Challengers abound, but Djokovic and Swiatek gain importance at Australian Open

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In the promotional campaign launched by the ATP this month to welcome the new season, the governing body of men’s tennis stressed that it is determined to look to its future. As numerous talented young players appeared in the campaign, poet James Massiah chronicled the dawn of a new era in a sport that has moved on.

And yet, the tour’s ranking contradicts its narrative. There may be newer and fresher rivals, but the figure at the head of the sport and the man to beat has remained the same for more than a decade.

Related: Australian Open: Can Coco Gauff back up New York glory at Melbourne Park?

After one of the most dominant seasons of his career, which earned him titles at the Australian Open, French Open, US Open and ATP Finals, and which ultimately saw him take the Grand Slam record of the open era, Novak Djokovic is now ranked number one. more than 2,000 points. He returns to his favorite Grand Slam in search of his 25th Grand Slam title as a big favorite once again.

Despite its dominance, there are still many potential obstacles. The first week of the season was a reminder that, at 36, her body is increasingly likely to be a hindrance. At the United Cup last week, Djokovic struggled with a wrist ailment and was defeated by Alex de Minaur. Injuries have never stopped Djokovic from winning in Australia.

Meanwhile, Djokovic’s closest competitors are in a much better position than a year ago. Players ranked between second and fourth are responsible for Djokovic’s four losses off clay last season; Although Carlos Alcaraz ended up fatigued last season, his supernatural development continued as he claimed a second Grand Slam title in the most spectacular of circumstances against Djokovic at Wimbledon. Alcaraz will have to adapt quickly to Australia after opting out of a warm-up tournament, but his rapid growth is sure to continue.

Jack Draper will seek his first ATP Tour title at the Adelaide International after beating Alexander Bublik 7-6 (2), 6-4 in the semifinals. He represents a second consecutive ATP Tour final for the 22-year-old, who was defeated by Adrian Mannarino in the trophy final at the Sofia Open in November.

Draper broke twice in the first set against Bublik, who is one of the most unconventional players on tour. He dragged Draper down the court with repeated dropshots and one game in the second set featured a rally in which both players played lobs between their legs before Bublik sent an underarm serve and won the point with a volley played with the handle. of his racket.

But there were also nine double faults and a series of unforced errors and Draper maintained his high level to prepare for the final meeting on Saturday with Czech Jiri Lehecka.

“It was a really tough game,” Draper said. “Alexander is a great player and a very unorthodox player. It is always difficult to play against him. He is actually a very good guy and also a good friend. We have a lot of fun when we compete against each other. I was very happy to have been able to overcome him and get the victory today and be in another final.”

Draper’s victory on Saturday would lift his ranking back into the top 50 ahead of his first match at the Australian Open next week.

After a poor run in his second year in 2022 following his promotion to No. 1, Daniil Medvedev returned to his best last year, performing at a consistently high level on hard courts, positioning himself for future Grand Slam success. Meanwhile, Jannik Sinner finished last season living up to intense expectations when he spectacularly defeated Djokovic from three match points down in the Davis Cup before leading Italy to the title. Other players, particularly Holger Rune and Alexander Zverev, may be able to play a decisive role, but it is Alcaraz, Medvedev and Sinner who should look to Djokovic with the belief that they can do it.

While the protagonist of men’s soccer has not changed for so long, the WTA has a different look at the start of the season. The disorder and inconsistency that characterized much of the late 2010s and early 2020s is no more.

The emergence of Iga Swiatek has transformed the game. The Pole set the tone with her unique 2022 season and, surprisingly, last year several players responded to the challenge she proposed by stepping forward. Aryna Sabalenka’s transformation was a dramatic event, and the Belarusian went toe-to-toe with Swiatek for the number one spot until the final week of the year at the WTA Finals. Behind them, Elena Rybakina backed up her 2022 Wimbledon title, while Coco Gauff lived up to the suffocating hype and pressure by winning the US Open as she powered through the second half of the season.

If the first week of the new season is anything to go by, none of the top four have lost momentum. Rybakina and Sabalenka met in the final in Brisbane, with the Kazakh taking a 6-0, 6-3 victory, while Gauff won in Auckland.

Meanwhile, in the United Cup, Swiatek demonstrated her brilliance by going undefeated in her five singles matches. It was tremendously entertaining to see her even making life difficult for her male opponents, hitting her second serves and going toe-to-toe with them from the baseline in the mixed doubles matches.

As in the men’s draw, Swiatek starts as a favorite, although she has had a difficult draw. The number one seed begins against 2020 champion Sofia Kenin, with the winner facing either 2016 champion Angelique Kerber or 2022 runner-up Danielle Collins. Along the way she may have to face Jelena Ostapenko or Rybakina, two players with great records against her.

Beyond the order at the top of the game, the definitive theme of the women’s draw is comebacks: Naomi Osaka and Kerber return from maternity leave, Emma Raducanu from injury and Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki continue their stories from last year. Between them all, Osaka returning to the top of the sport would be priceless.

This year, there is a change for the competitors as the tournament begins on Sunday. While organizers have claimed the move is an attempt to minimize late finishes, an extra day of weekend play is an extra day of revenue for the tournament. Despite this, the Australian Open still offers noticeably fewer prize money than other Grand Slam tournaments.

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