Australian Open storylines: Djokovic absent, Fernandez returns to Grand Slam stage

Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, reacts after defeating Naomi Osaka, of Japan, during the third round of the US Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

It’s been perhaps the most polarizing lead-up to a tennis major in the history of the sport. Unfortunately, none of it was about actual tennis.

World number one and 20-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic held a contentious battle with the government to earn legal entry into the country and compete at the Open, as he travelled under a medical exemption granted from Tennis Australia, since he is unvaccinated.

The international saga lasted nearly two weeks, as Djokovic was detained by border patrol, held in a hotel for four days, eventually released on a successful appeal, only to again see his visa cancelled by Saturday.

Despite one last-ditch effort from Djokovic’s lawyers to appeal the ruling, by the eleventh hour, he was finally deported, a decision made unilaterally by Australia’s Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke.

Djokovic doesn’t lose many matches, especially in Australia, but in this circumstance, he is out before the event has begun.

Without the nine-time champion, it is suddenly a more wide-open draw than ever in the men’s field.

In the women’s field, Ash Barty will again be taking a crack at winning her home slam, Naomi Osaka has returned, and star Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez is chomping at the bit to be competing in another major.

Here are six storylines to follow as the 2022 Australian Open from Melbourne gets underway:

Leylah and Emma return to the Grand Slam stage

The last time Leylah Annie Fernandez and Emma Raducanu were competing in a major, history was being set – by both of them.

Fernandez produced a historic run by reaching the US Open final and becoming just the fourth Canadian singles player to ever reach that stage of a major.

Meanwhile, Emma Raducanu, who was victorious, became the first qualifier in the history of the Open Era to win a major, and the first British woman to hoist a singles slam since 1977.

Understandably, expectations have risen for the two teenaged phenoms. Leylah Annie Fernandez begins her campaign Down Under against Australian wild card Maddison Inglis and could be in a fruitful position to make a run in the bottom section of the women’s field.

A possible third-round encounter could await with fellow left-hander and three-time slam champion, Angelique Kerber, while No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka is also in her quarter.

Fernandez beat both players en route to her finals run last year at Flushing Meadows.

Emma Raducanu’s draw looks more daunting. She opens against 2017 US Open champion, Sloane Stephens.


Barty and Osaka headline the women’s field

After taking a break from the sport following a third-round exit at the US Open, four-time slam champion Naomi Osaka is looking healthy, refreshed and poised to again compete for major titles.

Her ball striking from the back of the court is the marvel of almost every other player on tour, particularly on hard court.

Now, a newly-developed mindset could take her to even greater lengths in the 2022 season, after she openly struggled with mental health issues last year.

“For me, I just want to come into this tournament playing well,” said Osaka at her pre-tournament press conference.

“I think that bottom line, if I play well, I’ll be able to get far. If I happen to lose, then that’s something that I can learn on and keep practicing and hopefully evolve from that.”

Her toughest opponent could be waiting in the round of 16, which is none other than world No. 1 Ash Barty.

The 25-year-old Australian capped another tremendous 2021 campaign as the WTA Player of the Year, winning six titles including Wimbledon.

She’s opened this season in outstanding form, with a victory at the WTA500 in Adelaide, highlighted by mesmerizing points like this one:

Barty’s variety on the court poses matchup problems for just about anybody. She has the best backhand slice in the game, can find angles across the court with her punishing forehand, and has a deft touch which she can unleash at any moment in rallies.

She’s expectedly the odds-on favourite in Melbourne.

There are no guarantees in tennis though, with numerous top players vying for a slam title. Watch for Spaniards Garbine Muguruza and Paula Badosa to potentially charge towards the final rounds, while seventh-ranked Anett Kontaveit also arrives as one of the hottest players on the WTA over the last four months.

Felix and Denis look to build off ATP Cup title

It was a dream start to the season for Canadian men’s tennis.

Donning the red and white, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov both represented Canada at the ATP Cup from Sydney and came away with a big international title for the country.

