Djokovic chases 11th title Down Under while Swiatek searches for her first

The 2023 Australian Open
With the majority of top players fit, and some returning stars, this could be an enthralling Australian Open | FiledIMAGE

A year ago, Novak Djokovic lifted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for the 10th time after cruising through the draw. The Serb did not drop a set from the third round onwards and in the final, once again overwhelmed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

While Djokovic probably would have lifted the title anyway, the tournament was hampered by the absence of Carlos Alcaraz, early injury to Rafael Nadal, and a subpar Daniil Medvedev. Thankfully for spectators, the 36-year-old should face a tougher journey in 2024 as he chases a 25th major title. Sadly, we will not get to see Nadal but hopefully he returns to full health soon.

On the women’s side, Aryna Sabalenka was a highly impressive first time champion last year and that success spurred the Belarusian onto reaching the no.1 ranking later in the season.

This fortnight, the terrific trio of Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina and Sabalenka should all be in contention again with the addition of the latest major winner, US Open champ Coco Gauff. The women’s draw also welcomes back a trio of beloved former champions (and new mothers) in Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki.

For 2024, prize-money has increased by 13% year-on-year so each singles champion will receive a cheque for $2.1 million (USD).

Men's Draw

Playing in his 19th Australian Open, Novak Djokovic has been handed an interesting draw this fortnight. The world no.1 will have few issues in the opening rounds but could face some old friends/victims in the first week.

Andy Murray - who has lost four finals to Djokovic in Melbourne - and Gael Monfils (0-19 versus the Serb) will have little hope against the 24-time major winner at this stage of their careers, but the burst of nostalgia may bring some joy.

From there, Djokovic could meet the exciting Ben Shelton in round four before yet another meeting with Stefanos Tsitsipas in the last eight. Barring injury or one of those wild Djokovic moments, we should see the 36-year-old reach his 48th grand slam semi-final.

Jannik Sinner is the most likely adversary for the world no.1 in the semi-finals.

The Italian had his finest year to date on tour in 2023 as he accrued four titles, 13 top 10 wins, a career high ranking of four, and led Italy to their first Davis Cup since 1976.

Sinner will begin against world no.59 Botic van de Zandschulp and you’d be surprised if the likes of Frances Tiafoe, Karen Khachanov or Borna Coric dislodge the 22-year-old before the quarters on current form.

In the last eight though, Sinner will be wary of the potential threat from the fiery Andrey Rublev or the surging Alex de Minaur. The Russian has already won a title in 2024 (Hong Kong) and will win a grand slam quarter-final one of these years. As for de Minaur, the Aussie warrior is in the form of his life and just beat Djokovic at the United Cup.

The bottom half is all about last year’s missing man: Carlos Alcaraz. A leg injury kept the world no.2 out of the event 12 months ago so he has plenty of goals to accomplish Down Under. Top of the list for the Spaniard may well be a fourth round berth for the first time.

The 20-year-old should have little trouble achieving that feat this fortnight but there are some banana peels in his section. In round four, Alcaraz could meet last year’s semi-finalist Tommy Paul, or the talented lefty Jack Draper.

In the last eight, we’re likely to see Alexander Zverev square off against Alcaraz unless Casper Ruud can rediscover that spark. Despite off-court controversy, the German had a strong second half to 2023 with a quarter-final run at Flushing Meadows and a title in Chengdu. Zverev also arrives in Melbourne brimming with confidence after leading Germany to the United Cup title alongside Kerber.

As for the remaining third quarter, Daniil Medvedev looks favourite to progress although Holger Rune or the rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov will fancy having a say in proceedings.

Having overcome a difficult spell 12 months ago, two-time runner-up Medvedev should be a formidable force this time around after an impressive 2023 campaign.

Rune is now under the tutelage of Boris Becker and it will be intriguing to see how the German legend affects the Dane's game. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Dimitrov, the Brisbane champion, is enjoying a late surge in his career having won 15 of his last eighteen matches. You may also keep an eye on French prodigy Arthur Fils in that section.

Women's Draw

There may be an intriguing route to the final for world no.1 Iga Swiatek as she pursues a first Australian Open title.

The 22-year-old will begin her campaign against the 2020 winner, Sofia Kenin. Kenin is still short of her major-winning peak but has shown signs of life in recent months with decent runs in San Diego and Guadalajara late last year.

From there, Swiatek will have to navigate through Danielle Collins (the 2022 finalist) or former champion Angelique Kerber. Back on tour after having a child, the German is still in the rebuilding phase. We'll soon find out if the 35-year-old can still compete with the very best.

Presuming the Pole reaches the second week, she could face an extremely difficult task in the fourth round with Elina Svitolina across the net. The former world no.3 had an outstanding 2023 campaign on her return from pregnancy and dispatched Swiatek from Wimbledon.

The winner of that clash could face one of three major winners in the last eight with Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka all in that top quarter. Ajla Tomljanovic, who has just returned from injury, is another interesting floater in that section.

Moving to the second quarter, 2023 runner-up Elena Rybakina should comfortably advance to the last eight provided that the former world no.1, Karolina Pliskova, fails to spring an upset in the opener. The Kazakh has started 2024 in great form and stormed to the Brisbane final.

Elsewhere in that quarter, world no.5 Jessica Pegula is projected to get through but we will need to see whether the gastrointestinal illness that forced her withdrawal from Adelaide lingers.

Regardless, the American will be wary of a section that contains Qinwen Zheng and Sorana Cirstea. Zheng, who is due a big major run, is up to a career high of no.13 after winning Zhengzhou last October. As for Cirstea, the Romanian can still pull out an upset as she did to both Sabalenka (Miami) and Rybakina (US Open) last year.

In the bottom half, we have one quarter that looks to be a procession whilst the other is bonkers.

Starting with the former, defending champion Aryna Sabalenka should be delighted with her path to the second week. The world no.2 starts against a qualifier and will probably stroll through the early rounds.

However, Liudmila Samsonova, who holds a 2-1 record against the Belarusian, should not be taken lightly in a potential fourth rounder. Should Sabalenka make the last eight, previous form would favour her meeting either three-time major finalist Ons Jabeur or 2021 Roland Garros winner Barbora Krejcikova there. Rising 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva is another to watch out for in that quarter.

Finally, the third quarter could be lots of fun as Coco Gauff has been thrown in with two returning Aussie Open champs in Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki.

Gauff, who’s already nabbed a title in 2024 with a strong showing in Auckland, has a fine draw early on before a potential last eight clash with Osaka. The Japanese, who won this title in 2019 and 2021, is still early in her comeback but we all know how brilliant she can be on a hard court.

As for the 2018 winner Wozniacki, it will be intriguing to see how she fares against a new generation of power hitters. Can the Dane still scurry around and retrieve all those shots at the age of 33? Having been handed a very reasonable section of the draw, Wozniacki may well have her eyes on the second week.