Melbourne is the scene for the first Grand Slam event of the season and the stars are out in force hoping to kickstart the year in the best possible way with victory at the Australian Open.
Novak Djokovic is the most decorated male in Australian Open history and the nine-time champion will be keen to make up for lost time, having been forced to miss last year’s illustrious event.
The Serb’s title pursuit has been made easier by the withdrawal of world number one Carlos Alcaraz, although defending champion and fierce rival Rafael Nadal may have something to say about that.
In the Women’s Singles side of the competition, all eyes will be on Polish world number one Iga Świątek as she bids to claim a fourth Grand Slam crown and her first in Australia.
Reigning champion Ashleigh Barty has retired from the sport, which strengthens Świątek’s chances; however, as is often the case in women’s majors, there are many players in with a chance of challenging her supremacy.
Djokovic difficult to beat
The draw could have a huge impact on the outcome of the Men’s Singles side of the Australian Open, but whatever the draw, Djokovic looks a difficult man to beat.
The Serb has shown time and time again that he can get himself ready for the beginning of a campaign and he arrives in Melbourne with a title already under his belt this year after winning a warm-up event in Adelaide.
Djokovic won the Adelaide International by beating Sebastian Korda in the final, but he had defeated Daniil Medvedev and Denis Shapovalov in straight sets in the previous two rounds.
Having also finished last season with silverware at the ATP World Tour Finals, the 35-year-old has now lost just four of his last 46 matches and his will to win makes him tough to oppose.
With Alcaraz missing, Medvedev’s performance levels having dropped, and Nadal having to prove his fitness, this looks like a great opportunity for the fired-up Serb to add to his collection of Australian Open titles.
He is a worthy favourite at 1.775 but those looking for a bigger-priced alternative to the Belgrade native could take a punt on Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is surely a Grand Slam winner in waiting.
The Canadian, 18.750 to triumph, led Medvedev by two sets before being beaten by him in the quarter-finals last year but that was when he found titles hard to come by. Since then, however, Auger-Aliassime has put that narrow miss behind him by lifting four titles on the ATP Tour and the former US Open semi-finalist is a threat to all if he brings his A-game to Melbourne.
Świątek may be worth taking on
While Djokovic represents a solid favourite, Świątek could be worth taking on given the sheer strength in depth of the women’s game.
With Barty having retired and Naomi Osaka, who is an absentee, struggling to find her best form, Świątek has started to stamp her authority on the women’s game. The Pole is a strong favourite at 2.770 to lift the trophy in Melbourne.
But the 21-year-old has yet to win the Australian Open in four attempts and was beaten in the semi-finals by Danielle Collins last year, suggesting she could be vulnerable in a field where there are so many contenders.
The player who appeals most against her is the powerful Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, who has long hinted at being a future Grand Slam champion. Sabalenka took her title tally to 11 by winning the Adelaide International last week, claiming her latest piece of silverware without dropping a set from her four matches.
When in form, Sabalenka’s hard-hitting style makes her extremely difficult to beat and, if she keeps the unforced errors down, she could bulldoze her way to the title. The 24-year-old, available at 10.000, is now at the age where she should be maturing and three semi-finals from her last five Grand Slam appearances suggests she is edging closer to the big one.
Cori Gauff is a fascinating contender at 15.000 and the 18-year-old American should soon get her day in the sun, but at bigger odds of 21.000, the former French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova could also have a say. Krejcikova is one of a number of top talents stemming from the Czech Republic but she rarely disappoints on the main stage and was a quarter-finalist here last year.
The world number 21 was as high as second in the world in February last year and she claimed her fifth title on the WTA Tour at the Ostrava Open in October. Krejcikova came from a set down to defeat Świątek in that final and her recent performances in Adelaide, a warm-up event for the Australian Open, also showed her to be in decent form.