After a dramatic lead-up that drew attention the world over, the 2022 Australian Open is finally here. While Novak Djokovic will continue dominating the headlines -- whether he is able to play or is sent home -- those in the draw will be chasing the year's first major title.
Even if Djokovic isn't able to participate, and despite the absence of other high-profile names, the event remains star-studded. So which players will those of us stateside want to set our alarm clocks for -- and what are the key storylines to watch? We answer all that and more.
The Djokovic drama
Will he or won't he? We'll spare you the complete play-by-play -- although we've got that for you here if you want a refresher -- but the world No. 1 is currently facing deportation, yet again, from Australia after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced on Friday he would be canceling Djokovic's visa in the interest of public health.
Djokovic and his legal team are fighting the ruling, and his lawyers appeared in court on Friday night for an emergency after-hours hearing. Djokovic was taken back into immigration detention on Saturday morning and a hearing was scheduled for Sunday (9:30 a.m. AEDT / 5:30 p.m. ET) to determine his tournament fate.
Djokovic, the nine-time Australian Open champion, currently remains in the draw and is slated to begin play on Monday against fellow Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic. If he is forced to withdraw before the order of play for Monday is released, he will be replaced in the bracket by No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev. If he has to withdraw after the schedule is announced, a "lucky loser" will take his place. Simply put: It's a complicated mess that has left the men's draw in complete disarray.
If he's able to play, he will certainly remain a favorite to win the title. But with reduced training time and the immense distraction of his visa issues, this will be an uphill battle even for Djokovic, who flourishes when he feels the cards are stacked against him.
Osaka is back
After a challenging year for Naomi Osaka -- she even tweeted "I've never been more excited for a year to be over" on New Year's Eve -- it's almost easy to forget that the 24-year-old is the reigning Australian Open champion. In fact, Melbourne was the site of her biggest professional triumph of the past year. She rolled through the field, dropping just one set en route to her second career title at the Slam.
Of course, it's been a long 11 months since. She withdrew ahead of her second-round match at the French Open. Then, after a third-round loss at the US Open, she announced she was going to "take a break from playing for a while." It was unclear when Osaka would play again in the immediate aftermath, but she made her competitive return earlier this month at the 250-level event in Melbourne, where she reached the semifinals before withdrawing with an abdominal strain. The withdrawal appeared to be mostly precautionary and to ensure she would be at full health during the Australian Open.
Osaka did the same thing in warm-up events ahead of her past two major victories.
So what can we expect from the four-time major champion in Melbourne? It's impossible to say, but she looked to be enjoying herself on the court last week -- and don't let her current No. 14 ranking fool you. When she's happy and healthy, Osaka remains the top player on hard courts and is capable of beating anyone.
Alas, none of the legends will be playing at this year's event due to injuries.
Other notables not making the trip this year include reigning Australian Open finalist Jen Brady, 2020 US Open champion Dominic Thiem, former world No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu and 2021 Australian Open semifinalist Karolina Muchova (leaving Osaka as the only women's semifinalist from the 2021 tournament to be in the draw this year). All cited injuries or their mental health as the reason for their withdrawal.
A handful of other players, including two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren, five-time major doubles champion Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Australian teenage up-and-comer Olivia Gadecki will not be participating due to the vaccine requirement.
Still, as we've seen many times now, especially on the women's side, there is always someone ready to take advantage of the opportunity. The question now is: Who will it be this time?
New season, same Barty?
Ash Barty had a phenomenal 2021 season, winning a tour-best five titles, including Wimbledon, and holding on to the top ranking all year. And despite the 2022 season being all of two weeks old, the new year already looks to be more of the same. Barty won the singles and doubles titles (with Storm Sanders) at Adelaide last week.
In the singles draw, she knocked off teen phenom Coco Gauff, 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek en route to the final -- and dropped just one set. After her two-trophy triumph in South Australia, Barty withdrew from the Sydney Open to turn her focus solely on the Australian Open.
While Barty has two major singles titles to her name, this one would perhaps be the most special if she were to win. The 25-year-old would become the first Australian to win a singles title since Chris O'Neil in 1978. Make no mistake, it's a lot of pressure, even on the typically unflappable Barty, as she has to contend with the expectations of a nation and all the attention that comes with it. Other former top Aussie players, like Lleyton Hewitt, Pat Rafter and Sam Stosur, were able to win Slam singles titles elsewhere but could never get it done on home soil.
