Melbourne — Rafael Nadal's bid to win a record 21st Grand Slam when the Australian Open begins Monday has been given a huge boost by the absence of fellow history-chaser Novak Djokovic.
The 20-time Grand Slam winners had been drawn to meet in the semi-final, a prospect torpedoed when the unvaccinated Djokovic lost his last-gasp bid to avoid deportation on the eve of the tournament.
The 34-year-old top seed, who has won eight of the last 11 editions of the Melbourne major, had been scheduled to play Monday night as he sought to retain his title.
The world number one's humiliation means he will not have the chance to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for a 10th time and make men's tennis history. Instead he is leaving Australia.
With Roger Federer injured and absent, Nadal and world number two Daniil Medvedev are the main beneficiaries of Djokovic's enforced 11th-hour withdrawal.
But others, including Olympic champion Alexander Zverev and young Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, will eye a golden opportunity to win a maiden Slam.
"The Australian Open is much more important than any player," said Nadal on Saturday, taking a swipe at Djokovic.
"Australian Open will be a great Australian Open with or without him."
It is now 13 years since the 35-year-old Nadal, who begins his campaign against American Marcos Giron on Monday, won his lone title in Melbourne, despite four further trips to the final.
Nadal battled a foot injury for much of last year, ending his season in August, then contracted Covid in December, saying it left him "very sick".
But the 13-time French Open champion swept through the field to win a warm-up event at Melbourne Park, suggesting he is suffering no long-term effects.
'It's going to be fun'
Russia's Medvedev, who faces Switzerland's Henri Laaksonen in the first round on Tuesday, conquered Djokovic in the US Open final in September to win his maiden major and end the Serbian's bid to win a calendar Grand Slam.
He heads the bottom half of the draw and would not have met Djokovic until the final in any case.
"Even if Novak is in the draw, I can only see him in the final," said Medvedev, who has cut a confident figure.
"I need to win six matches before this. It would not change much my preparation."
Germany's Tokyo gold medallist Zverev is another who will fancy his chances in a draw that suddenly looks open.
"There are still a lot of guys that have the potential to make this tournament really interesting," he said.
"I think it's going to be a fun one to watch."
Andy Murray, runner-up in the Australian Open five times, returns on a wildcard for the first time since an emotional 2019 "farewell" appearance after undergoing hip surgery that enabled him to make a remarkable comeback.
The 34-year-old Briton will begin his bid against 21st-seeded Nikoloz Basilashvili and the former number one is looking more like his old self.
At the weekend in Sydney the Scot reached his first final since 2019 in a massive boost to his confidence.