The must-watch storylines of the 2023 Australian Open

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The return of Novak Djokovic. The quest for continued dominance by one of the sport’s brightest young stars in Iga Swiatek. The start of a brand-new season.

That’s right, it’s summertime Down Under and that means just one thing — it’s Australian Open time.

And needless to say, there is a lot going on at the “Happy Slam” this year.

Fresh off an incredible 2022 season, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it offseason, the first major of the new year is upon us. Last year’s tournament saw more than its fair share of drama, starting with the deportation of Djokovic and ending with the unbelievable victories of Ashleigh Barty, who became the first Australian to win the tournament since 1978, and Rafael Nadal, who broke the record for most Grand Slam titles by a male player. Since then, Barty has retired from the sport and Nadal earned yet another major trophy in Paris but struggled with injuries later in the season.

Will Nadal do Nadal things and find a way to defend his title? Who will step up in the absence of the newly retired Serena Williams and Roger Federer to create global headlines and interest? Could Nick Kyrgios become the first Australian man to win at home in 47 years? Here are the players and storylines you need to know heading into the 2023 Australian Open.

Djokovic is back

It’s easy to forget that until recently Djokovic was called the “King of Melbourne,” thanks to his astonishing nine titles at the Australian Open. But then 2022 happened and, well, we’re not quite sure that nickname still holds.

Ahead of last year’s event, Djokovic found himself in the middle of a global firestorm and legal battle as a result of his unvaccinated status. He ultimately had his visa revoked and was deported from the country just hours before the main draw got underway. It was a debacle and dominated the first several days of the tournament. Initially it seemed as if Djokovic would be banned from entering Australia for three years, but he was granted a visa and started his season in Adelaide this month.

So now the question is: What can we expect from Djokovic? Despite playing a limited schedule in 2022 due to travel restraints, he still won Wimbledon, the ATP Finals and three other titles, and he opened 2023 with the title at Adelaide. So he remains one of, if not the favorite for the trophy. However, as unflappable as he often seems on the court, it will be a tall order to put all of those feelings from 2022 to the side.

“Obviously what happened 12 months ago was not easy for me, for my family, team, anybody who is close to me …” Djokovic said. “You can’t forget those events. It’s one of these things that stays with you for, I guess, the rest of your life. It’s something that I’ve never experienced before and hopefully never again. But it is a valuable life experience for me and something that as I said will stay there, but I have to move on.”

If Djokovic were to win, he would tie Nadal with 22 major titles, and be just one behind Serena Williams for the most in the Open era. As if there wasn’t enough already on the line for him or anything.

No. 1 isn’t done (at least not one of them anyway)

Prior to Carlos Alcaraz’s withdrawal last week due to a right leg injury, it looked as if both of the reigning US Open champions would be looking for back-to-back major titles. But alas, that is not to be.

But while Alcaraz won’t be there, Swiatek certainly will be, and she will be attempting to cement her status as the heir apparent for tennis’ superstar title. With Williams and Federer already retired, and Djokovic and Nadal nearing the ends of their careers, and in the absence of Alcaraz, all eyes will squarely be on her to step into those ever-so-large shoes.

The 21-year-old has already won three major titles and firmly held onto the top ranking since Barty retired in April. As a two-time French Open champion, her dominance on clay has been evident for some time, but she proved she is just as dominant on the hard courts in 2022.

During her mind-blowing 37-match win streak, the first 19 of said victories were on the surface and she earned three 1000-level hard-court titles (Qatar, Indian Wells, Miami) during that run. Swiatek reached the semifinals in Melbourne last season and is perhaps the biggest women’s favorite to win a major title since Serena in her prime. Not to mention, the US Open victory gave her an extra dose of confidence about her game.

“It’s a confirmation for me that [the] sky is the limit,” she said in September.

Swiatek started the 2023 season by leading the Polish team to the semifinals at the United Cup and recording straight-sets victories in her first three singles matches, including against Belinda Bencic. Although she was handed a stunning 6-2, 6-2 loss by Jessica Pegula in the semis, the normally unflappable Swiatek will likely use that as motivation in Melbourne.

Speaking of momentum …

While Swiatek is a heavy favorite and coming off a monumental season, there are a few others who finished 2022 on even hotter streaks that they will look to continue in the new year. Caroline Garcia, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Holger Rune combined for seven individual titles from August through the end of the season.

No woman was more dominant on the hard court during the latter part of 2022 than Garcia, who won the title in Cincinnati, notched the first major semifinal appearance of her career at the US Open and concluded the year with a WTA Finals trophy — and a matching cowboy hat.