Canada toppled fellow top tennis nations Germany, Great Britain, and Russia before overcoming Spain in the final to hoist its first-ever ATP Cup.

It was Denis and Felix who did all of the leg work.

Shapovalov went 3-1 in singles at the event, capped by a confident 6-4, 6-3 win over world No. 20 Pablo Carreno Busta.

Meantime, Felix Auger-Aliassime was 3-2, with all three victories coming over Top 20 players. He scored an impressive 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over the world No. 3, Alexander Zverev, and sealed Canada’s title with a 7-6, 6-3 win over Spanish veteran Roberto Bautista Agut.

The ATP Cup performance has him back inside the top 10 of the rankings, and he enters the Australian Open seeded ninth.

Auger-Aliassime opens his tournament Monday against Finland’s Emil Ruusuvuori, and with his current form, has a great opportunity to push towards the quarterfinals, before potentially encountering world no. two Daniil Medvedev.

Shapovalov, ranked 14th, has enough firepower to beat absolutely anybody on tour but could have a major obstacle by the Round of 16 if he lines up to face Alexander Zverev.

Nadal’s best chance?

The 2022 Australian Open marks the first time in his career that Rafael Nadal will compete in a major without the presence of one of Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. Talk about an opportunity.

Melbourne has been the unkindest slam to Nadal in his career. He won his lone title Down Under back in 2009, and despite a rash of opportunities, has not been able to hoist a winners’ trophy since.

He finished runner-up in 2012, 2014, 2017, and 2019, and last year fell in the quarterfinals to Stefanos Tsitsipas.

There are still question marks surrounding Nadal’s health – the 35-year-old was forced to shut down his 2021 season due to a nagging foot injury, missing Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the US Open.

The positive sign is he began this year by capturing his 89th career title, winning the ATP 250 Melbourne Summer Set.

Competition gets much stiffer now, as he’ll have to navigate a challenging draw that features potential threats like Hubert Hurkacz, Karen Khachanov and Aslan Karatsev, while a quarterfinals showdown with world No. 3 Alexander Zverev could be looming.

Still, without his greatest rival Novak Djokovic in the event, Nadal is unquestionably a contender to hoist a record 21st slam in two weeks’ time.

Is Daniil the man to beat?

With Novak Djokovic out, the highest-ranked player in the field is last year’s finalist, Daniil Medvedev.

He’s also one of the most complete hard-court players on tour. Medvedev thwarted Djokovic’s effort at a career Grand Slam last season, defeating him at the US Open to win his maiden major title.

It was one of four titles on the season for the Russian they appropriately call ‘The Octopus’ for his obscene court coverage as his ridiculously long arms help to retrieve tennis balls no human is supposed to track down.

It’s not just the movement that makes Medvedev one of the most challenging men’s players in the game – he has an enormous serve that garners him free points, an elite level two-handed backhand and an unflinching consistency from the back of the court.

It will take a monumental effort from someone on the bottom half of the men’s draw to stop him from reaching the finals.

American women on a hot streak

The last American woman to win a singles Grand Slam was surprise winner Sofia Kenin, who broke through with a title in Melbourne just two seasons ago.

Now, despite seven-time Aussie Open champion Serena Williams missing in action this fortnight, there are a handful of Americans who could make a run of their own and push for a first career slam in Australia.

The 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys arrives at Melbourne unseeded, but just notched her first WTA title in over two years, winning the Adelaide International.

Talented 20-year-old American Amanda Anisimova is also high on confidence as she hits the courts in Melbourne after opening her 2022 season with a title at the Gippsland Trophy.

Danielle Collins is a former semi-finalist in Australia, reaching the final four in 2019, and made a return to the top 30 last year.

But it’s 17-year-old Coco Gauff who may be the most talented of the bunch. Gauff’s 2021 campaign saw her break inside the top 20, capture her second career singles title and reach the quarterfinals of the French Open. She is one of the most formidable athletes on the WTA already, and her lateral movement is a source of frustration for anyone she’ll match up against.

It feels like only a matter of time before they are etching her name onto a major singles trophy.

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