Barty recorded her best result at the tournament in 2020 when she reached the semifinals. She made it to the quarters in 2019 and 2021, but could this be the year Melbourne Park will officially host the Barty Party? Stay tuned.
There has been a lot of talk about who won't be playing in Melbourne this year. But do you know who will be?
That would be Rafael Nadal. Perhaps you've heard of him?
Nadal, the 20-time major champion, missed most of the latter half of the 2021 season following his semifinal loss to Djokovic at the French Open due to a foot injury. Now, though, he has proved he's more than back and ready for competition by winning the title in the Melbourne Summer Set last week. The 35-year-old defeated Maxime Cressy in straight sets for his first title on Australian soil in 13 years.
When you consider it was his first tournament in over five months and he had just recovered from a breakthrough COVID-19 infection (he is vaccinated) in December, the victory was perhaps even all the more impressive.
"I really worked hard, so I am quite satisfied the way that I approached all these very challenging months in terms of attitude, in terms of positive spirit and in terms of passion to try to be back," Nadal said shortly after hoisting the Boomerang trophy. "This title helps to keep going, and it's of course just the beginning."
Nadal has won the Australian Open title just once -- in 2009 -- but perhaps with the absence of some of his peers and his new surge of momentum, this might be the opportunity to win again and break the record for most major titles by a male player.
Talk about a plot twist if that were to happen.
The teen phenoms
Emma Raducanu, the 19-year-old who improbably stormed out of qualifying at the US Open to win in just her second Grand Slam main draw, will command a large amount of attention in her first major since her run in New York.
It's been a bumpy stretch since. She fell in the first round in two of the three tournaments she played after the US Open to end the season.
She hasn't fared so well in the new year either -- a positive COVID-19 test briefly sidelined her from training and she had to miss last week's lead-in tournament in Melbourne as a result. In her first match of 2022 on Tuesday, she lost in just 55 minutes to Elena Rybakina, 6-0, 6-1.
Despite the lopsided result, she seemed to take it all in stride -- laughing in celebration when she won a game to avoid a double bagel and keeping a positive perspective after the match.
"I just want to keep putting myself out there," she told reporters after the match. "Even if I keep getting knocked down, it's just about getting back up and basically falling in front. You're one step better and you learn more.
"I'm just at the start of my first season. My goal is to not get too down or too high."
It seems like no matter how Raducanu fares in her first Melbourne appearance, she will be just fine. And that might be for the best -- she faces 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens in her first-round match.
Of course, Raducanu isn't the only teen phenom in the draw. Leylah Fernandez, whom she played in the US Open final, and Carlos Alcaraz will also be looking to continue the momentum they started in New York, and lest we forget, there's 17-year-old Coco Gauff, who reached the fourth round in Melbourne in 2020 and the quarterfinals in Paris in 2021. Gauff made the US Open doubles final with partner Caty McNally, now 20, and the duo -- known collectively as #McCoco -- will try to replicate that success Down Under.
Is Medvedev the new hard-court king?
Daniil Medvedev reached the final at the 2021 Australian Open, before falling to Djokovic in straight sets. The run to the title match, as well as a string of good results, pushed him in March to become the first player outside the "Big Three" to crack the top two in the rankings.
And he took his career to a whole new level at the US Open in September by playing spoiler for Djokovic's elusive "Calendar Slam" bid and winning his first major title in the process. It was a staggering upset and remarkable performance by the 25-year-old, who remained composed throughout and won in straight sets.
Medvedev potentially will face beloved local favorite Nick Kyrgios in a second-round match that could be one for the ages and is guaranteed to produce multiple viral moments.
Best of the rest
We've all known the dominance of the "Big Three" would one day come to an end, but for so long it seemed like the trio would continue to defy the laws of aging forever. While Djokovic may remain the favorite in Melbourne, and Nadal is still very much a factor, the next generation has officially knocked down the door.
Medvedev and Thiem (2020 US Open) were the first to win Grand Slam titles, but it seems almost inevitable that others will be joining them soon. Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who round out the ATP's top four, have both played in a major final and collected some other exclusive hardware in recent years. Zverev took home Olympic gold at Tokyo over the summer, as well as the title at the 2021 ATP Finals. Tsitsipas won the year-end tour title in 2019 and battled Djokovic for five sets in the 2021 French Open final.
