Australian Open: Djokovic plays 'catch 22' as obstacles block his route to Nadal grand slam record

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Welcome to the weird world of pandemic era men's tennis, where the world number five is unmistakably the man to beat.

Novak Djokovic sits head and shoulders above the rest for now, and those ranked higher would surely recognise that too, as the Australian Open arrives.

The 35-year-old Djokovic is playing the tennis of a 25-year-old, and being allowed his liberty after arriving in Australia is good news for him, auspicious for the rest of the Melbourne Park field.

Djokovic was being packed off on a flight out of the country around this time last year, after a saga that made minor international celebrities out of local journalists who could interpret the ins and outs of court proceedings.

He remains unvaccinated against COVID-19 as far as is known, but Australia has relaxed its border controls and rolled out the red carpet for Djokovic this time, rather than arrange for him to be detained.

Had he been allowed to play in Australia and North America last season, Djokovic would surely have remained on the top rung of the rankings ladder.

Over the coming fortnight, Djokovic will chase down a 10th Australian Open title and a record-equalling 22nd men's singles major.

What might stop him reaching those goals? Stats Perform has looked at areas where there might be a crumb of hope for his rivals.

Frosty reception?

There might be the odd jeer. He has never been universally popular and he has, through his vaccination choices, seemingly given those that disliked him anyway another stick to beat him with.

But look, if you think crowd pressure is going to get to Novak Djokovic, you haven't watched enough Novak Djokovic. Move on.

Besides, his 'Nole' army is sure to mobilise in Melbourne. He won't be found wanting for support.

Weight of expectation

The greats in sport rarely get flustered, but perhaps these are the moments, as history approaches, when even a model of focus such as Djokovic might miss a step.

You can look at the 2021 US Open final, when Djokovic was chasing a rare Grand Slam of all four majors in the calendar year, only to lose in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev in the Flushing Meadows final.

He would have gone to 21 slams with that win, too, edging ahead of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with whom he was locked on 20 majors. Instead he was flat, out of gas. The greats do have bad days, but they're rare.

Nadal got the jump on both Djokovic and Federer by winning the Australian and French titles last year to unexpectedly surge to 22 slams, before Djokovic took Wimbledon to narrow the gap and Federer retired to make it a two-man race.

Djokovic has won four of his five finals since Wimbledon, with the exception being a surprising loss to Holger Rune at the Paris Masters.

If he loses, it might have to be early, while still relatively cold. Djokovic has a 100 per cent strike rate once he reaches the semi-finals in Melbourne, never failing to take the title once he reaches the final four.

The #NextGen stars

Who are we looking at here, now we know Carlos Alcaraz is going to be absent? The world number one's hamstring blow has only boosted Djokovic's title chances, while removing the tantalising prospect of a first grand slam match-up between the pair. To date, they have only played once, with Alcaraz winning a tight contest on clay in Madrid last season.

In fact, who even is #NextGen? Stefanos Tsitsipas has been around forever, it feels, but is just 24, the same age as Casper Ruud, who is very much on the rise after two slam finals last season. World number three Ruud is just about #NextGen, but fourth-ranked Tsitsipas probably isn't. His slam results have tailed off, and it would be a significant surprise if the Greek made it to the final from the top half of the draw. He has done well in Australia over the years though, with semi-final runs in three of the last four seasons.

Norwegian Ruud is a potential semi-final opponent for Djokovic, and that could deliver drama. Felix Auger-Aliassime is on the other side of the draw and won four titles last year, yet all were relative tiddlers, while it might be too soon for Rune to win over five sets against an all-time great, but he is a possible quarter-final foe for Djokovic.

So is a certain other player, who long left behind the #NextGen ranks...

Nicholas Hilmy Kyrgios

Nick Kyrgios versus Rune in the third round is a lip-smacking prospect. And if that happens and Kyrgios comes through it, despite having not played on tour yet this year, the prospect of a quarter-final against Djokovic would likely loom large.

Tennis being tennis, strange things can happen, but given his kind draw it is hard to see anyone beating Djokovic before the quarter-final stage. Should it be Kyrgios waiting for him at that point, it will be popcorn at the ready.

Last year's Wimbledon final was decided by a fourth-set tie-break, rather than what would have been a dishy fifth set, and Djokovic would again fancy getting the better ot the bellicose but hyper-talented Australian.

Yet Kyrgios has beaten Djokovic twice in their three career meetings, so this is potentially the real landmine on the path to the final. If someone can defuse Kyrgios in the early rounds, Djokovic would have no complaints whatsoever.

Djokovic's own body might fail him

Djokovic abandoned a practice session in Melbourne out of caution over a hamstring issue, but by Friday he was fit enough to face Kyrgios in an exhibition on Rod Laver Arena.

Had he held any serious fitness worries, he surely would have given that a swerve. Showing up sent a message to the field.

This is not to say Djokovic's health will hold and his body will last the distance, but then the same is true of everyone in the draw. This is tennis at the highest level and Djokovic has fought his way to grand slam titles while carrying injury worries in the past, and you suspect he will again, probably as soon as Sunday, January 29.