Australian Open preview: Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek in tricky terrain; Novak Djokovic on the hunt for no. 10

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There would be few Grand Slam singles events in history when the defending champion enters as the top seed, and yet, at the time of the draw, concerns surround him.

When the men’s singles draw for the Australian Open was made, Rafael Nadal was handed a brutal first-round assignment – the talented 21-year-old Briton Jack Draper, whose varied lefty game nullifies a lot of the Spaniard’s baseline strengths. As the rest of the draw progressed, it became well-known that he cannot afford any early lapses.

Nadal’s brutal draw looks worse given his form. Coming into the first Major of the year on the back of one of, if not the worst, run of results in his career – having lost six of his last seven tour-level matches, the only exception was a dead-rubber against Casper Ruud at the ATP Finals.

The Spaniard looked physically spent for much of the second half of the year, nursing several injuries. Mentally, after embracing fatherhood for the first time after the birth of his son following his wife’s reportedly complicated pregnancy, Nadal seemed to lack motivation at the end of last year too.

With all that in the background, Nadal does not have the luxury of playing himself into form. Draper, fresh off a semifinal run in Adelaide, presents an uneasy opening test. The prospect of playing form player Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round, in a rematch of the duo’s fourth round at the US Open last year which Nadal lost, looms over his first week.

Daniil Medvedev, a two-time finalist in Australia and the player Nadal defeated from two sets down in the final last year, is in the same quarter as the Spaniard. Medvedev may be going through a slump, results-wise, at the moment, but his dangerous counterpunching game will be dangerous on the quicker hard courts in Melbourne Park.

If not the Russian, the big-serving Hubert Hurkacz – who beat Nadal in a practice match last week, and Denis Shapovalov, who has made the Spaniard sweat on more than one occasion in the past, also lie in the same quarter.

Semifinal tests could include third and sixth seeds Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime, but also other dangerous and consistent players like Jannik Sinner and Cameron Norrie. Getting there, however, may be the greater challenge.

Swiatek made to work

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, at her best, looks effortlessly unplayable. Her 37-match winning-streak was proof of that last year, but at the US Open, she showed she has the grit and the fight to succeed even when she is not on top.

The grit may need to be on display once again, given the challenging nature of her draw – one of the more lopsided women’s singles draw in recent memory. Swiatek has four former Grand Slam champions, and two finalists, just in her quarter.

Her first-round assignment is against Germany’s Julie Niemeier, who proved her sternest test in New York a few months ago. A resurgent Bianca Andreescu may come in the third round, while reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, or last year’s finalist Danielle Collins may come in the fourth.

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Coco Gauff, one of those to watch this coming fortnight, is in Swiatek’s quarter, with a potential second round against Emma Raducanu. Getting out of her quarter is a test for the Pole. In-form Jessica Pegula who has a favourable draw, and could meet her in the semifinal if she gets there.

Swiatek’s toughest challenge, however, may be in coping with the unpredictable speed of the hardcourts in Melbourne.

On the other side, form players Aryna Sabalenka and Belinda Bencic – both title contenders this week – make second seed Ons Jabeur’s quarter a tough one. The Tunisian came narrowly close, in two finals, to a maiden Major last year. She will have to produce her best, an effective and versatile hardcourt game, to progress.

Djokovic a clear favourite

One year on from his high-profile deportation from Australia – one of the most bizarre storylines in modern tennis – Novak Djokovic arrives in Melbourne as the overwhelming favourite.

The hunger to succeed after the humiliation is evident, playing some of his best tennis over the past few years during his title run in Adelaide last week. And he would not be too bothered by his early tests. His 38-match winning-streak in Australia, that goes all the way back to 2018, would inspire plenty of confidence.

The most striking part of his route to the final is a potential Wimbledon final rematch against the ever-divisive Nick Kyrgios in the quarterfinal. Kyrgios, a big home favourite in Melbourne, will have his hands full early with difficult early potential matches with Richard Gasquet and Holger Rune – the 19-year-old who defeated Djokovic in the final in Paris.

In Adelaide, Djokovic displayed the kind of form he showed at his peak, an unwavering serve, a well-rounded game firing on all cylinders, and plenty of fire in the belly (coming back from match-point down in the final). Given how the Australian crowds have embraced him once again, he is clearly the one to beat in Australia – again. This is a potential record-extending 10th title run for the Serb in Melbourne, equalling Nadal at 23 Grand Slam titles, after the storm that surrounded him last year. The headlines write themselves.


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