A fresh start. A new beginning. For tennis fans, the New Year action starts in Melbourne, home of the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam event of the year. Also known as “the Happy Slam”, it is the perfect opportunity for every professional player to start afresh, try new tactics, forget past failures and build a strong momentum by being the year’s first noteworthy champion.
Scheduled from Jan 14 to 28, this is the first time in the tournament’s 119-year history that the Australian Open begins on a Sunday, a day earlier than usual. Day sessions in the main stadiums (Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena) have been reduced to two matches (down from three) in an effort to lower the possibility of matches finishing in the early hours of the following morning. Incidentally, in the second round last year, Britain’s Andy Murray battled past Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis from two sets down to win a thrilling match that took five hours and 45 minutes, ending at about 4am! No doubt the early start to the tournament this year will be welcomed by both players and spectators.
On the men’s side, with 20-time major champion Roger Federer retired and 22-time major champion Rafael Nadal out due to a hip injury (and retiring by the end of this year, one suspects), it would be a fair assumption that a new generation of players is taking over the tour.
Well, not quite yet. Just ask Novak Djokovic. With 24 Grand Slam singles titles under his belt (the most of any male player) and still the world’s No 1 player, the 36-year-old is not only still standing but dominating, and no doubt will be aiming for a record 11th Australian Open title.
Close on his heels is world No 2 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, 20, who beat Djokovic at Wimbledon last year, and Jannik Sinner, 22, who beat Djokovic twice in 2023. Will they be able to topple the Novak Grand Slam machine? This is turning out to be a generational tussle and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, particularly in the next two to three years.
On the women’s side, world No 1 Iga Swiatek and No 2 (and defending Australian Open champion) Aryna Sabalenka are expected to perform well. However, there were four female Grand Slam champions in 2023. Perhaps there may be a breakthrough this year for other aspiring contenders such as former Wimbledon champions Elena Rybakina and Marketa Vondrousova, or the US’ Coco Gauff (2023 US Open winner) and world No 5 Jessica Pegula, who has reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open three times.
The one to beat
Djokovic, the oldest player among the world’s top 10, ended 2023 as No 1, the winner of three majors (the Australian, French and US Open), a Wimbledon finalist and the winner of the ATP Finals (where only the top 8 ranked players compete) for a record seventh time, the most by any player. He nearly completed the Grand Slam of tennis (winning all four majors in a calendar year), narrowly losing to Alcaraz in an epic five-set Wimbledon final that lasted almost five hours. With the rapid rise of the young Spaniard, one might have thought this win signalled the changing of the guard. Djokovic had other plans, however, and went on to beat him twice before charging ahead to win the US Open and ATP Finals.
In an interview, Djokovic admitted that the younger players had kind of stirred “a beast” in him, motivating him to reinvent himself yet again and push harder. The “Djoker” has now won the Australian Open a record 10 times and will be gunning for Grand Slam title No 25, which would make this Serbian star the holder of the most singles Grand Slam titles in tennis history (he and Australia’s Margaret Court currently tie for the most number of majors singles titles at 24 each). A beast has indeed awoken and Djokovic is clearly the one to beat in Australia.
The boy who would be king
With two Grand Slam titles under his belt (US Open 2022 and Wimbledon 2023) and having reached No 1 in the world, Alcaraz was described by Djokovic as having the best mix of himself, Nadal and Federer. By emerging the winner at Wimbledon last year, he became its first champion to not bear the surname of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray in the 20 years since 2003! However, it has not gone unnoticed that Carlitos has not won a title since Wimbledon. He came very close to winning at Cincinnati but ultimately lost to Djokovic in a thrilling 7-5, 6-7, 6-7 final showdown that lasted almost four hours. It was a gruelling match, testing the physical and mental limits of both players. Djokovic somehow edged Alcaraz, and in doing so, shifted their rivalry in Djokovic’s favour in the months to come. With the wind knocked out of his sails, Alcaraz did not win any of the tournaments the rest of the year, and it looked as if the pressure and weight of expectations that come with being so good and successful at a young age in tennis had got the better of him, at least for now.
