Novak Djokovic will bring his simmering rivalry with two young guns of the men’s game to the Australian Open where his hunt for a record-extending 11th title and 25th Grand Slam crown overall carries an air of inevitability despite an early loss in 2024.
The 36-year-old defied the odds to raise the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup last year as he overcame a ruptured hamstring and a distracting political row involving his father to win, before going past Rafa Nadal’s tally of 22 majors at the French Open.
He claimed a third Grand Slam trophy late last season at the U.S. Open but not before being denied the Wimbledon title by the 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in a blockbuster five-set final, a result which was briefly heralded as the dawn of a new era.
Jannik Sinner, 22, emerged as another contender to carry the torch by defeating Djokovic three times in 11 days at the ATP Finals and Davis Cup, and the young duo will sniff an opportunity to dethrone the world number one at his fortress.
Djokovic, who missed the 2022 Australian Open due to being deported over his COVID vaccine stance, was hampered by a right wrist injury at the United Cup last week and saw his 43-match winning streak in Australia finally snapped by Alex de Minaur.
It was only his second defeat in the country since a fourth-round loss to South Korea’s Chung Hyeon in the 2018 Australian Open, where the Serb was plagued by an elbow issue.
With an 89-8 record at the year’s first Grand Slam, Djokovic will still be the firm favourite to claim a fifth title in six years and go past Australian Margaret Court’s haul of 24 major singles trophies.
Boris Becker, who previously coached Djokovic, believes the current crop of youngsters will test him more frequently.
“I still expect Djokovic to win a Grand Slam or two. But I also believe Alcaraz and Co. will more often throw a spanner in the works,” said Becker, who now coaches young Dane Holger Rune, Djokovic’s conqueror in the 2022 Paris Masters final.
“I hope this rivalry between the most successful player of all time and the rest of the tennis world continues for a long time, because we fans and amateur players benefit from it.”
While the future of the game is in good hands, one of Djokovic’s fiercest rivals over the years will not return to major tennis as planned in Australia with Nadal pulling out due to a small muscle tear sustained during his defeat in Brisbane.
The Spaniard, who won his second Australian Open title in the Serb’s absence in 2022, was on the comeback trail following hip surgery and now faces fresh doubts about his ability to compete at the elite level again having already said he expects to finish his career in 2024.
Former U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev was among the most consistent hardcourt players last year and the Russian will eye another run to the final, hoping to banish memories of back-to-back defeats by Djokovic (2021) and Nadal (2022).
Other challengers include last year’s runner-up Stfanos Tsitsipas, the rejuvenated Alexander Zverev and a rising brigade of Americans led by Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe. – Reuters