As long as bushfires do not prevent play, the first major tournament of 2020 will be underway soon, and tennis fans will witness a spectacle in the sport unlike any other. Wimbledon has the most dignified and elegant setting of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The US Open exemplifies the highly charged city of New York. Roland Garros stands out for the passion and demonstrative nature of the Parisian fans. But the Australian Open is distinctive because it is the most relaxed of the four most important tennis fortnights, with fans who embrace the game for all the right reasons.
What might stand out the about this opening major of the new decade? In my view, it all comes down to five fascinating questions.
1. Will Ashleigh Barty make history of a high order?
The last Aussie to win the Australian Open was a relatively obscure player named Chris O’Neil, back in 1978, when the field was inarguably weak. Not since Evonne Goolagong won the singles title in 1977 has a prominent Australian garnered the women’s title. But this time around, the fans from Down Under have reason to be encouraged. Barty is the top-ranked woman, the reigning French Open champion and was victorious at the season-ending WTA Finals.
Goolagong was the last Australian woman to achieve the official No. 1 WTA Ranking, long ago in 1976. But Barty is the top seed in Melbourne, and that billing could be not only a blessing but a burden. She is an understated individual who is gradually growing accustomed to an exalted status. Barty closed 2017 at No. 17 in the world, moved up two places by the end of 2018, and then leapfrogged to No. 1 last year. Prior to 2019, she had a career match record of 4-5 at the Australian Open. But last year she fared decidedly better, reaching the quarterfinals.
Can the 23-year-old take her newfound confidence and versatile all-court game to a new level this time around at her country’s championships? Despite her preeminence in the rankings, I would not make her the favorite. But she clearly could be in the thick of the battle, along with defending champion Naomi Osaka, world No. 2 Karolina Pliskova, seven-time champion Serena Williams and 2018 runner-up Simona Halep. Barty will need to navigate her way carefully through the early rounds when she will be susceptible to an upset.
2. Which member of the Big 3 is most likely to succeed?
Both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have performed with immense reliability across the years in Melbourne. Djokovic has captured a record seven titles, while Federer has come through the field on six occasions. Since 2011, Djokovic has taken six of the last nine Australian Open men’s singles crowns, while Federer amassed four of his six titles from 2004-2010. But the fact remains that during the period when Djokovic was struggling in 2017 and 2018–failing to move past the fourth round in either of those years—a revitalized Federer was victorious in both years. He recording what may have been the most gratifying final-round triumph of his illustrious career in 2017, when he upended Rafael Nadal by sweeping five games in a row from 1-3 down in the fifth set.
Djokovic and Federer have lifted their games and displayed their best tennis over and over again in the Down Under. Not so with Nadal. The Australian Open has been his least successful major; it is the only one of the four most majors that he has not won more than once. Nadal spectacularly ousted Federer in a five-setter in the 2009 final that was played at a much higher standard overall than their 2017 appointment. But since that lone triumph 11 years ago, Nadal has lost in the final four times: twice to Djokovic including their epic five-hour, 53 minute duel in 2012; in that heartbreaker two years ago to Federer; and bowing out against Stan Wawrinka six years ago.
This has been the hard-luck tournament for Nadal. Moreover, he seems worn out at the moment by the spirited campaign he waged to achieve the 2019 year-end No. 1 ATP ranking. In my analysis, Djokovic stands the best chance of this renowned trio to win it all again this year. Federer will be fresher than his two chief rivals for the first major of 2020 because he did not play the ATP Cup, while the Serbian and the Spaniard labored long and hard as their two nations collided in the final of that inaugural team event. Federer figures to have the second best chance, followed by the never to be underestimated Nadal.
3. Is Serena primed to reclaim her preeminence on a big stage?
Having just won her first tournament since the 2017 Australian Open—taking command down the stretch with a confidence-boosting triumph in Auckland—Serena must be feeling good about herself and her game. Winning is habitual for leading players, and for a long while Serena had lost that habit. Losing four major finals over the past couple of seasons was debilitating in many ways. All through her career up until that juncture, she had been an unassailable big-match player, perhaps the best the sport has ever produced.
