Roger Federer has put Australian Open pressure on Novak Djokovic in Rafael Nadal GOAT duel

Monday officially marked three weeks until the Australian Open begins. In a normal world, the first Grand Slam of 2021 would already be underway. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic dictates that we have to wait a little longer.

What we already know at this point is that the great Roger Federer will not be competing in Melbourne next month, having taken the decision to withdraw from the tournament.

His agent Tony Godsick said: “He has made strong progress in the last couple of months with his knee and his fitness.

“However, after consultation with his team, he decided that the best decision for him in the long run is to return to competitive tennis after the Australian Open.”

Some unofficial and unconfirmed claims suggest Federer’s wife Mirka was not keen on the idea of spending two weeks locked in a hotel room with their four children in Australia.

The Slam’s rules dictate that only players can leave their rooms in the first fortnight after initially arriving in Australia to practice and go tovthe gym for a maximum of five hours per day with chosen partners to ensure a strict quarantine bubble.

The Australian authorities are taking a hardline stance as they look to prevent the Open being riddled by positive COVID-19 tests in the wake of new strains of the deadly virus across the globe, even despite Novak Djokovic’s apparent demands for rules to be tweaked.

And so in the absence of the 39-year-old Federer, a six-time winner of this major, eyes naturally turn towards his two ‘Big Three’ rivals Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic is the reigning Australian Open champion having beaten Nadal a year ago and has been victorious here in both of the past two years and also in seven of the last 10 tournaments. That accounts for nearly half of his entire Grand Slam total.

The only other winners since 2010 were Stan Wawrinka in 2014 and Federer, in 2017 and 2018, with Nadal only a one-time champion and not since 2009.

The pressure then is massively on Djokovic, although Nadal has also reached four finals since his sole triumph at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park.

The Serbian, who ended 2020 as world No 1 and ended the calendar year atop the ATP Tour’s rankings for a sixth time in doing so, has making up to do for the end of last year.

Though Wimbledon was cancelled, taking away one Slam in which he’d have been massive favourite, he squandered the chance to make it 18 at the US Open when he was defaulted.

And at the rescheduled French Open after that he was hammered by Nadal in straight sets on the Paris clay, seeing the older 34-year-old join veteran Federer on 20 majors as a result.

Nadal is almost certain to win at Roland Garros again in 2021, and probably in 2022 too although Dominic Thiem will hope to become the new ‘King of Clay’ after his maiden Slam in the States last year.

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Winning the French Open twice more would put Nadal on 22 and that should see him clear of Federer, who will face a test to even add one more Slam to his total, nevermind two.

That means it is at the Australian Open, a tournament where Djokovic has been so dominant over the past decade, where the Serb must put the hammer down.

Winning it next month would put him on 18 Slams headed into the French Open in May where Nadal will be huge favourite to again stretch his advantage over Djokovic to three majors.

But failing to do so would leave him chasing the Majorcan by four and Nadal looks to have conquered his fitness problems for the time-being.

Four slams would not be a completely insurmountable difference but the sport’s next generation only continue to up their game and Djokovic is nowhere near as dominant in the US as he is in Australia, where the conditions suit him down to the ground.

Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev in particular should only continue to pose tougher tests to Djokovic at the hard-court and grass-court Slams, meaning the eventual retirement of Federer takes one elite-level rival out of the mix.

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Thiem has tasted glory now and Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev don’t appear far away from winning majors, with the Greek and the Russian having been victorious at the last two editions of the ATP Finals.

They will be hungry to take over from the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic-dominated era and the latter will be keenly aware of the threat they pose over the coming years.

The Australian Open and Wimbledon will be his best bets of adding to his haul of Slams, with Thiem looking poised to succeed Nadal as the man to beat in France.

But Djokovic turns 34 in May and is steadily but surely entering his twilight years, even if Federer is set to continue playing on the ATP Tour into his 40s.

And so getting 2021 off to a good start feels imperative for Djokovic and his chances of being recognised as the ‘Greatest of All Time’ over Federer and Nadal – at least statistically – may well even depend on it. No pressure Novak.

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