How everything, and yet so little, has changed.
An exact calendar year since he was expunged from Australia, the vibe in Melbourne is still about one man.
The contender/pretender and new Netflix king Nick Kyrgios will garner headlines this sporting fortnight, but nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic will be permanently front, centre, side and behind.
As drama and hype hounds Kyrgios so intrigue envelops Djokovic and 2023 is already shaping up nicely.
We’ve had hamstring and knee worries this past week – all good now says Novak – and a Friday night corral with Nick before an apparently adoring public on Rod Laver Arena.
Already a title winner this year after nabbing the high-quality Adelaide International crown, the Serb has been in Australia since December 27 and has played a blinder on court and off. How contrived his PR campaign has been is anyone’s guess, but it has worked a treat and we have a rehabilitated and re-energised megastar.
It is early days, clearly, but the tone and dominance, of this summer’s Australian Open might already be judged by a few hours in the media room at Melbourne Park on Saturday.
The big three
Players were allocated 15 minutes and most were done in a flash, Q&As exhausted. The big three, however – and we’ll substitute Roger Federer for Kyrgios on account of the great man’s retirement – stood apart.
First up, defending champion Rafael Nadal who strode in three minutes early and left about six minutes late.
Immaculate in his emblazoned raging bull getup, Rafa was statesmanlike, Kofi Annan-composed, answer-not-avoid always.
The future of the Davis Cup? I don’t know, the players are always complaining, he said. There’s no happy ending.
Is it tough being a recent first-time dad? Not at all, the baby’s here, in fact. As for sleepless nights, “I practise probably more than ever, more than the last 10 years in the last three weeks”.
But does the man with 22 grand slams ever feels vulnerable early in a tournament?
“Of course, without a doubt. I have been losing more than usual so that’s part of the business.”
(England’s in-form Jack Draper on Rod Laver Arena on Monday afternoon is far from the ideal start, he admitted.)
Even Rafa’s recent losses come with an upside. The man is a mental giant.
“I need to live with it and just fight for the victories, no?”
Then the young guns put in their place.
“Carlos (Alcaraz) has one grand slam, the others have zero. If we start talking about achieving 22 grand slams, 21, 20, it’s a big deal.”
Half an hour later, in rolled Nick, green hoodie, black cap, gold chain, captivating.
What did you make of the Netflix premiere last night? (The Aussie top dog is a star of the tennis show Break Point launched on Friday.)
“I haven’t watched it yet,” Nick said.
“I’m definitely a fun kid,” he countered and talked about stress, the difficulties of getting to bed at 4am during the US Open when he was invariably last match on, and the competitive capacity of the big three, “animals”.
And Holger Rune, the Danish wiz kid with the combustible temperament?
“Embrace him. He’s amazing.”
What about the incessant demands on his time? I helped raise $250,000 at Friday’s charity bash, said Nick, “not taxing for me”.
Then the best bit: “I was a potato for the first 10 years of my life” he volunteered in reference to a youthful throwback on Netflix.
And player relationships? Novak he now loves, Fed’s gone and Rafa, “we just do that when we walk past each other,” he said simulating the briskest of nods.
Novak, last up in own branded hoodie and cap (on a 36-degree day) praised Friday’s fundraiser, and the wheelchair tennis players “heroic”.
He talked of being joyful and the warm Aussie welcome. He holds no grudges, he protested once more.
Less expansive than Rafa and less personal than Nick, he has come to Australia to win.
Twenty two slams, his tally if he triumphs on January 29, is what motivates him, he admitted.
Only injury or a celestially inspired performance from a very select few – Nadal, Kyrgios and Rune only arguably – can derail him over five sets this month.
Roberto Carballes Baena faces Novak on Tuesday in round one. Poor Roberto.
The Australian factor
And so, the other Aussies.
Pre tournament, Australian tennis has not acquitted itself well. Prima facie, the draw is well stacked with home players, 11 men and five women contesting the singles.
The slightest of scratches though suggests a lesser depth. The incomparable Kyrgios aside, there are just four direct home qualifiers – Alex de Minaur, Jordan Thompson, Chris O’Connell and the resurgent, and coruscating at times last week in Adelaide, Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Kyrgios is hampered by a frankly awful draw. He starts on Tuesday against the Russian Roman Safiullin but Rune, the ATP tour’s form player at the back end of 2022, looms in the third round.
“I’m up for the fight,” says the Dane. Do not stray far from the sofa should this clash come about.
Painfully, the winner will probably face No.5 seed Andrey Rublev in the fourth round, and then a whopper in the last eight, Mr Djokovic. Broadway more than Melbourne Park might be a more fitting venue.
The other Aussies can damage but are unlikely to go deep into a strong men’s draw.
Plaudits to Aleksandar Vukic and Max Purcell for making it through three matches of qualifying, and does a wildcard for the veteran John Millman signify a last AO singles appearance?
A career in high-level tennis administration – the Queenslander has served on the ATP Player Council – may call for the admirable 33-year-old who has fallen to 148 in the world rankings after an injury-addled 2022.
Millman faces Switzerland’s Marc-Andrea Huesler on court three on Monday but last year’s finalist, the curiously endearing Daniil Medvedev – he of the ‘low IQ’ crowd taunt – in round two will be an opponent too far for most players this tournament.
Sadly, the Australian women do not present well.
The departed Ash Barty has left not so much a vacuum as a gaping void, with hopes resting solely on the top-ranked Ajla Tomljanovic until her Saturday AO withdrawal with an indeterminate knee injury.
The drama of her demise underlines the paucity of competitive female players in Australia.
There is, put simply, a huge credibility issue around top-flight women’s tennis here with the local contingent now comprising just five wildcards after a disastrous (non) qualifying week. Post Barty and Sam Stosur, the cupboard looks bare despite an impressive Billie-Jean Cup final appearance just two months ago.
Olivia Gadecki, Kimberly Birrell, Talia Gibson, Jaimee Fourlis and the woman with the best name in women’s tennis, Storm Hunter, will all give their best but realistically are hit and hope only. Another Ash is called for and pronto. But from where?
The Australian Open will almost certainly give rise to a new women’s champion.
Poland’s Iga Swiatek is the considerable favourite to assume the Barty crown although the most popular winner may well be Tunisia’s world No.2, Ons Jabeur, runner-up in New York and Wimbledon in 2022 and with an court craft and movement that, more than any other player, resembles Barty.
Witty and intelligent, the 28-year-old Muslim makes a sterling ambassador for tennis anywhere.
Why not her year, she asks – and in the absence of Aussies, one to enjoy.
The Australian Open runs from Monday, January 16 to Sunday, January 29