Auger-Aliassime, 22, notched three consecutive titles in October, and helped lead Canada to its first Davis Cup victory and Team World to a Laver Cup title. During that dominant stretch, he defeated Djokovic, Nadal and Alcaraz and made it clear he could beat just about anyone.

But the man who stopped Auger-Aliassime’s win streak? That would be 19-year-old Rune. After losing to the Canadian at the Swiss Indoors final, Rune got his revenge at the semifinals of the Paris Masters the very next week. Rune then beat Djokovic, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, to win the 1000-level title, his second title of the fall.

Yup, 2023 could be a huge year for all three of these players.

Nadal’s Jordan Slam?

Few expected Nadal to win the 2022 Australian Open. He had missed most of the second half of the 2021 season with a chronic foot injury and had been bed-ridden with COVID-19 shortly before leaving for Australia in December. But he was all like, “21, CAN YOU DO SOMETHING FOR ME?” and his trademark tenacity carried him to an improbable victory, including a comeback five-set thriller against Daniil Medvedev in the final. Please take a moment to remind yourself of how epic that win was by rewatching the highlight below.

A year later, Nadal arrives in Melbourne in a similar situation. He struggled with injuries for much of the latter part of the season and was forced to withdraw ahead of the Wimbledon semifinals with a recurring abdominal tear. He was upset by Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round at the US Open and played sparingly after, recording a 1-3 record to end 2022. The new year hasn’t started much better — he lost his only two matches at the United Cup.

But if there’s one thing we know for sure, no matter how Nadal is feeling, he will give 100 percent and do everything he can to win if he’s playing. He can never be counted out. If he were to win his third title in Melbourne, he would further his lead for the most by a male player, tie Serena Williams’ Open era record and be just one behind Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24.

It’s Nadal. Anything is possible.

So close they can almost taste it (the rest is still unwritten)

In the 2022 season, both Ons Jabeur and Casper Ruud reached the first Grand Slam final of their respective careers — Jabeur at Wimbledon and Ruud at the French Open — and then they each reached their second major championship match at the US Open later in the summer. While that is a huge feat on its own, and marked historic firsts for their home countries of Tunisia and Norway, both walked away title-less from their efforts.

But now the question is: How will last year’s disappointments fuel them going into the first major of 2023? They’ve both proved how good they can be on the hard courts and know what it takes to make a deep run. Perhaps Melbourne is where the No. 2 seed Jabeur and/or No. 3 seed Rudd can claim a long-awaited first Grand Slam trophy.

Ruud, who also reached the final of the year-end ATP Finals, seemed both excited and pragmatic when asked in November about the upcoming season.

“It’s always refreshing to start a new year down in Australia,” Ruud said. “It’s like the mentality of course is you want to do well, but you know this is just the beginning of a long year … It’s like the start of a marathon and you are motivated for it.”

The American contenders

After much excitement when Venus Williams received a wild card to play in the tournament, she was forced to withdraw due to injury last week. But there remains a strong contingent representing the red, white and blue this year, and several of them have a chance to make runs deep into the second week. Here are a few you’ll want to stay up all night to watch:

Coco Gauff: The 18-year-old had a major breakthrough in 2022 and reached the first (of likely many) Grand Slam finals in Paris, as well as the quarterfinals at the US Open. She ended the year at No. 7, after reaching a career-high ranking of No. 4 in October, and is looking more confident than ever. Gauff made a statement in her first tournament of the new year by winning the third singles title of her career in Auckland. Her previous best result in Melbourne is the fourth round, but expect that to change this time around.

Jessica Pegula: Coming off the best season of her career, the 28-year-old reached the quarters in Melbourne, Paris and New York and ended the year with the No. 3 ranking. Coming off a 1000-level title at the Guadalajara Open in October and a head-turning performance at the United Cup which saw her get that victory over Swiatek, Pegula is a legitimate threat on the hard courts. (And she and Gauff could easily contend for the doubles title as well: The pair reached the French Open final in 2022 and won three titles together last year.)

Taylor Fritz: It’s been a tough stretch for the U.S. men, and it’s now been 20 years since an American man has won a major title (Andy Roddick, 2003 US Open). But after Fritz’s remarkable 2022 season, he might be the best hope to end that drought. He won three titles last year — including at Indian Wells against Nadal in the final — and reached his first major quarterfinal at Wimbledon, which he lost to Nadal in a fifth-set tiebreak. His win over Hubert Hurkacz in the United Cup semifinals carried the U.S. team to the final, and his victory against Matteo Berrettini clinched the title for his country. Fritz knows he can compete against the best, and he’ll have yet another chance to do just that.

