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Swiatek looks untouchable but young guns have the ability to wrest control from Djokovic and Nadal in 2023
While Swiatek has the world at her feet, the young men – led by Carlos Alcaraz -are already here, and will make life tough for the big two
At the beginning of 2022, Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty topped their respective world rankings, seemingly well-set at the top. Though nine years apart, they appeared to be entrenched as world No 1s, the man and woman most likely to dominate for the rest of the year.
Circumstances, well, they got in the way of that.
For Djokovic, unceremoniously thrown out of Australia and shut out of the US Open, it was a really tough year. But victory at Wimbledon, and a record-equalling sixth ATP Finals title ensured that he ended the year back in the world’s top five.
For Barty, a first Australian Open title followed, in fabulous style and people were speculating how many more Grand Slams she would go on to win. But the Aussie’s abrupt retirement meant opportunities for others, and Iga Swiatek, more than anyone, duly took those chances.
Alcaraz on top of the world
Few would have thought when the year began that a 19-year-old would find himself top of the rankings come the end of the year but of course, few people are quite like Carlos Alcaraz.
The young Spaniard showed Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev a clean pair of heels when he beat them all to win the Madrid Masters but it was not until the US Open when he truly stepped up to world-beating level, on a truly world stage.
Everyone now knows what Alcaraz is capable of and there’s a chance that everyone else will be better prepared for him in 2023. But the teenager has the game, physical strength and attitude to compete for all the biggest titles. Over five sets on hard courts and clay courts, he is going to take some stopping.
Holger Rune stepped up to win his first Masters 1000 title in Paris, beating Djokovic in the final and the Dane has an attitude and belief that suggests he will go far in the coming 12 months. The next step for him is doing it over five sets for two weeks, starting in the potentially gruelling conditions players often find in Australia. That may take some time but nothing’s going to stop him, it seems.
Youth will make it even tougher for Djokovic (and Nadal)
Three other top 10 players – Stefanos Tsitsipas, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Casper Ruud, already a runner-up in two slam finals – are all under the age of 25 and though Djokovic, who will turn 36 in May, is still in phenomenal shape, keeping up with the youngsters won’t be easy.
Auger-Aliassime, in particular, has taken massive strides forward in the past year; from winning none of his first eight ATP titles, he’s won three in a row and now, finally, looks to be fulfilling his potential.
Throw in Nadal (he’s still No 2, remember), Daniil Medvedev, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, Frances Tiafoe, perhaps Denis Shapovalov (if he can find the balance), Taylor Fritz and even new kids on the block like Britain’s Jack Draper and as much as Djokovic will be favourite in Australia, it’s likely to be harder for him to dominate than ever before. More players believe they can win these titles.
All this might seem a bit churlish given that between them, Djokovic and Nadal have won 15 of the past 19 Grand Slams over the past five years.
Djokovic is one behind Nadal in the all-time men’s Grand Slam rankings and both men would hope, maybe even expect to win at least one slam in 2023. One thing is for sure, though, they are not getting any younger. The youngsters are unlikely to role over and as fanciful as it may sound, adding to their Grand Slam tallies may be harder than ever for the big two of the men’s game.
For Swiatek, No 1 is a pleasure, not a burden
On the women’s side, Swiatek looks untouchable right now.
The Pole’s wins in Paris and New York set her apart from the pack, having already taken the mantle from Barty after the Australian retired. With three slams to her name already, that mantle of No 1 seems to sit pretty well on her shoulders and it would be a surprise should she not be No 1 come the end of 2023 too.
However, this will be her first experience of defending stacks of points week in week out, a pressure that can weigh heavily. We’ve seen in the past how pressure can get to Swiatek, at least until she figures out what she needs to do to cope with it, so this could be a window for others to step through.
A resurgent Caroline Garcia, up to No 4 in the world after a stunning second half of the year, now has the belief to match her talent. Reaching the semi-finals at the US Open will have given her as much of a boost as winning the WTA Finals title and the way she plays, attacking at every chance, means that when she gets hot, she can win big.
Behind her, Coco Gauff is up to No 7 at the age of 18, exceptional work, even if she knows she still has some technical issues to overcome if she’s to go higher. That said, she sorted out a serve that looked troublesome so there’s no reason she can’t fix her forehand too. No one is a better mover on the women’s Tour than the American, who seems poised to win big.
Simon Halep, if and when she is allowed back on the Tour after her failed drugs test, will have something to prove; Maria Sakkari and Jessica Pegula have the consistency; now they need to show they can handle the pressure of the biggest occasions; further down the rankings there are threats everywhere – Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, Olympic champion Belinda Bencic, perhaps even Sloane Stephens have the ability to get it done in majors.
But Swiatek looks a cut above, works as hard as anyone else, has turned herself into a physical and mental powerhouse, and has the mentality and desire you need when you’re on top of the sport and there’s only one way to go; down.