Australian Open preview: Andy Murray's rough draw, Emma Raducanu, spotlight on another Brit, Novak Djokovic love-in
The good news (for Djokovic at any rate) is that the nine-time champion’s ailing hamstring seems to be on the mend. There was a moment of panic when he pulled out of a practice match on Wednesday – the muscle was tightening up alarmingly – but he came through a hit-and-giggle practice match with Nick Kyrgios on Friday and seemed to be moving freely and enjoying himself thoroughly.
Then again, in front of a sell-out crowd who had paid just $20 for the privilege (the cheapest tickets for tomorrow’s day session on the Rod Laver Arena are $109), one determined to show Djokovic some love, the Serb was not going to disappoint. He is not used to such warm welcomes anywhere other than in his home country and he cannot have been expecting it in the city from which he was deported just 12 months ago due to his vaccination status and his openly expressed opinions on the vaccination roll out. The love-in brought a lump to his throat and, in return, he had the decency to lose to Kyrgios. Wonders will never cease.
Also looking on the bright side is Raducanu. She hobbled out of the Auckland tournament in tears a week and a half ago after rolling her left ankle. Back then, her chances of being fit enough to play at the Open looked slim. But despite some scratchy practice sessions when she first got to Melbourne, Raducanu has been looking much better in the past couple of days.
Even better still is the word from the rumour mill that not only is she enjoying her time with Sebastian Sachs, her latest coach, but that she is looking at a long-term partnership. But given that he is her fifth coach in 18 months, Raducanu’s idea of “long term” may not be quite the same as everyone else’s. She plays Switzerland’s Tamara Korpatsch on Monday morning and could face Coco Gauff in the second round.
Even the thought that Ash Barty would not defend her title (she retired last March) and Naomi Osaka, the champion of 2019 and 2021, would not compete was tempered by the good news that both women are pregnant. And Osaka has promised to be back and firing on all cylinders next January.
Alas, the relentless cheeriness comes to an abrupt halt when we get to Murray. He has worked hard, sure enough, and he is fitter and feeling better than he has in years but the tennis gods do not seem to care. When the draw came out on Thursday, his name was placed alongside that of Matteo Berrettini, the world No 14 and the man with the terrifying serve and monster forehand. And the 3-1 winning record over the Scot.
As if that opening round were not enough of a challenge, should Murray win he would face either Fabio Fognini or Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round and then, potentially, Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round, Casper Ruud, the No 2 seed in the fourth and Taylor Fritz in the quarter-finals. All of that would, in all likelihood, take him to meet Novak Djokovic in the semis. As draws go, it could not get much tougher.
At the end of last year, Murray admitted that he had simply not been working hard enough. He skipped his usual training block after Wimbledon as he chased ranking points and as the year went on, he turned his back on the gym and simply ran out of puff. Vowing to make amends in the brief off-season, he headed to Florida for a training block with his guru, Ivan Lendl.
When he arrived in Australia, he certainly looked fit enough but he lost his only tour level match to Sebastian Korda in Adelaide. A couple of wins at an exhibition event in the past few days will have cheered him somewhat but he will need every ounce of strength and stamina (not to mention nous) to get past Berrettini on Tuesday, a match scheduled for 3am our time.
Meanwhile, as is his wont, Cam Norrie has been quietly going about his business. He won all of his matches at the United Cup – including a win over Rafael Nadal – and then marched to the final in Auckland yesterday. Once there, he lost 4-6 6-4 6-4 to Richard Gasquet (he was 4-1 up in the third set) and was on the verge of tears. He has little time to pull to pull himself together, though, as he faces Luca van Assche, a wild card from France, on Monday.
But as the Australian Open begins, the spotlight will pick out one Jack Draper from Sutton in Surrey. Britain’s third best player and the world No.40 will make his Melbourne debut against Nadal tonight (it is scheduled to be not before 3.30am on Monday) and with his lefty serve, thumping forehand, rock solid backhand and stubborn refusal to give so much as an inch, he has been highlighted as a possible giant killer.
Nadal, the top seed in the absence of the injured Carlos Alcaraz, begins the defence of his title on a run of one win in his last seven matches. The abdominal tear that forced him out of the Wimbledon semi-final still seems to be troubling him and 21-year-old Draper could be his undoing.
The Australian Open has not even begun and yet there are news stories at every turn and upsets just waiting to happen. We have definitely been here before.