The Australian Open serves up the first Grand Slam action of the year when it gets underway on January 15th, but the question is: who will actually be playing?
The build-up to the tournament has been been hit with with major pull-outs and injury scares.
Britain’s Andy Murray has undergone hip surgery and is out of action until the summer, whilst Serena Williams – eleven months on from winning her seventh Melbourne title – will also be missing, having had her first child in September.
Victoria Azarenka, who won the title in 2012 and 2013, will also be missing as a legal custody battle over her son continues.
World No.1 and last year’s runner up Rafael Nadal is by no means a certainty to play down under, with a knee injury that has been hampering the Spaniard since the end of last year. He is, at least, in Melbourne and due to play a Tie-Breaks Ten in preparation.
Novak Djokovic, six-time winner of the Australian Open, is also a doubt. He missed the last six months of 2017 with a persistent elbow injury and will use a couple of exhibition tournaments to see if he is fit enough.
Last year’s Wimbledon winner Garbine Muguruza is 50/50 after pulling out of the Brisbane tournament with intense cramp.
Britain’s female leading light Johanna Konta is also a doubt after pulling out of the Brisbane event with a hip injury, although the 26-year-old did play in Sydney this week, but was knocked in the first round.
With no Murray, as well as Dan Evans serving a drugs ban and Aljaz Bedene swapping his nationality to Slovenia, Kyle Edmund is Britain’s best hope of male success.
The 23-year-old made the second round last year, but has a tough first round tie against US Open finalist Kevin Anderson, who has beaten Murray and Milos Raonic.
Defending champion Roger Federer starts his defence against Bedene. Nadal starts his run with a match against veteran world No.83 Victor Estrella Burgos.
Djokovic faces Donald Love, whilst last year’s semi-finalist Raonic faces world number 44 Lukas Lako. Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 winner, plays Ričardas Berankis. Home hopes rest on Nick Kyrigos, who encounters Rogério Dutra da Silva
In the women’s section, Konta faces American world No.92 Maddison Brengle, whilst Heather Watson meets 50th-ranked Yulia Putintseva. Last year’s runner-up Venus Williams takes on Belinda Bencic.
Since 2011, Serbian Djokovic has won five titles down under, but with injury plaguing him since last year, this tournament may come too soon for him. He is 5/1, as is last year’s runner-up Nadal.
No surprises then that the favourite is Federer. The 19-time Grand-Slam winner had one of the best season’s of his career in 2017 as he claimed both the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles.
He has been injury free, playing well in the run-up unlike his aforementioned rivals and he is 7/4 to retain his crown. Federer’s Swiss compatriot Wawrinka, who made the semi-finals last year, has also been troubled by injuries and he is 25/1.
Raonic has made the quarter-finals three years in a row and has a better winning percentage than at any other tournament. This year could be the year he goes all the way and he is 50/1 to win.
There’s always an underdog to be fancied and this year it is Jack Sock, the world No.8.
He’s never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam, but having won his maiden Masters 1000 title in Paris, he reached his highest ranking and made an appearance at the ATP World Tour finals, beating Marin Cilic and World number 4 Alexander Zverev en route to the semi-finals. He is a dark horse at 80/1.
In the women’s draw – and without Serena Williams creating a massive obstacle – it could finally be the time for Simona Halep the break her Grand Slam duck.
The World No.1 hasn’t made it past the quarters in Melbourne and has lost in two French Open finals, but is in good form and a decent 8/1 shot.
World No.4 Elina Svitolina is 17/2, while and sixth-ranked Karolina Pliskova is 9/1.
Caroline Wozniacki is world No.2 for the first time since 2011 and won the WTA finals in Singapore at the end of last season. She goes in as one of the favourites at 10/1.
Venus Williams (22/1) will look to have a strong tournament again and without her younger sister in the way she may just be a strong force even at the age of 37. The 2016 winner Angelique Kerber is 11/1 to win again.
Sloane Stephens won the US Open last year, but hasn’t won a match since and doesn’t look like rediscovering the sort of form that would make her a contender. She is priced at 40/1 accordingly, while Keys, who she beat at Flushing Meadows, is 22/1.
One big name that shouldn’t be overlooked is Maria Sharapova, who has earned direct entry into the competition for the first time since her drugs ban. The 2008 winner has the experience and ability to go all the way and is 12/1.
The men’s and women’s winners receive a cheque for £2.32m, whilst the runner-up gets £1.16m. Semi-finalists get £509k. Quarter-finalists earn £255k, whilst round one still pulls in a cool £28.9k.
The 2017 version was all about old rivals blossoming and romantic tales. For the first in a final since the 2011 French Open, Federer and Nadal faced one another again.
Despite the Spaniard having won more matches against the Swiss, it was Federer who prevailed in one of the best finals Australia has seen. In a topsy-turvy match, lasting three hours and 38 minutes, Federer won his 18th Slam.
He took the first set 6-4, but Nadal levelled up with a 3-6 win. Four-time winner Federer then took the third 6-1, before the now World No1 again took the fourth set 3-6. It came down to the final set, but with the crowd willing him on Federer took his first Grand-Slam in five years as he won it 6-3.
He went onto to triumph in SW19 in the summer, whilst a rejuvenated Nadal claimed the French and US Open.
Sisterly love? Serena Williams showed how ruthless she is to claim a record breaking 23rd Grand Slam and her seventh down under. She took the first set 6-4 in just 41 minutes against Venus repeated the score in the second to wrap up a relatively easy win.
Whilst Serena took time off on maternity leave, for Venus it was more disappointment as she lost 7-5 6-0 in the Wimbledon final to Muguruza.
Australia’s hope: Nick Kyrigos
With Bernard Tomic claiming he was ‘’bored’’ at Wimbledon last year, his home fans have hardly been endeared by him.
After refusing to give him a wild card and Tomic not wanting to go down the qualifying route, their hopes rest on another turbulent performer, Kyrgios.
A talented player, the 22-year-old’s temperament has got him into much trouble on numerous occasions and he has admitted to giving up mid-match in the past.
He was fined last October for walking off during a Masters match in Shanghai with no explanation – the second year in a row he was reprimanded for his misdemeanours at the competition.
No doubt a supremely gifted athlete when he focuses, he has only made it to quarters once in his home country (in 2015) and hasn’t made it past the third round of a Slam since 2016. It’s hard to imagine he will cause an upset.
Despite the return of Djokovic and Nadal, they’re not 100% fit and so I can only predict another win for a resurgent Federer.
There were remarks his career were coming to an end, but a sincilating 2017 saw him quash those who doubted him and I fancy him to win again down under.
The female draw is always so much harder to predict. Unlike the men’s side that is so vastly dominated by the Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray, literally anything can happen in the women’s game.
And with Serena missing, I think it’s time for Halep to deliver. Now World No.1, she is in good form and I think she will win her first Grand-Slam in Melbourne, although I wouldn’t rule out both Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams being surprise contenders.
Overall, though, I think Federer and Halep will prevail as winners.