The first grand slam of the new tennis season gets underway on January 16 in Melbourne and the 2023 Australian Open is set to provide no end of intriguing storylines.
Chief among them is the return of Novak Djokovic one year from his deportation debacle, as the Serb looks to match Rafael Nadal’s record of 22 grand slam titles.
Djokovic’s preparation for the Australian Open got off to the best possible start, winning the Adelaide International warmup event to secure his 92nd ATP singles title and go level with Nadal in joint fourth place in the all-time rankings.
Only Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer and Ivan Lendl have won more Tour singles titles.
However, Djokovic suffered an injury scare on Wednesday and was forced to withdraw from a practice match against Daniil Medvedev.
The world No. 5 told told 9News Melbourne it was the same hamstring issue he had during 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 any bigger scares before the Australian Open.
“There was a lot of care going into today’s match about the hamstring. It was all right. A few times in the match, I felt the muscle was tightening up, but nothing that would worry me for my performance.”
Djokovic is the bookmakers’ clear favorite to win the title Down Under and gets his bid for a record-extending 10th Australian Open crown underway against Spain’s Roberto Carballés Baena on Monday.
“We all wonder how is that hamstring injury of his, where he said he didn’t want to play that match against Medvedev and he also cut a few practices short,” 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 to enter Australia and it was very hard for him to digest. I think now he’s over it and he just wants to start from scratch. He had so much success in the past at the Australian Open, he won the title there nine times so he feels really comfortable there and the interesting thing is how he’s going to be received.
“In Adelaide the people have loved him, hopefully it’s going to be the same thing in Melbourne as well. When he walked out onto the court the other day for his first practice he was kissing the court so that shows you 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 he played some unbelievable tennis that extended his career … so he is my heavy favorite going into this year’s Australian Open, that’s for sure.”
Unfortunately for tennis fans, particularly those from Spain, men’s world No. 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 with Djokovic, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas all able to take the No. 1 spot 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 the history of men’s tennis, surpassing Lleyton Hewitt’s record set in 2001.
Fortunately, the injury doesn’t appear to be too serious as Alcaraz announced in a tweet on Wednesday that he will be returning to the court for the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires, which gets underway on February 11.
Flying the flag for Spain at the top end of the rankings instead will be Nadal, who will be hoping to defend the title he won in 2022.
However, the world No. 2 – the No. 1 seed in Melbourne in Alcaraz’s absence – has struggled with injuries and has made a slow start to the year, losing his only two matches so far, at the United Cup.
Nadal has been given a tough draw in the opening round and will face exciting British youngster Jack Draper, who made a blistering start to the season by reaching the semifinals of the Adelaide International.
“With Rafa Nadal you never know,” Schett said. “We know that many times he’s had struggles with injuries and then suddenly he pops up and wins a grand slam title.
“It was pretty similar last year where he hasn’t played much tennis and he rocks up here at the Australian Open and wins the title, so I wouldn’t read too much into it that he lost two matches at the United Cup.
“Of course, facing Jack Draper in the first round is not an easy draw but with Rafa Nadal, never write him off because he has the experience, especially at the grand slam level, and I think he’s keen for more grand slam titles.”
Other notable first round ties in the men’s draw include world No. 14 and last year’s semifinalist Matteo Berrettini taking on three-time grand slam winner Andy Murray, as well as the box office home favorite Nick Kyrgios, aiming to become the first Australian champion in 47 years, against Roman Safiullin.
Iga Światek will be hoping to add an Australian Open title to her already impressive resumé, which includes two French Open titles and a US Open crown.
Still just 21 years of age, Światek was tipped by many to be the sport’s dominant force following Ash Barty’s shock retirement from the sport last year while occupying the world No. 1 ranking.
Światek now stands atop the rankings and, at the US Open at the end of last year, dispelled any doubts that her grand slam success on clay could not be transferred over to hard courts.
The Polish star enjoyed an absurdly successful 2022, winning a staggering eight titles, including the French Open, US Open and WTA 1000 events in Rome, Miami and Indian Wells.
Światek’s success last year has put her in another stratosphere at the top of the women’s rankings, sitting almost 6,000 points clear of world No. 2 Ons Jabeur.
Światek is unquestionably the favorite heading into the Australian Open and will be confident of improving on last year’s semifinal appearance, but has been given a tricky opening round tie against Germany’s Jule Niemeier.
The 23-year-old made waves last year by reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals and US Open round-of-16 with some big hitting and, now ranked No. 68 in the world, is making her first main draw appearance at the Australian Open.
One of Światek’s main contenders for the title in Melbourne will be world No. 3 Jessica Pegula, who beat the Pole in the semifinals of last week’s United Cup before going on to win the title.
It was the third Tour win of Pegula’s career, the highlight being the WTA 1000 event in Guadalajara, Mexico, last year, and the US star has become one of the more consistent performers in the Tour.
Pegula also played a key role in Team USA’s victory in the inaugural mixed gender team event, the United Cup, and her blistering start to the year will rightly make her confident of securing a first grand slam title Down Under.
Among the other names likely to go deep at the Australian Open is Jabeur, who enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2022 by reaching two grand slam finals.
Though she lost in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals, Jabeur did win two WTA titles last year, including the Madrid 1000 event, to add to her only previous title from Birmingham in 2021.
Jabeur’s success in 2022 helped her climb to a career-best No. 2 in the world and her varied game, dangerous on all surfaces, makes her a real threat in Melbourne, with the experienced gained from reaching two major finals no doubt being of benefit.
Teenage superstar Coco Gauff will be another player hopeful of breaking her grand slam duck after also reaching her maiden final in 2022.
Gauff lost to Światek in the final of the French Open but impressed on clay, a surface that is by no means her favorite, which will no doubt give her increased confidence she can go one better on her preferred surface in Australia.
Though she didn’t win a singles title in 2022, Gauff continued her rise as one of the most impressive doubles player in the world by winning three WTA titles with fellow American Pegula.
Still just 18 years of age, Gauff finished 2022 ranked inside the top 10 in both singles and doubles – seventh and fourth respectively – and will certainly be a serious contender at all four grand slams in 2023.