When the Australian Open begins on Monday, Covid permitting, a new chapter will be written in the annals of the country’s major international sporting event.
As always there will be winners and losers, miraculous victories and hard-fought losses but, true to form, the Australian Open will also toss up inspirational unknowns and infuriating loudmouths who will capture the rapt attention of a fickle public for two weeks before being largely forgotten for the next 12 months.
Because, the Australian Open is about a lot more than serves, backhands and cross-court volleys. To the once-a-year tennis aficionados drawn to its celebrity glow like moths to a flame, it is about personalities and glamour, battlers and bullies, heroes and villains.
Who can forget the hysteria that Anna Kournikova created by just walking around Flinders Park between 1997 and 2003? Or the Year of Rafter in 2001, when our Pat made it to the semi-finals with the entire country cheering him on every stroke of the journey?
Anyone who doesn’t love Ash Barty (pictured) might as well book themselves into a hotel for two weeks’ hard quarantine because once the tournament starts we’re going to be hearing about little else
When Nick Kyrgios (pictured) was soaring up the popularity charts with a bullet, he could have waved to Novak Djokovic who was on the way down
In 2006 the local fans got right behind Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis as he embarked on an unlikely run all the way to the final (although that might have had something to do with their fascination with his photogenic girlfriend Camille Neviere), and in 2019 Rod Laver Arena echoed to the sounds of ‘quack, quack, quack’ as the crowd unsuccessfully attempted to inspire Aussie James ‘The Duck’ Duckworth in his showdown with Rafael Nadal.
On the other side of the net, we had Superbrat John McEnroe being disqualified in 1990 for carrying on like … well, like John McEnroe, and last year Novak Djokovic didn’t win any friends by telling the crowd to ‘shut the f*** up’ when they barracked for his opponent Dominic Thiem in the final.
Still, at least he got through seven rounds before upsetting the locals. Frenchman Elliot Benchetrit had his papers stamped even before he arrived at the event when he ordered a ballgirl to peel him a banana during his final qualifying match.
So who will it be this year? Who will win the public’s hearts – and earn their scorn? Here’s our form guide of the Top 10 players to watch:
Hot on the heels of abusing the fans at the 2020 Aussie Open, there was the disastrous flaunting of COVID precautions at Novak Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour events
Ashleigh Barty, (Age: 24, Nationality: Australian, World Ranking 1, top seed)
Well duh. Absolute no-brainer this one. Anyone who doesn’t love Ash might as well book themselves into a hotel for two weeks’ hard quarantine because once the tournament starts we’re going to be hearing about little else. And fair enough too. She’s sweet, she’s Australian and she can play – and how often have we been able to say that about a home-grown female player over the past 10 years or so? TIP: Final
Nick Kyrgios (25, Australian, world ranking 47, unseeded)
A couple of years ago Kyrgios would have been odds-on to top the boo count but after the biggest image makeover since John Howard’s eyebrow trim, he’s a good chance to end the tournament voted Player You’d Most Like Your Daughter to Play Mixed Doubles With. After heading a campaign that raised millions of dollars for bushfire relief, being the voice of reason when it came to COVID safety and announcing plans to fund a centre for disadvantaged children, he’s gone from villain to hero faster than an Andre Agassi return of serve. Even this week’s blow up when he told an official, ‘I’ve given enough of my money to you peanuts’, brought cheers rather than jeers. TIP: Quarter-finals
Novak Djokovic (33, Serbian, world ranking 1, top seed)
When Nick Kyrgios was soaring up the popularity charts with a bullet, he could have waved to Novak Djokovic who was on the way down. Hot on the heels of abusing the fans at the 2020 Aussie Open, there was the disastrous flaunting of COVID precautions at his ill-fated Adria Tour events, being disqualified from last year’s US Open for hitting a lineswoman with a ball and his badly received demands that the Victorian government relax quarantine restrictions. Other than pinching Ash Barty’s parking spot, it’s hard to imagine what else he could do to get Australian fans off-side. TIP: Final
Serena Williams (36, USA, world ranking 11, 10th seed)
It wouldn’t be an Australian Open without Serena. She’s been competing at Flinders Park since 1998 and won a record 87 matches, including seven finals.
It wouldn’t be an Australian Open without Serena. She’s been competing at Flinders Park since 1998 and won a record 87 matches, including seven finals
Besides, even if she doesn’t make it all the way to the big show Serena never fails to give us something to get excited about
At 36 years of age some might say she’s getting a little long in the tooth to add another Australian Open title this year, but they said the same thing about Roger Federer in 2018 and he proved them wrong. Besides, even if she doesn’t make it all the way to the big show Serena never fails to give us something to get excited about, whether it’s her powerful ground shots, clashes with officialdom (at the 2018 US Open she accused an umpire of sexism when she was warned for receiving hand signals from her coach during the final against Naomi Osaka) or her eye-catching on-court fashion choices. TIP: Third round
Naomi Osaka (23, Japanese, world ranking 3,3rd seed)
She’s half Haitian-American and half Japanese but it’s the Japanese half that has made Naomi Osaka the highest paid female athlete in history. Not even Our Ash will have as many supporters in her corner at this year’s Aussie Open as Naomi. Difference is they’ll nearly all be cheering her on from 8000kms away in Japan.