Frances Tiafoe: Can we just bask in Tiafoe’s unbelievable upset win over Nadal at the US Open fourth round one more time? After his remarkable victory on Arthur Ashe, the 24-year-old went on to reach the first major semifinal of his career, where he gave Alcaraz a relentless five-set battle. Tiafoe didn’t win in New York, but he has done well in Melbourne in the past — he made his first Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance at the tournament in 2019 — and has what it takes to go even further in 2023. He was also one of the most crucial contributors for the U.S. team in the United Cup and went 5-0 in singles play.

Danielle Collins: The unexpected 2022 Australian Open finalist didn’t quite capitalize on her early-season success the rest of last year, but she has a surprisingly strong Aussie fan base and will want to prove her previous result was no fluke.

Sebastian Korda: The son of 1998 champion Petr Korda, the younger Korda has been poised for big things since he won the junior title in Melbourne in 2018 and then reached the fourth round in just his second major at the 2020 French Open. He’s fresh off a final appearance at Adelaide and shows no signs of slowing down.

Madison Keys: Back in the top 10 for the first time since 2019, Keys recorded a 5-0 singles record in the United Cup. The two-time Australian Open semifinalist seems to be rediscovering her best tennis just in time for the year’s first major.

Once believed to be the future centerpiece of women’s tennis, and with the sponsorships and business savvy to support that claim, Naomi Osaka is now two years removed from her last Grand Slam title and won’t be reversing that trend in Melbourne. On Wednesday, Osaka, 25, joyfully announced she is pregnant with her first child.

“I realize that life is so short and I don’t take any moments for granted, everyday is a new blessing and adventure,” Osaka wrote on social media. “I know that I have much to look forward to in the future, one thing I’m looking forward to is for my kid to watch one of my matches and tell someone ‘That’s my mom,’ haha.”

Osaka added she plans to be back on tour for the start of the 2024 season.

With her absence from the Australian Open this year, there are only two former champions in the women’s draw — Victoria Azarenka (2012, 2013) and Sofia Kenin (2020) — and they will play each other in the first round. Neither is a favorite to win the title this year, although Azarenka, who faced Osaka in the 2020 US Open final, is coming off a quarterfinal appearance in Adelaide and remains a strong presence on tour.

Kenin has struggled mightily as of late and has dealt with a series of injuries and stops-and-starts. She lost in the first round of both majors she played in 2022 and is currently ranked No. 280. Three years after her major triumph, Kenin would have needed a wild card for entry had she not used a protected ranking. But Kenin is far from the only recent Grand Slam champion looking for a resurgence in Melbourne. US Open victors Bianca Andreescu (2019), Dominic Thiem (2020) and Emma Raducanu (2021) will all be doing the same in Melbourne after challenging 2022 seasons. Thiem needed a wild card for entry because his ranking at the end of last season was just outside the cutoff for direct entry.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!

Barty did what felt like the impossible in 2022 with her Australian Open victory — and her emotional reaction, and that of the crowd, summed up exactly what it meant to the country.

So now that the drought has ended, and with it all of the talk and pressure around it, will it be easier for Australian players to win their home Slam? There are certainly a few players who have proved over the past year they are more than capable of handling the big moments.

In addition to winning the Australian Open doubles title in 2022 alongside fellow countryman Thanasi Kokkinakis, Kyrgios reached the first major final of his career at Wimbledon, and finally lived up to the hopes many had long bestowed upon him. He also won his first singles title since 2019 at the Citi Open in August.

A crowd favorite who frequently plays his matches on John Cain Arena, which is primarily a basketball venue, Kyrgios will undoubtedly be shouldering much of the nation’s attention this year, but it won’t all be due to his talent and polarizing on-court antics. Kyrgios is due back in court in February for an assault charge.

Likely more under the radar than Kyrgios, Alex de Minaur, the second-highest-seeded Australian, also won a title during the US Open hard-court series in 2022 with his second career victory in Atlanta. He was the last Australian man standing during the 2022 staging of the event with a fourth-round appearance, and started the year with a win over Nadal in the United Cup.

In the women’s draw, look no further than Ajla “Cold as ice” Tomljanovic to perhaps have the best chance to follow Barty’s lead. The 29-year-old reached back-to-back quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the US Open last season, and, most famously, defeated Serena Williams in front of a stunned capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the last match of Williams’ career. If she can withstand that kind of mental pressure, who’s to say she can’t win the Australian Open?

Don’t take our word for it. Take Barty’s. When asked by the Australian Associated Press in December if Tomljanovic could one day be a major contender, Barty didn’t hesitate in her response.

“She already is,” Barty said. “And that’s the genuine feeling among the players … It can always be taken away very quickly from you as an athlete, but she’s had an incredible year, absolutely, and I sincerely hope that she has a big Australian summer so that everyone can celebrate with her.

“She’s doing a hell of a job.”

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