Returning stars and usual suspects provide intrigue ahead of Australian Open

Opportunities abound for returning stars and the usual suspects as the Australian Open kicks off the new grand-slam season.

Hopes that two of the highest-profile major champions would make their slam comebacks after long breaks were dashed when Rafael Nadal announced on Sunday that he had suffered another injury setback.

Having spent a year recovering from the hip injury he sustained in Melbourne 12 months ago, the hope is this latest blow will not prove to be nearly as serious and he can return within weeks.

The Spaniard impressed straight away with his level at the Brisbane International last week prior to a gruelling loss against Jordan Thompson.

Question marks very much remain, though, over how well the 37-year-old’s body will hold up in the long term given the injury problems he has endured throughout his career.

“I have worked very hard during the year for this comeback and as I always mentioned my goal is to be at my best level in three months,” Nadal wrote on social media.

“Within the sad news for me for not being able to play in front of the amazing Melbourne crowds, this is not very bad news and we all remain positive with the evolution for the season.”

Naomi Osaka also returned in Brisbane, playing her first tournament since September 2022 following the birth of daughter Shai in July, and she will be a headline attraction in Melbourne.

The 26-year-old, who won the Australian Open title in 2019 and 2021, was weighing up whether tennis was for her amid mental health struggles prior to her pregnancy but has returned to the tour with renewed desire.

She said after a narrow loss to Karolina Pliskova: “I think when I’m playing and I’m at my best, I’m just really putting my entire soul into every point. It was fun to play that and rediscover that feeling again.”

Also returning after having her first child is former Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open champion Angelique Kerber.

Emma Raducanu’s absence has not been as long as Nadal, Osaka or Kerber’s but it is still a chance for a fresh start for the 21-year-old.

She snuck into the main draw using her protected ranking of 103 following withdrawals and will hope to build on a very promising return in Auckland last week.

“It’s pretty exciting for me,” said Raducanu. “I’ve only played two matches and also my court time has been pretty limited. To be back up to this speed after so little is a great sign. I’m looking forward to this season. It’s just the beginning. A lot more to come.”

Raducanu is one of seven British players in the main draw, with Cameron Norrie the only seed.

It was a difficult second half of 2023 for the British number one but victory over Alex De Minaur at the United Cup was a good way to start the year while Katie Boulter got off to a flyer with the best win of her career against Jessica Pegula.

The 27-year-old has reached the third round at the last two grand slams and will be looking for more of the same.

Andy Murray is a man in need of wins and must hope for a kind draw, while the same could lead to a big fortnight for 22-year-old Jack Draper, with Dan Evans and Jodie Burrage making up the British contingent.

Novak Djokovic will be favourite to claim an 11th Australian Open title, which would make him the first player in history to win 25 grand-slam singles crowns, although a wrist problem is a concern for the Serbian.

Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Daniil Medvedev will be expected to provide the main opposition while in the women’s draw Aryna Sabalenka defends a slam title for the first time.

World number one Iga Swiatek is yet to lift the trophy in Melbourne and has begun 2024 in fine form, as has Coco Gauff, who is the most recent slam champion following her triumph in New York.


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