The Betway ambassador looks ahead to the Australian Open, analyses Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu's comebacks and discusses what's next for Rafael Nadal.
I was really impressed with the people that were coming back from long lay-offs last week, whether that was Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka in Brisbane or Emma Raducanu in Auckland.
You don’t normally come back and just win a match right away. I certainly didn’t have the ability to be out for an extended period and look that good on my comeback.
RAFA’S ULTIMATE GOAL HASN’T CHANGED
Rafa looked great before he tweaked that muscle in his hip. He seemed to be in full flight and the tennis was there, so the question is about his ability to get through seven best-of-five matches over 14 days.
He was pretty clear about it not being the same injury that kept him out before, so hopefully this is a minor setback. I think the Australian Open was always more of a hurdle in the way of getting to the French Open, which is probably the one that he hopes and thinks he can still do some damage at.
I’ll be curious to see if he adds any hardcourt events along the way, or just circles that beginning of April and Monte Carlo as the lift-off point. For him to have a proper build through to Roland Garros and see if he can play it healthy one more time and make a run – I think that’s the best we can hope for right now.
As an athlete, you just want to have a semblance of control over the way that you decide to finish, and I hope that Rafa gets that.
RETURN OF OSAKA AND RADUCANU
If I’m Osaka, I got what I needed out of Brisbane. To win a match and play a tough three-setter, now you can let the body reset a little bit. I love everything that I’m seeing and hearing out of the Osaka camp, especially her saying that she’s going to play a very full schedule, as that’s the only way to get that match rhythm back where it doesn’t feel like a new experience.
Tennis would sure be a lot more fun if she was making deep runs at Slams again.
I feel like we’re always guessing what’s going on with Emma, so I will just base my opinion on the facts of what I saw last week.
She looked very good in the first round and even better against Elina Svitolina. The first couple sets of that match were extremely high quality. I was really encouraged by the level that I saw. She was playing on the front foot a lot more than what we had last seen, she was competing well and, most importantly, she seemed healthy and recovered.
She got great news that there were enough pull-outs in the main draw for the Australian Open that she now has this week to prep, though I did think it might be a good thing for her to have to go to through qualifying as it’s important to get those matches in and she has a pretty good record at Slams where she’s had to earn her spot.
WHO CAN CHALLENGE NOVAK?
Novak Djokovic is a clear favourite in the men’s and I’m not going to pick against him, but Carlos Alcaraz can certainly give people problems on this surface.
People overlook the fact that he hasn’t seen this venue in over two years, and a lot has happened for him during that time. Back then, he went into the off-season with his body looking like a kid’s and came back looking like a man. Him choosing not to play a warm-up event was a little surprising, but I expect him to show up fully fit and ready to go.
We also tend to take Alexander Zverev for granted while gravitating towards new and shiny things. He’s a guy who, coming off a broken ankle last year, looked understandably horrendous in Australia, but somehow snuck into the World Tour Finals and made the semis of a Slam again. He has beaten all the top guys.
USUAL SUSPECTS IN THE WOMEN’S
On the women’s side, all the usual suspects seem to have gotten out of the gates pretty well with Coco Gauff defending her Auckland Classic title, Elena Rybakina looking scarily dominant in the Brisbane final against Aryna Sabalenka and Iga Swiatek running the table at the United Cup.
Generally speaking, I have a hard time betting against Swiatek because, match-up to match-up, she gives the most problems to the other top players. The one outlier in that entire conversation is Rybakina’s serve – there’s not much you can do about it on the receiving end if she’s hitting her spots.
She is maybe less consistent than the others, but her ceiling might be as high as anyone when she’s playing well, and the statement she made last week was a big one, so keep an eye on her.
2024 WILL BE AN INTRIGUING YEAR
The women’s game is stacked with storylines heading into 2024. You have the forming of a massive Big Four with Coco interjecting herself into that conversation. Can Ons Jabeur get over the hump and win a Slam? Can Jess Pegula get past the quarters and show that she is one of the top players in the world?
The men’s is basically all about whether Novak can keep control of the game for another year, or can Alcaraz have another Wimbledon-type moment? Is there someone else who can insert themselves in the conversation?
As an American, we have five or six really good players that could be potential top-five guys. Which one is going to break from the pack and do that?