✦ In the Aussie sports calendar nothing screams summer quite like the Australian Open and the 110th edition of the revered tennis tournament gets underway on January 17th at Melbourne Park.
And what drama we have had even before a ball had been served or a point earned!
Whereas it is somewhat unfortunate to start any preview piece with matters off-court, it would be remiss not do so on this occasion as the build up has been dominated by defending champion and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic embroiled in an unsavoury and messy tangle with Australian immigration officials over his personal COVID-19 status which ultimately saw the Serb denied permission to remain in country and defend his crown.
It has been widely publicised and is well known that Djokovic is against forced vaccination, having made his feelings felt on the subject on several occasions. In the lead up to the Aussie Open he refused to reveal whether he had been personally inoculated. The crunch came due to the fact that Australian border control laws stipulate vaccine as essential, with few or no exceptions made.
Dojokvic was refused entry and his visa cancelled on January 6th, leaving the star in a detention centre for several days while his legal team contested the ruling.
“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “No one is above these rules.”
Then a stunning outcome was declared when an emergency online court hearing saw the judge order that the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa “be quashed”. Many considered it as great as any victory the Serb had achieved on court as he was cleared to play and defend his crown.
However, on January 14th, Djokovic’s visa was cancelled again with Immigration Minister Alex Hawke saying he acted on “health and good order grounds on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government “is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hawke said in a statement.
Djokovic’s legal team contested the ruling one final time although the last-gasp efforts merely a day before the tournament began were ultimately to no avail after the chief justice of Australia’s Federal Court, James Allsop, denied him the chance for a visa reinstatement. The cancellation saw Djokovic effectively deported from the country and barred from a new Australian visa for three years, except under certain circumstances – as in if he decides to get vaccinated.
“I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country,” Djokovic said. “I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.”
A very convoluted affair had seemingly drawn to a close although it left a sour taste for many and there was still widespread disdain, especially from residents of Australia who have had to struggle for two years under various lockdowns, enforced restrictions and quarantines.
The decision means that Djokovic, who was the overwhelming favourite going into the tournament, will not be able to claim a record-extending 10th title at a venue where he owns an 82-8 record, nor see him break the men’s Slam record with a 21st Major crown.
Russia's Daniil Medvedev attends a practice session ahead of the 2022 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 16, 2022.
(Photo by ANDY CHEUNG / AFP)
In Djokovic’s absence look no further than World No. 2-ranked Daniil Medvedev of Russia as a potential winner. Medvedev lost to the Serb in last year’s final in Melbourne but managed to beat his rival in the final of the US Open last September in straight sets, having only dropped one set in the entire tournament. It was a particularly painful loss for Djokovic as he was seeking to become only the second man in the Open era to win all four major Grand Slams, having already bagged the Aussie, French and Wimbledon titles.
Despite his long frame, Medvedev moves brilliantly, and his ability to sit deep behind the baseline and hit flat returns like groundstrokes nullifies opponents’ serves.
Others that pose a threat include World No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany, Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece and Italy’s Jannik Sinner who, at 20-years-old, is the youngest ranked player in the World top 10, currently in 10th spot.
Then, of course, there is Spain’s Rafael Nadal who only a fool would discount. Nadal’s rivalry with Djokovic is the most prolific in men’s tennis in the Open Era. The two have faced each other 58 times, including in all four major Grand Slam finals, with Djokovic leading 30–28 overall and 15–13 in finals. The two contested the longest ever Slam final at the Aussie Open in 2012, with both men struggling to stand during the trophy presentation having played for nearly six hours.
“I wish him all the best. I really respect him, even if I don’t agree with a lot of things that he did the last couple of weeks,” Nadal said of Djokovic on the eve of the Serb’s final, and decisive, court ruling.
In the women’s competition, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty will be aiming to become the first Australian woman to win the event since Chris O’Neill in 1978. The current Wimbledon champion goes into the tournament as hot favourite with the bookmakers and is in good form having won the singles and doubles titles at the Adelaide International recently, her first tournament since the US Open last year.
“Pre-seasons are good but you never quite know where that level is until you test yourself against the very best,” the 25-year-old Queenslander told the WTA after the Adelaide competition. “It’s been really nice to have some good hit-outs this week and I feel like I’m ready.”
2022 Australian Open: Previews
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 13: Ashleigh Barty of Australia serves during a practice session ahead of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 13, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)
Barty will be buoyed by the fact that Serena Williams will not be competing in Melbourne this year and that defending champion Naomi Osaka is still working her way back to top form and fitness after a long break. Osaka is nursing an abdominal injury ahead of her title defense and had to withdraw from her semi-final at the Melbourne Summer Set 1 tournament on January 11th, saying she needed to rest ahead of the Grand Slam tournament and that her body was in shock after her first competitive game for over four months.
2022 Australian Open: Day 1
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 17: Naomi Osaka of Japan plays a backhand in her first round singles match against Camila Osorio of Colombia during day one of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia.
(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
However, there are still threats to Barty’s dream of a home win. Garbine Muguruza, who lost to Sofia Kenin in the 2020 final, is third in the world rankings behind Barty and big-hitting Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and will be looking to improve on last year when the 28-year-old Spaniard squandered two match points against Osaka at Melbourne Park in the last 16. Muguruza also won the season-ending WTA Finals in Guadalajara.
Former number one Simona Halep of Romania also comes into the tournament in good form having won the Melbourne Summer Set 1 trophy on January 9th. The 30-year-old says she feels fully fit again after struggling with calf and knee injuries in 2021, the first year she failed to win at least one tournament since 2013.
“The body is great, I feel good,” Halep told Eurosport after her win. “Physically I’m in the right place. Confidence is growing. I feel confident. I feel that I have the game to win matches.”
The big sensation in women’s tennis last year was undoubtedly Briton’s Emma Raducanu, whose emergence from seemingly nowhere saw her sweep to success at the US Open last September where she claimed 10 consecutive victories to become the first male or female qualifier ever to win a Slam title.
2022 Australian Open: Day 1
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 17: Emma Raducanu of Great Britain practices at Albert Park courts during day one of the 2022 Australian Open on January 17, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
However, the 19-year-old, who is embarking on her first full WTA Tour season, has struggled since victory at Flushing Meadows and tested positive for COVID-19 last month which saw her pull out of the Melbourne warm-up event although she is expected to be ready for the Open.
Raducanu’s opponent at that US Open final was fellow 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez from Canada who comes to Melbourne in confident mood. “I worked really hard during my preseason and I am ready to showcase it on the court,” she told People Magazine, adding that she was looking forward to having fans in the stadium, something that was absent last year which she described as “surreal”.
No doubt the fans, in the stadium and watching on TV around the world, are looking forward to a feast of tennis action as play gets underway. Expect thrills, controversy, upsets and some great action on court in both the men’s and women’s competition.
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