The first grand slam of the 2020 season is due to get underway in Melbourne this weekend.
However, a cloud continues to hang over the tournament as health concerns intensify over the air quality in Melbourne following widespread bushfires in the country.
Despite the crisis which has hit the states of New South Wales and Victoria particularly hard, tournament director Craig Tiley remains adamant that the Australian Open will start and finish on time.
With this in mind, Sports Gazette spoke with Metro UK’s tennis journalist George Bellshaw to discuss some of the major on-court talking points ahead of the tournament.
Novak’s dominance down under
The overwhelming favourite for the men’s title is defending champion Novak Djokovic.
The Serb, 32, is seeded at number two, and comes into the tournament in red hot form having led his county to success in the inaugural ATP Cup earlier this month. Ominously for the rest of the men’s field, Djokovic is targeting a record eighth title in Melbourne.
Rafael Nadal, 33, and Roger Federer, 38, seeded one and three respectively, remain at the front of contenders to challenge Djokovic.
George Bellshaw: “[Nadal and Federer] are capable of winning the tournament but they’ll rely on Djokovic going out. I think he has both of their numbers on a hard court,”
“Nadal hasn’t won a hard court set against Djokovic since the 2013 US Open final. Some might point to Federer’s win over Djokovic at the ATP Finals last November, but at grand slam level there’s little evidence either of them will trouble Novak.”
Having won 55 of the last 66 majors, it is difficult to look beyond the ‘big three’ when picking a potential winner.
However, the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – no longer ‘Next Gen’ hopefuls, but proven winners – look ready to consistently challenge their esteemed peers at the major events.
GB: “The player I see as the biggest threat to Djokovic is actually Medvedev. He has developed into probably the second best hard-court player right now, particularly in Australia,”
“He’s just such a hard player to beat. They [Medvedev and Djokovic] had a really good semi-final at the ATP Cup that could have gone either way and before that Djokovic had lost his last two matches against Medvedev.
“Other than Medvedev, you’re looking at Tsitsipas as the other one who could sneak in.”
Denis Shapovalov one to avoid
The 20-year-old Canadian is the dark horse in the men’s draw.
Seeded at 13, Shapovalov is a potential opponent for one of the top seeds as early as the fourth round. His fearless style of play will present a significant problem to any one of the top players.
GB: “Denis is one of my favourite players to watch. I think he’s got that great combination of Roger and Rafa. The one-handed backhand of Roger but flipped to the left-hand side more like Rafa,”
“His jumping backhand is one of my favourite shots in the game. He’s got so much dynamism and excitement when he plays – I see him being a top 10 player pretty soon.
“He’s in good form too. He pushed Novak pretty hard at the ATP Cup, and was one of two guys to take a set off him at last year’s Australian Open.”
Andy Murray misses out having failed to recover from a pelvic injury he picked up at last November’s Davis Cup finals. Somewhat worryingly, it is the eighth grand slam of the past 10 the Scot has had to miss through injury.
In Murray’s absence, British hopes rest with 29th seed Dan Evans, Kyle Edmund and Cameron Norrie.
GB: “It’s the first time Dan has been seeded at a slam. It’s a different type of pressure now and you just never know how players react to this. When you’re a seeded player it motivates these lower ranked guys to play you,”
“For Kyle, you just don’t know who he’s going to draw early on. Kyle’s problem has come when he’s faced top ranked opposition to be honest. He’s found a little bit of form in Auckland this week, so hopefully he gets a decent enough draw.”
Home favourite Barty
Hoping to draw inspiration from the Melbourne crowd will be world number one Ashleigh Barty as she aims to become the first Australian woman to win the tournament in 42 years.
GB: “Besides her one title [2019 French Open], she’s not someone who’s traditionally done really well at grand slams. I’d have her among the top six favourites maybe, but I wouldn’t have her in my top three,”
“I think the pressure on her as she comes into her home slam as world number one for the first time is a different kind of pressure.
“She’s capable of going all the way, but there’s a lot of factors on Barty’s shoulders at this tournament that make me move away from her as an obvious choice.”
Rejuvenated Serena leading the pack
Serena Williams is the firm favourite to win the women’s title as she targets a record-equalling 24th grand slam singles title.
Since returning from maternity leave in March 2018, she has lost all four of the grand slam finals that she has reached.
However, her first trophy in three years at the recent Auckland International will have given her some much needed confidence coming to Melbourne.
GB: “I thought she was brilliant from what I saw of her in Auckland. She looked fit, she looked hungry. She’s also had this big pre-season where she trained with the likes of Coco [Gauff] and Mike Tyson,”
“You’d have to look at her as one of the top two or three favourites.”
Despite the revered presence of Serena, it would be fair to declare the women’s tournament as an incredibly open one.
For the third consecutive season, all four grand slams were won by different players last year.
GB: “There’s a lot of depth in the women’s draw, a lot of players who can be very streaky,”
“That speaks to a strength of depth, but also fewer players who have the ability to really dominate at these tournaments, aside from probably Halep, Serena and at times [defending champion] Naomi Osaka. A lot of the other players can be very up and down.”
Konta’s fitness race
Seeded 12th, Johanna Konta faces a race to be fit for the tournament as she continues to struggle with a knee issue.
However, having reached at least the quarter-finals in her last three grand slam appearances, Konta should be confident coming to Melbourne as she aims to better her semi-final run back in 2016.
GB: “The fitness is a big question. She’s been to the semi-finals in Melbourne before, so it will just depend on if she’s fit enough to compete,”
“If she’s playing anywhere close to where she was last year there’s no reason why she can’t go deep in the tournament.”
Will the tournament be affected by bushfires?
The bushfires across Australia have resulted in air quality reaching dangerous levels.
As a result, qualifying sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday were delayed, while Slovenian player Dalila Jakupovic said she felt she was going to collapse because of the “unhealthy” air as she retired from her qualifier.
However, tournament organisers are confident the event will go ahead without disruption.
“We’ve implemented additional measures to ensure the Australian Open will be able to run as scheduled,” tournament director Craig Tiley said.
GB: “It’s the repercussions you can’t see. You don’t know what sort of risks this could have in terms of the long term effects,”
“The big names will all be okay, they will play on Rod Laver [court] and under the roof. It’s no worry for them.
“At the end of the day, as important as the Australian Open is in terms of the sporting calendar, it pales into insignificance compared to keeping human beings alive.”