Australian Open storylines to watch: Air quality could cloud on-court show

Felix-Auger-Aliassime

Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada reacts after winning a point. (Tertius Pickard/AP)

Welcome to the official start of the first tennis season of the decade.

With the release of the 2020 Australian Open main draw, a new chapter begins, as some new and unexpected storylines meet a few old and reliable fan favourites.

Here are some things to keep an eye on when the first Grand Slam of the year gets underway Sunday.

Hazy playing conditions

The biggest storyline in this year’s Australian Open isn’t on the court, but in the air.

As devastating wildfires continue to scorch large parts of the island continent, several players have spoken up about the dangerous playing conditions in Melbourne, and multiple qualifiers were forced to retire from their matches due to the smoke haze last week.

Canadians Vasek Pospisil and Brayden Schnur were among those who took the issue to social media, calling for the creation of a players’ union. Pospisil has been calling for a union since last summer’s Rogers Cup.

British player Liam Broady stated on Wednesday that qualifying players received an email from the ATP and Australian Open officials saying the conditions for last week’s matches were “playable,” what he qualified as “a slap in the face.”

Meanwhile, after being accused of not doing enough for the cause, some of the world’s most influential ATP and WTA players joined forces on Wednesday in the Rally for Relief event at Rod Laver Arena, raising roughly $3.5 million to combat the wildfires.

How tournament officials handle the bushfire issues will most likely become one of the biggest storylines over the next couple of weeks.

Fernandez takes Andreescu’s baton

With the news of Bianca Andreescu’s absence and Eugenie Bouchard’s loss in the qualifying rounds, Canada nearly saw itself devoid of a female representative at the Aussie Open singles tournament.

Enter Leylah Annie Fernandez.

The 17-year-old from Laval, Que., defeated American Danielle Lao 7-5, 7-5 to qualify for the main draw in Melbourne on Saturday.

Last year, Australia was where Andreescu started luring the spotlight to herself, which culminated in a historic year for the now-19-year-old. This year might just be Fernandez’s turn.

Canadian contingent

Representation may look thin on the women’s side, but Canada’s four spots in the men’s main draw are nothing to shrug off.

No. 13 seed Denis Shapovalov will start the tournament against No. 66 Marton Fucsovics, of Hungary, and could face Roger Federer as early as the fourth round. The 20-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., started his year with wins over two top-10 players in Alexander Zverev and Stefano Tsitsipas, before losing to Novak Djokovic at the ATP Cup.

He said there was much to draw from after the electric 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(4) loss to Djokovic in Sydney.

“I had a lot of chances to kind of go for it and win the match,” Shapovalov said. “So for me again, it’s reassurance that my game is there and then obviously I have to keep working to maintain my game and keep going forward.”

Fellow Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime hasn’t found the same success to start the year. The 19-year-old lost three of his four matches at the ATP Cup, and slipped to No. 22 in the world after reaching No. 17 last year.

But he seems to have recovered, making it all the way to the semifinals in Adelaide last week before falling to James Duckworth in straight sets.

The Montreal native will face qualifier Ernests Gulbis in the first round on Monday.

Milos Raonic enters the Aussie Open as the No. 32 seed and will face Radu Albot on Sunday.

Unseeded Pospisil has a Monday date with veteran Ivo Karlovic to kick things off.

Serena still chasing Court

On the verge of history, Serena Williams is still after an elusive 24th career Grand Slam.

And she once again has the chance to do it right in the backyard of the former player who currently holds the record for most singles majors titles among both men and women. Williams, a seven-time Australian Open champion, will try to match Margaret Court’s all-time record at Melbourne Park, where one of the courts carry the name of the Australian legend.

After a tumultuous 2019, which saw her overcome injuries and reach the final in both Wimbledon and the US Open only to fall to Simona Halep and Andreescu, the 38-year-old Williams seems poised to return to form and reach that finish line.

She won the Auckland Open last week, the same tournament that put Andreescu on the radar and propelled the Canadian to a breakout 2019.

Williams enters the Aussie Open as the No. 8 seed. Her last Grand Slam title? Melbourne, 2017.

Coco and Venus meet again

The youngest player in the main draw is set to face the oldest, as Coco Gauff and Venus Williams square up in the first round.

Now 39 years old, Williams turned pro in 1994, nearly 10 years before Gauff was born.

The first-round matchup will be somewhat of a deja vu. Only in her third Grand Slam, the 15-year-old Gauff first grabbed headlines for her victory over Williams in the 2019 Wimbledon opener.

Williams pulled out of tune-up events this month with a hip injury, but seems to have recovered in time for the major.

Whoever wins that first-rounder won’t have much time to bask in it, though. Superstars Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens await in that same quarter of the draw.

Dabrowski’s old-new partner

After three years of successful partnership with Chinese doubles specialist Yifan Xu, Gabriela Dabrowski has moved on to a familiar new pair.

In Melbourne, Dabrowski will take the court alongside Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko, with whom she played and won the 2018 Qatar Open.

Partnership musical chairs are fairly common in doubles tennis, but it might be a bumpy road ahead.

While the 27-year-old Ottawa native is mostly known for her doubles success, Ostapenko has seen more time on the singles spotlight. Ostapenko has also been dealing with personal issues, as she withdrew from the Auckland Open after the death of her father.

Dabrowski and Ostapenko played at least four tournaments as partners back in 2018, while Xu recovered from injury.

Ash Barty goes for history

No Australian woman has been crowned champion in Melbourne since 1978. None has had a better chance than Ash Barty.

The top seed will try to bring a women’s title to her homeland for the first time since Christine O’Neil beat Lesia Tsurenko. Potentially standing in her way are the defending champion Osaka, seventh-seed Petra Kvitova and Alison Riske, who beat Barty in the final 16 at Wimbledon last year.

Barty arrives in Melbourne on the heels of capturing the Adelaide tournament, one of several tune-up events for the Aussie Open.

Djokovic and Rafa’s private duel

It’s become as certain as death and taxes, but Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are at it again.

The two stalwarts arrive in Melbourne with a shot at the peak of the ATP rankings. Nadal, who finished 2019 at No. 1 and therefore is the first seed at Melbourne, will face Hugo Dellien in the first round on Monday. Djokovic, the No. 2 seed, opens the tournament against Jan-Lennard Struff.

Wozniacki’s curtain call

Caroline Wozniacki won her first and only Grand Slam title in Melbourne two years ago.

It’s only fair she chose that stage to take her final bow.

The 29-year-old Wozniacki announced in December that she will retire after the 2020 Australian Open.

A Denmark native and currently World No. 35 in the world, Wozniacki enrolled at Harvard Business School last September, and was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She says her decision has nothing to do with her health.

One final push for a repeat would be a poetic end scene for the former World No. 1.

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