Rafael Nadal swept through the field last week to win a warm-up event at Melbourne Park on his competitive return to action
Melbourne (AFP) - The absence of nine-time champion Novak Djokovic, deported in humiliation after a visa saga and courtroom drama, leaves the Australian Open men’s draw wide open.
AFP Sport highlights five men to watch when the first Grand Slam of the year begins on Monday:
- Rafael Nadal -
The Djokovic debacle cannot have harmed the 35-year-old Spaniard’s chances as he strives to make history as the first man to achieve 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer to win his lone Australian Open title in 2009
Nadal battled a foot injury for much of last year, ending his season in August, then contracted Covid-19 in December, saying it left him “very sick”.
But the 13-time French Open champion swept through the field last week to win a warm-up event at Melbourne Park, and a revitalised Nadal could lift what would be only his second Australian Open trophy after his lone win in 2009.
- Daniil Medvedev -
The 25-year-old Russian won his first major at the US Open in September when he blew away Djokovic in straight sets, ending the Serb’s chance of winning a calendar Grand Slam and avenging his defeat in last year’s Australian Open final.
Daniil Medvedev on his way to victory over Felix Auger-Aliassime at the ATP Cup in Sydney last week
The world number two ended a highly successful 2021, in which he lifted four ATP titles, by winning all five of his singles matches to lead his country to a third Davis Cup triumph in December.
The ultra-consistent Medvedev won 63 matches last year, more than any other player, and has won all but one of his 13 ATP titles on hard courts.
- Alexander Zverev -
The world number three won a tour-leading six tournaments in 2021, including Tokyo Olympic gold, but still needs to rid himself of the reputation of choking at the sharp end of Grand Slams.
Alexander Zverev needs to rid himself of the reputation of choking at the sharp end of Grand Slams
Despite his prodigious talent, the German has still only reached one Grand Slam final – the US Open in 2020, where he squandered a two-set lead to Dominic Thiem.
His best performance in Australia was two years ago when he reached the semi-final, losing in four sets to Thiem.
The 24-year-old finished off 2021 by beating Medvedev to win his second ATP Tour Finals crown.
- Stefanos Tsitsipas -
The world number four burst onto the scene at the Australian Open in 2019 when as a 20-year-old he dethroned defending champion Roger Federer in the last 16.
Stefanos Tsitsipas comes into Melbourne with a question mark over his fitness following elbow surgery at the end of last season
The Greek went on to win the ATP Tour Finals at the end of that season aged 21, becoming the youngest year-end champion since Lleyton Hewitt in 2001.
One of the flag bearers for the “Next Generation” of players looking to take over from the big three, he reached his first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros last year, only to lose to Djokovic.
- Andy Murray -
A deep run in the tournament would be a fitting reward for the three-time Grand Slam champion in his first appearance at Melbourne Park for three years.
Andy Murray reached the ATP Tour final in Sydney on Saturday
The hugely popular Scot, who has reached the final five times but never managed to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, has made a remarkable comeback from a career-threatening hip injury which saw him exit the tournament in tears in 2019.
He reached his first ATP Tour final for three years in the Sydney warm-up event, losing to Russia’s Aslan Karatsev.
On the way to the final he beat world number 23 Nikoloz Basilashvili in three gruelling sets, and he faces the Georgian again in the first round on Tuesday.