Bad start: on Australian Open build-up

In recent times, the season-opening Australian Open has been played against sobering backdrops. If in 2020 the unprecedented bushfires marred the build-up, in 2021 it was the turn of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions to suffocate players. Nothing however compares to the saga that unfolded for 10 long days leading into the 2022 edition, which began on Monday. World No.1 Novak Djokovic, a nine-time winner in Melbourne, had his visa cancelled and was jettisoned over his decision to remain unvaccinated. Australia’s high inoculation rates have been credited for keeping its death rate low despite an ongoing surge in cases. In such a setting, the presence of an unvaccinated star, who has also not displayed COVID-appropriate behaviour in the past, was a tough sell. With Roger Federer also absent, the main drawcard is now Rafael Nadal, the only former Australian Open men’s singles champion in the fray. The Spaniard is locked with Federer and Djokovic on 20 Majors and can take sole possession of the record for most Grand Slam men’s singles titles with his second trophy Down Under. But by his own admission, Nadal is not in Slam-winning form, though he won a tournament last week in his first competitive appearance since last August. If the 35-year-old rediscovers his mojo to erase the pain of having lost four finals in Australia, it will be an achievement befitting his storied career.

The favourites for the men’s title are thus Daniil Medvedev, the World No.2 and reigning US Open champion, and the third-ranked German Alexander Zverev, Olympic gold-medallist and the ATP Tour Finals winner last year. Closely following them are Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini and French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. The women’s field on the other hand, despite the absence of Serena Williams, boasts of incredible depth, with no less than 10 Major champions still in the draw (Sofia Kenin, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova and Sloane Stephens the ones to exit so far). Ferocious ball-strikers and consummate shot-makers abound, so do solid counter-punchers and crafty all-courters blessed with magic hands. Where men’s tennis has of late birthed a string of ‘Big Game’ players — armed with a cannonball serve and a crushing groundstroke — the women’s game has an eclectic feel, leading to suggestions that currently women’s tennis is the best tennis there is. The leaders of this pack are World No.1 Ashleigh Barty, the home favourite, and defending champion Naomi Osaka, who also wore the crown in 2019. There are also Garbine Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka and Simona Halep, all multiple Major winners with proven credentials. Closer home, Indians will again look to veteran doubles specialists Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna, as the nation goes a fourth straight Slam without a singles player in the main draw.

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Printable version | May 14, 2022 1:28:09 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/bad-start/article38288516.ece