Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek headline Australian Open storylines to watch

Early in the second episode of “Break Point,” the new Netflix documentary series about the pro tennis tour, Spanish star Paula Badosa explains that the sport “is a drug” — an addiction that we learn later in the series does not always serve her well. 

But as physically grinding and mentally taxing as tennis can be, the burning ambition to compete and the adrenaline rush of playing in front of 15,000 people usually trumps everything for the elite players in the world. 

Now, the sport’s gatekeepers hope the same high will translate to a new legion of fans who have barely, if ever, watched a match before.

Created by the same team that helped boost Formula 1’s mainstream popularity with “Drive to Survive,” Friday’s release of “Break Point” coincides with the beginning of the Australian Open and a season of potential transition in the sport. 

Roger Federer is gone, having retired officially in September. Serena Williams played her final match at last year’s U.S. Open after announcing an “evolution” away from tennis. Rafael Nadal starts 2023 as the all-time Grand Slam king with 22 major titles but will turn 37 in June and is just 4-7 since pulling out of last year’s Wimbledon semifinals with an injury. 

At this point, the only one of the remaining legends who seems poised to squeeze more out of their prime is Novak Djokovic, who is back in Australia going for his 10th title there after the bizarre events of last January when he was detained and then deported because he had not met the country’s COVID-19 vaccination guidelines for entry. (In November, he was granted a visa to play in 2023 after Australia eliminated a rule requiring all international travelers be vaccinated).

Though none of those all-time greats are featured characters in “Break Point,” they are of course a large part of the narrative. Nadal, in particular, casts a massive shadow over the first five episodes, which take viewers from Australia through the French Open — both events where Nadal took the title last year. The rest of the episodes, covering the second half of 2022, will drop in June before Wimbledon.

From a larger institutional standpoint, tennis has dreaded the day when its most bankable, beloved stars would no longer be able to carry the sport to television audiences and ticket buyers around the world. 

In that sense, it gave the creators of “Break Point” an easy framing to create characters out of players that most casual or non-tennis fans would not likely have heard of: Who’s next, and what does it really take to get to the top?

Viewers who may have an impression of tennis as a genteel, country club sport will certainly come away with a much different impression of the anxiety, loneliness and difficult health choices players have to make as they pursue their dreams.

“I’ve trained my whole life for this moment,” American Taylor Fritz says as he’s weighing whether to take the court against Nadal in last year’s Indian Wells final even though doctors have told him he could be risking long-term injury to his foot and his coaches are imploring him not to play. “If I pulled out, I’d be thinking about this forever.”

In that respect, “Break Point” works exactly as it was intended, building personalities and storylines that will likely seem more interesting and fresh to new fans than those with a deep knowledge of the sport. 

What “Break Point” might be missing, at least in comparison to “Drive to Survive,” is conflict and rivalry. Tennis is a brutal sport in many ways, and the show makes clear how draining it is for most players to lose every week but keep showing up at the next stop on tour — but the players themselves might be too nice. 

Even the debut episode, which is built around tennis bad boy Nick Kyrgios and his career-long struggle to handle massive expectations, does not address the numerous on- and off-court run-ins he’s had with competitors over the years. 

About as close as the series comes to true conflict occurs in the fifth episode when young Canadian star Felix Auger-Aliassime meets Nadal at the French Open, putting coach Toni Nadal in the awkward position between the nephew he coached to his first 16 Grand Slam titles and his current pupil. But even Uncle Toni’s controversial handling of the situation mostly gets shrugged off by the players themselves, leaving viewers wondering whether the storyline really went anywhere.

While there will be plenty more nits for tennis fans to pick with the series, “Break Point” will almost certainly attract some new eyeballs to tennis, which is why the men’s and women’s tours, all four Grand Slams and a group of more than a dozen players gave Netflix significant access to their on- and off-court lives. 

If those new viewers (and current fans) tune in for the Australian Open, here are some storylines they’re likely to see.

Can Novak Djokovic match Rafael Nadal with 22 Grand Slams?

After being unable to play the U.S. Open due to his unvaccinated status, Djokovic tore through the end of the 2022 season, winning 18 of 19 matches including the year-end ATP Finals. Djokovic looked every bit the Australian Open favorite during a warm-up event in Adelaide but did pick up a minor hamstring injury that could prove problematic. 

Can Nadal survive a brutal draw? 

If not Iga Swiatek, then who?

The dominant No. 1 player on the women’s side, Swiatek comes in as the favorite. Though she’s proven herself plenty of times on hard courts, including at the U.S. Open, she is somewhat more vulnerable in the faster conditions that are typical of Melbourne. But there’s no clear second tier in the women’s game at the moment, which means the draw could open for any of 25 or 30 players to make a final. One player worth keeping an eye on is American Jessica Pegula, who has become very consistent at the Slams and beat Swiatek at a warm-up event.

Who’s missing? 

Unfortunately for “Break Point” fans, two of the series’ stars — Ajla Tomljanovic and Badosa — had to pull out of the tournament due to injuries. Tomljanovic and her then-boyfriend, Matteo Berrettini, were the focus of the second episode of the series while Badosa opens up about mental health struggles in the fourth episode centered around the Madrid Open in her hometown. Last week, two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka announced she will not compete in 2023 because she is pregnant. But the tournament’s most disappointing loss from a competitive standpoint is men’s No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz. Since his breakthrough Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open, the 19-year-old has struggled with injuries including a leg problem he developed during a recent practice match.

Who is primed to win their first major?

Fans of American Taylor Fritz had to love what they saw from the 25-year-old at the season-opening United Cup where his big serve was firing and he notched several quality wins. Up to No. 9 in the world, Fritz has shown he can compete with, and at times, beat the best on the regular tour. He has come close to doing it at Grand Slams but hasn’t closed the deal yet. The draw sets up well for him to make a semifinal run here, where he’d likely draw Djokovic. If she can keep it together mentally and play with discipline, the conditions are well-suited for big-hitting Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka to break through.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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