Toxic air pollution from unprecedented bushfires forced a halt to practice sessions on Tuesday (January 14) ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne, the year’s first tennis Grand Slam tournament.
It was already feared that air pollution which has touched an all-time high in Australia and the smoky conditions could pose a threat to the health of the players, fans, and officials of the Australian Open, especially when the temperature further rises in summer.
“Practice was temporarily suspended this morning due to poor air quality,” organisers said in a statement, although qualifying matches were set to go ahead.
Though the conditions on site are improving and are being constantly monitored, it still not confirmed whether the entire tournament will go forward without any such halts.
Meanwhile, it’s time to look at five players to watch in the men’s draw at the season’s first Grand Slam tournament, which starts on Monday (January 20):
Much like the changeable weather, the superb Serb’s success in Melbourne is almost a given. Djokovic is going for a record-extending eighth title after making his Grand Slam breakthrough on the azure courts way back in 2008.
Djokovic, who has now amassed 16 major tournament wins, thrashed his old sparring partner Rafael Nadal in last year’s final to kick off another phenomenal year where he won his fifth Wimbledon title and collected five tournament victories to take his career tally to 77.
After steering Serbia to win the inaugural ATP Cup by beating top-ranked Rafael Nadal 6-2, 7-6 (7/4) in the final, Djokovic has definitely kept hopes high for him to defend his tournament title.
Now 32 and ranked world number two, nobody is betting against ‘Nole’ putting together a similar season this year.
Crowd favourite Federer is rapidly becoming the oldest swinger in town but even at 38, he still has the tools to add to his all-time record of 20 Grand Slam titles.
At this stage in his career, retirement talk is never far away but there are few signs Federer will call a halt this year when he will look to fill the only gap in his trophy cabinet — Olympic singles gold.
Like Djokovic, Federer also has a liking for Melbourne Park, winning two of the last three men’s singles titles, and he will hope to bounce back from last year’s chastening fourth-round defeat to Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is 17 years his junior.
Top-ranked Nadal, so often Federer’s nemesis, can deliver the ultimate slap to the great Swiss by equalling his 20 Major titles in Melbourne.
The Mallorcan, now the first man to be world number one in three different decades, won the 2009 final against a tearful Federer but that remains his best showing in Australia, with four runner-up finishes to his name.
Nadal, 33, has been the gallant loser in two of the last three deciders but it would be just like the indomitable Spaniard to hit back with a long-awaited second Australian Open title on February 2.
Greece has never had a player like Tsitsipas and expectations are high for the 21-year-old, who stunned Federer last year en route to the Melbourne semi-finals.
The 1.93m (6ft 4in) Tsitsipas had quite the season in 2019, lifting his second, third and fourth ATP trophies and beating Dominic Thiem to win the ATP Finals.
Apart from his Melbourne run, however, Tsitsipas wasn’t such a threat at Grand Slams, as he was a first-round loser at Wimbledon and the US Open and fell to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round at Roland Garros.
Now Tsitsipas needs to show he can take the next step this season — and break the Big Three’s stranglehold on the Major titles.
When Kyrgios plays, controversy is never far away and there is no doubt that the combustible Canberran will provide some fireworks at Melbourne Park.
Kyrgios is possessed of a huge forehand and serve — when he’s not serving underarm — but by general consensus, he needs to curb his sparring with umpires, fans and fellow players if he is to threaten at his home Grand Slam.
Kyrgios, 24, is also playing under a suspended 16-week ban, meaning the consequences will be severe if he lets his temper get the better of him.
(With inputs from agencies)