By James Steel
1. Challengers to Iga Świątek are emerging
Aryna Sabalenka cruised through her WTA 500 final in Adelaide to pick up the title. It’s been a very good week for the world number 5 with victories against Samsonova, Vondroušová, Begu and finally Noskova (more on her later). Sabalenka didn’t drop a set on the way to the title and showed that on the fast Aussie hard courts she is flying high and has her sights firmly set on the AO title. With a strong 500 win of this magnitude, Sabalenka is off to a good start in 2023. Between this title and her win over Świątek at the WTA finals (6-1 in the third set, no less), the world number one may have a rival in Sabalenka this year.
Jessica Pegula also looks set to challenge Świątek for some big titles this year. Though Iga wasn’t at her best in their United Cup match, the way Pegula dismissed her was something to behold. Pegula’s performance had everything: return winners, shots on the run that clipped the baseline, massive forehands to equal Świątek’s own. Pegula will have to adapt her gameplan to fit different conditions, but on the quick court, she played near-perfect tennis. If she can reproduce that level, even an in-form Świątek could struggle.
2. A dangerous dark horse emerges
A new dark horse has emerged in Adelaide that many players will want to avoid in the Australian Open draw: Linda Noskova, a young Czech player (where have we heard that before) whose big ball striking and emerging net game managed to take out Daria Kasatkina, Claire Liu, Victoria Azarenka and Ons Jabeur from the Adelaide draw. All these victories came in impressive fashion and showed a level well above Noskova’s world ranking of 102. The only glimmer of light for the tour is that Linda has to go through Australian Open qualifying next week to get to the main draw.
3. Consistent Coco
Over in the city which never stops raining, Auckland saw Cori Gauff pick up her third career title in a very rain affected week. The draw wasn’t nearly as strong as Adelaide (due to it being a 250 rather than a 500 and being much further away from Melbourne) but Coco showed that she can see off the players that she should beat in fairly convincing fashion. Given that Gauff was one of the first major shocks of the last AO and she’s made her first major final in the past twelve months, the chances of another early upset seem minimal.
4. Djokovic feels the love
A lot was written and talked about how the Aussie crowd would react to Novak Djokovic’s return down under. Well, if the response in Adelaide was anything to go by, the reaction will be overwhelmingly positive. Crowds of well wishers squashed themselves into any area of the tournament to watch the 21-time grand slam champion, even for his doubles match. Novak managed to use this energy to help him get some good victories over Quentin Halys, Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev before probably the most gripping 250 final we will see this year against Sebastian Korda. The Serb saved a championship point in the second set, the 16th time he has saved a match point en route to victory, and the eighth time he’s done so in a final. With his 92nd (yes, 92nd) title under his belt, the nine-time Australian Open champion looks primed to make it ten in a couple weeks.
5. Fritz and Norrie hit the ground running
Taylor Fritz and Cameron Norrie were a regular of the worldwide exhibition circuit during December and the matches they played there have seemed to have allowed the two players a running start in Oz. Both players put on their national jerseys in the United Cup and showed consistent lights-out tennis. Fritz managed to win all but one of his matches, getting wins over the likes of Matteo Berrettini, Hubert Hurkacz and Alexander Zverev. Norrie, quality of opponent-wise, went one better, getting two back to back top 10 victories over Nadal and Fritz and seeing off his good mate De Minaur in Alex’s back garden. Both players are well-positioned for a strong run in Melbourne.
Next week more stories can be told. AO qualifying, another round of WTA and ATP events in Adelaide, ATP Auckland and WTA Hobart come to the Aussie summer swing. Let’s see who else can write themselves into the minds of tennis fans and journalists alike for the Australian Open.