MELBOURNE, Australia — Just about any tennis fan will attempt to convince you that an Australian Open without world No. 1 Novak Djokovic equals a far more open and unpredictable Slam.
On the surface, that line of thinking does make sense. The Serbian superstar has won the tournament a record nine times, boasts a staggering 82-6 record at Melbourne Park since 2007, and is a favorite each time he sets foot on Rod Laver Arena.
But there’s an argument to be made that the likely Australian Open victor is now clearer than it was 24 hours ago when Djokovic was still in the main draw. On early Sunday evening in Melbourne, less than 18 hours before the gates opened to the public for Day 1, Djokovic learned his Australian visa would not be reinstated and that he would have to depart the country immediately, forgoing his right to defend his Australian Open crown.
Within seconds of the highly anticipated and controversial announcement, a new outright favorite emerged in the form of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev.
The gangly Russian burst onto the scene late in 2019 when he reached the final of the US Open, losing a heartbreaking five-set thriller to Rafael Nadal. Last year he made his first Australian Open final appearance but once again came up short, this time to a rampant Djokovic, who after the match declared “it’s only a matter of time” before Medvedev goes all the way.
Djokovic was correct. Six months later, Medvedev was a major champion after, somewhat ironically, thwarting Djokovic’s rare attempt at the calendar Slam to clinch the US Open.
“The US Open gave me more confidence in my life and in my tennis life as well,” Medvedev told the media at his pre-tournament news conference on Saturday. “Sometimes before tournaments I could be a little bit concerned if I was not playing well. [I would get] a little bit nervous and sometimes angry. But now I feel like I know even more what I can do and how I can play.”
With Djokovic no longer in the field, Medvedev is the overwhelming favorite. Since the beginning of 2018, Medvedev leads all players in match wins, finals appearances and titles on hard courts, while only Djokovic boasts more wins over top 10-ranked players on the surface. His triumph at Flushing Meadows last year means that, at 25, he’s now the youngest active men’s Slam champion.
Medvedev has also been enjoying success in the team formats. He led Russia to victory in both the ATP and Davis Cups last year and was part of the Team Europe squad which dominated the Laver Cup 14-1.
It has been a remarkable rise for Medvedev who this week admitted, perhaps to some surprise, that “there were some years as a junior where I was not sure I was going to become professional.”
As a teenager, Medvedev reached a point where he opted to focus more on his studies than practice. It wasn’t until he partnered up with French coach Gilles Cervara in the summer of 2017 and decided to give his tennis dream one final push that a life as a professional began to appear a real possibility.
Tennis observers have tried to pass the torch to a generation for quite some time, or more specifically to Medvedev, and many have been burned on that before. But the 2022 Australian Open presents a situation in that for the first time in 15 years, no member of the Big Three — the trio of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer — is the favorite at a Slam.
Djokovic now joins Federer, who is missing his second straight Australian Open as he recovers from knee surgery, on the sideline. Nadal is the only Big Three member who could spoil Medvedev’s fortnight, but the pair wouldn’t meet until the final.
“We all know the Big Three are getting older, but they are still winning a lot of Slams,” Medvedev said. “[Everyone] is always saying, what’s next? There is nothing coming. But there is always somebody or something to come.”
Medvedev has a wonderful chance of hoisting the Norman Brookes Trophy and doubling his Slam tally. But if he is to go all the way, he would have to make history, as no man in the Open era has won his first two majors in consecutive events.
But history isn’t bothering him, and on the eve of the tournament, Medvedev issued a warning to the other 127 men in the draw.
“I’m much more confident than last year,” he said.