Photo: Martin Sidorjak
As the snow swirls across Canada, it’s a perfect time to sit inside and watch high-quality tennis played in the bright southern sun.
The Australian Open is here.
After one of the strangest lead-ups to a Grand Slam event perhaps ever in the history of the sport, the tennis is finally taking centre stage in Melbourne as the world’s best vie for the first major title of the season.
Here’s what you need to know:
What to Watch: Slam Season in Australia
It feels like the Australian Open has been going on for weeks since it’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons since the year began.
But at long last, the Australian Open is about tennis again.
The year’s first Grand Slam event gets underway this week in Melbourne, kicking the tennis season into high gear.
Four Canadians will be competing in singles, two in each draw.
On the men’s side, both Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov are seeded, ninth and 14th respectively, and will be looking to turn their momentum from their historic ATP Cup win into some Grand Slam success.
Shapovalov is already up and running, having beaten Laslo Djere in his first-round match on Sunday (Canadian time). Next up for him is Soonwoo Kwon and potential matchups with Reilly Opelka in round three and third seed Alexander Zverev in round four loom on the horizon.
Auger-Aliassime will get his tournament underway on Monday against Emil Ruusuvuori. The draw was far kinder to the Montrealer, whose first seeded opponent could be Dan Evans in round three followed by No. 5 Andrey Rublev in the fourth round. However, he is in the same quarter as Daniil Medvedev, the highest ranked player in the men’s draw.
The Canadian men should like their chances at making a deep run in Melbourne, as should pretty much every player in the men’s draw as it is the most open it has been in a long time.
Rafael Nadal is the only former men’s champion in the draw and has a chance to take the outright lead in the men’s Grand Slam singles title list should he win a 21st title, and second at the Australian Open, two weekends from now. A win would also make him the second man in the Open Era to win the double slam.
Of course, the draw is as open as it is because three-time defending champion and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic is unable to compete after being deported following a lengthy legal battle which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of his visa.
Both Canadian women are also getting their tournament’s underway on Monday night/Tuesday morning, with Leylah Fernandez, seeded for the first time in her career at a major at No. 23, and Rebecca Marino in action.
Fernandez’s draw is full of potential US Open rematches, as she could meet Angelique Kerber in the third round and Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth. First, she has to get by Australian wildcard Maddison Inglis on Monday night.
However, an all-Canadian third-round clash is a possibility if Marino can win her opener against Marie Bouzkova and then upset the 16th seed Kerber in the second round.
Ashleigh Barty comes into her home slam as the top seed and heavy favourite, although she could have her hands full in a fourth-round clash with defending champion Naomi Osaka.
The women’s draw is at near-full strength, with only Ons Jabeur withdrawing at the last minute, meaning, as usual, the list of contenders for the women’s title is about as long as the entry list itself.
Fernandez is the lone Canadian pulling double duty, teaming up with Erin Routliffe in the women’s doubles. They could meet second seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara in the second round.
Gabriela Dabrowski, the fifth Canadian competing in the senior draws in Melbourne, and partner Giuliama Olmos are the sixth seeds in the women’s doubles competition
In Case You Missed It: Comebacks aplenty
Believe it or not, there was action outside of the courtroom last week on the ATP and WTA tours.
It’s not uncommon for the events the week before a Slam to get less attention, usually because the big names are not playing and the excitement of the upcoming major is overwhelming, but of course this year many tennis fans were glued to court proceedings and press conferences as the Djokovic deportation drama unfolded. This was unfortunate as the quality of the Australian Open warm-up events was really high.
Remember in 2019 when Andy Murray was beaten at the Australian Open and many thought it was the final match of his career?
That’s long since been proven to be untrue, but there was a sense of circularity when the former world No. 1 reached the final this week in Sydney as a wildcard, his first final since October 2019.
The Brit knocked off a pair of seeds, No. 2 Nikoloz Basilashvili and No. 4 Reilly Opelka, bouncing back after dropping the first set in a tiebreak both times, on his way to the final. In the title match, he fell to top seed Aslan Karatsev in straight sets, who himself had survived an early match-of-the-year candidate in the semi-finals against another Brit, Dan Evans.
It was the third title of Karatsev’s career, all having come since his breakout at last year’s Australian Open.
While Murray was warming hearts on the men’s side, the women’s best were duking it out looking to carry momentum into Melbourne.
When the dust settled, Paula Badosa emerged victorious from the loaded field, beating Barbora Krejcikova in an epic three-set final that needed a tiebreak to decide the match.
Krejcikova had already survived an epic semi-final with Anett Kontaveit, where she’d edged the in-form Estonian 14-12 in the third set tiebreak.
The women’s field in Sydney was full of stars, including Garbine Muguruza (lost to Daria Kasatkina in the quarter-finals), Jabeur (retired with an injury in the quarter-finals), Petra Kvitova (lost to Jabeur in round two) and Belinda Bencic (beaten by Badosa in the quarter-finals).
Speaking of comebacks, while Murray fell one win short of completing his Cinderella story, Thanasi Kokkinakis went the distance in Adelaide, winning his first career title as a wildcard.
The once-promising 25-year-old has seen his career decimated by injuries over recent years and had not reached a final in nearly five. But Kokkinakis showed why he was once touted as a future star, winning four straight three-set epics to get his hands on the trophy.
Kokkinakis played at least one tiebreak in his last four matches of the event, including a second-round upset of second seed John Isner where all three sets went to tiebreaks. In the semi-finals, he won a third-set tiebreak 10-8 to beat fourth seed Marin Cilic.
In the final, the Aussie dropped the opening set in a tiebreak and found himself in a second set breaker, mere points from defeat against Arthur Rinderknech, before taking the breaker and ultimately winning in three sets.
On the women’s side, Madison Keys made a statement by starting with an upset of second seed Elina Svitolina and never looking back, going on to win the title by beating countrywoman Alison Riske in an all-American final.
Keys also beat fellow American Coco Gauff in the semi-finals.
Sydney was not kind to the top players, as world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka was also bounced in the first round, falling in three sets to Rebecca Peterson in a match where the Belarusian hit 21 double faults.
Under the Radar:
There is plenty of tennis going on outside of the Australian Open this week.
Vasek Pospisil will be the top seed at a Challenger event in Forli, Italy for the second week in a row. Last week, he was beaten in the quarter-finals and will look to improve this week.
Two Canadians made quarter-finals on the ITF tours last week, Katherine Sebov in Monastir, Tunisia and Marina Stakusic in Cario, Egypt.
Both women are competing again this week, as well as a four-some of Canadian women at an event in Cancun, Mexico.
You can follow the Canadians in action every week here.