The Australian Open is to Novak Djokovic what French Open is to Rafa Nadal, or Wimbledon is to Roger Federer.
The world No.1 may not have endeared himself to the tennis fraternity with his ill-advised Adria Tour during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, but the implosive Serbian will be the man to beat as he begins his pursuit of a a record-extending ninth title at Melbourne Park against Jeremy Chardy on Monday.
Djokovic claimed his 17th Grand Slam crown in last year’s gripping final, when he came back from 2-1 down to edge Austria’s Dominic Thiem in five sets. The Serbian’s eighth victory in 16 visits reinforced his dominance in Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, where he claimed his first Grand Slam title in 2008 and has won seven of the last 10 editions.
Rafael Nadal and Thiem look to be his biggest rivals at this year’s tournament, with six-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer sidelined as he recovers from double knee surgery.
The Spanish king of clay, who is at par with Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles, will meet Serbia’s Laslo Djere in his opener. It’s been over a decade since Nadal won the year’s first slam in 2009, and it could - as is the norm in men’s tennis in recent times - again be a clash of personal ambitions of these two men’s greats.
Top-ranked Ash Barty resumes her quest to become the first homegrown singles winner at the Australian Open since 1978 when the 24-year-old takes on Danka Kovinic. American Serena Williams, bidding to win a record-equalling 24th major, will meet Laura Siegemund in the opening round.
Naomi Osaka, the 2019 champion, has a series of potentially tough matches starting with a clash against former quarter-finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
The Japanese player could face Caroline Garcia and Ons Jabeur in her next two rounds before a likely match-up with either Garbine Muguruza or Angelique Kerber in the fourth round.
Second seed Simona Halep of Romania, a beaten finalist at Melbourne Park three years ago, will play wild card Lizette Cabrera while fifth-seeded Ukrainian Elina Svitolina faces Marie Bouzkova.
The Australian Open was the highlight of a mesmerising early 2020 season for Djokovic, who won his first four tournaments of the year. However, off-court, things soon unravelled for the world number one.
After tennis went into lockdown because of the pandemic, Djokovic launched the ill-fated Adria Tour in June, with no social distancing and players pictured dancing shirtless at a packed nightclub.
Djokovic and his wife Jelena were among a number of people to subsequently test positive for the virus, with Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki also falling ill. The rumblings of the incident went far and wide, with calls for him to be stripped of the position of President of ATP Players’ Council. He subsequently resigned from the post on his own in August and refused to contest in the next elections, citing ‘conflict of interest’ due to his new role in formation of the parallel players’ body, Professional Tennis Players’ Association (PTPA).
Selected first round fixtures
(Prefix denotes seeding)
MEN’S SINGLES: 1-Novak Djokovic (Serbia) v Jeremy Chardy (France) Laslo Djere (Serbia) v 2-Rafael Nadal (Spain) 3-Dominic Thiem (Austria) v Mikhail Kukushkin (Kazakhstan) Vasek Pospisil (Canada) v 4-Daniil Medvedev (Russia) 5-Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece) v Gilles Simon (France) Marcos Giron (U.S.) v 6-Alexander Zverev (Germany) 7-Andrey Rublev (Russia) v Yannick Hanfmann (Germany) Elias Ymer (Sweden) v 8-Diego Schwartzman (Argentina) Kevin Anderson (South Africa) v 9-Matteo Berrettini (Italy) 10-Gael Monfils (France) v Emil Ruusuvuori (Finland) 11-Denis Shapovalov (Canada) v Jannik Sinner (Italy) Kei Nishikori (Japan) v 15-Pablo Carreno Busta (Spain) 18-Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria) v Marin Cilic (Croatia) Frederico Ferreira Silva (Portugal) v Nick Kyrgios (Australia).
WOMEN’S SINGLES: 1-Ash Barty (Australia) v Danka Kovinic (Montenegro) Lizette Cabrera (Australia) v 2-Simona Halep (Romania) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Russia) v 3-Naomi Osaka (Japan) 4-Sofia Kenin (U.S.) v Maddison Inglis (Australia) Marie Bouzkova (Czech Republic) v 5-Elina Svitolina (Ukraine) Jasmine Paolini (Italy) v 6-Karolina Pliskova (Czech Republic) 7-Aryna Sabalenka (Belarus) v Viktoria Kuzmova (Slovakia) 8-Bianca Andreescu (Canada) v Mihaela Buzarnescu (Romania) Greet Minnen (Belgium) v 9-Petra Kvitova (Czech Republic) Laura Siegemund (Germany) v 10-Serena Williams (U.S.) 15-Iga Swiatek (Poland) v Arantxa Rus (Netherlands) Leylah Fernandez (Canada) v 18-Elise Mertens (Belgium) Kirsten Flipkens (Belgium) v Venus Williams (U.S.)