Australian Ash Barty is the No 1 player who can rescue the Happy Slam from Novak Djokovic debacle


One player above any other can change the Australian Open from the Hold-your-nose Slam back to what was once known as the Happy Slam.

That is Wimbledon champion Ash Barty, the world No 1 who hardly anyone has been talking about.

Regardless of what happens to Novak Djokovic, nothing could clear away the stench surrounding the event more than the host nation celebrating its first singles winner of either sex in 44 years.

Home fans will be hoping Ash Barty can end 44-year wait at the Australian Open this month

It would certainly be a cause for huge relief at Tennis Australia, whose desperation to get the non-vaccinated men’s champion to play has so sullied its big event.

Many questions are unanswered, but it is certain that the mood will be different if the popular Queenslander can replicate her triumph at the All England Club.

Lifting the trophy at Melbourne Park has proved beyond Australia’s best players in recent decades, even the likes of Pat Cash and Lleyton Hewitt.

Barty has to be favourite, yet predictions for what is going to happen in women’s tennis tend to prove about as reliable as those of Prof Neil Ferguson in the pandemic.

Last year’s champion Naomi Osaka has precious little tennis behind her in run-up to event

Last year’s champion Naomi Osaka has precious little tennis behind her in run-up to event

The bookies have her nearest challenger as last year’s champion Naomi Osaka, but the Japanese player has precious little tennis behind her and scratched from the semi-finals last week in her one warm-up event.

It would not be surprising if there was another bolt from the blue, like there was at the US Open in the shape of Emma Raducanu.

Phlegmatic as ever, Barty is trying to deflect the pressure that comes from being the No 1 seed.

‘I can’t do any more than try. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,’ said Barty. ‘I just have to hope that everyone understands I’m giving it my best crack. It doesn’t always work out exactly how you want. But you go about it the right way, you do the right things and try and give yourself the best chance.’

Given the extraordinary circumstances around the men’s event, it would be less of a shock if that, too, turned up an obscure champion. Not since Sweden’s Thomas Johansson 20 years ago has there been someone fitting that description.

Novak Djokovic has been practicing, but his participation in Melbourne is doubtful right now

Novak Djokovic has been practicing, but his participation in Melbourne is doubtful right now

The men have become increasingly cheesed off with the way the Djokovic affair has overshadowed everything else, a subject addressed by Rafael Nadal.

‘There is no player in history who’s more important than an event,’ said the Spaniard, who at the French Open comes close to such status.

‘From my point of view there are a lot of questions that need to be answered,’ he added. ‘I think it will be good if everything clarifies soon. Everyone chooses his road. I really respect him, even if I do not agree with a lot of things that he did.’

Even without the Djokovic fiasco, the tournament faces plenty of headwinds and the number of absentees may explain the efforts to ensure the Serb’s participation.

Aside from the Williams sisters, Roger Federer is still recovering from knee problems. Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova, Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Bianca Andreescu and Milos Raonic are among other non-starters.

Djokovic has won the tournament nine times, but may not get to defend his title this year

Djokovic has won the tournament nine times, but may not get to defend his title this year

On top of that crowd capacity is capped at 50 per cent, contrary to the tournament’s promotional tagline of ‘Melbourne is Open’.

It is another blow for an Australian governing body which lost more than £50million last year due to Covid. Poor attendances at warm-up events will not have helped.

British tennis had something of a golden year by its standards in 2021, with the emergence of Cam Norrie among the highlights.

There is more pressure on him now as the No 12 seed, but if he could get past talented young American Seb Korda in the first round his draw is not the worst.

Dan Evans has made a strong start to the year and craves a long stay at a major. He finds himself in a tight corner of the draw and could face rising star Felix Auger-Aliassime in the third round.

If Andy Murray were to get going he could be tested by another of the world’s best young players, Italian Jannik Sinner, at the same stage.

This morning’s events in another type of court will determine how much attention is paid to the Brits and all the other players who travelled to Australia on a different ticket to Djokovic’s.

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