21/02/2024
Novak Djokovic. Picture: Carine06 - Flickr.

Novak Djokovic. Picture: Carine06 - Flickr.

As the curtain closes on another calendar year on the ATP tour, where do you possibly begin to analyse the 2023 season?

From the highs of breaking records to the lows of unbearable heartbreak and boiling tantrums, the past 12 months have certainly once again lived up to the hype.

With so much to unpack, it’s wise to disperse into categories to dissect the top storylines in an action-filled year.

Heartbreak

Arriving at Melbourne Park to defend his title after a comeback for the ages against Daniil Medvedev in the 2022 final, Rafael Nadal came in with the usual high expectations and was tipped to challenge Novak Djokovic for another year.

When you think about the Spaniard’s success in his illustrious career so far, it’s amazing to realise the amount of injuries and suffering he has had to overcome. Since his career began in 2003, Nadal has suffered 15 separate injuries, including an abdominal tear which forced him to retire before his Wimbledon semi-final last year against Nick Kyrgios.

All hopes of claiming a third Australian Open crown vanished in the second round as Nadal battled through excruciating pain to bow out in straight sets to American Mackenzie McDonald – ending his 2023 campaign.

On the same boat as the 22-time grand slam champion, Nick Kyrgios has played one game all year since his setback began at the Australian Open, having pulled out of the tournament due to requiring knee surgery.

Deemed as a strong contender on clay, 20-year-old sensation Carlos Alcaraz suffered from cramps due to nerves in his semi-final defeat to Novak Djokovic, losing the third and fourth set 6-1, 6-1 – a bitterly disappointing way to be sent home packing.

Redemption

Considered his worst surface, Alcaraz’s relationship with grass before this year wasn’t compelling, having only played six competitive matches.

All of a sudden, the former US Open champion won all 12 games on grass to claim the Queen’s Club Championship along with a maiden Wimbledon title. However, nerves wouldn’t be an issue in the final as he pulled off the upset against Djokovic and got his sweet revenge for Roland Garros.

Before the China Open in late September, young Italian gun Jannik Sinner failed to beat former world number one Daniil Medvedev in all six meetings.

In 46 days, Sinner halved the head-to-head deficit as the 22-year-old pushed over mental barriers and regained some much-needed confidence against a high-calibre player.

Sinner breakthrough

Coached by former Australian player Darren Cahill, Sinner has elevated his level to a new stratosphere regarding his maturity and standing up in the big moments.

Two wins against Novak Djokovic 11 days apart and ten wins in his past 11 against top ten opponents are encouraging signs for the further brilliance that is soon to come.

A maiden Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon may well be the catalyst to improve his consistency because, let’s face it, there’s no one on the tour with more raw natural ability off the ground than Sinner.

In the hottest form of his career, could he potentially take home the trophy at Melbourne Park next month?

Most disappointing season

Making his debut on the ATP tour six years ago as a 17-year-old, it was only natural that the spotlight would quickly turn on tennis’ next big thing – Felix Auger-Aliassime. Becoming the first player born in the 2000s to win a main tour match only heightened the expectations.

However, the Canadian has endured a bitterly disappointing 2023 season in what can only be described as shocking. A win-loss record of 22-20 and three first-round exits in the past three majors this year presents a worrying concern for a player with obvious talent.

A constant breakdown of Auger-Aliassime’s biggest weapons, including his serve and forehand, has significantly contributed to dropping down to 29 in the rankings.

Stefanos Tsitsipas could also be in this discussion based on his surprising dip after the Australian Open final, but Auger-Aliassime has been frustrating for the majority.

Claiming a much-needed title at the Swiss Indoors at the end of October, it might prove to be a real confidence boost for a player who looks completely out of sorts.

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Djokovic shatters more records

Love him or hate him, Novak Djokovic is currently the best player to ever pick up a racquet on pure statistics alone.

The Serbian became the first man to win 10 Australian Open titles before further glory was tasted in Paris and New York, which elevated him to 24 grand slam trophies to overtake Rafael Nadal with the most majors in the open era.

Ending the year as world number one for the eighth time in his illustrious career, Djokovic also broke the record for most weeks on top of the pile, totalling 403 weeks over the years.

With a handful of records still to be taken care of, it’s quite a scary prospect thinking about Djokovic’s longevity for the next few seasons.

Saudi Arabia dips their toes in the water

With the rapid rise of LIV golf, the spending spree in football’s Saudi Pro League, and the expected announcement of the FIFA World Cup being awarded to Saudi Arabia in 2034, money talks when it comes to sports.

Rumours have circulated around Saudi’s interest in merging the ATP and WTA with the Masters 1000 tournaments as well as hosting their own Masters event just one week out from the start of the Australian Open.

