Fact: only in three of 24 Grand Slams since 2004 have we had a male champion other than Djokovic, Nadal or Federer. Conversely, the women’s game has seen 12 different winners over the past decade. At this year’s Australian Open, the pattern is set to continue.
Indeed, we can expect a grand spectacle and digest all the delights that come with it- but, deep in our hearts, we know the outcomes already. Though, of course, this won’t deter us from what will invariably be another memorable Grand Slam.
Looking at the men’s draw, the oligopolistic dominance of the top three seeds is virtually guaranteed to remain unsurpassed. And within this elite group, one must look no further than the powerfully driven, lion-resembling beast that is Novak Djokovic, having won three of the last four Grand Slams. After losing the 2009 US Open final, Djokovic transformed his mental approach to the game. He hasn’t looked back since. The Serb improved his service game dramatically, whilst developing a return of serve that is now the undisputed best of its kind on the tour. The top seed is undoubtedly the favourite. For him not to conquer Australia once again would provide a shock of at least 8.9 on the Richter scale.
Nonetheless, if Djokovic were somehow to miss out on the title, the arena would be open to two of the sport’s greatest gladiators: second and third seeds, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It will take something special for either man to dethrone Djokovic after spending so much of last season in his shadow. Yet, at their best, both are capable of doing so, or at least pushing the Serb to his absolute limit. After confessing to have lost some of his passion for the game last year, Nadal is now playing with more verve and confidence. He is pleased with his current return of serve- a key reason for defeats at crucial stages last season. Federer, on the other hand, may be held back by fitness worries; the 30-year old is unbeaten in 15 matches but is harbouring a back injury.
Now, being in Britain, it is almost by law that I am obliged to champion our own lion resembling beast (albeit a substantially less well-groomed one), Andy Murray. I’ll keep it brief: Murray is extremely unlikely to win this year’s Australian Open, despite the Scot reaching the last two finals in Melbourne. Yes, his partnership with new coach, Ivan Lendl, may well be a beautiful one, but this is only its beginning; only time will tell whether Murray can break the Grand Slam barrier. Even briefer is the case that anyone else will win it… miracles can happen: Tsonga might. On to the women’s draw.
At the pinnacle of the female tour exists a power vacuum, plagued by the mediocrity of so many underachieving ‘stars’. Is there one leading figure we can call the best? Serena Williams was the best in her day but is now fraught with injury. Current no.1, Caroline Wozniacki, has never won a Grand Slam and gravely struggles when it comes to playing anyone of a similarly high ranking. The analysis could go on tirelessly until an insurmountable conclusion was reached: there is no clear front runner. In fact, the women’s game is currently lacking quality in all departments. So who, if anyone, can be considered a deserved contender for the Australian Open?
With Williams an injury doubt, Wozniacki lacks the hunger of a real champion, electing to spend much of her time modelling, advertising or with her boyfriend, a certain Rory McIlroy. Looking further, Li Na, the embodiment of the rise of the Chinese, won last year’s French Open but subsequently disappeared from the final rounds for the next two majors. Clijsters is a proven world-class performer, yet is hindered by nagging injury problems, whilst Stosur, Schiavone and Sharapova all have the talent, but lack the consistency. Undeniably, Victor Azarenka, does provide some hope, though is yet to prove herself by winning a Grand Slam singles title.
The one shining light is Petra Kvitova. The Wimbledon champion will consolidate the world no. 1 spot if she lifts the Australian Open trophy; let’s hope she has the mettle to do it and fill the void – a void that desperately needs to be filled – at the top of the women’s game.
So, it’s a case of more of the same in Melbourne. However, with this comes a sense of guaranteed quality on the men’s side and a pulsating unpredictability on the women’s- an unpredictability that is often the very essence of sport. Time, please, the players are ready.