Game, Set, Match: Aussie wildcards who made the nation proud in the 2023 Australian Open

Jan 31, 2023
Source: Getty

Well if Jason Kubler did not go all the way in the singles, he managed to reach the quarter-final in the mixed doubles with his girlfriend, Maddison Inglis, and then went on to convincingly win the men’s doubles with his competent younger friend, Rinky Hijikata, in the 2023 Australian Open.

For the first time since the 1997 Woodies win in men’s doubles, two different pairs of Aussie wildcards won the Australian Open.

As to the singles, many who hoped against hope, that Stefanos Tsitsipas would somehow be able to deprive Novak Djokovic of winning his staggering tenth Australian Open trophy, sighed with disappointment after the final.  

In his runner-up speech after his defeat by a brilliant Djokovic, a gutted Tsitsipas graciously told us, that Djokovic has brought the best out of him.

But actually, it is perhaps closer to the truth that the final against Djokovic brought the worse out of him of his entire performance record in Australia this season, from his brilliant all-win matches in the United Cup to his even more brilliant record throughout the 2023 Australian Open, until the final. 

In all those matches, save this final, he has made a remarkably low number of unforced errors and a very high average of successful first serves.

By contrast, in the final, just when he would have needed the most to produce his highest percentage of first serves, he came up with the lowest percentage of first serves-in, throughout the entire season. 

And he made a shocking 25 unforced errors, against Djokovic’s mere 3.

There were times of brilliance from Tsitsipas during the match, which showed that he might have been able to win the final, had his anxiety not sabotaged his ability to maintain consistency throughout his game.   

The top male singles players could be excused if they now meekly grumble about Djokovic as Cassius did in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar –

‘Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world 

Like a Colossus, and we petty men 

Walk under his huge legs and peep about 

To find ourselves dishonourable graves.’

They desperately yearn for defeating the Colossus, so that they could say – to go back to another Julius Caesar paraphrase:

‘These growing feathers plucked from Djoker’s wing 

Will make him fly an ordinary pitch, 

Who else would soar above the view of men 

And keep us all in servile fearfulness.’

Unfortunately for the challengers, the plucking did not take place, this time.

But the Djoker is not completely unbeatable.

At the Adelaide International 1 this year, the young Korda nearly prevented him from getting his mini-crown on his way to the big one in Melbourne.

I wondered – Could it be Tsitsipas who might just be ready at last to knock off the Djoker from his perch in the Grand Final in Australia? 

I watched Tsitsipas’ matches throughout the United Cup that preceded the Australian Open and all his games in the latter. 

I could not but be impressed that he won all four of his United Cup singles matches and then did not drop a set until his five-set victory over the mercurial Sinner in the fourth round of the Australian Open. 

Having won the first two sets convincingly against Jannik Sinner, Tsitsipas looked like a certain winner. But Sinner started to do a “Djokovic” on him and won the next two sets. Was Sinner able to do a full Djokovic-flip, by winning the decisive fifth set too?

No, Tsitsipas, did not have a bar of it. 

He bounced back valiantly and took the fifth set decisively.

Now, this is exactly the kind of resilience that a player needs against Djokovic, even when that player wins the first two sets and when then Djokovic sets out to destroy him over the next three sets. 

I was most impressed by how Tsitsipas was able to move to a higher level, regain his command of first serves and fight for every point as if his life depended on it in the decisive fifth set against Sinner. And then he followed up with an emphatic four-set win against Karen Khachanov in the semi-final.

In his previous encounters with Djokovic, the latter was able to grind down Tsitsipas’ resistance in Grand Slams.

But throughout this season, and specifically, in being able to come back after two lost sets and still crush the potentially brilliant Sinner in the fifth set, Tsitsipas seems to have developed a “never say die” attitude to his play. 

He was able to save every breakpoint from Jiri Lehecka in the Quarter-final that followed, including a come-back from 0:40 to win a game. 

After he beat Lehecka in three straight sets, Jim Courier asked Tsitsipas in the post-match interview, how could he manage to get out of that 0:40 hole. 

Tsitsipas answered:  (It was)

‘Experience and the Spartan spirit.’

But did the younger Tsitsipas have enough experience to have some chance of actually beating Djokovic, rather than completely buckling under the pressure of trying to win for the first time Grand Slam against the then 21-time Grand Slam champion before the final?

The enormity of the anxiety factor plaguing any challenger who tries to beat Djokovic for the first time in a Grand Slam cannot be overestimated and eventually, it sabotaged Tsitsipas’ game. 

None of this should take any credit away from Djokovic’s extraordinary achievement in claiming the Australian Open crown for the tenth time in 2023 under difficult circumstances.

But there is some good news for those who want to see a more vigorous challenge to the dominance of a single player at the pinnacle of tennis.  

Djokovic cannot grow much further in his tennis game at the age of 35 – he already seems to have reached a kind of all-around near perfection.

But his challengers, with an average age of 25 in the Australian Open, continue growing and are going rapidly from strength to strength.

It may not be long before their drought against Djokovic in Grand Slams will break. 

The previous world number one, the young Carlos Alkaraz, already broke such drought once and he, for one, is working hard on having many happy returns. 

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