IT’S the first Grand Slam of a new year and despite no Rafa Nadal, there are plenty of challengers to world No.1 Novak Djokovic or women’s No.1 Iga Swiatek.

The young Pole has not had the success at Melbourne that Djokovic has had, but will be eager to put aside previous disappointments to win her first Aussie Slam.

Djokovic of course wants to win an 11th Australian title and a 25th Slam overall to beat the record he shares currently with Margaret Court.

OK, no Nadal, but there’s another Spaniard now ready to challenge.

Carlos Alcaraz is the name and this young man from Murcia could be just as good as Nadal, if not better.

Alcaraz, who is the last player to beat Djokovic at Slam, is back in Melbourne after missing 2023 with injury.

Is he ready to win again? Will niggling injuries unsettle the Serb legend?

Or can Jannick Sinner continue his amazing form and take the title?

Local hero Alex De Minaur has recently made the ATP top ten and is another serious contender.

A good outside bet on De Minaur, but don’t rule out Russian Daniil Medvedev, our dark horse tip to make at least the semis.

Others who may feature include Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who will have vocal support from Melbourne’s large Greek community, and three there’s one Scandinavian threat from Holger Rune and Casper Ruud.

Don’t discount the dangerous Pole Hubert Hurkacz or Alexander Zverev either from a deep run into week two.

As for the women’s event, Swiatek is the key. If she is firing she will be hard to beat but there’s some very dangerous opponents lurking.

Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka and last year’s finalist Elena Rybakina are two and both are in good form. Just look back to the Brisbane Open last week.

The media of course will be looking at two returnees – Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu.

Osaka looks the stronger of the two – Raducanu is still not match fit. She pulled out of two warmup events last week.

But some have forgotten the other threats – from the USA.

Coco Gauff is in great form, as is Jessica Pegula.

Can an American win in two weeks time? Yes, although there’s a crowded middle order rankings whit some great talent out to prove they can win a Slam.

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur has come agonisingly close on a couple of occasions, she has the power to upset anyone on her day.

Maria Sakkari, like Tsitsipas, will have strong local support and Barbora Krejcikova, ranked at nine, and more a doubles champion, is still a threat.

There’s plenty of money up for grabs as well – a total prize pool of $86.5 million.

HISTORY will the made today as the Australian Open first round matches get under way on Sunday for the first time in the tournament’s history.

The Open is starting a day early in an attempt to avoid late night/early morning finishes.

And No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic is the draw card, facing Croatian qualifier Dino Prizmic, who at 18, won the French Open boys’ title last year.

Rod Laver Arena

(4) Jannik Sinner vs Botic van de Zandschulp
(8) Maria Sakkari vs Nao Hibino
(1) Novak Djokovic vs Dino Prizmic
Ella Seidel vs (2) Aryna Sabalenka

Margaret Court Arena

Mai Hontama vs (9) Barbora Krejcikova
Thiago Seyboth Wild vs (5) Andrey Rublev
(20) Magda Linette vs Caroline Wozniacki
(17) Frances Tiafoe vs Borna Coric

John Cain Arena

(32) Leylah Fernandez vs Sara Bejlek
Dane Sweeny vs (22) Francisco Cerundolo
(12) Taylor Fritz vs Facundo Diaz Acosta

1573 Arena

(28) Lesia Tsurenko vs Lucia Bronzetti
Fabian Marozsan vs Marin Cilic
Jeffrey John Wolf vs (26) Sebastian Baez

Kia Arena

Matteo Arnaldi vs Adam Walton
Alize Cornet vs Maria Timofeeva
(13) Laura Samsonova vs Amanda Anisimova
Daniel Elahi Galan vs Jason Kubler

Court 3

Alexander Shevchenko vs Jaume Munar
Alycia Parks vs Daria Snigur
Christopher O’Connell vs Christian Garin

Court 6

Kamilla Rakhimova vs Emina Bektas
Pavel Kotov vs Arthur Rinderknech
Sara Sorribes Tormo vs Alina Korneeva

Court 7

Zhuoxuan Bai vs Elina Avanesyan
Diane Parry vs (30) Xin Yu Wang
Quentin Halys vs Lloyd Harris

Court 13

Tamara Korpatsch vs Jodie Burrage
Tomas Machac vs Shintaro Mochizuki
Caroline Dolehide vs Leolia Jeanjean

Court 17

Ana Bogdan vs Brenda Fruhvirtova
Jesper De Jong vs Pedro Cachin

HE just can’t resist it … Nick Kyrgios is at it again on social media ahead of Melbourne, this time calling former world No. 4 Pat Cash an ‘old head’ over recent crowd control issues at major events.

Aussie Cash said during the week the crowds in Melbourne have gotten ‘out of control’.

“I think the Australian crowds in the last 10 years have got a little out of control,” Cash told ABC TV.

“Cheer on your countrymen, no problems, but they’re not representing your country, they’re individual and I think we need to understand that,” he said.

“We should have more respect for the international players that come over here.”

Kyrgios, who is part of the Eurosport commentary team, had a different view.

“Absolutely stupid comment by another old head that has no idea how marketing or how things work in today’s day and age,” Kyrgios told Daily Mail.

“You need entertainment. This generation doesn’t have a long attention span. That’s why you see clips on Instagram rolling. They’re 15-20 seconds long.”

Marketing or low grade social media clickbait to get numbers Nick? – two very different things.

WHAT’S one of the most important elements of a player’s routine when preparing for the tournament?

Bananas! Yep those lovely potassium, energy fuelled yellow-skinned herbs (yes, they are not technically a fruit).

Across the 15 days of the Australian Open, about 7800 bananas will be eaten in the gym, during practice and on court at Melbourne Park.

Take out the ball kids, officials and the athlete’s entourage, and about 5000 will be consumed by the players.

THE International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) has banned French tennis player Leny Mitjana for 10 years and fined him $20,000 him for breaches of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program.

The player has been linked to a match-fixing syndicate in Belgium, which has led to a five-year jail term sentence for the leader of the syndicate, Grigor Sargsyan.

Low ranking Mitjana – who only got as high as 458 on the tan kings – was found guilty of offences that included include the facilitation of wagering, contriving the outcome of matches, influencing other players not to use their best efforts in matches, and failing to report corrupt approaches.

MOVING on to the next major event of 21004, the 2024 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells has announced $19 millkion in total prize money fr the event in March, an increase of more than $1.4m over the previous year.

Emma Raducanu withdrew citing “a little bit of soreness after a long practice session”. Photo: Roger Parker International Sports Fotos Ltd

WHAT a Fiasco … tennis fans were left disappointed as the first charity match on Rod Laver Arena was cancelled during the week between Emma Raducanu and Donna Vekic.

Naomi Osaka withdrew first from the match on Monday with Vekic her replacement.

Then Raducanu withdrew citing “a little bit of soreness after a two hour practice session”.

The tournament was forced to refund all ticket holders for the near sold-out match.

AND finally … John McEnroe may have spot on when he predicted on Monday that Rafa Nadal could walk away from the sport if another injury prevents him from playing the French Open in May.

McEnroe’s comments came a day after Nadal withdrew from the Australian Open with a hip muscle tear.

“I think Rafa was hoping, ‘Hopefully I’ll be ready for the French, see if my body holds up there’,” McEnroe told reporters.

“If it doesn’t, I think you’ll see him not play anymore. We’re all obviously hopeful he can because Rafa has been amazing for the game. We’d like to see him as long as we can.”