When the Australian Open does get underway on Monday, two players will have a shot at history: Serena Williams will continue her pursuit to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam titles, while Rafael Nadal could surpass Federer’s tally of 20.
Neither has enjoyed a smooth run-in to the first grand slam of the year.
Nadal withdrew from the ATP Cup earlier this week with a stiff lower back, while Williams was forced out of her Yarra Valley Classic semifinal with a right shoulder injury. She also admitted that the later start date in Melbourne enabled her recover from an Achilles problem.
Last year was the first time since 2006 that Williams had gone a whole year without reaching a grand slam final. Since her last major victory at the 2017 Australian Open, she has finished runner-up on four occasions.
“Four years without a grand slam is long, even more for Serena than for a lot of players, and we’re definitely not happy with the situation,” Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou told CNN’s Christina Macfarlane late last year.
“We expected better results, but also the situation was new and I’m here talking about becoming a mother and the consequences of it.
“Physically it has been a struggle to come back. It took time, more time than probably what we expected, mentally too. It’s a new balance that you have to find.”
Williams was pregnant with her daughter Olympia when she won her 23rd and last grand slam title in Melbourne. According to Mouratoglou, motherhood has allowed Williams to reassess her priorities and he notes that, while she wrestles with injuries, her desire to win burns as strongly as ever.
“Serena’s dream, since she’s a kid, is to win grand slams,” he says.
“She’s dedicated all her life to winning grand slams. She’s come to a practice court every day of her life, giving everything for that. And that’s probably the project of her life. And it is still. She still feels she can win.
“Of course, there are still things missing. Otherwise she would have won … But when you’re in the final, you’re touching it, you’re so close to it, you want to make it. That’s what drives her.”
Williams will face world No. 51 Laura Siegemund in the first round after being placed in the same half of the draw as multiple grand slam champions Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka.
In the men’s draw, Novak Djokovic enters as the firm favorite, hoping to extend his record of eight Australian Open titles.
The 17-time grand slam winner has emerged victorious in five of his past nine grand slam tournaments and comes off the back a successful 2020.
Other contenders include Dominic Thiem, who claimed his first major title at last year’s US Open, ATP Finals winner Daniil Medvedev and, of course, Nadal, whose sole victory in Melbourne came in 2009.
Djokovic is in the same half of the draw as Thiem and US Open runner-up Alexander Zverev, while Nadal could face tough challenges from Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas or Andrey Rublev.
Asked about the prospect of beating Federer’s record, the Spaniard has remained measured.
“It would be amazing for me to win one more. But I know that will not be the key for my happiness in the future. It’s not extra pressure and it’s not an obsession.
“I keep going, doing it my way. If it happens, fantastic, but if not, I’m more than happy about everything that happened to me.”
The Victoria state health department announced on Friday that it had recorded zero local cases of Covid-19 from 14,612 tests.
The positive test for a hotel worker broke a run of 28 days with no community transmission in Victoria.
Strict quarantining measures drew controversy as players arrived in Melbourne; some were placed under two-week lockdowns in their hotel rooms following positive tests on their flights and others were allowed out of their rooms for five hours each day to train in bio-secure bubbles.
Organizers subsequently amended the warmup schedule to support the 72 players placed under hard quarantines — some of whom headed straight to practice as soon as their quarantine time was over.
“12:54am — FINALLY FREE from 15 days in strict quarantine and of course my first stop is Rod Laver Arena for midnight practice!” British player Heather Watson wrote on social media.
“I don’t feel like spending another night in a hotel room so I think I might just sleep here tonight,” she wrote in a separate post.
After a protracted buildup, the sight of main draw matches finally getting underway will no doubt be a relief to players and organizers alike.