2023 brings a new year packed with resolutions, time-specific targets and compelling storylines too. With the year’s first Major tournament set to begin on Monday in Melbourne, here’s a news round-up before the big occasion finally gets underway – from player withdrawals, injury scares, progress reports from recent tournaments and my draw analysis for both tours.
Alcaraz, Halep, Cilic and Osaka among notable absentees
US Open champion and world no. 1 Carlos Alcaraz announced last week he won’t feature at the year’s first Major, after injuring his right leg through a “chance, unnatural movement” in a training session as he intensified preparations to return after a drab end to an unforgettable year.
It’s the latest in a string of untimely obstacles for the teenage Spaniard, 6-4 in competitive play since clinching the title against Casper Ruud at Flushing Meadows on September 11.
Read more of my tennis coverage:
USA win United Cup, Sabalenka + Gauff clinch titles while Djokovic recovers to pip Korda
AUS OPEN 23: Berrettini to use United Cup as confidence boost for long Grand Slam run
After an incredible year, Barty’s public backing for Ajla Tomljanovic speaks volumes
Emma Raducanu proud of resilience in arduous year, hopes for more injury-free 2023
He retired injured against eventual Paris Masters champion Holger Rune with an abdominal injury ending his 2022 campaign on November 4 – a fortnight before the year-end ATP Finals.
Despite losing a pair of exhibition matches in Abu Dhabi the following month, Carlos showed his desire to return to full fitness quickly by sharing training pictures and videos on social media.
DJOKOVIC: “It’s not good for the tournament and tennis. He’s no. 1 in the world, such a big name, big star in our sport already. I’m sure that many fans are disappointed, hope for his speedy recovery, it’s unfortunate for him. I hope he can recover, be back on tour quickly.”
MEDVEDEV: “It’s a pity. I’m not exactly sure what he has, if it’s a little bit the consequence of a previous injury or just a new one. It’s a pity.”
Instead, he’s poised to begin his 2023 season in Argentina at the Buenos Aires Open between February 11-19 on clay – a tournament world no. 3 Ruud has won twice in the last three seasons.
Two-time Grand Slam champion and 2018 Australian Open runner-up Simona Halep remains provisionally suspended after it was revealed in October the 31-year-old Romanian, a former world no. 1, had tested positive for banned substance roxadustat at the year’s final Major.
News on her case has understandably gone quiet of late, though there is optimism Halep can clear her name before long. Currently ranked world no. 11, she reached the fourth round at last year’s tournament and will drop considerably in the rankings by the end of this month.
That won’t matter to her. Proving, once and for all, she had no knowledge nor intention to cheat will at a time where many players are reportedly using loopholes to gain marginal advantages.
Marin Cilic, who like Halep was a runner-up in 2018, revealed on social media Wednesday that he won’t be able to feature through injury. He withdrew ahead of his Pune quarter-final against eventual champion Tallon Griekspoor last week after sustaining a knee injury beforehand.
The 34-year-old Croatian has reached R4 in three of the last four seasons at the year’s first Slam, but this news marks the second Slam withdrawal in the last three for him – having pulled out before Wimbledon last summer after contracting COVID-19 on the eve of the tournament.
The 2014 US Open champion was to be seeded 17th in the draw – a spot seized by Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti – devastated to miss out, he reassured fans by tweeting he’ll be back next year.
As for four-time Slam titlist Naomi Osaka, whose recent silence concerned many critics, there’s a good reason why the 25-year-old won’t be at this year’s Australian Open. She announced she’s expecting a child with rapper Cordae on social media midweek, but will return next year:
Osaka, who clinched the title in 2019 and once more in 2021, had battled some well-documented mental health issues which curtailed her progress for the rest of the 2021 season – an Olympic year due to the pandemic in 2020 – and those struggles continued into 2022.
She reached the Miami final in early April, losing to world no. 1 Iga Swiatek, but only played nine more competitive matches for the rest of the year, ending in her native Japan four months ago.
Ashleigh Barty, who won last year’s tournament before stunning the tennis world with her decision to retire shortly afterwards, announced last week that she’s also expecting a child.
Former world no. 1 and three-time Slam champ Angelique Kerber – who won the tournament’s 2016 edition – is also absent, having announced her pregnancy back in late August.
Update: Badosa, Tomljanovic both sidelined by injury
Since initially writing this piece, two more title challengers have been ruled out with injury on the women’s side…
Ajla Tomljanovic, earmarked as a contender by last year’s titlist Ashleigh Barty, was supposed to feature for team Australia at the United Cup but a niggling knee injury saw her sidelined.
The 28-year-old, originally set to play Argentina’s Nadia Podoroska, has confirmed via her social media channels that she won’t feature at her home Grand Slam due to the same knee problem which saw her reduced to a supportive role during the inaugural team-based tournament:
Tomljanovic bemoaned her lack of luck, at a time when she was coming into some good form.
She wasn’t the only notable name to withdraw with less than two days until the competition: 11th seed Paula Badosa, who did feature for Spain at the United Cup over the past fortnight, revealed she sustained a right thigh injury that will keep her out of action for the next few weeks.
Tauson’s troubles persist after latest injury blow
20-year-old Danish talent Clara Tauson, previously ranked as high as world no. 33, is sidelined through an ankle injury which saw her unable to compete in the tournament’s qualifying stages.
A back issue saw her play infrequently during the middle part of last season, missing the French Open, with a report in her native Denmark detailing how subsequent financial issues – due to inactivity – have meant she can’t extend the contract of Belgian coach Olivier Jeunehomme.
She beat former world no. 2 Anett Kontaveit en route to R3 at the Australian Open twelve months ago, and things will only worsen now.
As a result of not being able to defend those ranking points, the Dane will now fall even further in the world rankings. That is despite finishing 2022 with an ITF title in Italy and runner-up medal in France, both achieved last month.
Although initially granted a main draw wildcard earlier this month, seven-time Major champion Venus Williams sustained a leg problem during her R2 defeat at the Auckland Classic against China’s Lin Zhu on January 4 and has subsequently withdrawn from contention through injury.
Australian Open draw analysis: the men’s side
British no. 1 and Wimbledon semi-finalist Cameron Norrie  will meet third seed and three-time semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas in the competition’s quarter-finals, assuming both manage to progress through their respective tests as planned. Achieving that scenario is unlikely though.
For instance, Norrie will venture into the unknown against French teenage wildcard Luca Van Assche. The 18-year-old, who made his ATP main draw debut last year, is the youngest player in the world’s top 150 (#139) and will make his Grand Slam bow against the Brit on Monday.
Norrie beat Czech talent Jiri Lehecka and others en route to the Auckland final, before losing in three sets against Van Assche’s compatriot Richard Gasquet on Saturday morning (Jan. 14) – that result marks Gasquet’s first title in a half-decade, recovering from a set down to do so.
Who’s in Norrie’s section?
Borna Coric , Stan Wawrinka [PR] and Felix Auger-Aliassime , among others
Andy Murray’s chances of a deep run were certainly dented, having crashed out to Japan’s Taro Daniel in R2 this time twelve months ago. The former world no. 1 and 2021 champion, faces last year’s semifinalist Matteo Berrettini in R1 – talk about an unlucky draw.
Daniel Evans  has Andrey Rublev on his side of a tough section, featuring Nick Kyrgios and Rune among others. The 32-year-old will first play Argentina’s Facundo Bagnis in R1, five years after dismantling him in straight-sets (7-6, 6-3-, 6-1) at the same stage of this very tournament.
Kyle Edmund, a semifinalist at this competition five years ago, ended a two-year absence in the main draw of a Major against a tough test in eventual runner-up Casper Ruud at Flushing Meadows last year. His next assignment isn’t kind either: 2021 quarterfinalist Jannik Sinner.
a word on kokkinakis’ recent play and… jack draper’s playing who?
I’m going to take a closer look at the section of the draw without the possibility of a Nadal or Djokovic matchup lurking until the semi-finals. As far as first-round matchups go, Berrettini vs. Murray is a tantalising prospect given how well both have shown they can play – when fully fit.
Speaking of feeling healthy, I’ve watched a lot of Thanasi Kokkinakis this past week. He didn’t do things the easy way, but the Adelaide crowd love him all the same for his spirit and ability.
After all, the 26-year-old needed three sets in all but one of his matches en route to the final twelve months ago, saving two match points against Marin Cilic during a fitting semi-final battle.
The finale itself followed a similar pattern: the home hopeful was at one stage just four points away from defeat, before overcoming France’s Arthur Rinderknech 6-7 (6-8), 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.
So with that in mind, his semifinal run this year has followed suit: a trio of three-set wins over compatrot Alexei Popyrin, tournament’s top seed Andrey Rublev and Miomir Kecmanovic.
He lapped up the atmosphere and finished authoritatively against the crafty Serb, who didn’t make things easy for him either.
A few big, bold second serves – 195km/h for good measure – did the trick, but his forehand was firing and backhand booming when called upon too, saving break points at 3-1 in the decider.
A graphic on screen said it all: Kokkinakis had 15 more forehand winners (22-7) than Kecmanovic, and frequently used that weapon to get him out of trouble.
A backhand up-the-line winner saw him wrestle away the last bit of control from the world no. 28, before serving with style to finish with aplomb.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, wanted to conserve energy and was wearing compression boots. I’ve been hitting my backhand well this week… when I land that first serve and hit my forehand, not a lot [of players] can go with me when I’m on top form.”
He described Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut as a workhorse and one he’d have to produce his best against, and that was definitely the story of their competitive matchup.
Kokkinakis produced moments of brilliance that belied his ranking outside the world’s top 100, but time and again the Spaniard’s sensational defence under duress proved his undoing.
A forehand up-the-line winner helped Kokkinakis lead 5-3 in set two, having lost the opener in a not-so-competitive tiebreak, though he had a big adrenaline dump early in the deciding set.
Having had three break points saved, Bautista Agut’s shot-making helped him race away to a 3-0 lead. Even still, the match was there for the taking.
The home favourite chuntered and looked decidedly downbeat, after watching three more break opportunities evade his grasp in a 12-minute service hold, as he trailed 4-1.
He was on his haunches, cursing his lack of luck after misfiring on another break chance at 5-3, and Bautista Agut soon put him out of his misery with more big baseline hitting to finish a rollercoaster ride lasting two hours 35 minutes. Soonwoo Kwon awaits in tomorrow’s final.
Maintaining that consistency against top players is a difficult task, especially with the Australian Open draw being announced yesterday.
It’s a particularly unkind one for Kokkinakis, who plays Berrettini or Murray in R2 – assuming he emerges unscathed against unpredictable Italian vet Fabio Fognini awaiting him on Monday.
Speaking of tough draws…
Rising British talent Jack Draper, a semifinalist at November’s Next Gen Finals in Milan, has been drawn against reigning champion Rafael Nadal in one of the most eyecatching first-round ties.
Having avenged his Adelaide 1 defeat against a familiar face in US Open semifinalist Karen Khachanov: 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), a loose service game to start set three ultimately proved catastrophic as he was beaten by the aforementioned Kwon: 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 in today’s other semi-final.
Hopefully he’ll be fully rested and raring to give Nadal all he has in a best-of-five set format, not least after seeing how Norrie and Alex de Minaur recently fared against him in United Cup play.
Fritz-Zverev, Berrettini-Ruud among fourth-round encounters?
It’s easy to forget that world no. 3 Casper Ruud has no ranking points to defend, having withdrawn before his first-round match with an ankle injury sustained in practice last year.
Ruud on Djokovic and the record, reaching 10 titles at one Grand Slam: “Let’s see how he deals with it because it’s something, to get to 10, I can only imagine and it’s something to actually tie Rafa’s record, so there’s a lot at stake.
He’s the favourite but there are other players that have the potential to beat him, to win. He’s human as well, let’s see if the younger generation can push him a little bit this year – that would be motivating for the younger guys.”
That, as well as an indifferent end to his 2022 campaign, will give him a fresh slate to work with as the Norwegian gets to grips with an intriguing section at the bottom of this season’s draw.
Berrettini could be a fourth-round opponent, though American duo Jenson Brooksby, Tommy Paul and Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina  are among the names who could quite easily douse the 24-year-old’s hopes of embarking on a deep run here before they actually get going.
Although a disappointing US Open dented his memorable 2022, Tokyo champion Taylor Fritz appears primed to build upon last year’s better results – starting with the Australian Open, where he achieved his best Major result before Wimbledon last summer.
The 25-year-old starts his tournament against Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili, unpredictable at the best of times, and could face a determined wildcard in home hopeful Alexei Popyrin in R2.
Diego Schwartzman, Kecmanovic and David Goffin are among those in his section, though a fourth-round matchup against Olympic champion Alexander Zverev could be on the cards.
The German, six months older than Fritz, still isn’t fully firing after a season-ending ankle injury yet leads their H2H 4-3 but lost rather convincingly in just 65 minutes at the United Cup.
He’ll start his tournament against Peruvian lucky loser Juan Pablo Varillas, looking to build upon a similar fourth-round finish in 2021.
Medvedev the forgotten man? Kyrgios bullish at home
It’s easy to forget Daniil Medvedev was a mere seven points away from glory in Melbourne last year. Rafael Nadal refused to relent and well, the rest is history. However the Russian believes he can mount another challenge this time around and it’s hard to argue against that belief.
That being said, there are suspicions he didn’t do enough resting during the sport’s brief offseason period and the toll – physically and mentally – of potentially playing seven best-of-five matches in a fortnight will eventually catch up to him at its apex. We’ll have to wait and see.
His preparations ended in Adelaide with a straight-sets defeat by Djokovic (6-3, 6-4), who wasn’t a factor to concern himself with last time around. This time, the former world no. 1 is remaining positive that he’ll be able to deliver his best when it matters most against them.
Medvedev on his mindset: “Novak is in a different league, 21 slams, but generally [I’m] positive, need to stay positive because I want to show my best. Want to feel a great atmosphere like it was in Adelaide, looking forward.
Every time I play them, before the match the only thought is I have to win, have to try my best to win. I managed to do it. Rafa, I think I beat only once, but still did it. I had some tough matches against him, against Novak.
I won a slam against Novak, I believe in myself. But sometimes on the court it gets tough, sometimes you don’t manage to make the challenge. Next time I face him, I’m going to try to do it again.”
Djokovic, who faces Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena in R1, has multiple big-hitters in his section: American vet John Isner, Pablo Carreno Busta  and Alex de Minaur  among them.
The winner of Grigor Dimitrov vs. Aslan Karatsev will likely be his R3 opponent, and Nadal-Medvedev will be a quarterfinal this time around if both prevail in their respective sections.
Something to monitor though, as far as the Serbian is concerned:
Drawn in the same section as Rublev-Thiem, the aforementioned Evans, Rune, big-serving American Maxime Cressy and more, Wimbledon runner-up Nick Kyrgios  doesn’t really care about the strength of his section. On his day, he’s safe in the knowledge he can beat them all.
The 27-year-old, a US Open quarterfinalist last year, has exceeded expectations since winning the Slam’s doubles title with good friend Kokkinakis last season and figures he’s a serious contender. Although Djokovic lurks in the section below, you can understand his comments:
“I am one of the world’s best players so I’m definitely going to go into the Australian Open, any tournament, with confidence.
It’s a bit different this time around for me being one of the favourites, usually I’m a dark horse type thing but now, obviously after the year I’ve had, it’s kind of new for me as well. Usually I’ve got nothing to lose and just putting on a show, but I’ve got to try to really find that balance.
Fourteen days to win one of these things is not easy, obviously I’m capable but so many other people are as well.”
That much is echoed by a friendly face in Murray, saying the presence of home support will make a positive difference, while warning achieving the ultimate prize still won’t be an easy task.
Six must-watch first-round ties
Rafael Nadal  vs. Jack Draper
Lorenzo Musetti  vs. Lloyd Harris [PR]
Andrey Rublev  vs. Dominic Thiem [WC]
Jiri Lehecka vs. Borna Coric 
Grigor Dimitrov  vs. Aslan Karatsev
Matteo Berrettini  vs. Andy Murray
Australian Open draw analysis: the women’s side
Danielle Collins was a surprise finalist at last year’s tournament, and with all those ranking points to defend, what’s the American’s reward this time around? Being drawn in the same section as three Grand Slam champions: Bianca Andreescu, Elena Rybakina and Iga Swiatek.
She beat the latter in straight-sets to reach the finale, yet starts her competition off against a dangerous prospect in Russia’s Anna Kalinskaya. Wimbledon champion Rybakina may await in R3, and the tests only intensify as the rounds progress – not a nice change for the 13th seed here.
Swiatek, who won eight titles and enjoyed one of the most dominant seasons on the WTA Tour in recent memory last term, spoke about silencing outside noise and instead focusing on herself.
In a BBC Sport piece written by Jonathan Jurejko this week, she was quoted as saying:
“When I don’t care about what people think and what their expectations of me are, it’s easier for me to succeed. That was what I tried my best to do in 2022.
Although I’m proud of them, I’m not going to try to match my previous achievements because it would not be constructive. A season like that is something amazing and rare. Sure, I would love to do it again but it’s not advantageous to live in the past.”
It’ll be interesting to see how things develop over the course of another arduous season, especially as many feel her reign as world no. 1 would be strengthened by the presence of a rival.
2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova and world no. 3 Jessica Pegula, who were both Australian Open quarterfinalists last year, have recently proven they can match her on their best day. Whether that’s still the case spanning multiple surfaces and events, remains to be seen.
Swiatek starts her tournament against Wimbledon quarterfinalist Jule Niemeier on Monday, who gave the 21-year-old a fright in the US Open last-16 back in early September…
Elsewhere, Pegula has a deceptively tough draw to navigate through. Romania’s Jaqueline Cristian [PR] awaits in R1, before Aliaksandra Sasnovich (vs. Brenda Fruhvirtova) and the Marta Kostyuk vs. Amanda Anisimova winner could await in subsequent rounds.
If you’ve been keeping up, then you guessed it. Krejcikova features on the other side of that very same section, so an intriguing fourth-round matchup could be in the offing. Two-time Slam titlist Petra Kvitova  and others besides will want to have something to say about that, though.
Madison Keys, a semifinalist last year, doesn’t have it any easier. Another Slam champ in Victoria Azarenka  and Maria Sakkari  are among the big names in her section, and Britain’s Harriet Dart has a tough first-round ask against Switzerland’s Jill Teichmann  in amongst that group.
The problem with not being seeded, as Alize Cornet can attest, is you often have to do some heavy hitting in the early rounds… 2021 US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez awaits her, first up.
WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia  will play the winner of that compelling clash, assuming she beats Canadian qualifier Katherine Sebov – making her main draw debut.
Kaia Kanepi was the other quarterfinalist from last year’s tournament and even she didn’t get a kind draw: Australian wildcard Kimberly Birell first up, then potentially surging Czech teenager Linda Fruhvirtova and world no. 2 Ons Jabeur, runner-up at two of last year’s Majors, in R3.
2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu faces Germany’s Tamara Korpatsch in R1, having this weekend said she fully trusts the ankle which put her Australian Open participation in doubt.
It’ll be interesting to see how the 20-year-old Briton fares, after rolling her left ankle and retiring injured against Slovakia’s Viktoria Kuzmova in Auckland on January 5.
The victor of that clash could face seventh seed Coco Gauff in R2, after the American teenager – who won that tournament – was drawn against doubles specialist Katerina Siniakova.
Paula Badosa  and Jelena Ostapenko  are among the notable names in a tricky section for both youngsters, as they attempt to reach the quarterfinals for the first time down under.
Speaking of recent champions, Aryna Sabalenka  starts her bid to improve upon a fourth-round finish in consecutive years against Czech’s Tereza Martincova.
Two-time Major winner Garbine Muguruza, a rejuvenuated Martina Trevisan and Olympic champion Belinda Bencic are among the big names in her section – while Hobart champion Lauren Davis vs. Danka Kovinic could be an interesting first-round matchup. Speaking of…
Six intriguing first-round ties to watch
Paula Badosa  vs. Caty McNally
Iga Swiatek  vs. Jule Niemeier
Marta Kostyuk vs. Amanda Anisimova 
Bianca Andreescu vs. Marie Bouzkova 
Sofia Kenin [PR] vs. Victoria Azarenka 
Leylah Fernandez vs. Alize Cornet
I’ll be producing daily round-ups with the latest results, game reports and news at this year’s Australian Open, so make sure you stay tuned to moandsports.com for the latest coverage.
Picture source: Getty Images, quotes via Eurosport broadcast unless hyperlinked