Column: Novak Djokovic returns to Australian Open closing in on Grand Slam record
Novak Djokovic lost the only court battle of any kind that he faced in Australia last year.
Deported from the country after three federal judges backed the Australian immigration minister’s right to revoke his visa because he’s not vaccinated against COVID-19 and admitting him might have triggered anti-vaccination sentiment, Djokovic missed an opportunity to pass Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and stand alone with the most men’s career Grand Slam singles titles.
A lot has changed in the year since Djokovic was escorted out of Australia. Most of those new circumstances work in his favor, leaving him poised to become the men’s Slam leader this year.
Graceful, balletic Federer began 2022 recovering from knee surgery; persistent knee problems led him to retire in September with 20 Slam singles titles. Gritty Nadal staged a stunning comeback from two sets down against Daniil Medvedev to win the Australian Open and, in the surest bet in sports, won his 14th French Open title and 22nd Slam singles title in June, just before his 36th birthday.
Taylor Fritz met his lofty expectations for 2022. Now the budding tennis star is looking to achieve a top-five ranking and make a major splash in 2023.
Djokovic prevailed at Wimbledon for the fourth straight time to earn his 21st Slam singles championship, but he was prohibited from entering the U.S. to compete at the U.S. Open. Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, 19, won his first Slam title at Flushing Meadows and became the youngest man ever ranked No. 1 in the world.
Australia’s decision to relax its COVID restrictions and grant Djokovic a temporary visa this year gave a significant boost to Djokovic’s quest to match the overall record of 24 Slam singles titles won by Margaret Court and the 23 won by Serena Williams in the more competitive Open Era.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, fearing protests from people who opposed Djokovic’s presence, asked fans to be respectful and warned them they’d be ejected if they booed Djokovic. Tiley need not have worried. Djokovic was greeted enthusiastically at a warmup tournament in Adelaide, where he saved a championship point in defeating rising American Sebastian Korda, and he was loudly cheered before an exhibition in Melbourne Park, where the Open will begin Sunday.
“It just feels great to be back in Australia, back in Melbourne,” said Djokovic, who’s seeded No. 4, behind Nadal, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas. “This is the court and the stadium where I created the best memories of my professional tennis career. Back in 2008 was the first time I won a Grand Slam, it was here, and 15 years later I’m here again and I’m competing at the high level.”
He’s primed to win on his favorite surface — hard courts — and in a place where he has won a record nine times. It helps him, too, that Alcaraz withdrew because of a leg injury.
Top-seeded Nadal is always a threat, even though he started the year with losses in two United Cup matches. Yet the biggest cloud on Djokovic’s immediate horizon could be the hamstring tweak he experienced in Adelaide and felt again last week before he cut short a practice session with Medvedev.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the clear favorite,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said during a media conference call. “Even if Alcaraz were in the tournament he’d be the clear favorite, but the hamstring is certainly a bit of an issue.”
Former women’s world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, an analyst for Tennis Channel, also picked Djokovic to win in Australia. “He’s obviously so comfortable moving on the hard courts. For maybe some of us that didn’t move so well, it’s so hard to watch him because he makes it look so easy, right?” she said.
“In and out of the corners, changing directions, keeping so centered, the balance. He is really one of the first tennis players to come along that is flexible like a gymnast. He is quick like a sprinter. Keeps his balance and changes direction with ease. That kind of flowing ability, that kind of balance, gives him such a huge advantage against everybody else.”
Tennis star Naomi Osaka posted ‘a little life update’ on social media Wednesday morning: She’s pregnant.
The top-seeded American men are Southern Californian Taylor Fritz, at No. 8, and Maryland native Frances Tiafoe at No. 16. It’s too much to expect either to become the first American man to capture a Slam title since Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, but both have had good results.
“I think they’re both ripe to make some noise,” McEnroe said. “So is Korda. … I think he may have the most upside, if I’m being honest, of any of the Americans. I’m not sure he’s ready to make a big, big move in a major yet, but I really like the way he’s developing right now.”
The past year has brought about some dizzying changes for the women, too. “It’s definitely a tournament of opportunity on the women’s side,” Davenport said.
Australia’s Ash Barty shockingly retired a few weeks after she won her home-country Slam last January, and she recently announced she’s pregnant. Williams, who won the last of her seven Australian Open titles in 2017 while pregnant with daughter Olympia, said last August she’s “evolving away from tennis.” She has dropped hints that she might return, but she won’t compete this year in Australia. Nor will her sister, Venus, a marvel at 42, who withdrew because of an injury.
Naomi Osaka, the 2019 and 2021 Australian Open champion, is pregnant and will sit out this year. Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian champion, also is pregnant and won’t play. Simona Halep, a former world No. 1 and two-time Slam singles winner, is serving a provisional suspension after testing positive for the performance-enhancing drug Roxadustat. Paula Badosa, seeded No. 11, withdrew because of an adductor muscle injury.
All of which leaves No. 1 seed Iga Swiatek of Poland with the most Slam singles titles (three) in the women’s field. Swiatek is favored, deservedly if not prohibitively. She was wobbly in losing to American Jessica Pegula during the United Cup, but she established herself as a force last year by reaching the semifinals in Australia, winning on clay at the French Open, and winning on hard courts at the U.S. Open.
Three American women are seeded in the top 10: Pegula at No. 3, Coco Gauff at 7, and Madison Keys at 10. Gauff, 18, reached her first Slam final at the French Open last year and reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, inching closer to the success predicted for her. She has smoothed out flaws in her game, becoming more consistent with her serve and with her forehand technique, and she earned her third career singles title with a win in Auckland, New Zealand, last week.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before she breaks through at a major,” ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez said.
Federer and Serena Williams are irreplaceable, and it’s tempting to imagine the greatness of a lengthy Barty-Swiatek rivalry. But Nadal probably has a French Open title or two left in him, Djokovic is marching toward history and new stars are emerging to replace old favorites. It’s the cycle of sports life. The more things change, the more the need for change stays the same.
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