The days of Christmas turkey and pigs in blankets are truly behind us as the first Grand Slam of the new year is about to get underway.
We may only be two weeks into 2018 but the biggest stars in tennis are all in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open.
Injuries and late withdrawals have yet again plagued the build up to the tournament, which has been a constant theme since Wimbledon last summer.
So who’s in the running to lift the trophies at the Rod Laver Arena in two weeks time? Here’s all you need to know ahead of tomorrow’s curtain raiser.
THE FAVOURITES (MEN’S SINGLES)
The men’s tournament looks set to be a three-horse race according to the bookies. Roger Federer – who looked back to his best in 2017 – will be hoping he can add a sixth Australian Open title to his overcrowded trophy cabinet. Having overcome Rafael Nadal in last year’s magnificent final, the champion beings his title defence against Aljaz Bedene, who switched his allegiance back to Slovenia after three years representing Great Britain.
Returning to competitive tennis after a six-month absence is former world number one Novak Djokovic. The Serbian has not played since Wimbledon but the 30-year old could follow in Federer’s footsteps. The Swiss came back after a long lay-off last year to win two Grand Slam titles, and that should boost Djokovic’s confidence of success. However a tough draw pairs him with American Donald Young in round one, and a potential clash with Frenchman Gael Monfis, who won in Qatar earlier this year, in round two.
Federer and Djokovic could then meet in the semi-finals should they both make it that far.
Nadal may not have played any tennis since the ATP Finals in London last November, but the current world number one says he is ready to challenge for the men’s title. The Spaniard won his tenth French Open and also the US Open in 2017. Last year’s runner up plays Victor Estrella Burgos, the world number 81 from Dominican Republic, in his opening match.
ONES TO WATCH (MEN’S SINGLES)
ATP Finals’ champion Gregor Dimitrov comes into 2018 with a career high ranking of third. The Bulgarian made the semi-finals of this tournament 12 months ago and has now experienced enough Grand Slam tennis to make a serious push for a maiden title. His playing style matured in 2017, and comes into the tournament in the best form of his career.
Alexander Zverev is a star in the making. The 20-year-old German is ranked at world number four and if he continues this radical rise it will be a question of when he wins a major, not if. But a lack of five-set tennis could hinder his chances. Zverev has never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam and after being drawn in the same half as Federer and Djokovic, the German will need to get over his inability to beat a ‘top four’ player in a five-set contest quickly if he is to clinch his maiden major title.
THE FAVOURITES (WOMEN’S SINGLES)
Karolina Pliskova is the favourite for the women’s title after making the semi-finals at Brisbane a couple of weeks ago. The Czech’s consistency could be a key asset in her arsenal but she also has a powerful serve in her locker that could steer her through the tougher times on court. She may not have won a Grand Slam yet, but she has all the skills to change that.
Simona Halep is the current world number one but has struggled in Melbourne in the past. She exited in round one for the last two years and has never made it past the quarter finals. The Romanian has also yet to win a Grand Slam and her game may not be suited to the fast courts in Australia. However on her day she can beat anyone and can’t be ruled out entirely.
Garbrine Muguruza has struggled in the build-up to the tournament. The two-time Grand Slam champion retired in Brisbane and withdrew in Sydney with a thigh injury and could be touch-and-go in Melbourne. If she can get through to second week she will one to watch out for.
ONES TO WATCH (WOMEN’S SINGLES)
Elina Svitolina burst onto the scene in 2017, winning five WTA titles. Her 2018 season started successfully after winning in Brisbane and now has her sights on a first Grand Slam title. At just 23, she still has some development to do before she is the full package, but like Zverev in the men’s’ draw, it could be a matter of when, not if.
Angelique Kerber won this tournament two years ago to start a memorable 2016. That year she became world number one but things changed drastically for the German in 2017. Early tournament exits saw her drop to world number 22, and will need to be consistent and on top form to get out of a tough quarter of the draw.
REPRESENTING GREAT BRITAIN
Johanna Konta will be leading the British contingent over in Melbourne. The ninth seed has made it to the quarter and semi-finals in her previous two visits but faces a potentially tough route to the final.
Her opening match is a potential banana skin against USA’s Madison Brengle. Should she get past that test, she may have to overcome women’s favourite Pliskova in the fourth round before a likely last eight contest with top seed Halep.
Ahead of the tournament, the 26-year old left the nation on tenterhooks when she withdrew from Brisbane with a hip injury over her own. She recovered enough to take part in Sydney last week, despite losing her opening match to Agnieszka Radwanska.
Konta insists she will be ready to go from Monday, and she will have the whole country behind her as she looks for her first Grand Slam title.
Heather Watson joins Konta in the women’s draw, and starts against Kazakstan’s Yulia Putintseva.
Kyle Edmund has shrugged off an ankle injury, but faces a tough opener against 11th seed Kevin Anderson. The big serving South African won their only other encounter in a Grand Slam.
ANDY MURRAY AND SERENA WILLIAMS MISS OUT
Three-time Grand Slam winner and former world number one Andy Murray will miss the tournament and the spring season after undergoing surgery on his persistent hip injury.
The 30-year-old hasn’t played a competitive match since Wimbledon, and decided to have the operation in Brisbane before flying back to London to rest and recover.
Serena Williams was hoping to be back in time for this one following the birth of her baby girl Alexis Olympia. However, she felt that she wasn’t yet at the level to be competitive and now looks to add to her 23 single Grand Slams in Paris later on this year.
OTHER NOTABLE ABSENTEES
World number 22 Kei Nishikori has not played since August because of a wrist injury and the Japanese star has not recovered in time for Melbourne.
Victoria Azarenka will also miss out due to a court hearing, which has yet to finalise. With the Belarusian unable to leave the US with her 11-month old son, she has decided to stay and fight for custody despite her love for Melbourne.
CHANGES TO THE FORMAT
A shot clock will be introduced at the Australian Open after it was trialled last year. The clock will mean players must serve within 25 seconds between points.
The idea has been met with some criticism from players, including Nadal, but the Grand Slam board has decided to go with it in a number of changes planned.
Rules regarding prize money have also been changed. Any main draw singles player who is unfit to play and who withdraws after 12:00 noon on the Thursday before the start of the main draw will now receive just 50% of the first round prize money. The replacement lucky loser will receive the remaining 50% plus any additional prize money earned thereafter.
Other possible changes in the future could see the number of seeds drop from 32 to 16 in Grand Slam tournaments from 2019.
We may be without some of the big names, but that won’t stop this being a enthralling two weeks of tennis. The courts in Melbourne are notorious for their fast pace, which should suit a majority of the stars on show.
With the younger generation of players starting to break through the ranks, these Grand Slam tournaments are looking more and more open each year. When that’s the case, we are all usually in for shocks, thrills and memorable matches.