Now Serena has the chance to stamp her authority once more on a large occasion, to reinvent herself in some respects at 38. It won’t be easy. The field in Auckland was not a strong one; all of the other top players were competing for the top prize in Brisbane, where Pliskova was the victor over Madison Keys in the final. No doubt Serena will have to overcome at least three players ranked among the Top 10 or 15 in the world if she wants to win the Australian Open for an eighth time. I have my doubts that Serena can string together seven triumphant matches across the fortnight with so many players walking out into the arena with her feeling they can fight against her on level terrain.
And yet, all champions are understandably disdainful of people who count them out. Federer clearly knew that few observers gave him little chance to win the title three years ago, after being gone from the game for six months following knee surgery in the middle of the previous season. Serena surely hears the whispers surrounding her almost everywhere she goes in the world of tennis. The skeptics wonder if she can still play her former brand of tennis when the stakes are highest, to summon what it will take to rediscover what once was almost routine territory for her.
No one in the women’s field will be more compelling to watch than the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
4. Who is the most likely player to break the stranglehold of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal?
The last player to win a men’s Grand Slam singles title outside the Big 3 was Wawrinka, back at the 2016 US Open. Since then, Nadal has won five majors, Djokovic four and Federer three. Moreover, they have controlled the climate of the sport for a whole lot longer. Collectively, they have captured 55 of the last 66 major tournaments. In that span, Wawrinka and Andy Murray each secured three majors. The utter dominance of these individuals has left very little room for others to emerge; the only others to get on the board since Federer claimed his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003 have been Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic.
And so it would seem that despite the enduring greatness of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, the time has perhaps come for someone else to step up at one of the big occasions. US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev has moved up to No. 4 in the world and is a player of rapidly rising stock. Dominic Thiem has been in the last two French Open finals and he has made serious inroads as a hard-court player. The mercurial Alexander Zverev won the 2018 ATP Finals in London but has thus far flopped at the majors. Meanwhile, Stefanos Tsitsipas won the 2019 ATP Finals as well as reached the penultimate round of the Australian Open a year ago, toppling Federer along the way in the round of 16.
I believe Tsitsipas is the most dangerous of those who have been on the cusp of attaining one of the sport’s top honors. He has the right mentality, drive, dedication and imagination to come through when it counts. In my view, he has the best chance of anyone to break the Big 3’s stream of success on the premier stages. He can clearly envision himself as the king in Melbourne, and the feeling grows that he just might get there.
5. Could the Australian Open be postponed or cancelled?
In what could be the biggest storyline of all, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the 2020 Australian Open will be at least postponed, or perhaps cancelled altogether. The bushfires that have been plaguing the nation have caused severe smoke in the Melbourne area during the qualifying competition that could be comprising the health of the players—and, for that matter, the wellbeing of the public. Players are getting sick from the heavy smoke. On Tuesday, MSNBC host Chris Hayes conveyed what he thought in a heartfelt tweet. He said, “It’s crazy they’re playing the Open, when Australia’s own environmental agency says the air in Melbourne is the ‘worst in the world’ because of the fires.”
I am sure the Australian Open authorities are hoping there can somehow be a turnaround in the weather conditions. But if matters do not improve significantly and the smoke remains at a precariously high level, then the tournament must be either extended or cancelled altogether. I can’t think of a historical precedent. Rain has caused majors to be finished as much as two to three days late. But never before has a Grand Slam tournament endured such a dire set of circumstances.
The hope here is that wise decisions are made. It would be a shame if they can’t play this tournament, but worse to attempt completing it with players collapsing on the court and unable to breathe normally. We must keep our fingers crossed that the smoke clears, the air is once again safe, and the players and public can celebrate the originality of the Australian Open with customary exuberance.