Australian Open 2018: From Novak Djokovic's return to battle for WTA No 1, reasons to watch 1st Slam of the year

The opening Grand Slam of the 2018 is just round the corner and there are plenty of reasons for you to set that alarm early for a fortnight of scintillating tennis.

Roger Federer returns to defend his title while Serena Williams will be in Florida with her baby girl. There are a host of contenders vying for the two singles crowns and the next two weeks promise plenty of drama, on and off the court.

Australian Open men's singles trophy, the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, and the women's singles trophy, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, ahead of the 2018 draw. Images courtesy:

Australian Open men's singles trophy - the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup - and the women's singles trophy - the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup - on display ahead of the 2018 draw. Images courtesy:

Here’s a look at some of the storylines that could define Australian Open 2018.

First Grand Slam of the year

The Australian Open is the perfect way to kick-start a new tennis season – unlike all the other Majors which have their fair share of warm-up events, the “Happy Slam” throws everyone into the mix right from the word go. After a brief off-season at the end of the year, players need to get into their top form immediately Down Under.

While most players prepare by taking part in at least one event in the first two weeks of the season, a few of them go into the Slam with very little match practice under their belts. With its unique position at the start of the tennis calendar, there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding the Australian Open. It never fails to serve up surprising storylines and 2018 promises to be no different.

On the comeback trail

While 2017 was all about the renaissance of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in men’s tennis, their revival was barely tested by the other members of the Big Four. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic both struggled with form and injuries in 2017 and didn’t play a competitive match after Wimbledon.

Murray recently underwent hip surgery and will be out for another six months but Djokovic returns after his hiatus at the Australian Open. The Serbian is seeded 14th and said he is feeling great after playing a few exhibition matches.

Stan Wawrinka, who won the Australian Open title in 2014, is also set to return after a long injury lay-off, and though he hasn’t played any matches yet, he is seeded ninth in the men’s draw. If they are fully fit, Djokovic and Wawrinka only add further competition and excitement to a packed field.

In the women’s side, Maria Sharapova returns to the scene of the Slam that led to her failed drug test two years ago. Former champions Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka will miss the Melbourne Major but Petra Kvitova is back after she was forced to skip it last year following career-threatening hand injuries in a home invasion.

Battle for WTA No 1

In 2017, five different players occupied the WTA top spot and it was only on the penultimate day of the season that Simona Halep clinched the year-end World No 1 ranking. At the Australian Open, the Romanian is the top seed at a Slam for the first time in her career. However, the battle for No 1 will continue over the next two weeks.

Five women – Caroline Wozniacki, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Jelena Ostapenko – have a shot at dethroning Halep and top the WTA rankings.

The women’s field has tended to be a lot more volatile over the last decade and the battle for the No 1 ranking makes the women’s draw even more interesting. From the chasing pack, only Muguruza and Ostapenkoa have Slam titles to their name while the rest are all looking for their maiden trophy.

In 2017, we saw two first-time Major-winners – Ostapenko at the French Open and Sloane Stephens at the US Open. At the Melbourne Park, that trend might continue in 2018.

History on the line

The Australian Open looks poised to be one of the most unpredictable Slams in recent memory. But for the leading favourites, there are plenty of records to chase after.

Defending champion Federer will be aiming for a record 20th men’s singles major crown, while last year’s runner-up Nadal will look to reduce the gap between him and Federer by winning his 17th Grand Slam trophy. Nadal could also become the first man in the Open Era to win each Grand Slam twice.

Six-time champion Djokovic has a shot at surpassing Roy Emerson to become the only male player with seven Australian Open titles in tennis history. Meanwhile, on the women’s side, Venus Williams would be the oldest Grand Slam champion ever if she lifts the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in two weeks’ time.

Will the real Next Gen please stand up?

Alexander Zverev clinched two ATP Masters 1000 in 2017, Grigor Dimitrov won the year-ending ATP Finals and Nick Kyrgios recently won his first title on home soil. But can they do it over seven rounds in the sweltering Melbourne sun?

The best-of-five format for the men’s matches is a gruelling challenge that none of the members of the Next Gen has yet found a way to overcome. Since the 2005 Australian Open, only three men outside the Big Four have won a Slam title – Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and Wawrinaka.

The men’s game needs one of the younger players to step up and triumph over the ever-increasing 30-plus brigade. Dimitrov managed to reach the semi-finals at Melbourne in 2017 and World No 5 Dominic Thiem has made the last-four twice on clay at Roland Garros. The Next Gen has been knocking on the door for a while, but will this year be finally when they breakthrough?

In the women’s field, there is a slew of young stars eager to snatch the baton. The unpredictable nature of the women’s sport in Serena’s absence has paved the way for anyone to catch fire over two weeks and shock their way to the title.

While Halep, Wozniacki and Muguruza are the leading favourites, there are plenty of dark horses who could cause an upset or two at Melbourne. The WTA’s capriciousness only makes it more exciting and fascinating as it’s almost impossible to predict what could happen over the two weeks.

Ostapenko, Ashleigh Barty, Daria Kasatkina, Donna Vekic, CiCi Bellis, Katerina Siniakova, Aryna Sabalenka, Naomi Osaka, Belinda Bencic – all are aged 21 or under and could easily make a deep run into week two.

Over to you, Melbourne Park, for a fortnight of the best this sport has to offer.

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Updated Date: Jan 12, 2018 09:22:11 IST

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