To the casual observer, it may seem that the tournament has been running for weeks already thanks to Novak Djokovic’s drawn-out battle with Australia’s immigration department. For nearly two weeks, the sports and news coverage has been dominated by the world No 1: will he be allowed to stay and will he be allowed to play? It has overshadowed everything else in Australia’s summer of tennis – and there have been five tournaments held in these past two weeks.
As only he can, Rafael Nadal put it all into perspective yesterday as Djokovic was taken back into detention to prepare for another court hearing.
“There is no one player in history that's more important than an event,” he said without side or malice. “Australian Open is much more important than any player. If he's playing finally, OK. If he's not playing, Australian Open will be great Australian Open with or without him.”
Andy Murray wants to be a part of that great Australian Open. He wants to be a big part of it.
Murray’s big target
He could not quite put the final flourish on his preparations yesterday, losing the Sydney Classic final 6-3, 6-3 to Aslan Karatsev. It was a comprehensive thumping for the Scot: he was blasted off the court in the first set and even when found a way to dig in midway through the second, he could not stop the Russian from firing winners off both wings when it mattered.
He has never been one to take losing lightly but the simple fact of being in his first final since 2019 and playing in a stadium full of fervent Murray fans clearly meant the world to him and he became emotional as he made his on-court speech.
“I’d like to thank my family back home. I don’t know if you are watching but I miss you all,” he said, choking back a few tears. “First time back in the final for three years. What an amazing atmosphere to play in. It was so good. I have really missed playing in front of these sorts of crowds and in these sorts of matches. Unfortunately, the result didn’t go my way. But I will keep trying my best to come back to come back and have more nights like this.”
As for the future, Murray made it clear earlier in the week what he wants to achieve and what he thinks is possible.
“A short-term goal is to try and get to 700 match wins on tour, which I'm hoping I'll be able to do this year,” he said, “and I want to try and get to 50 tournament wins. I want to try and have a deep run in one of the majors, as well. Hopefully more than one, but that's what I want to do. So we'll see how it goes.”
What of Emma Raducanu?
Emma Raducanu is not sure how anything will go in the coming days. She was marmalised by Elena Rybakina last week in Sydney, winning just one game in a straight-sets thrashing. But it was her first match since early November thanks to testing positive for Covid last month. The enforced isolation disrupted her off-season training and left her on the back foot when she arrived in Australia. She was not surprised by the defeat and has been working as hard as is sensible on the practise courts since then.
“It's a challenge to try and find the balance of wanting to get out there and practice so much straight after coming out of isolation,” she said. “But if you overdo it with the hours after not doing anything for 20 days, you always start picking up small niggles.
“I'm just trying to find that balance. I'm actually feeling like there's progress. All I want to see is that I'm getting slightly better and I have a better feeling. I think that gradually I'm getting there.”
As for the business of coming into the Open as a grand slam champion, that does not seem to worry her in the slightest. As young and as inexperienced as she is at the age of 19, she has a mature head on her shoulders. After her struggles over the past couple of months, she is approaching the Open as a fresh start.
“I feel like there's actually no pressure on me,” she said. “I feel like I'm just happy to be here and have a swing.”
And the last time she felt that way about life, she won the US Open.
The other Brits
Dan Evans and Cameron Norrie are feeling good about life, too. Evans won five matches without dropping a set at the ATP Cup and Sydney events before he ran into Karatsev on Friday. He enjoys life in Australia and usually plays well in the January sunshine – he will start his campaign against David Goffin on Tuesday.
Norrie had to isolate in the off-season due to a positive Covid test but felt the rest did him some good. Last year was the best of his career and by the end of it, he had played 77 matches and won 52 of them. That is more wins in one season than he had notched up in the rest of his career. He will open his account tomorrow against Sebastian Korda, who is only just out of isolation after testing positive for Covid when he arrived in Australia.
With all that to look forward to, who needs Novak Djokovic?