The first grand slam of the year is quickly upon us and this year’s Australian Open has already made headline news in a different type of court.
While the matter involving Novak Djokovic still remains in the air, focus is starting to switch on the action at Melbourne Park.
Here, the PA news agency takes a look at 10 players, from the men’s and women’s game, who will be eyeing a standout tournament.
Hell hath no fury like a Djokovic scorned – but will he actually make it to the tournament to unleash his rage? With approaching two days to go until the first ball is hit, the defending champion’s name is in the draw but, by Monday he may not be in the country after his visa was cancelled for a second time due to his Covid row. A further appeal against the decision will follow and, with it comes the chance of an even more fired-up Djokovic storming to a 10th Aussie win and a 21st grand slam, but time is running out.
The Russian made big moves in 2021, winning his first grand slam title by beating Djokovic at the US Open. He is the world number two and the likeliest to dethrone the Serbian in Melbourne, with the pair on course to meet in the final, which would be a rematch of the 2021 event. He lost that final, so will have revenge on his mind and the 25-year-old’s ability to stay in points and wear opponents down will suit the conditions in the heat of the Australian summer.
Zverev is one of the top talents on the men’s tour but has been a nearly man on the grand slam scene and is still waiting for a maiden breakthrough. He was a runner-up at the US Open in 2020 but has never gone past the semi-finals in Australia. However, he won Olympic gold in Tokyo and ended the year by lifting the ATP Tour Finals for a second time so if he can carry that form over he will be a threat.
The young Spaniard was one of three teenagers – alongside Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez – to take the US Open by storm last year as he made it to the quarter-finals. It is not difficult to see who his idol was growing up and the 18-year-old’s game is a mirror image of Rafael Nadal and he has all of the weapons. Whether he yet has the physicality to prevail over a two-week tournament remains to be seen but he could definitely do some damage in the draw.
No men’s player won more than Ruud’s five ATP Tour tournaments last season as he enjoyed a memorable 2021 that saw him gatecrash the end-of-year top 10. Four of those five titles were on clay, however, but his win in San Diego shows he knows his way around a hard court as well. The 23-year-old Norwegian has never made it past the fourth round at a grand slam, but he is a good bet to do that Down Under, having started the year well in the ATP Cup.
All eyes will be on the British star after her fairytale win in New York last summer to see if she can repeat the trick, but things are very different for her now. Raducanu is no longer an underdog and she has to deal with the weight of expectation. Results since her US Open win show how far she has to go to regularly compete at the top of the game, but what we do know from Flushing Meadows is how dangerous she can be when she has momentum.
The second half of 2020 was a difficult time for the Japanese after she suffered mental health issues which saw her withdraw from the French Open and then miss Wimbledon all together. Her return at the US Open was also unhappy as she lost in the third round and then said she was taking a break from the sport. She is back in Australia, though, which is a happy hunting ground, having won two of the last three events at Melbourne Park, including in 2021. If Osaka is in a good place, then the 24-year-old is hard to look past.
Barty is the home favourite and she will be gunning for a first Australian Open crown, having already won Wimbledon and the French Open. She is the world number one and on her day is very difficult to stop, with her methodical and practical approach making her highly consistent. She will have the crowd backing her so if she can handle the weight of expectation she has a real shot at glory.
Fernandez was the beaten finalist in New York but would also have been a fitting winner. She turned 19 during the competition and showed that she has a very big future in the game. Her ‘leftie’ serve is a big weapon as well as a fearsome forehand, but she also has a great fighting desire. She will be one most players will want to avoid in the draw and will be hoping to get her 2022 off to a flying start.
The Spaniard is back to her best after the former world number one slipped out of the top 30 in 2019. Having won the French Open and Wimbledon in consecutive years, Muguruza has proved she is capable of going all the way in grand slams and after winning the WTA Tour Finals at the end of last season she will be feeling good about her game. If her big serves and powerful groundstrokes are in good working order she will be hopeful of going one better than the runners-up position she registered in 2020.
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