The Australian Open was once considered the outcast of Grand Slam tennis. Routinely skipped over by top players and overlooked by international media, it was the one major tournament that felt very much minor-league.
But that began to change after 1986, when the event moved from December to January. Instead of being the last tournament of the year, it became the first major of the year. Any top players with aspirations to win the Grand Slam now must show up in Melbourne to get their season started.
Over time, the Australian Open – now dubbed “The Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific” – has become perhaps the most fun major tournament for players and spectators alike. It isn’t stuffy like Wimbledon and Roland Garros, or overwhelming like the U.S. Open. It’s just … cool (not literally, of course).
Though it’s played in the heat of the Australian summer, retractable roofs at Rod Laver and Hisense arenas (and beginning in 2015, also Margaret Court Arena) help mitigate the weather issue. Packed by passionate and knowledgeable fans, the atmosphere is electrifying throughout Melbourne Park, a sprawling complex on the north bank of Yarra River. It’s also the only Grand Slam event where the venue is located near the city center, where the event blends into the day and night of Australia’s cultural capital during the fortnight.
And in recent years, it’s been the site of some phenomenal tennis, setting the sport off to a roaring start each season.
Novak Djokovic’s meteoric rise to world No. 1 began at the Australian Open, where he won his first major title in the 2008 tournament. He’s returning as the three-time defending champion, having outlasted Andy Murray in 2011 and 2013. In 2012, he bested Rafael Nadal in the longest title match in tennis history, an epic five-set thriller that lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes.
It looks like it might be more of the same in 2014 for Nadal and Djokovic. After sitting out several months to recover from his injuries, Nadal finished 2013 with a flourish, defeating Djokovic in the 2013 U.S. Open final and reclaiming the No. 1 ranking.
Djokovic did get the better of Nadal in the closing indoor season of 2013, beating him twice and ending the year on a 24-match winning streak.
Book them in the Australian final, says Tim Joyce of RealClearSports.
“Who else is there to challenge them for the crown?” Joyce asked rhetorically. “Andy Murray has been AWOL, mentally and physically, since his stirring Wimbledon victory. You get a sense that, in addition to his chronic back issues, he did relax a bit after his win for all of the U.K. in July, and you could hardly blame him for feeling the joys of a massive burden being lifted from his shoulders.”
Friday’s draw appears to hold little intrigue, other than to reveal who might get in the way of an inevitable Djokovic-Nadal collision. But who will have the edge in that widely-anticipated final is anybody’s guess – such is the intensity and evolving nature of tennis’ best rivalry.
Nadal leads the all-time matchup by a slim 22-17 margin, but Djokovic leads 10-9 when the two met in the final. In Grand Slam finals, they’re tied at 3-3.
“The key to Nadal gaining the upper hand was his decision to hit his inside-out forehand, “ Joyce said, “redirecting shots back to Djokovic’s forehand, instead of following the usual cross-court pattern – a pattern that works brilliantly against other players but not against Djokovic.”
While the men’s draw points to a probable showdown between its two titans, the women’s draw likely will serve as a coronation of sorts. Serena Williams, even at the advanced age of 32, is top-ranked and dominating again. A victory in Melbourne will give her 18 Grand Slam singles titles, tying her with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for the second-most all time.
One of her likely foes might be fellow “senior citizen” Li Na, who’s coming off her best season in 2013, during which she reached the final at the Australian Open and the semifinal in the U.S. Open. Li, who will turn 32 in February, has reached at least the semifinals of the Australian Open in three of the last four years. The Chinese star was dismissed by Williams in the U.S. Open semis, and will relish another shot at her on the hard courts.
Williams made quick work of her two other potential rivals in the warm-up tournament in Brisbane last week, beating both Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova in straight sets. If she can maintain this form through the next fortnight, Serena will have only Steffi Graf in her sights as the player boasting the most Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era, with 22.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.