After a three-week delay from its traditional start date, the Australian Open is finally underway, with the spotlight firmly on eight-time men’s champion Novak Djokovic and home favourite Ashleigh Barty.
Tournament director Craig Tiley has had the unenviable task of working alongside public health experts to manage the arrival of over 1,200 players and officials into the country on 15 charter flights and, after a strict two-week period in quarantine, the athletes have finally been able to play competitive matches in warm-up tournaments to kick-start their preparations for the event.
Djokovic will begin his campaign for a record-extending ninth Australian Open title as the top seed and most dominant player on hard courts. But the Serbian’s great rival Rafael Nadal can move to 21 Grand Slam titles and clear of Roger Federer in the all-time standings with victory at the end of the fortnight.
On the women’s side, Barty is making her return to action after opting not to play for the majority of 2020 due to concerns about travelling during the pandemic. The 24 year-old is the world No 1 and top seed but faces a tough battle to win her first Australian Open title with the likes of Naomi Osaka, Simon Halep and defending champion Sofia Kenin featuring in a highly-competitive field.
Meanwhile, 39-year-old Serena Williams will attempt to finally win a record 24th Grand Slam singles title and go level with Margaret Court.
Who are the Brits playing?
The draw threw up some winnable opening matches for the British contingent. On the women’s side, Johanna Konta starts against qualifier Kaja Juvan, but could potentially run into the dangerous US Open semi-finalist Jennifer Brady in the third round.
Francesca Jones – who made such a stir with her run through qualifying in Dubai – has drawn the experienced American Shelby Rogers, while Heather Watson should be happy to play left-handed Czech Krystina Pliskova after beating her in the opening round of last year’s Australian Open.
Finally, Katie Boulter – who showed excellent form in the Gippsland Open this week by beating the exciting teenage prospect Coco Gauff – will take on the touch play of Daria Kasatkina.
On the men’s side, the draw delivered a long shot when the only two Britons in Melbourne – Dan Evans and Cameron Norrie – wound up next to each other on the list.
What about the big names?
First up the women….
For her latest bid to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, Serena Williams was drawn in the same quarter as second-ranked Simona Halep and the same half as No. 3 Naomi Osaka, the U.S. Open champion.
Osaka will face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round and has major champions Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Venus Williams and Bianca Andreescu in her quarter.
Defending champion Sofia Kenin is in the top half of the women’s draw along with Barty, and they could potentially meet in the semifinals again. Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, Johanna Konta and Elina Svitolina are also in Kenin’s quarter.
First up for Williams will be Laura Siegemund of Germany, and that could be either Monday or Tuesday depending on how the schedule is worked out.