Rafa’s absence clears the way at Melbourne
The Australian Open starts this year’s grand slam season tomorrow. S’Busiso Mseleku looks at the hard court tournament that started on grass in 1905
The famous Rod Laver Arena will never be the same following last year’s epic battle between number one Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, dubbed “the longest, hardest and arguably the greatest grand slam final in history.”
The Serb came out tops 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 after five hours and 53 minutes on the court in a match that one expert correctly said went way beyond being a marathon, and straight into iron man territory.
Some will be disappointed that Rafa – who has not played a professional game since the second round of Wimbledon in June last year – will not be taking part in this tournament.
A knee injury has kept him out of action and in the process he has missed the London Olympic Games and the US Open.
In withdrawing from this event, Nadal cited a stomach virus but some experts believe the player feels he hasn’t recovered fully from the knee injury.
In his absence, Djokovic’s main competition will come from the usual suspects: Roger Federer – who’s said he’ll be playing less this year – Andy Murray, David Ferrer and Thomas Berdych, all of whom are seeded in the top five.
Juan Martin Del Porto, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Janko Tipsarevic, Richard Gasquet and Nicolas Almagro complete the top 10 seeds.
The women’s matches should be quite exciting too, with third seed Serena Williams firing on all cylinders.
Last week she added the Brisbane International title, beating Russian Anastasia Pavyuchenkova 6-2, 6-1 in 51 minutes.
At Melbourne Park, Williams, who has now won 47 titles in her glittering career, will be chasing her 16th major championship and a sixth Australian Open title.
She has won 35 of her past 36 matches, which saw her claim Wimbledon, gold at the Olympics and the US Open, among others.
She will come up against stiff opposition from defending champion and world number one Victoria Azarenka, as well as second seed Maria Sharapova.
Other worthy challengers to the throne will be Agnieszka Radwanska, Angelique Kerber, Li Na, former number one, Caroline Wozniacki, and Samantha Stosur.
Sharapova, another crowd favourite, will have a score to settle should she encounter Williams.
Despite winning the French Open last year, she lost all her matches to Williams last year, going down 6-0, 6-1 in a one-sided Olympics final in London.
The 31-year-old Williams had to dig deep to overcome Azarenka in the US Open final and finish a 5-0 whitewash last year over the Belarusian.
On Sunday, January 27, we will know which players have fulfilled their dreams of winning this year’s first grand slam.