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. Djokovic fled the country after dominating the news cycle, and even delaying the release of the match program, in order to not compete at 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 competitors?
Djokovic’s cohort of champions, including Nadal himself, could make noise at this event. Nadal is also aiming for a record 21st Grand Slam championship to break the three way tie with Roger Federer and Djokovic. He won a small tournament held in Melbourne in week one of the season and has been able practice at full strength for less than a year after contracting the coronavirus. Nadal, seeded sixth on Monday, opens against Marcos Giron, USA.
Andy Murray, who is the only player to consistently hang with the Big Three during their primes in tennis, will also be entering the Open with confidence, having reached the final of the ATP tournament last week in Sydney.
A midtournament contest is in the works
After losing at last year’s U.S. Open, Ashleigh and Naomi Barty ended their seasons. Both looked rested and ready to go in this week’s first week. Barty, who had to complete a lengthy quarantine upon her return home, said on 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 to have the best chance of starting well here in Australia, I needed to go home and get some rest. I have absolutely no regrets.”
Barty, the top-ranked player in women’s tennis, won the 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 is embracing being the home favourite and the pressure of trying to be the first Australian woman or man in singles to win here since 1978, the longest home champion drought of any Grand Slam.
“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 to 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. Osaka was able to play well in her first tournament this month in Melbourne after she announced that she was taking an indefinite rest from tennis following her third-round loss at U.S. Open. She reached the semifinals of the event before suffering a minor abdominal injury.
Raducanu is ready for his return
Emma Raducanu was the shock 2021 U.S. Open winner who made it through qualifying and the main draw with no set loss. This season has been less fortunate. After contracting the coronavirus last month, she said, her training has been limited to “maybe six, seven” hours on court before she played her first match in Sydney last week.
It did. Raducanu was blitzed, 6-1, 6-0 by Elena Rybakina
Raducanu faces Sloane Stephens, 2017 U.S. Open champion. 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.”
Two rebounding Americans are also featured in the first round match: Sofia Kenin (11th seed), whose 2020 Australian Open title earned her WTA player of year honors. She opens against Madison Keys.
Kenin, who was plagued by injuries and family problems last year, showed promise in her run to the quarterfinals in Adelaide this month in her first tournament since Wimbledon. Keys, who had fallen to 87th in the rankings, won a tournament next week in Adelaide and rose to No. 51.
Despite the Djokovic news making it seem contrary, there are far less restrictions for vaccinated participants at the tournament than the strict hotel quarantines that hampered preparations for many athletes last year.
While the rules are being relaxed, the situation regarding the coronavirus epidemic has changed dramatically. There were only a few cases of coronavirus in Australia at one time. Today, the average number of cases is more than 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 tickets purchased will be honored.
When g’day means goodbye
Two Australian fan favorites are calling it a career at this year’s tournament. Samantha Stosur, U.S. Open champion 2011, has stated that this will be her final tournament in singles. Stosur, 37, has said she may continue to play doubles with Zhang Shuai; the two won last year’s U.S. Open.
Dylan Alcott, who won a “Golden Slam” last year in quad wheelchair singles, by winning all four majors and a Paralympic gold medal in the same year, 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.
Filming at Melbourne Park is underway thanks to cooperation between the tours as well as the four Grand Slams, who provide access to camera crews all around the tour. Though the full cast of key characters from the men’s and women’s tours is not yet known, Stefanos Tsitsipas 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 United States, matches are broadcast on ESPN and Tennis Channel. In Canada, matches will be shown on TSN.
AusOpen.com provides a complete match schedule.
Source: NY Times