By Mark Keohane
CAPE TOWN - I want Rafa Nadal to win the Australian Open men’s title. I want him to make history in claiming a 21st Grand Slam, but it won’t happen.
Nadal’s crowning glory will appropriately happen on clay at the French Open he has made his own. Nadal has won 13 of his 20 Grand Slams at Roland Garros in Paris. His solitary success at the Australian Open came against Roger Federer in 2009.
Nadal’s love affair is with Paris and not Melbourne, whose hard courts have eyes only for world number one Novak Djokovic. The Serbian has an incredible record in Melbourne, having never lost in eight finals. No other men’s player has won as many Australian Opens, with Roger Federer’s six titles the next best of those champions still active.
Federer won’t be in Melbourne because of injury and while Nadal will take to the court, it will be more of a limp than a sprint. The Spaniard has struggled with a back injury.
Djokovic is strong and it would be a shock if he isn’t on cloud nine in a fortnight. He is the form player and in the past few years has surpassed Federer and Nadal as the most complete. He is the only player to win all of the elite tournaments on the modern ATP Tour, which is all four Grand Slams, all nine ATP Masters 1000 tournaments and the ATP Finals.
Nadal and Federer lead the Grand Slams race with 20 each, but Djokovic will end his career with the most Grand Slams in men’s tennis. Time is his friend. Not so for Federer who will be 40 this year and Nadal who turns 35 in June.
Nadal hasn’t played a professional match since November 2020 and while he has a favourable draw in Australia, he will have to get past fifth seeded Stefano Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals and Daniil Medvedev in the semi-finals.
And even if he did succeed, he would still have to beat one of Djokovic or Dominic Thiem.
Nadal’s romance will peak in Paris.
Melbourne is made for Djokovic and while many experts are predicting Thiem to beat him in the semi-finals, it won’t happen.
The only player who can beat Djokovic is the man himself, as he did at the US Open when he was disqualified for striking an official with a tennis ball in a moment of madness. Djokovic’s wild shot, out of frustration, was not intentional and he wasn’t even facing the official when he struck the ball.
He won’t ever make that mistake again.
The men’s draw will go according to form and Djokovic is the form player.
The romance I want is in the women’s draw where Serena Williams will finally equal Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
At least that is my wish for this year’s opening Grand Slam.
Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2017 when she beat her older sister Venus Williams in straight sets. Both sisters will be in Melbourne, although the 42-year-old Venus is unlikely to be around in week two.
Serena, despite being seeded 10th, still has the game to beat every player seeded above her. Victory in the final would confirm her status as the greatest ever, with the 24th Grand
Slam won in her 40th year.
The biggest threat to Serena’s title hopes is local favourite and current world No 1 Ash Barty.
There are also a host of players who over the past few years have spent some time leading the rankings. Among them is Karolina Pliskova.
Defending champion Sofia Kenin is seeded fourth and is expected to beat Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals. If there is to be an upset in her half of the draw, it will come from Coco Gauff.
Naomi Osaka, seeded third, and eighth seeded Bianca Andreescu, are favoured for a quarter-final match-up, while number two seed Simona Halep stands in the way of Serena’s march to the semi-finals.
Halep has beaten Williams only twice, but three losing Grand Slam finals for Williams since the Australian Open triumph in 2017, has many believing that time and motherhood have combined to turn Williams from Grand Slam machine into Grand Slam mortal.
Melbourne will belong to Serena, as much as it will Novak.