On the 19th January, under the merciless Melbourne sun, when the Australian Open is to commence, it will be 110 years since the tournament was first established. It will also be the 45th Open in the professional era. Being the first grand slam of the calendar year, perhaps more hinges on the Australian than its fellow slams. A good performance in the event can lay the foundations for a successful year, as can a premature exit lead to a lingering absence of confidence. Certainly, within the media’s inquisitive spotlight, the Australian Open determines the judgements to be made on a player, particularly as this can only be truly amended when the French Open comes around – all the way at the end of May. So, it’s fair to say that the burden of expectation on the top players is augmented come Melbourne.
Prior to 1986, the tournaments date varied, but it was mostly stationed in December, deterring many of the top players. However, from 1987 onwards to the present day it has always began in mid-January, but this has brought players little reprieve and there are still rumbles of discontent. This may be purely down to players feeling the pressure pre-tournament but more likely it is because after the Christmas break, mid-January, there are still a few cobwebs to be cast off.
This couldn’t apply more to Rafael Nadal this year. Despite having claimed his 9th French Open title last summer, the Spaniard had an underwhelming year ravaged by injury – his wrist betraying him and then his appendix. Having been shocked by Michael Berrer in Round One of the Qatar Open, Nadal perhaps hasn’t accumulated the match sharpness he would have wanted, or acquired the much needed confidence that comes with it, despite the copious amounts of training he has been doing, as he alluded to in his press conference two days ago. “You feel in better shape physically when you are playing matches, when you have confidence about your movements,” said Nadal. “Even when you practice a lot then the competition is different – the stress of the competition is different than the practice is.”
There is an uncanny resemblance between Nadal’s current position and what Roger Federer’s was just a year ago. Excluding that Federer was coming in with a different coach, he also lacked certainty on the account of few matches beforehand due to injury.
But if there is any uncertainty in the Swiss going into this year’s event, he did a good job of suppressing it. “This time around I’ve played so well. Also I was able to win Brisbane last week,” the world number 2 said. “[The win] makes me feel more secure I guess, this year for me at the Aussie Open.” Federer and Nadal both play on Monday and face Yen-Hsun Lu and Mikhail Youzhny respectively, with the latter’s pedigree definitely making him a potential banana skin for an out of form Nadal.
On first impression, Djokovic has a comparatively easier draw than his close peers. However the Serb has only just arrived on Sunday to practise on the Melbourne Park courts after suffering from a bout of flu. “I had a tough couple days but it’s all behind me now. I’m ready.” The No.1 faces Aljaz Bedene on Tuesday.
As Paul Annacone has pointed out, the shorter format of the women’s matches make even the likes of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, vulnerable if they are slow out of the blocks. But it is a rarity to see the aforementioned Williams and Sharapova have a slow start, or at least a slow start which is too significant for them to pull back comfortably. Williams meets Alison Van Uytvanck in Round 1, a Belgian youngster who only played her first grand slam main draw match in the 2014 US Open. “This year I’ve felt a little off,” said Williams, “but I feel off in every grand slam.”
Even if the American’s ‘off’ feeling does transfer onto the court (which I am yet to ever see in R1 of a Slam) then merely her experience should still aid her in prevailing. Meanwhile Maria Sharapova is to clash with Petra Martic. The Russian World No.2 said in a press conference on Friday that: “I am of course determined to do that [become World No.1] but by doing that you need to win more matches than the person in the first place, so that’s the goal.” This statement of intent from Sharapova makes the pressure on Williams even more palpable. With rising talents in Bouchard, the pressure on Serena Williams is growing exponentially. She is also not getting any younger and perhaps the physical limitations of that will soon take its toll.
So, Melbourne is ready. The crowds are ready. The world is ready. And then the players are – mostly – ready. But that doesn’t matter, that is the beauty of the Australian Open – with it being so close to the Christmas break, there is a unique air of unpredictability to proceedings that just cannot be matched. A lot rides on it as well. The only thing more repressive than the Australian heat is the pressure around Melbourne Park.