Australian Open 2022: No Djokovic; Osaka, Nadal return; Barty eyes another accolade

Australian Open has finally been rid of the big, bold asterisk next to nine-time champion Novak Djokovic. The attention can finally shift to tennis.

Tanuj Lakhina January 16, 2022 18:09:32 IST
Australian Open 2022: No Djokovic; Osaka, Nadal return; Barty eyes another accolade

2022 Australian Open gets underway on 17 January with defending champions Novak Djokovic sent home and Naomi Osaka playing after lengthy absence. AP

After 11 days, Novak Djokovic is back on a plane. What started as an attempt at record 21st Grand Slam is over before even a ball is hit. And with the verdict on Djokovic's visa issue out, focus can shift back to tennis, much to the relief of many who are going to compete in the first Grand Slam of the year.

Djokovic deported, title defence ends

Never before has there been an asterisk as big and as bold at a major as the one next to Djokovic's. A case which resulted in the scheduled draw to be delayed at the last minute; for the order of play to be announced as late as 4 pm on a Sunday evening, finally has a verdict. And it wasn't good news for the Serb who was asked to pack his bags and take the flight back home. The top name in the first quarter of the men's singles draw doesn't read Novak Djokovic anymore. The place initially held by the top seed, the World No 1 and a nine-time champion, including three in a row, in Melbourne has been taken by 'lucky loser' Salvatore Caruso. The second match in the evening session on Rod Laver Arena on Day 1 won't feature Djokovic but Alexander Zverev.

After three Federal judges decided unanimously to uphold the Immigration Minister's right to cancel Djokovic’s visa, it draws to a close Novak's attempt at going past Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in race for most Slams.

Djokovic's strong desire to play in Melbourne was backed by a strong record. Since 2008, he has gone on to win the Australian Open on all but five instances, including five in last seven years. His recent dominance at Grand Slam level is equally impressive. He's won four of the last seven majors and finished runner-up at two others. The only time he didn't make at least the final was the 2020 US Open where he was disqualified for mistakenly hitting a line judge in the throat.

Serena Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou believes the “biggest loser of this mess is the tournament.” While this may be true, it must be stressed that this all would have been avoided had Djokovic taken the vaccine. Alas...

Nadal back, 'happy to feel like a tennis player again'

In a normal scenario, Djokovic and Nadal in the same half of the draw would grab headlines. A potential semi-final meeting between the two with 21st Grand Slam on the line would be an easy sell for the organisers. Except this time it is not. Nadal is the only member of the Big 3 in the draw with Federer missing out due to injury. The Spaniard, winner in 2009, is also the last Australian Open champion in contention with Stan Wawrinka also missing.

Nadal warmed up for the Australian Open with a title in a tuneup tournament which is a good sign for him having recovered from COVID in late December. He played just two matches in the latter half of 2021 because of a painful left foot.

But Australian Open is Nadal's least successful Slam. Since winning 13 years ago, Rafa has been to the final four times only to be stopped at the last hurdle. At the 2017 edition, Nadal's attempt was thwarted by Federer in a five-set thriller. Two years later, Djokovic thrashed Nadal in a remarkably straightforward final.

Osaka hopes for a better year after dramatic 2021

“For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court... I’m having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could,” said the defending champion Naomi Osaka.

The four-time major winner, all on hard courts including two at Melbourne Park, had a turbulent 2021. She pulled out of the French Open after declaring she will not be doing the mandatory press conferences. Thereafter she sat out Wimbledon, then suffered a third round loss at the US Open. That defeat, eventually her last match of the year, was followed by a teary news conference where she declared she wasn't enjoying herself and needed to take a break.

At the warm up tournament, Osaka won three matches before withdrawing with an abdominal injury. She clarified that the "body got a shock" in playing so many matches after a lengthy period.

She would need to be at her best with a potential third round against Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic or Amanda Anisimova and a blockbuster fourth round versus Ashleigh Barty.

Barty hopes to end Australia's 44-year wait

Australian Open 2022 No Djokovic Osaka Nadal return Barty eyes another accolade

Ashleigh Barty begins her Australian Open against Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko. AP

Like Osaka, Barty crashed out early at the US Open in September and did not play the rest of the year, returning home to Australia because of the coronavirus pandemic.

At her home Grand Slam, Barty is a strong favourite. She sent out a warning message by winning the singles and doubles titles at the Adelaide International beating Coco Gauff, Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek and Elena Rybakina.

Top seed Barty hopes to become the first Australian woman to win the Australian Open since Chris O'Neill in 1978.

Daniil Medvedev a strong contender without Djokovic

Besides Nadal, Daniil Medvedev is another player who could benefit most with Djokovic sent home.

The Russian, who faces Henri Laaksonen in the first round, beat Djokovic in an emotionally charged US Open final last year to deny him a calendar Grand Slam.

Earlier slated to meet Djokovic in the final as the top seed in the bottom half, Medvedev has continued his strong showing on hard courts. At the ATP Cup, he beat Alex de Minaur, Matteo Berrettini and Felix Auger Aliassime while going down to Ugo Humbert.

Who is missing?

Six-time Australian Open champion Federer continues his long recovery from right knee surgery. Dominic Thiem, who lost to Djokovic in the 2020 final, is out with a right wrist injury.

Former champion Wawrinka is missing with a foot surgery and Milos Raonic will miss the Australian Open for the first time since 2011 because of an Achilles injury.

Over on the women's side, this is the first Australian Open since 1997 without either of the Williams sisters. Serena is out with a hamstring injury and Venus is absent with a leg injury.

Other absentees include last year's finalist Jennifer Brady, who has a left foot injury, Karolina Pliskova (right hand injury) and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who said she would be taking time away from the sport to address mental health concerns.

Murray is back

Three years since his most recent match at the Australian Open — when he was toasted by everyone who assumed he was about to retire — and five years since he last won a match in Melbourne, Andy Murray is back in the draw.

Murray's snap CV reads: three-time Grand Slam champion, five-time Australian Open runner-up and a 34-year-old with an artificial hip.

“I don’t know, obviously, how long I’ll be able to compete for,” Murray said.

The start to 2022 has been great. He reached his first ATP final since 2019 in Sydney, losing to Aslan Karatsev.

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