. If he’s not playing, Australian Open will be great Australian Open with or without him.”
Contemporaries — and contenders?
Djokovic’s cohort of champions could make noise at this event, including Nadal himself. Nadal, who is also going for a record 21st Grand Slam title to break the three-way tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer, won a small tournament in Melbourne in the first week of the season and has been able to practice at full strength less than a month after contracting the coronavirus. Nadal, seeded sixth, opens against Marcos Giron of the United States on Monday.
Andy Murray, the only player consistently able to hang with the “Big 3” during their primes, also enters the Open with confidence after reaching the final of the ATP tournament in Sydney last week.
A mid-tournament showdown looms
Both Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka ended their seasons after losses at the United States Open last year, and both looked rested and ready in the first week of this season. Barty, who had to complete a lengthy quarantine upon her return home, said Saturday that she had made the decision to stop when she did last year for “the right reasons” for herself.
“Ultimately I felt like I’d had a fantastic year,” Barty said. “I was tired. I knew that for me to give myself the best chance to start well here in Australia was to go home and rest. I have absolutely no regrets.”
Barty, the top-ranked player in women’s tennis, won both singles and doubles titles in Adelaide in the first week of the season, positioning herself as a favorite to win her first Australian Open title. Barty has embraced being the home favorite, and the pressure that comes with trying to be the first Australian man or woman to win a singles title here since 1978, the longest such home champion drought of any Grand Slam event.
“I just have to hope that everyone understands that I’m giving it my best crack,” she said. “It doesn’t always work out exactly how you want to. But you go about it the right way, you do the right things and try and give yourself the best chance — that’s all you can do. That goes for all the other Aussies as well.”
When the draw came out, the match that was quickly circled as Barty’s toughest test in her path to the title was a potential fourth-round encounter with the defending champion Osaka, who is seeded 13th. After saying she was taking an indefinite break from tennis following her third-round loss at the U.S. Open, Osaka played well in her first tournament back this month, reaching the semifinals of a small event in Melbourne before withdrawing with a minor abdominal injury.
Raducanu readies for return
Emma Raducanu, the shock 2021 U.S. Open champion who marched through qualifying and the main draw without dropping a set, has begun this season less auspiciously. After contracting the coronavirus last month, Raducanu said her training had been limited to “maybe six, seven” hours on court before she played her first match in Sydney last week.
It showed. Raducanu was blitzed, 6-0, 6-1, by Elena Rybakina.
Raducanu has a tough test in her opening match, facing the 2017 U.S. Open champion, Sloane Stephens. Stephens, who married her longtime boyfriend, the soccer player Jozy Altidore, on New Year’s Day, also comes to the tournament without much competitive preparation.
“Obviously you don’t win a Grand Slam without being very capable,” Raducanu said Saturday, referring to Stephens. “I think it’s going to be a tough match for sure. I’m going to go out there and enjoy the match, because just playing in this Grand Slam, I had to work so hard to be here.”
Another first-round match of particular interest features two rebounding Americans: The 11th-seeded Sofia Kenin, whose 2020 Australian Open title helped her earn WTA player of the year honors that season, opens against Madison Keys.
Kenin, who struggled with injuries and family problems last season, showed promise during a run to the quarterfinals this month in Adelaide in her first tournament since Wimbledon. Keys, whose ranking had slipped to 87th, won a tournament in Adelaide the following week and rose to No. 51.
Though the Djokovic saga might make it seem otherwise, there are far fewer restrictions for vaccinated players at the tournament this year, compared to the strict hotel quarantines last year that compromised preparations for many athletes.
But while the reins loosen on players, the landscape regarding the coronavirus pandemic has shifted dramatically around them. At one time, there were only a handful of cases in the country each day; the rolling average is now over 100,000. Australia is heavily vaccinated, which has greatly reduced deaths and serious illness, but the tournament has still “paused” ticket sales at 50 percent for sessions that had not yet exceeded that amount in sales. All purchased tickets will be honored.
When g’day means goodbye
Two Australian fan favorites are calling it a career at this year’s tournament. Samantha Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, has said that this will be her last tournament in singles. Stosur, 37, has said she may continue to play doubles with her partner Zhang Shuai; the two won last year’s U.S. Open.
Dylan Alcott, who won a “Golden Slam” last year in quad wheelchair singles, will also retire. Alcott’s face is one of the most prominent in promotional posters for the tournament around the city, and the tournament plans to hold the final of his event in Rod Laver Arena.
Alcott’s odds of a happy ending seem good: He has won 15 of the 19 Grand Slam singles events he has contested in his career.
Game, set, match; lights, camera, action
Long envious of the popularity that Formula 1 racing received as a result of its Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” tennis players have expressed excitement about the start of production on their own documentary series.
With cooperation between the tours and the four Grand Slams providing access to camera crews around the tour, filming is underway at Melbourne Park. Though the full cast of key characters from the men’s and women’s tours is not yet known, Stefanos Tsitispas and the top American, Taylor Fritz, are known to be participating.
How to watch the Australian Open
With a 16-hour time difference between Melbourne and the Eastern time zone, watching the year’s first Grand Slam tournament can make for its own sporting challenge, with sleep a ferocious opponent, depending on where in the world you are watching from.
For the most part, the tournament’s day sessions begin at 7 p.m. Eastern time, with the night sessions in Melbourne beginning at 3:30 a.m. (Match times are subject to change.)
In the U.S., matches will be broadcast on ESPN and the Tennis Channel, and in Canada they will be on TSN.
The complete match schedule can be found on AusOpen.com.