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A preview of the Australian Open

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Australian Open kicks off this weekend, and there are a number of comeback headlines and disappointments - something to pique the interest of both casual and devout tennis fans. Courtney Nguyen's got a front-row seat to everything. She is senior writer with WTA Insider. She joins us now from Melbourne. Hey there. Welcome back.

COURTNEY NGUYEN: Hello, Mary Louise. How are you doing?

KELLY: I am well, and I want to start with this decision by the Australian Open to have an extra day of tennis. They're starting play on Sunday. Why?

NGUYEN: They're starting to play on Sunday. They're following what the French Open started to do. They've had a Sunday start for a few years now. And they're doing it, they say, to alleviate the concerns about late-night finishes - that, basically, these schedules get too stacked across 14 days. So they're thinking, well, if we spread it out across 15, that gives us a little bit more leeway to start matches on time so that we are not here at Melbourne Park until 2 o'clock in the morning.

KELLY: Yeah.

NGUYEN: But it does - you know, it gives them a little extra day to sell tickets.

KELLY: And, I guess, deal with unpredictable weather and all the rest of it. All right, the players - and I want to start with the women's side. Last year's champion is back. This is Aryna Sabalenka. She is going to have some tough competition, though, starting with U.S. Open champ Coco Gauff and then also Naomi Osaka making her return to the court after having a baby. What are you watching for there?

NGUYEN: Yeah, I think that it's a great tournament insofar as the top four women. The ones that have been pretty much dominating the tour for the last year or two are all in great form. They're virtually all undefeated to start the year, so Sabalenka does have her work cut out for her to defend her title here at Melbourne Park. Naomi Osaka is a big draw here. She has been in a great mood. She talked to the reporters yesterday, was affable, seemed to be very, very happy coming back - first time in 15 months, since having her daughter.

And it's an exciting time because these are the marquee players, like a Naomi Osaka, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber, who are coming back and adding intrigue to a tour that has kind of skewed a little younger. You know, when we talk about the Coco Gauffs and world No. 1, Iga Swiatek, who is kind of the favorite - you know, these oldies but goodies are bringing it back. And I think that, in a lot of ways, tennis fans are feeling very nostalgic as this Australian Open kicks off.

KELLY: Then on the men's side, Novak Djokovic, last year's champion - kind of everything's champion. He's gunning for his 25th major. Who stands in his way, potentially?

NGUYEN: Well, I think, in a lot of ways, it's Novak that stands in his own way. He's 36 years old. He's coming off of one of the most dominant seasons he's even ever had, so it doesn't seem like age is really coming for him. But he did seem to pick up a little bit of a wrist injury. I'm not entirely sure it'll necessarily stop him over two weeks here, where he gets an extra rest day. He is the favorite. There's Jannik Sinner - Italian, big, thunderous striker of the ball - obviously Carlos Alcaraz, who has beaten Novak in major finals before. Those are the two guys that look to derail him. But for now, it's Novak versus Novak to win the Australian Open.

KELLY: Any wild cards in these early draws who you're excited to watch?

NGUYEN: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the big ones obviously, as you mentioned, Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber - she's a former champion here at Melbourne Park, also a returning mother, first time in 18 months. To the extent that you can pick a top-four player as a wild card, it would be Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan. She's looked fantastic to start the season, and she just seems to have the numbers of Swiatek and Sabalenka. So if she makes it through - she was a finalist last year - she could raise her second Grand Slam title for sure.

KELLY: Courtney Nguyen, senior writer with WTA Insider, giving us a little preview of what to watch for in Melbourne. Thank you.

NGUYEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OHNO SONG, "DROWSY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason Fuller
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.