Australian Open 2017: It’s all systems go as No1s Murray and Kerber headline preps for Down Under
There is barely a chance to draw breath before tennis's top players are back on the practice courts in readiness for the new season
The 2016 tennis season has only just bid farewell, and media and fans around the globe are still weighing up the best of the best among players and matches during a packed Olympic year on the tour.
But for the players, there is barely a chance to draw breath before they are back on the practice courts in readiness for the new season that gets underway even before the fireworks of New Year’s Eve have faded.
Just yesterday, Twitter hosted photos of Roger Federer sharing his training facilities in Dubai with Lucas Pouille, of Rafael Nadal pounding from the baseline at his Academy in Mallorca, and of Novak Djokovic enjoying the courts that overlook the Mediterranean in Monte-Carlo.
By last weekend, Andy Murray had left behind his father’s wedding celebrations in Scotland and was ankle deep in Miami sand—not sunbathing but with racket in hand for some gruelling beach drills.
Last week, Simona Halep was fitting training sessions in between tennis workshops with local kids, while Angelique Kerber was also hard at it on the indoor courts. And three weeks ago, Agnieszka Radwanska was posting “Holiday’s over #offseason” beneath a photo of her pressing weights in the gym.
And all this amid a merry-go-round of coaching changes—one of the few months in the year with enough time to bed in fresh partnerships and ideas.
2017, though, will launch two new No1s into the Australian swing: defending champion, Kerber, and runner-up Murray. And in a tidy reversal of those two, defending champion Djokovic and last year’s runner-up Serena Williams will begin their campaigns as No2.
Melbourne, though, is already firing on all cylinders. For the 105th playing of the tournament, the first Grand Slam of the year has already announced itself with a fresh, modern logo, with an improved venue, and well into its wild-card qualifying tournament.
What’s new at Melbourne Park?
In new measures to tackle match-fixing, the tournament will no longer have courtside ads for its “official betting partner, William Hill.
Tennis Australia’s Integrity Unit has been boosted to include enhanced education programmes for players, officials, staff and parents, greater security in player areas, increased prize money at the lower levels, and more anti-corruption officers.
For fans, initiatives include $5 ground passes for kids age three to 14, a free opening weekend concert, a new entry to the Park direct from Melbourne city itself, and more shaded areas to offer protection from the often-demanding weather conditions.
Eyes on returning former champions
Three big names, all former No1, all former champions will be keen to make strong statements after long months out of competition with injury.
Federer, who has not played since his semi-final run at Wimbledon, is ranked No16 and could find himself below that valuable cut-off in the seedings, a line that could mean he meets one of the top 16 players as early as the third round.
Nadal, who played only four matches after the US Open and missed the entire grass swing in 2016, is ranked No9, so he could face big rivals by the fourth round. Serena Williams, who has carried an injury since the US Open, has nevertheless lost little ground, and will be seeded to reach the final.
Williams will also be aiming to win her 23rd Major, an Open era record, while Djokovic will be targeting an Australian record of seven.
Britons to the fore
The main singles draws, headed by No1 Murray on the men’s side and No10 Johanna Konta on the women’s side, include six Britons in total. Murray is joined by No45 Kyle Edmund and No66 Dan Evans, while Konta has No76 Heather Watson and No90 Naomi Broady for company.
Murray is a five-time finalist in Australia, while Konta scored her first Major semi-final in Melbourne last year. Both went on to reach career-high rankings by the end of the 2016.
That is not all: Jamie Murray and partner Bruno Soares enter the doubles draw as defending champions and now return as the No1 duo.
More will have the chance to break into the draws via qualifying—16 men and 12 women. Aljaz Bedene, for example, is ranked 101, and following the withdrawal of No65 Juan Monaco through injury, he is just one spot short of the main-draw cut-off.
How does the start-list break down?
The top-ranked 99 from each of the men’s and women’s ranks gain automatic entry to the draw, and only one possible seed, Victoria Azarenka, is scheduled to be absent because of pregnancy. Maria Sharapova, who was ranked No5 in last year’s tournament, is unranked and absent due to her doping suspension.
Players expected to use protected rankings include Tommy Haas, Dmitry Tursunov, Jerzy Janowicz and Thanasi Kokkinakis, and on the women’s side, Karin Knapp and Galina Voskoboeva.
To the 99 direct entries will be added 16 qualifiers in the men’s draw and 12 in the women’s. Both draws then include a further eight wild cards.
Men’s wild cards include: Michael Mmoh, Quentin Halys, and Denis Istomin + five. Women’s wild cards include: Kayla Day, Myrtille Georges, Luksika Kumkhum, and Lizette Cabrera + four. The balance will be determined by the Australian hopefuls taking part in the wild-card qualifying this week.
Events ahead of Australian Open
29-31 December: Mubadala World Tennis Championships, Abu Dhabi
1-6 January: Auckland (WTA)
1-7 January: Hopman Cup, Perth (ITF)
1-7 January: Shenzhen (WTA)
1-8 January: Brisbane (WTA/ATP)
2-8 January: Doha (ATP)
2-8 January: Chennai (ATP)
7-14 January: Auckland (ATP)
8-14 January: Sydney (WTA/ATP)
8-14 January: Hobart (WTA)
10-12 January: World Tennis Challenge, Adelaide