She’s half Haitian-American and half Japanese but it’s the Japanese half that has made Naomi Osaka the highest paid female athlete in history
Not even Our Ash will have as many supporters in her corner at this year’s Aussie Open as Naomi
While she was raised in the US and lives in Los Angeles, Osaka made the very smart fiscal move of declaring her allegiance to Japan with all its fanatical sports fans and lucrative sponsorship opportunities. With an all-time record annual income of over $40 million, she was ranked 29 in the 2019 Forbes Top 100 Athletes Rich List. But it’s not all about the bucks – she can play, having already won the 2018 and 2020 US Opens and the 2019 Australian Open. TIP: Semi-finals
Stefanos Tsitsipas (22, Greece, world ranking 6, 5th seed)
As the youngest male player in the world top 10, it’s obvious that Stefanos Tsitsipas – or the Greek Freak as he is known to his many fans – knows which end of the racquet to hold. But it’s not his skill on the court that should make him a crowd favourite in Melbourne. This long-haired dude is seriously different, but in a good way. When not contesting tournaments, he spends his time taking photographs, filming videos, and writing and recording hip hop songs. And not just any old hip hop songs either. One of his recent efforts included an imagined conversation between the fictitious Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet from the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. Not that he’s all warm and fuzzy. At last year’s ATP Cup event in Brisbane, he did his nana during a match against Nick Kyrgios, throwing his racquet which bounced off the court and hit his father, the Greek team coach, prompting his mother to
leave her seat, lean over the barrier and give him a gobfull. We can’t guarantee we’ll see a similar scene at this year’s Australian Open, but we can only hope. TIP: Semi-finals
John Millman (31, Australia, world ranking 39, unseeded)
At last year’s Australian Open John Millman made it to the third round where he faced Roger Federer
Generally regarded as the nicest person in professional tennis, if not the entire world, the Brisbane right-hander has overcome a long list of injuries to claw his way up the rankings in recent years. At last year’s Australian Open he made it to the third round where he faced Roger Federer. With crowd support growing with each round to the point where the media described it as Millmania, he pushed Federer all the way, eventually going down in a hard-fought five-setter that many rated the match of the tournament. He’ll be looking to go even further this year but even if we don’t get to experience Millmania II you can rest assured that he’ll be a crowd favourite because he’s just, well, so nice. TIP: Second round
Rafael Nadal (34, Spain, world ranking 2, 2nd seed)
The centre court in Melbourne isn’t Nadal’s happiest hunting ground. Of his 20 Grand Slam titles he has won the Australian Open just once from five finals. That was in 2009, but if he is to double that record, the local crowd would probably like it to be now. For the past 17 years the event has been dominated by ‘The Big Three’ of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, with only Marat Safin in 2005 and Stan Wawrinka in 2014, breaking their grip on the Norman Brooks Cup. With perennial favourite Federer still recovering from surgery and Djokovic very much on the nose, the left-handed Spaniard could be seen as the lesser of two evils. Which is saying something. Much as he is a great player, Nadal’s on-court time-wasting can give added meaning to the word ‘irritating’.
. Of his 20 Grand Slam titles Nadal has won the Australian Open just once from five finals
For the past 17 years the event has been dominated by ‘The Big Three’ of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal
His pre-serve routine consists of putting his hair behind his ear, touching his nose, releasing an imaginary wedgie and adjusting his shorts, driving spectators and his opponents to distraction. Then there is the compulsory towel wipe after every point. Actually, you know what? On second thoughts, here’s hoping he goes out in the first round. TIP: Semi-final
Sofia Kenin (22, USA, world ranking 4, 4th seed)
When Sofia Kenin arrived in Melbourne last year she was largely unknown to local fans. Ranked 14 in the world and just 21 years-old, she was seen very much as an extra to the big names like Barty, Williams and defending champion Naomi Osaka. Two weeks later she had outshone them all, ousting Barty in the semi and beating Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in the final. This year she’s no unknown. Australian Open champion, French Open finalist and ranked fourth in the world, she returns to Flinders Park with a big target on her back.
When Sofia Kenin arrived in Melbourne last year she was largely unknown to local fans
Bernard Tomic (28, Australia, world ranking 231, unseeded)
It will be interesting to see how she handles the pressure, but given some of the comments she has made over the past 12 months or so – ‘When I’m playing well there’s not much anyone can do about it’, comes to mind – confidence shouldn’t be a problem. TIP: Semi-final
Bernard Tomic (28, Australia, world ranking 231, unseeded)
Yeah, yeah, I know, but this is Bernard Tomic we’re talking about and can you honestly tell me you’re not interested in seeing how he goes? Ranked 229 in the world, coached by his OnlyFans girlfriend, and pulling out of his sole warm-up event with a knee injury just hours after posting a video of himself playing basketball, it’s either going to be a disaster or the biggest surprise since Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in 1990. Either way he’s going to collect $100,000 just for turning up. Give ’em hell Bernie. TIP: 1st rou