With the return of the controversial King down under, Novak Djokovic looks to stamp his authority once again on his duck-to-water Grand Slam. But can anybody stop him?
As the New Year rolls around, the long wait since the conclusion of the US Open is over, and tennis fans will once again be treated to the spectacle that is Grand Slam tennis.
The tennis Grand Slam calendar will officially begin on the 16th January, when the long list of maybe Champions step onto the sky-blue courts at Melbourne. Despite this, the undeniable favourite for the title is nine-time Champion Novak Djokovic, who hasn’t lost in Melbourne since 2018 and is an astonishing 10/11 to win his twenty-second Grand Slam.
Djokovic missed last years competition due to his refusal to take the Covid 19 vaccine, which saw him deported from the country and left the door open for his rival in the race for greatness, Rafael Nadal, to swoop in and claim his twenty-first Major title, taking him one above Djokovic at the time. Today Nadal remains one Major ahead of Djokovic, with twenty-two to Djokovic’s twenty-one. The Serbian star will be desperate to get his hands on the title yet again and level up the score between himself and Nadal.
While fans will be drooling at the mouth at the prospect of the two undeniable greats meeting in the final at Melbourne, in a match that would include stakes much higher than merely lifting the trophy, Nadal’s recent form could suggest that the reigning champ may have a tough time on his return to Melbourne.
A tough draw for Rafa
Any fans of British tennis who have been waiting for the heir to Sir Andy Murray, will have been buoyed by the talent that oozes from Jack Draper. However, such fans may have been burying their heads in their hands when the Brit was drawn against the number one seed Rafael Nadal.
Despite this, I believe that the draw is just as tough for Nadal as it is for Draper. Since his loss to Frances Tiafoe in the last 16 of the US Open, Nadal has only won one match, a consolation match against Casper Ruud, which, despite the win, still saw Nadal finish bottom of his group in the Tour Finals.
Draper on the other hand has been in decent form as of late, having a deep run to the semi-finals of the Adelaide Open, and seemingly securing his place, alongside Cam Norrie, as the future of British tennis.
Regardless of his dip in form, it is impossible to rule Nadal out completely, after all, he has made it to at least the fourth round of every Major he has played in since 2016. However, Draper will be quietly confident of causing an upset and having a deep run on his debut at Melbourne, with the draw significantly opening up in his quarter, if Nadal is to fall.
What about the other Brits?
Draper is not Britain’s only hope for a good run in Melbourne, Cam Norrie will be hoping to capitalise on the good form he has shown in the Auckland Open (having just reached the final at the time of writing). The only worry for Norrie is that he could burn out in Auckland before the tournament and find himself in a difficult quarter, with it likely that he could meet Borna Coric in the third round and Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth. Beyond that Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jannik Sinner are also in his quarter, upsets aside Norrie will have to overcome stiff opposition if he is to progress deep into the tournament.
How about Andy Murray’s chances? Well, much like with fans of Draper, fans of Murray could only laugh at the difficulty of his draw. The three-time Grand Slam champion has been drawn against the thirteenth seed Matteo Berrettini, a repeat of their third-round meeting at the US Open back in September (which Berrettini won in four sets).
Murray will have a tough time overcoming last year’s semi-finalist in his quest to win the Major he has never won, but has made the finals on five occasions. While we wish Murray the best, it looks to be a step too far against the highly favoured Italian.
Never discount a home favourite
Australia’s wait for a home champion in the men’s singles reached its 46th year in 2022. Mark Edmondson’s victory in 1976 remains the last time an Australian man won the Championship; fans will be hopeful some of the new crop can stand up to the task in this year’s tournament.
Australian fans may be encouraged by the form that Nick Kyrgios showed in last year’s Wimbledon, reaching the final before losing to Djokovic, and will hope that last year’s Australian Open doubles winner can take that form into the singles. While Kyrgios is plenty capable of having a deep run in Australia, he is in Djokovic’s quarter which speaks for itself in terms of the danger it presents.
But Kyrgios is not Australia’s only hope; his doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis has also shown good form in his home country over the last few weeks. As well as this, perhaps the most level-headed of the Australian players, Alex de Minaur also possesses a reasonable chance of reaching at least the fourth-round. Although much like Kyrgios de Minaur finds himself in Djokovic’s quarter of the draw.
Some potential matches of the Tournament
In terms of some of the matches to look out for in the early rounds, Kyrgios and Holger Rune’s potential third round meeting is one to keep an eye out for. The Dane was on good form back in November, when he had one of the most impressive runs to a tournament victory in history when he won the Paris Open. This could be another high-tempered classic, reminiscent of Kyrgios’ meeting with Tsitsipas at Wimbledon.
Beyond that, the fourth round also has some potential classics, with Tsitsipas possibly meeting Jannik Sinner and a hypothetical match between the recently revived Borna Coric and future superstar Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Who else has a shot at the title?
We have already covered the dominant nature of Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, while it is hard to look past the dominant champion if someone is to fell the King down under, who else stands the best chance of lifting the title?
Well, if you go on past performances, then two names stand out. Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Medvedev has made the last two finals of the Australian Open, losing last year’s in devastating fashion, throwing away a two sets to love lead against Nadal. He will be desperate to right that wrong this year.
Much like Medvedev, Tsitsipas’ Australian Open story has always been one of so close, yet so far. He has made the semi-finals in three of the last four iterations, twice falling to Medvedev in 2021 and 2022 and once to Nadal in 2019. Tsitsipas’ main issue has always been his temperament and on-court mentality, if he is able to get a grip on this then he could be one of the major contenders for the title.
Another name to look out for is the American number one and number eight seed, Taylor Fritz. Fritz finds himself in one of the easier quarters of the tournament, especially if Casper Ruud falls in the early rounds, and will be looking to capitalise on the form he and the American team showed in their recent victory in the United Cup.
Fritz’s big serving, big-hitting style could suit Australia to a tee, and considering his development as a player in the last year, it is not unlikely to suggest that he will proceed deep into the tournament.
Despite all this, my rather boring prediction is that Djokovic will claim his tenth title at Melbourne. The main issue that Djokovic could have may be his knee which he was having trouble with in the Adelaide Open earlier this month.
Despite this, the Australian Open will undoubtedly deliver on the thrills and spills that make Grand Slam tennis so exciting. While Djokovic seems to look immortal on the Australian blue, I guess nothing is ever certain.