The first of the four: On the 2023 Australian Open

The Australian Open is set for intense play despite the absence of a few stars

Updated - January 15, 2023 01:57 pm IST

Published - January 14, 2023 12:15 am IST

Popularly known as the ‘Happy Slam’, the Australian Open has been anything but in recent times. Unprecedented bushfires, COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and Novak Djokovic’s unsavoury deportation over his unvaccinated status marred the competition in each of the previous three years. But come Monday, as the 2023 edition of the tournament gets underway, the season’s first Major looks set to regain its free-spiritedness. So unshackled is the atmosphere that even COVID-positive players can compete, a far cry from the happenings of the last two years. It is expected that the on-court action would march in step, despite the absence of the now-retired duo of Roger Federer and Ash Barty, two-time Australian Open women’s singles champion Naomi Osaka, and the reigning men’s World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz. Djokovic’s mere presence makes him the automatic favourite, for Melbourne is to him what Paris is to Rafael Nadal. The Serb has won the event nine times, an Open Era record, and was undefeated in his last 21 matches at the site. He has also warmed up well by securing the tune-up in Adelaide after saving a match-point in the final against Sebastian Korda. Nadal — the top seed, defending champion and a men’s record 22-time Major winner — looks underprepared, but as the Spaniard proved in 2022, he is not one to be discounted.

Among women, all eyes will be on World No.1 and three-time Grand Slam champion Iga Swiatek. A disappointing loss to Jessica Pegula in the United Cup and a right shoulder injury may have affected her preparations, but the Pole is still the player to beat. Second seed Ons Jabeur, who has emerged as a solid all-court threat, will look for her maiden Slam title after finishing as runner-up at the Wimbledon and US Open last year. The championship will also be an opportunity for the next rung of players to stake claim as the stranglehold of the ‘Big Three’ (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) will only loosen going forward and the women’s game has already moved into the post-Barty, post-Serena Williams era. Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 US Open champion and a two-time finalist in Australia; Casper Ruud, runner-up at two of the four Majors in 2022; Stefanos Tsitsipas; and Felix Auger-Aliassime will all want to come good. So will the in-form American Pegula, also the third seed; Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia; Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka; and the continuously rising Coco Gauff.

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