After a build-up dominated by Novak Djokovic’s botched visa controversy, the Australian Open was finally able to emerge from its political shadow on Monday and stage a drama strictly of a sporting variety.
The commencement of actual tennis will have arrived as a welcome relief for tired fans and beleaguered organisers alike, with the embittered world No 1 in the air en route home to Belgrade when the first ball was mercifully struck inside the Rod Laver Arena.
That honour belonged to Tatjana Maria, the world No 287, who was duly thrashed by fifth seed Maria Sakkari as the favourites barely faltered on the first day in Melbourne. For a long time, Naomi Osaka’s defence of her title had been as doubtful as Djokovic’s, with the 24-year-old only returning to the court last week after an extended break, but there were few signs of rust as she swept past Colombia’s Camila Osorio in straight sets.
Nor was there ever the faintest hint of an upset derailing world No 1 Ashleigh Barty’s hopes of following up Wimbledon glory with a first grand slam on home soil. The Australian utterly dominated her struggling opponent Lesia Tsurenko, with Barty rarely getting out of first gear as she raced to a 6-0 6-1 win in less than an hour. “Where I am at the moment is a product of all the experiences that I have had, the hard learnings, the incredible moments, and I am where I am,” Barty said of her imperious form and experience, having now spent over 100 consecutive weeks as world No 1, despite still being just 25.
One of the few major shocks of note belonged to China’s Qiang Wang, who spent most of 2021 wrestling with a woeful loss of form but recaptured it on Margaret Court Arena to condemn American teenager Coco Gauff to a first-round exit.
The men’s singles draw might have been blown open with possibility by Djokovic’s absence, but the new order of favourites established a similar pattern. Rafael Nadal has only won one Australian Open in his decorated career but a first-round meeting with America’s Marcos Giron never promised to amount to more than a glorified warm-up. Nadal is short of match practice, having missed both Wimbledon and the US Open last year due to a foot injury, but dispatched his opponent conclusively 6-1 6-4 6-2.
Alexander Zverev was made to work harder to defeat his German compatriot Daniel Altmaier, with the world No 3 struggling on his second serve and lamenting that “nothing went to plan except winning”. But after victories at the Olympics and in the ATP Finals, he remains one of the foremost contenders to inherit Djokovic’s crown. He will certainly take on the role of villain to the crowd, too, when he faces home favourite John Millman in the second round.
Matteo Berrettini, who lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final last summer, also made it safely through to the second round, albeit under some duress after losing the opening set against Brandon Nakashima. But no seed toiled quite like Aslan Karatsev, who dashed the hopes of both Dan Evans and Andy Murray to clinch the Sydney International title last week. If those exertions had been draining, a titanic near-five-hour duel against Spain’s Jaume Munar might have emptied the tank completely, with the No 18 seed eventually triumphing 3-6 7-6 6-7 6-4 6-4.
It was Sebastian Korda, the big-hitting American prodigy, that resigned another Briton to defeat. Cameron Norrie enjoyed the finest season of his career last year, transforming from underdog to No 12 seed, but he simply had no answer to Korda’s power and was clinically dismantled 6-3 6-0 6-4 in under two hours.
“I don’t know why I played the way I did today,” Norrie said. “I was feeling good physically, and, yeah, I played a lot of matches, but this is what we are paid to do and [it’s] just not good enough. Just need to raise my standards, practice, matches, and execute a lot better,” he said.
For British fans, attention now turns to Andy Murray, Dan Evans and, of course, Emma Raducanu on Tuesday. The opening day of the Australian Open might not have delivered any awe-inspiring shocks but it did at least see the tournament reclaim its purpose. After all the legal wrangling and public rancour, the floodlights above Melbourne Park were finally shifted back onto the tennis itself.