The Italian stallion
Italy’s Sinner (world No 4) ended the 2023 season as the Tour’s most in-form player. The Fox won 20 of his final 23 matches, winning titles in Beijing and Vienna and leading Italy to its first Davis Cup title in 47 years. In the ATP Finals, he impressively beat Djokovic, Dane Holger Rune (world No 8) and Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas (world No 6) in the group stages, and world No 3 Daniil Medvedev in the semi-finals, before losing to Djokovic in the finals. One interesting statistic to note — Sinner is the youngest male player to reach the quarterfinals of all four Grand Slams since Djokovic in 2008. With incredible movement and powerful, fluid shots coming off both his forehand and backhand, he has been steadily improving under the guidance of his Aussie coach Darren Cahill.
Fun fact: Sinner has a fan club called “The Carota Boys”, who have become somewhat famous for wearing carrot costumes in the tournaments he plays in (carota is carrot in Italian). Apparently, the idea came about at a tournament in Vienna in 2019 when, during a changeover, Sinner ate a carrot instead of the usual banana by players. Also, his orange-red hair is similar to the colour of carrots. Sinner feels that it is great to have this dedicated fan club and said, “They’re almost more famous than I am.” The young man could very well score his maiden Grand Slam win in Australia, given the momentum he has had the past few months. But a major win is expected of him sometime this year, regardless.
The rest of the pack
Medvedev, 27, winner of one Grand Slam title (US Open 2021), will always be a threat, especially when playing on hard courts. He has reached five major finals, two in Australia and three in the US. He lost twice to Djokovic and twice to Nadal (whom he lost to in the 2022 Australian Open thriller after winning the first two sets). The hard-hitting Andrey Rublev (world No 5), Tsitsipas and German Alexander Zverev (world No 7) will likely go deep into the Open, along with Rune, 20, (world No 8) and big-serving Hubert Hurkacz, the Polish world No 9. Also watch out for the American quartet of Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton, ranked world No 10, 13, 16 and 17 respectively.
Three-time major finalist Casper Ruud (world No 11), Norway’s top ranked player, and Australia’s Alex de Minaur (world No 12) could spring a surprise, although neither has progressed past the fourth round at the Australian Open. Another Aussie Nick Kyrgios, 28, (Wimbledon 2022 finalist) will miss the Open due to knee injury. Kyrgios, often making headlines for controversial comments and actions on and off the court, indicated in a recent interview that he did not feel like playing any more due to the pain and surgeries he has experienced throughout his young professional career. Since then, he has tried his hand as a pundit for the Tennis Channel, which drew positive reviews. It looks like we can expect to hear more from Kyrgios, who is trending in tennis news lately due to his online spat with tennis legend Boris Becker, Kyrgios even when he finally decides to hang up his racket.
Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, both former Australian Open champions, are mounting a comeback at this year’s Open. Four-time major winner Osaka and three-time major champion Kerber, who have been out of the tour for over a year, are popular players and will be welcomed warmly Down Under. Incidentally, both are new mothers, having given birth to daughters Shai and Liana respectively in 2023.
Caroline Wozniacki, who retired in 2020, will also be in action after being given a wild card at this year’s Australian Open. The 33-year-old mother of two made a memorable comeback at the US Open last September, reaching the fourth round, where she lost to eventual champion Gauff. The Dane will be hoping to make more history in the New Year after winning her first and only Grand Slam title at the 2018 Australian Open.
There is also no shortage of other talents to watch, including reigning champ Belarus’ Sabalenka, Kazakhstan’s Rybakina and quadruple Grand Slam winner and Polish No 1 Swiatek, who has been tipped as a potential winner in Melbourne by pundits, given her current form. American Pegula is particularly hungry for her first major title, as is Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who delighted the crowd at last year’s Charleston Open because of her amazing tweener (a shot between the legs) against Belinda Bencic and which ultimately made the WTA’s 2023 Shot of the Year.
This article first appeared on Jan 15, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.