The build up to this year's Open has been about anything but the tennisSteve Collis (Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution)/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Australian Open feels like it’s been going on for around three weeks, and yet it officially starts tomorrow (17/01). The lead up to the tournament, affectionately known as the ‘Happy Slam’, has been anything but happy. The controversy and confusion surrounding Novak Djokovic and his visa situation has cast a shadow over the tennis going on all over Australia. For what is meant to be the start of the tennis season, the sport of tennis has been secondary to what has turned out to be a legal soap opera that could well impact the rest of the season. The one source of relief is that the saga has now ended: Djokovic will not be playing in the Australian Open.

Men’s preview

Djokovic has won the Australian Open nine times, the most of any male player. This preview would be very short if he were attending, as he would be the outright favourite. However, seeing as he will not be playing, this opens up the draw to the next generation of players, all of whom have been pushing him and at times beating him over the course of the past year.

The ‘Big Three’ may be a thing of the past, but men’s tennis certainly has a ‘main three’ in the form of Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, and Alexander Zverev. This trio won the biggest titles last year, with Djokovic taking three Slams, Medvedev the US Open, and Zverev the Olympics and the ATP finals. These three are ushering in a new brand of tennis, which is reliant on a secure baseline game and excellent lateral movement, resulting in breath-taking defensive tennis.

Picking between the three would be difficult but, with Novak not playing, we can look to expect a Zverev-Medvedev final, with Medvedev being the predicted winner, contrary to their most recent result that saw a Zverev victory.

“You could predict anyone in the WTA top 30 to win any given hard-court tournament, and most people wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow”

Zverev has been plagued with nerves on his second serve for almost all of his career. As one of the biggest servers in tennis, much of his game is predicated on that one shot, so at times when it fails him it tends to prove disastrous. Medvedev, however, is a much more consistent player, with a better record in pressure situations. He is the one leading the younger generation and the face of the ‘changing of the guard’.

Well, the changing of the guard has not happened quite yet. Rafael Nadal, Djokovic’s greatest rival, is in Melbourne. After spending the last three months or so recovering from a debilitating foot injury, he’s made the perfect start to his campaign down under, winning a tournament in Melbourne last week. Seeded six, his draw is particularly difficult, as it seems he will have to beat four members of the top ten in succession to lift the title – a difficult feat. But this is no reason to doubt the Spanish champion who, armed with over a decade of experience, is a dark horse for the title.

Women’s preview

You could predict anyone in the WTA top 30 to win any given hard-court tournament, and most people wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. That’s how open the women’s tour is. Since 2017, there have been 19 Grand Slams, and 11 of them have been won by first-time winners, something unheard of in the men’s tour, where in the same period only two tournaments have had champions that weren’t Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic. We could, however, argue there are two outright favourites for the tournament – Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka.

“The changing of the guard has not happened quite yet. Rafael Nadal, Djokovic’s greatest rival, is in Melbourne”

Barty, ranked number one and playing in her home slam, will be hoping to lift the title in front of an Australian crowd. The two-time Grand Slam winner fulfilled her dream of winning Wimbledon last year, and subsequently took the last four months of the year off to spend time with family and recover in Australia. She comes into this event in fine form too, having won in Adelaide in one of the warm-up tournaments. She cruised through the draw, even beating the likes of Coco Gauff and Iga Swiatek to take the title, and has had a week to rest in the lead-up to the Aussie Open.

Osaka will also be arriving in Melbourne well-rested, after deciding to step away from tennis for her mental health in September last year. Like Barty, she too played in a warm-up tournament, pulling out before the semi-final but showing great performances on that run. Osaka is ranked 14th in the world, so her path to the final will be difficult. She also finds herself in the upper eighth of the draw that contains Barty, so the pair are set to meet in the round of 16. If neither of the two make it out of that, then it would certainly be classed as a draw collapse, paving the way for other contenders such as number-two seed Aryna Sabalenka, whose successes on the tour haven’t yet translated to Grand Slam titles, or Paula Badosa, whose surprise triumphs and rise to number eight in the rankings last year have made her most people’s dark horse for this tournament.


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But let’s not forget the most recent Grand Slam Champion, the engrossing Emma Raducanu, who took the world by storm with her domination of the US Open last year. She hasn’t had the best start to 2021, getting Covid-19 in December and losing in devastating fashion to Elena Rybakina just last week. Though her chances of winning here are unlikely, it’s certainly worth keeping track of her as she garners much crowd support wherever she goes.

This Australian Open is unlikely to be remembered for what happens on the court, as the events of the weeks preceding it have eclipsed the hype for the tournament itself. Djokovic will not be playing in his favourite Slam and thus cannot cement himself as the most decorated male tennis player of all time. Will this tournament always have an asterisk? The one that didn’t have Djokovic? We’ll need another Emma Raducanu-esque story to steal the headlines for this tournament to have a true happy ending.