And there are plenty of others who have proved they can make a run on the sport's biggest stage: Matteo Berrettini, Felix Auger Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov, Hubert Hurkacz and Aslan Karatsev all reached the semifinals or better at a major in 2021.
Who among them will make a move this time? Aliassime and Shapovalov are coming off a victory for Team Canada at the ATP Cup, and, while not exactly a hard-court favorite, Berrettini is in Djokovic's quarter of the draw and could potentially capitalize on all of the uncertainty surrounding the top seed.
Or, will there be a relative unknown -- like Karatsev at the 2021 Australian Open -- who makes a Cinderella run? With the chaotic way the 2022 season has started, it certainly seems like anything is possible.
And don't forget about these names
While there's understandably a lot of attention on the next generation of stars, it's worth noting a few of the older stars in the draw who aren't exactly favorites but carry some serious momentum.
Simona Halep: Injuries derailed her in 2021. She finished the year ranked outside the top five for the first time since 2013. However, Halep, 30, seems to have returned to form, winning the title at the Melbourne Summer Set last week. With two major titles in her career, and an appearance at the Australian Open final in 2018, Halep might just have as good a chance as anyone.
Gael Monfils: Once ranked as high as No. 6 and now at 19th, the 35-year-old didn't drop a set as he convincingly dominated the field en route to an Adelaide title last week. He retired from his opening match early in the third set at Adelaide 2 this week with injury, and he has never advanced past the semifinals at a Slam, but, again, have you seen how 2022 has gone thus far? If healthy, Monfils has all the tools for a deep run.
Garbine Muguruza: The two-time major champion finished 2021 with the title at the WTA Finals and is ranked No. 3 entering the season's first major. Muguruza, 28, went 1-1 this week in Sydney, her lone warm-up tournament. She reached the final in Melbourne in 2020 (as well as the final at a Melbourne 500 event last year) so she obviously knows how to win on the grounds.
Andy Murray: The three-time major champion continues his comeback with grit, determination and some saltiness on Twitter for good measure. He returns to Melbourne for the first time in three years as a wild card, and reached his first ATP final since 2019 in Sydney this week. While the expectations remain relatively low for Murray, he has reached the Australian Open final five times in his career and has proved he can never be counted out.
The unanswered questions
Can Sofia Kenin bounce back at the site of her biggest career achievement? The 23-year-old American won the 2020 title at the Australian Open shortly before the season was suspended due to COVID-19. She reached the delayed French Open final when play returned in the fall but struggled in 2021, needing an emergency surgery to remove her appendix in Melbourne and firing -- and then rehiring -- her coach (and father) Alex. Will she get back on track at the Australian Open? She'll have to get past fellow American Madison Keys, a former Australian Open semifinalist, in her opener.
Will the Americans be able to redeem themselves after a poor showing at the US Open? No American man or woman reached the quarterfinals in New York -- for the first time in tournament history. There are a number of Americans who could right the ship, however. Amanda Anisimova nabbed her second career WTA title (and first since 2019) last week in Melbourne, and Maxime Cressy reached the final on the men's side. Taylor Fritz pushed Djokovic to five sets last year in Melbourne, and Shelby Rogers has shown her giant-slaying potential in recent months with wins over Barty at the US Open and Maria Sakkari last week in Adelaide. Not to mention, Gauff, Jessica Pegula, Reilly Opelka, Sloane Stephens, Brandon Nakashima, Ann Li, Sebastian Korda and, of course, Kenin are all in the mix.
What is going on with Aryna Sabalenka? The world No. 2 had a breakthrough 2021, reaching the semifinals at both Wimbledon and the US Open. But she appears to have a case of the yips when it comes to her once-powerful serve. In the two matches she played leading into the Australian Open -- both losses -- she had a combined 39 double faults. In her first-round loss in Sydney earlier this week to Rebecca Peterson, she was in tears during the match and even resorted to using an underhand motion in the final two sets. Will she be able to figure out what's ailing her in time for the year's first major?
Will the women's side have yet another first-time champion? Since the start of the 2016 season, there have been 14 different Grand Slam singles victors, and the astonishing depth of talent continues to be on full display in the women's game. In 2021, Raducanu and French Open winner Barbora Krejcikova proved anyone in the women's main draw -- no matter their rank, résumé or seeding -- is capable of winning the title. This time around, it could be someone who has come close before, such as Sakkari or Leylah Fernandez -- or it could be someone you've never heard of.