The first Grand Slam of the season is behind us. In Australia, Aryna Sabalenka walked away as a first-time major winner.
In retrospect was this a surprise? Should we have seen it coming all along? Depends on who you ask.
Our astute group of writers are here to answer this question — and more — as we bid farewell from Melbourne.
If you can look back at the beginning of the tournament, how much belief did you have that Aryna Sabalenka would walk away as the winner?
Jason Juzwiak: Not to toot my own horn (well, maybe a little) but she was my winner pick, and this can be corroborated by my fellow writers as I got to change our work chat group name as the prize. Truthfully, I’ve been bullish on Sabalenka since she beat Iga Swiatek at last year’s WTA Finals. Sabalenka’s serve was back and her results have been consistent for years. She has won plenty of WTA 1000 titles and can beat anyone at any time. This season has felt like her it’s moment — as so far it has been.
Australian Open reaction
Alex Macpherson: I’ll admit it, not much. A talented player with inconsistent results finally turning the corner and changing for good is an all-too-familiar narrative, and one I usually take with a pinch of salt. I thought Sabalenka’s draw gave her a decent shot at the final, but as the second week took shape I still favored the players in the top half who’d proved themselves before. Sabalenka proved me wrong in the title match. Her serve and composure were both placed under the most severe of tests, and she passed with flying colors.
Greg Garber: Coming in, I viewed Sabalenka’s Australian Open as Alex did — with understandable skepticism. I was in Fort Worth when she advanced to the semifinals to play Caroline Garcia in the last match. But for a brief lapse — and two fatal double faults — she played quite well. The depth on some of her second serves was impressive, and I remember wondering if this confidence is real, can it carry over into 2023? Even when Sabalenka roared through the draw in Melbourne, winning all 12 of her sets to reach to the final, I wondered again. After coming back to beat Elena Rybakina in three sets, we have the answer.
In Australia, a handful of unexpected players made deep runs into the second week. Who impressed you the most?
Juzwiak: I think Magda Linette impressed me the most, as her results in majors had been spotty up to this point. She had beaten three Top 10 players in early rounds of Grand Slams in the past but never followed them up to make a second week. This time, she knocked off three successive Top 20 players on her way to a breakthrough semifinal, and at 30 years old in her 30th Grand Slam main draw, she demonstrated exceptional persistence.
I’m saying goodbye to #AO, but I’m proud of myself. This semifinal gave me even more motivation. This is just the beginning.
I would like to thank everyone who cheered me on. See you soon. 🤍#AusOpen pic.twitter.com/bsQSHaH1Hy
— Magda Linette (@MagdaLinette) January 26, 2023
Macpherson: Zhu Lin was the revelation of the tournament for me. It wasn’t just that she upset Maria Sakkari in the third round (her first Top 10 win) and took a set off Victoria Azarenka in the fourth (her Slam second-week debut). It was how she did it. Zhu’s game — well-disguised, compact strokes and sudden injections of pace that kept her opponents off-balance — was a joy to watch, and her competitive spirit contributed to two of the most memorable late-night contests of the tournament. Not bad for a player whose form a year ago was so unpromising that she was thinking of retirement.
Garber: I’ll go with Donna Vekic. The 26-year-old from Croatia found her game in Australia. She won three matches in the United Cup, then won four of five in Melbourne. After advancing to the quarterfinals of the 2019 US Open — and fall short of that career-high mark in a major — she matched it in Melbourne with some spirited play. Vekic knocked off No.18 seed Liudmila Samsonova in the second round and rising star Linda Fruhvirtova in the fourth. The run ended at the hands of eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka.
Iga Swiatek went down in the Round of 16. Is there any reason to believe the World No.1 won’t rebound quickly?
Juzwiak: It does feel like power players are starting to rush Swiatek more on hard courts, so maybe she won’t get back to having double the ranking points of whoever is behind her. But Swiatek is a complete, strong player who knows how to win big events. And the clay-court season is fast approaching. She will rebound soon — bet against her at your peril.
Macpherson: History suggests that even for all-time greats, seasons as dominant as Swiatek’s 2022 aren’t usually replicable the following year. With that said, there’s no reason to hit the panic button. She fell to another reigning Slam champion in Elena Rybakina — a match that should have taken place later than the fourth round — in what could shape up to be a key rivalry of her career. Swiatek knows that being No.1 entails dealing with new challenges, and she’s thrived on this in the past, so it’ll be fascinating to see how she responds.
Garber: It depends how you define “rebound.” I believe Swiatek will rally and play the way we expect a World No.1 to play. But … can she possibly match 2022? The sustainability will be difficult. Yes, she’s 4,385 points ahead of No.2-ranked Sabalenka. But Swiatek is defending a staggering 6,270 points through Roland Garros. If she fails to defend a few of her big titles from a year ago (Qatar, Indian Wells, Miami, Rome, Roland Garros) and the big hitters get hot (Sabalenka, Caroline Garcia, Rybakina), things could get interesting.
Next up, we have the Middle East swing, along with a 250 event in Austria. Which current Top 10 player needs to have a strong showing to get back on track?
Juzwiak: If healthy, this would be the perfect time for Arab star Ons Jabeur to reclaim her aura. She will have excited crowds on her side in Doha and Dubai and she could use that wave to boost her confidence and post some big results. Hopefully her body will cooperate.
Macpherson: I agree with Jason. Jabeur has been open about her goal of winning a Slam, and I believe she absolutely has the talent to do. But in her past four tournaments, she hasn’t looked at ease and has been hurt by inconsistent and, in some cases, surprising losses. That’s a pattern she could do with snapping, and there would be no better place to do it than a swing where she’s had some of her most joyful moments on the tennis court.
Garber: Oddly enough, I will offer the name of Jessica Pegula. By most measures, she had a spectacular summer swing in Australia. She helped lead the United States to victory in the United Cup and reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne. It was her fifth major quarterfinal in her past nine attempts — and the third straight at the Aussie. And yet, since she has never advanced to a Grand Slam singles semifinal, it feels like a glass ceiling of sorts. Pegula lost to two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarters and will look to find some confidence in the Middle East.
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