Novak Djokovic’s future remains unclear as Australian Open looms

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At some point the focus at the Australian Open will turn to tennis but rarely can there have been a major sporting event with so little focus on sport.

With less than 72 hours to go until the first ball was hit in anger at Melbourne Park, it was still unclear whether the defending champion and top seed would be able to take part or would be deported from the country.

Qualifying matches do not usually generate too much interest or drag on for more than a week but Novak Djokovic versus the Australian Government has been quite the spectacle.

Fans of Novak Djokovic protested outside the detention hotel where he was being held
Fans of Novak Djokovic protested outside the detention hotel where he was being held (Hamish Blair/AP)

Tennis has generated a number of stories in recent years that have gone well beyond the sport but the extraordinary nature of the Djokovic debacle and the fact it involves one of the sport’s biggest stars is without parallel.

If he plays, even with a build-up that involved a five-day stay in a detention hotel, there is no doubt he will be the favourite for the title.

His record at Melbourne Park is the best of any male player in history, while a 10th title would also bring him a 21st grand slam success, moving him clear of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and surely cementing his status as the best man ever to pick up a tennis racket.

He has lost just three matches in 11 years in Melbourne and last year managed to win a third successive title despite suffering an abdominal tear mid-tournament.

If Djokovic does not play then it potentially opens the door for Nadal to reach 21 slams, with the Spaniard marking his return from five months out with foot problems by winning an ATP Tour title in Melbourne last week.

But Nadal’s sole title at the Australian Open came 13 years ago and, although he has reached four finals since, he would not be the favourite, Djokovic or no Djokovic.

Should the Serbian be absent, second seed Daniil Medvedev would take on that mantle having reached the final here last year and then won his first slam title at the US Open, denying Djokovic the calendar Grand Slam in the process.

Alexander Zverev formed part of a new ‘big three’ that dominated the second half of last season and the German, the winner of the ATP Finals in November, will also fancy his chances of a first slam title.

Daniil Medvedev is one of the big favourites for the Australian Open title
Daniil Medvedev is one of the big favourites for the Australian Open title (Steve Christo/AP)

Britain’s hopes lie with Cameron Norrie, who will look to build on his remarkable 2021 success, in-form Dan Evans and the returning Andy Murray.

Three years on from the tearful press conference that looked to spell the end of his career, Murray’s metal hip is holding up and the five-time finalist is playing arguably his best tennis since his injury problems began.

Whether that can translate to a deep run at a slam remains to be seen but Murray, who faces Nikoloz Basilashvili in the first round, will at least feel he has a chance.

The Djokovic drama has overshadowed Emma Raducanu’s first grand slam tournament since her stunning US Open success.

The 19-year-old has found out since lifting the title in New York that life with a big target on your back is tough, which will not have come as any surprise, while an untimely battle with coronavirus disrupted her preparations for her first full year on tour.

It is clear patience is very much required when it comes to the teenager’s progression, and the draw could certainly have been kinder than to pit her against former US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round.

Heather Watson and qualifier Harriet Dart are Britain’s other female participants while world number one Ashleigh Barty and defending champion Naomi Osaka are the headline acts.

Osaka’s slide down the rankings after taking two breaks last year to look after her mental health means they could clash in what would be a blockbuster fourth-round match.

Whatever happens on court, though, this will remain the tournament where the story was written without a ball being hit.

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