Johannesburg - Despite recent the setbacks the Australian Open has suffered, the tournament still promises to be an exciting event, with defending champion Roger Federer an early favourite to win the title.
The first Grand Slam of the year starts in Melbourne on January 15, but has been bedeviled by injuries.
Last year’s women’s champion Serena Williams was expected to return to the sport this month, but the 23-time Grand Slam champion is the latest high-profile player to withdraw from the competition.
This after Andy Murray withdrew due to a recurring hip injury.
Serena beat her sister Venus at the event last year and is just one victory shy of catching up to Margaret Court’s record – she won 24 Grand Slam titles during her career.
Murray was ranked No 1 until August, when he slipped to No 16 because of his prolonged absence from the sport.
It will be interesting to see if Federer will recreate the fairytale he had last year, during which he won two Grand Slams and three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophies.
He defeated longtime rival Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in the Australian Open final, which lasted almost four hours.
Federer has been in superb form lately and ended the season as world No 2.
With some of the top athletes absent or unfit, Federer is a clear favourite.
But the tournament won’t be a walk in the park as there are a number of seasoned players who might spoil the party.
Nitto champion Grigor Dimitrov – winner of three other tournaments, including the Cincinnati Masters – might be a threat to the Swiss.
Federer singled out world No 4 Alexander Zverev as an opponent to keep an eye on.
“He’s going to be very tough to beat at the Australian Open,” Federer told online news publication Metro.
In the women’s division, world No 1 Simona Halep may finally clinch her first Grand Slam title, but her habit of falling at the last hurdle is worrying.
Last year, she surprisingly lost to Jelena Ostapenko during the French Open final.
Reigning Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza is another possible winner, but also has an injury threat after she retired with leg cramps during her opening match at the Brisbane International on Tuesday.
Nadal pulled out of the Brisbane International, saying he was not ready for the tournament.
“I am sorry to announce I won’t be coming to Brisbane this year,” he said.
“I had a great time there and it was a great start to the month I spent in Australia,” tweeted the Spaniard.
The 16-time Grand Slam champion also withdrew from the Nitto ATP Finals in November.