With the impact of bushfire smoke dominating the buildup to the Australian Open, it’s easy to forget what might happen on the court.
The familiar trio of Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer — boasting 55 grand slam titles between them — lead the men’s draw, with Djokovic arguably the favorite given his unmatched record in Melbourne.
The Serb is hoping to add to his unparalleled haul of seven Australian Open titles, while top-ranked Nadal has been victorious here just once, back in 2009.
As for Federer, this could be the last time we see him at Melbourne Park. Now 38, the Swiss great has been coy on his retirement plans but did confirm last year that we will see him at the Tokyo Olympics in July, fitness permitting.
Behind the formidable three is a group of young players waiting for a grand slam breakthrough. Russia’s Daniil Medvedev impressed at the US Open last year before falling to Nadal in the final, and Austrian Dominic Thiem has similarly been twice beaten by Nadal in French Open finals over the past two seasons.
World No. 7 Alexander Zverev is due a big performance at a grand slam having never progressed past the quarterfinals, and Stefanos Tsitsipas arrives in Australia having clinched the year-ending Tour Finals in November.
Few, however, would look past Djokovic, who recently defeated Nadal as Serbia won the inaugural ATP Cup.
Grand slam No. 24 for Serena?
The women’s draw is less predictable following a year when a different player triumphed in each major.
World No. 1 and home favorite Ashleigh Barty leads the field having claimed her first grand slam at the French Open, while Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka, victorious at Wimbledon and the Australian Open respectively last year, are both strong contenders.
Victory in Melbourne would be Williams’ 24th grand slam, drawing her level with Margaret Court, the controversial Australian who will be honored at this year’s tournament 50 years on from her calendar grand slam.
The 2017 Australian Open was the 38-year-old’s last grand slam title; she has fallen in four finals since then, most recently against Bianca Andreescu in New York last year.
Keep an eye also on Serena’s sister Venus in the first round. She faces 15-year-old Coco Gauff, a player 24 years her junior who bettered Williams at Wimbledon last year.
Gauff enjoyed a breakthrough 2019, and hopes are high that she can cause a few more upsets this year.
Will smoke stop play?
The extent to which smoke from the bushfires will affect the tournament remains unclear.
The air quality has been reported as “hazardous” and “very unhealthy” at various stages over the past week, but the forecast has improved for the start of the tournament. Decisions over suspending play will be made on a case-by-case basis.
Qualifying and practice sessions have already been disrupted, while Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic was forced to withdraw from her match earlier this week after poor air quality left her coughing and unable to stand.
World No. 234 Liam Broady labeled an email sent to players by the ATP and Australia Open a “slap in the face” after it suggested conditions were “playable” and “healthy.”
He added that Melbourne citizens were warned to keep their animals indoors while players competed in qualifying, although head of Tennis Australia Craig Tiley confirmed at the time that the tournament’s medical team were satisfied with the conditions.
Melbourne Park’s three show courts are all equipped with roofs and organizers have stressed that conditions will be closely monitored by onsite data, tournament doctors, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and scientists from EPA Victoria.
“They should be able to give a pretty good prediction about the particulates in the air based on what’s being produced and also the wind direction,” John Dickinson, respiratory physiologist at the Centre of Health and Human Performance and the University of Kent, told CNN Sport.
“You’ve obviously got a lot of particulates released into the air and it effectively causes a form of pollution.
“We know that when athletes perform in environments that are high in air-borne particulates that are quite fine, they can get into the lower airways and that impacts the lung function.”
According to Dickinson, it’s asthmatic players who are most at risk.
“An athlete that’s got asthma has got to be really careful to make sure they’re really well protected because their performance is more likely to suffer from it,” he said.
“The main thing is to make sure their inhaler therapy is well-managed and making sure they’re taking preventative measures during the competition … avoiding being outside when they’re not competing to reduce their exposure to the particulates is the main one.”
Heavy showers in recent days have helped improve conditions, with the air quality recorded as “good” on Friday.
Tennis rallies for bushfire relief
There will be a spotlight on the number aces hit at the tournament as several players have pledged to donate money towards bushfire relief efforts for each clean serve they strike.
The incentive, started by Australian Nick Kyrgios who agreed to give $200 (140 USD) for every ace, has been running throughout the buildup tournaments with a number of players getting involved, along with Tennis Australia and the WTA.
A Rally for Relief charity match featuring some of the world’s top players took place on Wednesday, with Tennis Australia announcing afterwards that $3,324,858 (4,826,014 AUSD) had been raised so far.
Spain’s Rafael Nadal said he and Swiss Roger Federer would together donate $172,220 (250,000 AUSD), while Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic both agreed to donate $17,400 (25,000 AUSD).