Rafael Nadal has the chance to win a record 21st Grand Slam title
MELBOURNE - An extraordinary Australian Open dogged by unprecedented controversy and confusion finally gets under way on Monday -- without defending champion Novak Djokovic.
The Serbian world number one's decision not to get vaccinated against Covid-19 sparked a saga which dragged through the courts and culminated in him facing deportation on Sunday.
"I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love," said Djokovic, 34, after his fellow players had complained about just that.
"I would like to wish the players, tournament officials, staff, volunteers and fans all the best for the tournament."
It halted, for now, his dream of becoming the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles.
That opportunity is now solely in the hands in Melbourne of rival Rafael Nadal, even if Djokovic's shadow will continue to loom large over the first major of the year.
Fellow 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer is injured and not in Australia.
The 35-year-old Spaniard Nadal won the warm-up Melbourne Summer Set title on his return from a long injury lay-off and being "very sick" with Covid-19 last month.
"The main thing is to be back. I am enjoying that fact. I'm excited about playing again in a Grand Slam here in Australia," said Nadal, who has only won the title at Melbourne Park once, in 2009.
"I'm just enjoying the practices and being back and feeling myself again a professional tennis player. I'm playing some good tennis."
After recent events, the players will just be glad to get on with the tennis.
Nadal, who was on course to face fellow great Djokovic in the semi-finals, said: "The Australian Open will be a great Australian Open with or without him."
Nadal, who faces American Marcos Giron in the first round on Monday, is seeded six this year and in the same quarter of the draw as world number three Alexander Zverev.
With Djokovic out, world number two Daniil Medvedev -- last year's Melbourne finalist who won his first major crown at the US Open in September -- will start as favourite.
"I'm feeling much more confident than last year in terms of knowing my game, what I'm capable of," he warned ahead of his opening match against Switzerland's Henri Laaksonen on Tuesday.
Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev round out the top six with 150th-ranked Salvatore Caruso of Italy the so-called 'lucky loser' selected to take Djokovic's place in the draw.
- Chomping at the bit -
World number one Ashleigh Barty is the hot favourite on the women's side to break through and win a Grand Slam on home soil for the first time.
With American great Serena Williams missing through injury, defending champion Naomi Osaka could be her main threat, although with the Japanese seeded 13 they would meet before the final.
Reigning Wimbledon champion Barty capped a perfect preparation by convincingly winning the Adelaide International, her first tournament since the US Open, and said she was "chomping at the bit".
"I can't do any more than try, that's all I can do," she said ahead of her Monday evening clash with qualifier Lesia Tsurenko. "For me it's about still going out there and trying to play my brand of tennis."
Osaka also played her first event since Flushing Meadows in the lead-up in Australia, but pulled out of her Melbourne Summer Set semi-final complaining that her body "got a shock" from the three matches she contested.
She will test her fitness again on Monday against Camila Osorio of Colombia.
World number one Ashleigh Barty is looking to win the Australian Open for the first time
Like Barty, two-time Grand Slam winner Simona Halep is also in form, winning the Melbourne Summer Set as she returns from a truncated 2021 season plagued by calf and knee injuries.
Spain's Paula Badosa and American Madison Keys also won pre-Open events, but world number two Aryna Sabalenka is in crisis, self-destructing early at two warm-up tournaments where her serve deserted her.
Garbine Muguruza, Barbora Krejcikova, Maria Sakkari and Anett Kontaveit are all also considered contenders.
By Martin Parry