MELBOURNE, Australia — In the shadow of the country’s bushfire crisis, the best tennis players in the world have traveled to Australia for the first Grand Slam event of the decade.
There will, however, be some notable absences when the Australian Open begins on Monday. Bianca Andreescu, the 19-year-old Canadian who won the United States Open four months ago, withdrew from this tournament because of a knee injury. The former No. 1 Andy Murray, who defied his retirement announcement here a year ago and returned to the tour after a hip resurfacing operation, has been sidelined again by pelvic bruising.
The two reigning champions will be present, though, both in good form. Naomi Osaka has won 14 of her last 15 matches and had a match point in her one loss. Novak Djokovic, who is going for a record eighth men’s Australian Open singles title, has started the season at 6-0, leading Serbia to victory in the ATP Cup.
Here are some of the top stories to track at Melbourne Park over the next two weeks.
For Nadal, this could be the time to tie Federer.
When Rafael Nadal won his 19th Grand Slam title at the U. S. Open last year, he moved within one of Roger Federer’s record haul. Not since the 2004 Australian Open, when Federer won his second Grand Slam title, have the two been so close to each other.
Health permitting, Nadal will be favored to win his 13th French Open title this summer, which would put him at 20 Slams, but he should also be considered a contender in Melbourne. Though he has won here less than at any other Grand Slam event, hoisting the trophy only in 2009, Nadal has reached the final three times since, in 2014, 2017 and last year. He also emerged as the most successful player of the last decade at the other hard-court Grand Slam tournament, winning the United States Open four times.
Federer, who broke Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam men’s titles at Wimbledon in 2009, said he thought it was likely that he would ultimately be passed by both Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who sits in third place with 16, but expressed no regret at that eventuality.
“At the end, if somebody else would pass you, I mean, I guess it’s O.K.,” Federer recently told The Associated Press. “Because that’s what sports is all about: It’s a lot about numbers; it’s a lot about records. But I had my moment, and I always said everything that comes after 15 was, anyway, a bonus.”
Serena Williams is still chasing No. 24.
While Nadal has his first chance to equal Federer, Serena Williams will have an eighth chance here to tie the women’s record set by Margaret Court, who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Court played in a vastly different era of tennis, winning 13 of her titles before Grand Slam events were open to professional players, and 11 in Australia before this tournament was consistently contested by top overseas players.
Despite these apples-to-oranges disparities, Williams has set her sights on Court’s mark for years. She has been within one match of equaling it four times, losing in the finals of Wimbledon and of the U.S. Open each of the last two years, all four times in lopsided fashion. Williams won her first title in nearly three years last weekend in Auckland, New Zealand, and that may ease some of the jitters that have accompanied her into her recent Grand Slam finals.
It is not just Williams’s pursuit that will keep Court’s name in the conversation at this tournament. After Court insisted that she be feted on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of winning all four Grand Slams in 1970, she will be honored throughout this tournament. The plans have already drawn the ire of many of Court’s critics, including Martina Navratilova, who has called for Court’s name to be stripped from the arena bearing her name at Melbourne Park because of her determinedly homophobic and transphobic remarks in recent decades.
Are shifts coming in the men’s game?
Another clean sweep at the Grand Slams this year for the men’s so-called Big 3 seems possible: Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have combined to win the last 12 Grand Slam events and hold the top three spots in the ATP rankings. There has not been a first-time Grand Slam champion in men’s tennis since Marin Cilic won the 2014 U.S. Open.
There are some signs of the tide shifting: Fourth-ranked Daniil Medvedev, 23, pushed Nadal to a fifth set in the U.S. Open final in September and won two Masters titles last year. The elite year-end ATP Finals in London, which was contested by all of the Big 3, was ultimately won by Stefanos Tsitsipas, 21, who defeated Dominic Thiem for the title.
Thiem, 26, would not be considered an up-and-comer in any other era of tennis, having already competed in 24 Grand Slam tournaments. But if he can break through for his first Grand Slam title this year, it would qualify as a new look for a tour that has lacked fresh faces.
Ashleigh Barty is a big hope for the host country.
Ashleigh Barty, the reigning French Open champion, is Australia’s best chance for a homegrown singles winner since Chris O’Neil claimed the 1978 women’s title. The top-ranked Barty, a Queenslander with Indigenous ancestry, has quickly become a favorite of Australian fans, beloved for both her unassuming personality and her preternatural court craft.
If she can handle the spotlight — and perhaps a fourth-round match with Alison Riske, who beat her at Wimbledon — Barty could become the first home champion of a Grand Slam event since Sloane Stephens won the 2017 U.S. Open.
Bushfires could overshadow, and even affect, play.
Predicting contenders at this tournament has taken a back seat to forecasting the winds. When the winds have blown into the city from the east, smoke from the nearby East Gippsland bushfires has cast a pall over the city and the tournament, dusting the air and creating a haze that caused breathing problems for players who were practicing or competing in the qualifying rounds.
The tournament director, Craig Tiley, has said that play will be stopped if the air quality is too poor, but players and spectators could struggle anyway.
Tiley promised that the tournament would begin and end on time and that play would continue under the tournament’s three retractable roofs regardless. But with 254 main-draw matches to complete in singles alone, any sort of bottleneck could quickly choke the schedule.
There is extra mileage on the top men.
The top men’s players had their traditional Australian Open preparations upended by the new ATP Cup, which was held in the first 10 days of the season and pitted teams against each other based on nationality. The goal was to generate more excitement than usual this early in the tennis calendar. How players will react once they reach Melbourne is yet to be seen, particularly players like Djokovic, Nadal and ninth-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut. They all reached the final between Serbia and Spain, each playing six singles matches.
There is already one player who will miss the Australian Open because of the new event: Alex de Minaur, the top male Australian player, pushed through an abdominal injury to keep playing for his country, ultimately sustaining a tear that forced him out of the Open.