Six Players to Watch Down Under

By Brandon DeMuro

As we take a look at the landscape of the world of professional tennis, one thing is certainly clear: There is a definite changing of the guard when it comes to the top of the men’s and women’s game. No more are the days of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic being the front runners in every major — while Nadal and Djokovic still battle on, there are now more contenders vying than ever before. In regards to the women’s tour, even though Iga Świątek is the number one player in every sense, there is still a wonder as to who is going to win these majors. Sure, Świątek is the favorite – and she deserves to be – but several of her peers possess the dazzling peak level to beat anyone on their day. 

But aren’t Novak Djokovic and Iga Świątek the overwhelming favorites? Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we will see them lifting their respective trophies in two weeks’ time. There is a deep cast of players you can look at and say yes, I can see that player winning or that player seems primed to win their first major. We have gotten used to seeing players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, and Dominic Thiem (once upon a time) making major finals and establishing them as fixtures at the top. In the women’s game, several players frequently make deep runs, like Coco Gauff, Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari (though it seems when the finals of a major roll around, you tend to see someone there for their first time).

With any major you always have players that come out of nowhere, making a deep run, changing the course of not only their season but possibly their careers. Here are three men and three women that I think can make a deep run down under and cause some noise in Melbourne. Of course, these are predictions and predictions usually go wrong but in sports, anything can happen.

Frances Tiafoe battled his heart out at the 2022 U.S. Open in a five-set marathon with the current world number one, Carlos Alcaraz, who will miss the year’s first Grand Slam due to injury.  It was a heart-breaking defeat for Tiafoe, whose charisma and easygoing nature had won him the support of the New York crowd. How can you bounce back from something like that? Frances just has to be Frances. Tiafoe is a high-energy player whose joy is palpable every time he takes the court – if he can maintain that liveliness, he’ll be just fine. Tiafoe is projected to play Nadal in the Round of 16, which, given Tiafoe’s win over Nadal at the U.S. Open, seems like a prime opportunity for Frances to take out the Spaniard. Nadal has not had the best start to his season, looking like a shell of himself early on, and for him to make another magical run down under seems unlikely (but then again, so did last year’s run).  Definitely keep your eyes glued to your televisions, phones, computers, however you consume tennis and watch out for Tiafoe in this tournament. We could definitely be seeing him in the final four again.

Qinwen Zheng was the WTA Newcomer of the year in 2022. Her most notable match had to be in Paris, Zheng took a set off all-conquering force Iga Świątek. If Zheng hadn’t had the misfortune of struggling with menstrual cramps later in the match, the contest could have been even closer. Zheng suffered an injury in Adelaide against Kvitová but as long the injury doesn’t linger or nothing too serious, Zheng is definitely someone who could make a deep run at this tournament. She could potentially draw one of the favorites, Coco Gauff, in the third round and then if Zheng reaches the quarters a rematch with Świątek awaits. She is definitely one of the players I’ll be watching out for in Melbourne.

Zheng after beating Anett Kontaveit in the first round of Adelaide. Screenshot: WTA

Sebastian Korda just recently gave Novak Djokovic all he could handle in Adelaide last week, even having a match point against the all-time-great. Korda doesn’t have the easiest draw, potentially drawing 2022 finalist Medvedev in the third round. As the Adelaide battle with Djokovic and Korda’s win over Carlos Alcaraz in Monte-Carlo last year show, Korda doesn’t shy away from going against the world’s best. Medvedev has only played Korda once, back in 2021 at the Paris Masters, which was a three-set victory for the Russian. I’m not saying I think Korda will beat Medvedev if they play, but it’s far from out of the question. Korda has proved that he can hang with the world’s best and he is definitely someone to watch out for down in Australia.  Heck, Sebastian’s Dad, Petr Korda, won the Australian Open back in 1998, it’s the 25th anniversary. Maybe it’s time for another Korda to make some noise.

Maria Sakkari is the sixth seed in this year’s tournament. You’re probably asking, “hey, didn’t you mention Sakkari as one of the more consistent players earlier in this article?” (Yes, and I’m glad you’re paying attention!) But I do think it’s worth mentioning that I am looking at Maria Sakkari to possibly go on another deep run in a major. She has made the fourth round twice in Australia and back in 2021, she made the semifinals at both Roland-Garros and the U.S. Open, so she is definitely a contender for the Australian Open. Sakkari does potentially draw one of the favorites, Jessica Pegula, in the quarter-finals. I personally think Pegula would win that match up based on how she has looked early on in the year but Sakkari definitely has the game to win. Sakkari definitely has more experience getting to the tail end of majors over Pegula. Even though Pegula has made the quarters at all the Grand Slams except Paris, Sakkari has gone one step beyond that. Look out for Sakkari to be around towards the end of the tournament yet again.

Jack Draper is an interesting player at this year’s tournament. I say that because he draws the defending champion, the number one seed, Rafael Nadal.  Now, why would I say Draper is a player to keep your eye on? Well, Draper has been playing some really good tennis to start the year, defeating Karen Khachanov in Adelaide last week and although he lost to Soon-Woo Kwon in a three-set battle, Draper has been making noise for the last couple of months. He beat Felix Auger-Aliassime en route to making the third round at the U.S. Open last year. I think a lot of experts are looking at that Nadal match as a potential early upset for Rafa. It will definitely show how much (if at all) Nadal has improved since his poor start to the season.  If Draper can catch Nadal on a bad night in Melbourne, we could be seeing the young Brit go far in this tournament.

Veronika Kudermetova made the third round of the Australian Open last year and reached the quarter-finals in Paris. Now, even though she had to withdraw from her semi-final clash in Adelaide against Belinda Bencic due to a left hip injury, the hope is that she will be ready to go come match time in Melbourne. She played well in the fourth round of the U.S. Open against eventual finalist Ons Jabeur so she knows how to take it to the top stars of the game. She posted an impressive state line serving against Victoria Azarenka in Adelaide, with 20 aces to only 3 double faults.  If Kudermetova puts serving numbers like that up in Melbourne you could be looking at her making a deep run at the year’s first major. The only issue is the hip injury and the severity of it.

***

There are so many variables when it comes to who eventually lifts the trophy at the end of a major tournament. Between Injuries, weather delays, and everything else, anything can disrupt someone’s rhythm and completely change the trajectory of any match.  That’s what makes this sport such a joy to watch. Of course you have the top of the field and their elevated likelihood of being there at the end of the tournament, but upsets happen in every single tournament. I can guarantee there will be moments at this year’s championships we will be talking about for years and years. Get ready for one heck of a ride, buckle up, and let’s enjoy these two weeks Down Under.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: