HEY NOLE – REVENGE IS SWEET: Fiercely motivated and well-equipped, Novak Djokovic is a prohibitive favorite and has a sweet draw. But can he get past the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Andrey Rublev, Frances Tiafoe and Casper Rudd and win his 10th Aussie Open? He’s won 34 straight matches Down Under and he’d relish putting his deportation last year in his rear-view mirror. Revenge is sweet, no?
BIG NICK – HOMETOWN AUSSIE HERO? Nick Kyrgios is confident and on a roll. He had a great 2022. He rose 84 ranking points. He’s in a successful relationship and calls his girlfriend Costeen Hatzi his “secret weapon.” So far he’s been the biggest star in Netflix’s new docuseries “Break Point,” and, with Djokovic, he packed Rod Laver Arena for a feel-good fundraiser the other night. Now, can last year’s Wimbledon finalist score a feel-good run and claim the AO championship just like his fellow Aussie Ash Barty did last year? If he does, Australia will go nuts.
SWIATEK – JUST SAY I’M BETTER THAN ANYONE: What’s not to like about the best woman player in the world? Last year Iga Swiatek won the French and US Opens, had a 37-match winning streak and became the dominant No. 1. She’s just 21 and has twice as many ranking points as No. 2 Ons Jabeur. But last year she lost to Danielle Collins in the Melbourne semis and early this year Jessica Pegula easily dismissed her. The Pole wept. Yet even the No. 1 player in the world draws critics.
Analyst Mats Wilander said that Swiatek just has to say to herself: “’Okay, I’m better than everyone else…I’m not losing to anyone.’…When I watch her play, I sometimes see a frustration that I understand…All she has to do is beat the person on the other side of the net.” So will Iga do just that and collect the fourth major of her still very young career?
CAN RAFA REPEAT? Reporters continually ask 36-year-old Rafa Nadal if he’s about to retire. Alexander Zverev says the Spaniard will announce he’s hanging up his Nikes at the French Open. Rafa scored a magical comeback win last year over Daniil Medvedev to win his third Aussie Open. But, since withdrawing from Wimbledon, he’s had yet another round of struggles. He hasn’t won a match this year and has lost six of his last seven matches. Plus, he will face the tough, young, left-handed Jack Brady in the first round. The Brit, who is No. 38 in the world, is a real threat. Still, his fans hope the 16-to-1 longshot can defend his crown to win his 23rd Slam and his first major as a father.
TAYLOR’S PROCESS: Taylor Fritz won in Indian Wells, rose to No. 8, clinched the United Cup for the USA and is America’s top man. Yes, the Californian shone on Netflix’s “Break Point” docuseries where he said that his career is “a process. Top 10, top eight, top three, then No. 1.” Will Taylor’s rise continue in Melbourne? And can the No. 8 seed reach the final four?
PEGULA – THE PRIDE OF BUFFALO: Jessica Pegula, whose dad owns the Buffalo Bills, reached the quarterfinals of three of the four majors last year. Last week she played great tennis during the United Cup a week ago where she easily downed Swiatek, 6-2, 6-2. Can the No. 3 seed reach the final four of a Slam for the first time in her long career?
COCO CAN: The steadily improving Coco Gauff just won the ASB Classic in New Zealand. She’s just 18, but has never gotten beyond the fourth round at the Aussie Open. Can last year’s French Open finalist get past Swiatek in the quarters, or perhaps Pegula, and lift her first Grand Slam trophy?
AMERICAN GUYS: Who among the 14 American men in the draw will be the last man standing? The Americans range from young NCAA champion Ben Shelton, Tracy Austin’s son Brandon Holt, who qualified for his second straight Slam and has a good draw, and the always considerable Jenson Brooksy, who’ll face Chris O’Connell in the first round before a possible second-round matchup next against Casper Ruud.
Fritz takes on Nikolas Basilashvili. America’s second-best player, No. 16 seed Frances Tiafoe, faces Daniel Altmaier in the first round. Seb Korda, who last week took a set off Novak Djokovic, faces Christian Garin.
Unfortunately, Americans Mackie McDonald and Brandon Nakashima face each other in the first round. By the way, those who are deep into the power of mojo may wonder if the football dominance by John Isner’s Georgia Bulldogs will magically rub off on the 6’10” veteran.
AMERICAN WOMEN: Who among the 17 American women will go the furthest? Our top two players, No. 3 Jessica Pegula and No. 7 Coco Gauff, are both in the same half of the draw, along with Swiatek. Last year’s finalist, No. 13 seed Danielle Collins, could face Iga in the fourth round. The deep American roster also includes veteran No. 10 Madison Keys, the always dangerous Amanda Anisimova, who’s only 21, and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens. The 2020 Aussie Open champ, Sofia Kenin, who’s on the comeback trail, will face two-time Aussie Open winner Victoria Azarenka in the first round and Lauren Davis, who scored her first career title in six years in Hobart last week, would be thrilled to win a few matches.
Doubles stalwart Caty McNally and wildcard Taylor Townsend, who’s already won two doubles titles this year with two different partners, are also in the draw. Two Californians came through qualifying – CoCo Vandeweghe and Katie Volynets. Southern California vet Vandeweghe, 31, will face Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina, and Northern California youngster Volynets, 21, who’s coached by Brooksby’s mentor, Joseph Gilbert, plays Evgeniya Rodina. In an All-American match-up, SoCal’s Claire Liu takes on Madison Brengle, who once beat Serena at the Aussie Open.
A NEW YEAR AND A NEW ERA IN TENNIS? So will there be a new day for our sport at the Australian Open? Federer, Serena and Ash Barty have all retired. Two-time winner Naomi Osaka is pregnant and US Open champ Carlos Alcaraz and Reilly Opelka are injured. So who’s ready to step up? Last year both Ruud and Ons Jabeur reached two Slam finals. They are both the No. 2 seeds. With her big game, No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka, who just won a warm-up tourney, is often a contender, along with the Spartan battler, No. 6 seed Maria Sakkari. And Swiss Belinda Bencic, who just won the Adelaide International, is now being coached by Dmitry Tursunov, is an interesting 18-to-1 longshot.
Late last year, with Toni Nadal by his side, the No. 6 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime surged, as did the No. 9 seed, scrappy teen Dane Holger Rune, coached by Patrick Mouratoglou. Last year’s finalist, the No. 7 seed Daniil Medvedev and another Mouratoglou product, the No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, are threats. No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev will take on Dominic Thiem. The No. 13 seed Matteo Berrettini faces three-time Slam champ Andy Murray in a popcorn first-round match. And another Italian, Jannik Sinner, is an 18-1 longshot.
The sweetest popcorn match deep into the tourney could be a Djokovic-Kyrgios battle in the quarters.