COLUMN: The Revenge Open - The Australian Open 2023

As the first tennis Grand Slam of the calendar year, the Australian Open in Melbourne has always been an exciting sports event to kick off the year. And as the pre-Open tournaments were being held, there was the raging undercurrent of how Serbian Novak Djokovic would be on a mission of revenge, for being unceremoniously booted out of the Slam last year over his vaccination status. Arriving Down Under early, there were hamstring issues swirling around, but by and large, Djokovic was being tagged as the Man to Beat, as he took the Adelaide International over Sebastian Korda in three sets.

Serbian Novak Djokovic in action at the 2023 Australian Open (AFP)

Over at the Ladies’ draw, while the seedings placed Polish Iga Swiatek as the favorite, it was the unspoken consensus that here was a genuinely wide-open field, and that any unheralded woman could take this Slam. If form in the warm up tournaments were anything to go by, then Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka was stamping her class as she similarly took the Adelaide crown. But questions lingered about her composure on the big stage, as to date; she had never passed the fourth round of any of the Grand Slam tournaments she had participated in. 

If you were after high drama and a truly competitive Final, then it was the Women’s draw that provided the fireworks and more! Sabalenka exhibited newfound resilience and mental fortitude, and reached the Final, to face Kazakh Elena Rybakina, the current Wimbledon champion. Dropping the first set, 4-6, it could have been presumed that here again, was Sabalenka over-achieving and reaching a Final, only to succumb to nerves.

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka in action at the 2023 Australian Open. (AFP)

Sabalenka’s service and punishing groundstrokes have always been marveled at, but it’s been her handling pressure that has made her notorious for meltdowns. Rybakina is herself no slouch when it comes to playing from the back of the court and releasing speedy returns that is strategically placed. The third set was ultimately a thing of beauty and came down to a battle of wills. You really didn’t want to see any of these two girls emerging a loser, as they entertained in grand fashion. 

Only by sealing a decisive break at 3-3 of the final set, did we see a glimmer of hope for Sabalenka, but this was followed by very tense service games on her part, as Rybakina was out to avenge said break. In the end of it all, it was a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory that now catapults Sabalenka to Slam champion. While she had to play under a neutral flag, thanks to the ban on the Russian flag since its invasion of the Ukraine, it is a known fact that Belarus is her nationality, and she’s now undefeated through 11 matches of this very young 2023 season. 

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka celebrates with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina in the women's singles final match on day thirteen of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 28, 2023. (AFP)

On the Men’s side, it was Novak seeking to annex his 22nd Slam title, and tie Rafa Nadal at 22 (Federer retired last year with 20 Slam titles to his name). And to be brutally frank, unless you were a Djokovic fan, this had to be one of the more unexciting Australian Open Men’s Draws. The likes of Kyrgios and Alcaraz withdraw before the Open even began. 

Suffering an early exit from injury, Nadal’s departure was only one of several seeded players, who one would have thought could actually derail the Novak juggernaut. Ruud, Medvedev, Berrettini, Zverev all bowed out by the Quarterfinals. And it truly looked like the tennis gods were handing this Slam title to Novak on a gift-wrapped platter.

On the top half of the draw, Tsitsipas emerged as token spoiler and finalist; while in his own half, Novak had turned the challenges of de Minaur and Rublev into ‘practice sessions’. What drama there was emanating from the Novak camp had more to do with aforementioned hamstring, and the emotional outbursts and running arguments between Novak and coach Goran Ivanisevic. Me, I sometimes felt that this arguing was staged to make Novak’s demolition jobs look slightly more dramatic. The jury is still out as to whether this allowing of coaching going on while the match is going on is a good move for tennis in general.

As it was, when the smoke all cleared on Sunday night, we had Novak holding the Cup and now clearly destined to chalk up a few more titles, and possibly be the undisputed GOAT when the category is Slam titles. As for whether Novak will ever capture the kind of fan worship that Nadal or Federer have amassed through the years is another question. 

Serbia's Novak Djokovic kisses the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy following his victory against Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas in the men's singles final match on day fourteen of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 29, 2023. (AFP)

Nadal has been mercurial, fragile and human, yet possessed of such determination, that he’s seen as a great champion and person. Federer has always been silky smooth, poetry in motion; and with a disarming personality that’s perceived as quiet and humble. Whether he likes it or not, Novak has always been compared to a machine, and if not outright abrasive, seen as cold, egotistical, and distant. But one can’t argue with the results, and for now, he is tied with Nadal after this Australian Open.