The buzz might be missing not only on the retirements of some big names but also, a growing list of absentees at this year’s first Grand Slam tournament. But it still promises to be a mouth watering tournament as Novak Djovokic returns to the Australian Open once more to challenge defending champion, Rafael Nadal.

It is not surprising that a week ahead of the Australian Open, talk has centred around the seemingly thin slice of tennis greatness hanging around the courts. Roger Federer and Serena Williams famously called retirement last year. Carlos Alcaraz, the men’s no.1 and winner of last year’s US Open, has had to pull out with a leg injury.

Ash Barty stunned Australian fans when she announced her own retirement from the sport despite making a brilliant comeback. Venus Williams handed back her wildcard after she suffered an injury in Auckland recently. And Naomi Osaka has become a prominent name missing for the women yet again.

However, the Australian Open is putting behind the whole coronavirus drama of last year when Djokovic was held in a detention centre over Covid vaccination and visa status, only to be deported. This year, the organisers are going as far as stating that not only will players not be tested for Covid-19 but also that they can continue to keep playing even if they contract the virus.

What this means is that the Serbian will get to challenge his 36-year-old counterpart who starts as defending champion, having won an epic clash against Daniil Medvedev in the men’s singles last year’s final, beating the latter 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

Although the Spaniard was not unfamiliar with that position when he won at Wimbledon beating down two sets to Mikhail Youzhny in 2007, Rafael Nadal became the first player to win the Australian Open from a 2-0 deficit since 1965 when Fred Stolle suffered a similar fate as Medvedev when Roy Emerson beat him 7-9, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-1. This was the Spaniard’s second win at the Australian Open, his first hardcourt victory coming back in 2009, breaking the three way tie between him, Federer and Djovokic on 20 Grand Slam titles each. Nadal was also only the second player in the Open era to win each major twice.

Djokovic had to the opportunity later in the year to even the scores at 21 Grand Slams each when he won Wimbledon, beating Australian Nick Kyrgios in a final that saw the otherwise petulant player from down under play a rather quiet but resolute game, testing the Serbian and even earning his respect even as his own game fell apart as the match wore on.

It is interesting that the two who were once critical of each other and now have turned friends will share the court for an exhibition practice match ahead of the tournament, highlighting the organisers cashing in on the newfound camaraderie.

Camaraderie as was seen between great rivals as was displayed when Federer bid adieu to the tennis world with a World Team match that saw Nadal shed tears at the end of the year. Such rivalry has been rare but has held up the sport of tennis. It will need such great rivalries even as one such old one returns to the fore.

It will be fierce competition on court as Djokovic looks to win his 10th Australian Open title. It was not something he would have contemplated possible too long back after he was initially given a three year ban from the country after last year’s vaccine fiasco and confusion over his medical exemption.

There will no doubt be a few tears shed, some in heartbreak and some in stupendous history as joining the duo in their quest for another Grand Slam will be players looking for their own Grand Slam success like Greece’s Stephanos Tsitsipas and Germany’s Alexander “Sasha” Zverev. Zverev returns to the Grand Slams after having suffered a horrific ankle injury during the French Open semi final last year while testing Nadal to the limits. Slipping under the radar is Norwegian Casper Ruud who was the finalist at the French Open and also at the US Open last year.

Also returning to the circuit is Dominic Thiem. He was the finalist in 2020 here and won the US Open in the same year before a wrist injury wrecked his chances midway through 2021. Although he dropped significantly out of the rankings, the former no.3’s stupendous rise once more, has earned him a wild card to make up for Alcaraz’s absence, which should make things interesting in the men’s draw.

Kyrgios has elevated his stature following that Wimbledon final showdown, and he shares additional attention when he and Thanasi Kokkinakis start as defending champions in the men’s doubles. Kyrgios is of course Australia’s highest ranked player in the tournament, billed at No.21 in the ranking. That though is not going to hold back from conjecturing how far Kyrgios can go if he can keep his cool and his head about him to build on last year.

The women’s game seems on choppier waters. Barty’s exit has left a vacuum once more on the circuit. Naomi Osaka is a high profile name that has once again gone missing from the roster. A difficult 2022 that saw her drop out of the top 20 rankings, coupled with absences, only some of which have been attributed to mental health issues. That not only caused some flutters but also, a chasm within the women’s game. Last year’s wildcard, Venus Williams, who similarly won a wild card this year has withdrawn with another injury status, to add to the tournament’s woes.

Players like Iga Swiatek, world no. 2 Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka will continue to press on for honours, in what has been a difficult time for the women to garner as much attention as the men. But with Emma Raducanu also battling an ankle injury she recently incurred, it will be interesting if new names come to the fore in 2023 as far as the women’s game is concerned.

It will take something of 2023 to establish some new champions and rivalries in the women’s game now that Serena Williams has called it quits, Venus battles through injuries to stay relevant and there is much ambiguity over the four time Grand Slam winner, Naomi Osaka, whose continued absence since September last year is fuelling speculation of a possible retirement call by the 25-year-old.

Yet again and not surprisingly, the Australian Open and indeed the sport of tennis is looking to the men’s game for impetus. With the return of Djokovic, it will be an interesting contest, amongst divided fans and across the draw as the quest for the most Grand Slam titles continues amongst the remaining two on the circuit.