Jeddah was the first Saudi city to showcase its potential to the tennis world by hosting the Next Gen Finals as Serbian youngster Hamad Medjedovic pulled through against Arthur Fils in the eight-man field to claim the title.

The general consensus soon points toward the Middle Eastern heavyweights to tap more into the tennis market in the years to come.

Tantrums and boilovers

It wouldn’t be tennis without an outpour of emotion and anger, which has been a normality in the sport since the days of John McEnroe.

When Djokovic and Cameron Norrie clashed at the Rome Masters, things got heated as the latter had all the time to pick and choose where to place the upcoming smash, but instead, it was hit straight at the Serb. As you can imagine, Djokovic wasn’t pleased.

Hawkeye and the automated out-call system have transformed how the game has been officiated over the years. On the clay, however, ball marks are the only saving grace for umpires, which in this instance, didn’t bode well with Sweden’s Mikael Ymer.

As the ball appeared to have landed out, Ymer’s anger grew large as the chair umpire refused to look at the mark, resulting in a moment of madness leading to a default.

Shot of the year

There are two stand-out nominees for this particular award, but both are unique in their own right.

Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz are two generational talents who are set to go toe-to-toe for at least a decade. The match they served up at last year’s US Open quarter-final was dubbed one of the most epic tennis matches of all time, but this rally exchange during the Miami Open was simply extraordinary.

Making a name for himself at the Australian Open, where he reached the quarter-finals, 21-year-old Ben Shelton’s power is frightening beyond belief. His explosiveness will serve as huge entertainment, but the American also reminded us that his level of skill is exquisite.

Match of the year

After playing out a Wimbledon classic over one month earlier, the expectations from a neutral perspective in terms of viewing an entertaining spectacle rose exponentially.

The top two players in the world played out a final for the ages at the Cincinnati Masters despite the Serbian not playing at his best for the best part of one set and a half.

Three hours and 49 minutes is unprecedented for a best-of-three-set match, but these two phenomenons found a way to make the impossible possible.

Bothered by the humid conditions and calling for a medical timeout, Djokovic again found a way to recover from a breakdown in the second set to come up clutch in the tiebreak.

It was a crazy encounter with twists and turns, as Alcaraz dropped serve in a game lasting over nine minutes, requiring a medical timeout for blisters on his hand.

5-4 up with the match on Djokovic’s racquet, Alcaraz levelled in style to force a deciding set tiebreak only for the 39-time Masters champion to reign supreme 5-7, 7-6(7), 7-6 (4). Ripping his shirt just as he did against Nadal at Melbourne Park all those years ago, the relief was obvious in what was one of Djkovic’s most hard-fought wins of his career.

47-year Davis Cup drought

There are times when golden generations can sweep a nation with abundant talent, and that’s certainly what Italy is currently experiencing.

Jannik Sinner (22), Lorenzo Musetti (21), and Matteo Arnaldi (22) are accompanied by the slightly older Matteo Berrettini and Lorenzo Sonego, who have taken Italian tennis to new heights.

The Italian front pages can’t seem to get enough. They are embracing the sport like never before, especially after the nation’s first Davis Cup trophy in 47 years as they defeated Australia in the decider.

A thrilling victory against Novak Djokovic and Serbia the day prior in the semi-finals is the biggest sign that this is a generation to savour.

Australian headlines

Last month, Aussie journeyman John Millman announced he would be retiring from professional tennis at the end of next year’s Australian Open. One of the sport’s most hard-working athletes and having tasted every level of the tour from ITF and Challenger events to the pinnacle of grand slams, the 34-year-old will be provided with a fitting farewell from the locals.

Featuring in only four games in 2023, Millman’s body might have caught up with him, but he is set to depart with memories to cherish.

A five-set win over Gilles Müller in the second round of the Aussie Open in 2016 in front of the electric Show Court 3 atmosphere, as well as the unforgettable triumph over the legendary Roger Federer on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the US Open fourth round, are two in particular that many fans will remember him by.

Alex De Minaur’s impressive growth continues as he continues to barge his way near the top 10, currently two places behind. The 24-year-old was rewarded for consistently performing with his second John Newcome Medal, equalling Ash Barty, Sam Stosur, and Dylan Alcott to claim the individual award multiple times.

Notoriously finding his best form during the Australian summer, Alexei Popyrin popped off at the Australian Open as he defeated number eight seed Taylor Fritz in the second round. Inconsistency has been a huge obstacle for him, but a title win in Croatia will be a stepping stone heading into 2024.

It’s no secret that Australians love to thrive on the Challenger circuit, with 2023 proving no different as nine Aussies won at least one title, including James Duckworth, who recently won his 13th Challenger Tour crown to make him the most successful Australian singles player in the event’s history.

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