The first grand slam of the new tennis season kicks off on January 16 in Melbourne and the 2023 Australian Open will deliver endless intriguing storylines.
Chief among these is the return of Novak Djokovic a year after his deportation debacle, as the Serb looks set to equal Rafael Nadal’s record of 22 grand slam titles.
Djokovic’s preparation for the Australian Open got off to the best start possible, winning the Adelaide International warmup event to secure his 92nd ATP singles title and tie with Nadal for a tie for fourth in the all-time rankings.
Only Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer and Ivan Lendl have won more Tour singles titles.
However, Djokovic sustained an injury on Wednesday and was forced to withdraw from a friendly match against Daniil Medvedev.
The world number 5 told 9News Melbourne it was the same hamstring injury he suffered at last week’s Adelaide International and that his withdrawal against Medvedev was just a precaution.
“I just felt it pulling and I didn’t want to risk anything worse,” he said. “I played a set and apologized to him [Medvedev] and he was understanding. I just want to avoid bigger fears for the Australian Open.
“There was a lot of focus on the hamstring today. It was OK. A few times in the game I felt the muscle tighten, but nothing that would worry me about my performance.
Djokovic is the bookmakers’ clear favorite to win the Down Under title, receiving his bid for a record-extending 10th Australian Open title against Spain’s Roberto Carballés Baena on Monday.
“We all wonder about that hamstring injury where he said he didn’t want to play that game against Medvedev and he also cut out a few practices,” Barbara Schett, a former professional and current broadcaster, told CNN’s Amanda Davies . . But he had a great start to the season, he won a tournament in Adelaide and he is hungry.
“He wasn’t allowed to play in Australia, wasn’t allowed into Australia and it was very hard for him to digest. I think he’s over it now and just wants to start all over again. He’s had so much success at the Australian Open in the past, he won the title there nine times, so he’s really comfortable there and the interesting thing is how he’s going to be received.
“People loved him in Adelaide, hopefully Melbourne will too. When he walked onto the track for his first practice recently, he kissed the track, so it shows how much it means to him.
“I think he’s hungry, he had a good rest last year because he only played 11 tournaments and played incredible tennis that extended his career… so he’s my firm favorite for this year’s Australian Open, that’s for sure. ”
Unfortunately for tennis fans, particularly those from Spain, the world’s number 1, Carlos Alcaraz, will be missing from the tournament in Melbourne due to a right leg injury suffered in training last week.
The Australian Open would have been Alcaraz’s first grand slam since winning the 2022 US Open in September, but his place at the top of the rankings is now under threat from Djokovic, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas, all of whom could take the No. 1 spot. take over from him.
Last year, Alcaraz won five ATP titles and became the youngest No. 1 in men’s tennis when he won his first Grand Slam title in New York. He is the youngest man since Rafael Nadal to enter the top 10 and win an ATP 1000 title.
At the age of 19 years and 214 days, Alcaraz also became the youngest year-end No. 1 in men’s tennis history, surpassing the record set by Lleyton Hewitt in 2001.
Thankfully, the injury doesn’t seem too serious as Alcaraz announced in a tweet on Wednesday that he will return to court for the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires, which kicks off on February 11.
Instead, Nadal will be flying the flag for Spain at the top of the table, who hope to defend the title he won in 2022.
However, the world number 2 – the number 1 seed in Melbourne in the absence of Alcaraz – has been battling injuries and has had a slow start to the year, losing his only two games to date at the United Cup .
Nadal has received a tough opening round draw and will face exciting British youngster Jack Draper, who made a blistering start to the season by reaching the semi-finals of the Adelaide International.
“With Rafa Nadal you never know,” said Schett. “We know that he often struggles with injuries and then suddenly shows up and wins a grand slam title.
“It was about the same last year when he didn’t play a lot of tennis and he’s rocking here at the Australian Open and winning the title, so I wouldn’t read into it too much that he lost two games at the United Cup.
“Of course it’s not an easy draw against Jack Draper in the first round, but with Rafa Nadal, never write him off because he’s got the experience, especially at the grand slam level, and I think he’d like more grand slam titles .”
Other notable first-round ties in the men include world No. 14 and last year’s semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini, who takes on three-time Grand Slam winner Andy Murray, as well as home favorite Nick Kyrgios, who is aiming to become the first Australian champion in 47 years, against Roman Safiullin.
Iga Światek hopes to add an Australian Open title to her already impressive resume, which includes two French Open titles and a US Open crown.
Only 21 years old, Światek was tipped by many to be the sport’s dominant force after Ash Barty’s shock retirement from the sport last year while occupying the world No. 1 ranking.
Światek is now at the top of the rankings and at the US Open at the end of last year dispelled any doubt that her grand slam success on clay could not be transferred to hard court.
The Polish star had an absurdly successful 2022, winning a whopping eight titles, including the French Open, US Open and WTA 1000 events in Rome, Miami and Indian Wells.
Światek’s success last year has propelled her into another stratosphere at the top of the women’s ranking, with a lead of almost 6,000 points over the world number 2 Ons Jabeur.
Światek is without a doubt the favorite heading into the Australian Open and will be sure to improve on his semi-final performance from last year, but has conceded a tricky opening round draw against Germany’s Jule Niemeier.
The 23-year-old made waves last year by reaching the Wimbledon and US Open round-of-16 quarterfinals with some big hits and, now world number 68, is making her first major-draw appearance at the Australian Open.
One of Światek’s main contenders for the title in Melbourne is world number 3 Jessica Pegula, who beat the Pole in the semi-finals of the United Cup last week before winning the title.
It was the third Tour win of Pegula’s career, culminating at last year’s WTA 1000 event in Mexico’s Guadalajara, and the American star has become one of the more consistent performers on the Tour.
Pegula also played a key role in Team USA’s victory in the inaugural co-ed team event, the United Cup, and her blistering start to the year will give her justifiable confidence in securing a maiden grand slam title Down Under.
Among the other names likely to go deep at the Australian Open is Jabeur, who made a breakthrough in 2022 by reaching two grand slam finals.
Although she lost in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals, Jabeur won two WTA titles last year, including the Madrid 1000 event, in addition to her only previous title from Birmingham in 2021.
Jabeur’s success in 2022 helped her climb to the best No. 2 in the world and her varied game, dangerous on all surfaces, makes her a real threat in Melbourne, with the experience she has gained from reaching two Grand Finals will undoubtedly come in handy. .
Teen superstar Coco Gauff will be another player hoping to break her grand slam duck after also reaching her first final in 2022.
Gauff lost to Światek in the French Open final, but impressed on clay, a surface that is definitely not her favourite, which will undoubtedly give her more confidence that she can go even better on her preferred surface in Australia.
While she failed to win a single title in 2022, Gauff continued her rise as one of the most impressive doubles players in the world by winning three WTA titles with compatriot Pegula.
Still just 18 years old, Gauff finished in the top 10 in both singles and doubles in 2022 – seventh and fourth respectively – and is sure to be a serious contender at all four grand slams in 2023.