Australian Open 2023: History beckons for maestros of Melbourne

Of the 256 men’s and women’s singles players headed to Melbourne for the first tennis major of 2023, only four remain.

It has been another compelling fortnight of Grand Slam action, from defending champion Rafael Nadal’s early exit to former finalist Andy Murray’s latest acts of derring do.

Only one of the top four women’s seeds made it beyond the round of 16, and an unranked outsider went all the way to the semi finals in both singles draws – unfancied Pole Magda Linette and world no.37 Tommy Paul respectively. Belarussian 24th seed Victoria Azarenka evoked memories of her win here a decade ago with an unlikely run to the last four, only to fall at the penultimate hurdle to Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina.

Saturday’s women’s final offers us a fascinating power battle between two ladies who are about as opposite from one another as it is possible to be. The quiet and introverted Rybakina takes on Azarenka’s compatriot, the outgoing and extroverted Aryna Sabalenka, playing in her first Grand Slam final after winning a major semi final at the fourth time of asking.

Unheralded and still a relative rookie despite her status as reigning Wimbledon champion, Rybakina has crept through the draw almost unnoticed. She began her Australian Open campaign on the outside courts but has dropped only one set en route to the final. The 24-year-old Kazakh has beaten three former Grand Slam champions in successive matches.

Australian Open; Rybakina Sabalenkatennis major, Djokovic, Grand Slam,
Aryna Sabalenka (L) and Elena Rybakina (R) will do battle in the Melbourne final on Saturday

Iga Swiatek, the world’s best female player and winner of two of the last three majors, was vanquished 6-4 6-4 in the fourth round. Jelena Ostapenko, winner at Roland Garros six years ago, had no answer in the last eight before that aforementioned straight setter over Azarenka, who triumphed here in 2012 and again a year later, completed the hat-trick. No one has managed such a feat since Jennifer Capriati 21 years ago.

It’s a tough match to call: purely on rankings alone, Sabalenka will start as favourite but she has never been this far before. Rybakina, 23, will look to take her experience at Wimbledon on to the Rod Laver Arena and her calm demeanour could work in her favour against a vocal opponent who likes to make her feelings known.

The fire and ice meeting pits the calm and composed Rybakina against the fiery and combustible 24-year-old from Belarus. Both players are big hitting baseliners with serve likely to dominate so don’t expect many long rallies. Indeed, Rybakina’s serve has been her biggest weapon but she has also been formidable off the ground in mild conditions suitable for flat groundstrokes.

Sabalenka will return to world no.2 regardless of what happens in the final and could become the first player to win a major whilst competing under a neutral flag. Rybakina will break into the top 10 and could rise as high as #8 with victory on RLA.

If the women’s draw has proved unpredictable, then perhaps the men’s has panned out exactly as we expected. Ever since Nadal and No.2 seed Casper Ruud were both KO’d in the second round, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic – as the highest ranked men left – have been on a collision course. Djokovic did not start his Melbourne campaign particularly well with wobbles in his opening two matches, but since then he has been an unstoppable runaway train.

Bidding for a record extending tenth title at Melbourne Park, Djokovic has a 100% record in Australian Open finals and will start as strong favourite in this cross-generational clash of champion versus challenger. The two players have met once before in a major final when Djokovic demonstrated his remarkable powers of recovery to come back from two sets down and triumph on the Roland Garros clay in 2021.

Victory would, of course, not only extend the Serbian great’s phenomenal record in Melbourne. He will be desperate to equal his great friend and rival Nadal’s record of 22 (TWENTY TWO) Grand Slam titles in the latest installment of the ageing pair’s long and gruelling struggle for supremacy. Djokovic infamously missed last year’s tournament – won by Nadal – after being deported over a row over his vaccination status. Nadal took full advantage and added to his success here with his own Herculean feat as he secured a mind boggling 14th French Open win before Djokovic came roaring back at Wimbledon – his seventh title in SW19. That is only scratching the surface of these two men’s extraordinary exploits.

Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina meet in the women's finalNovak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas face off in the men's final
Djokovic will contest his 33rd major final; Tsitipas will play in only his second

But in Tsitsipas, Djokovic faces one of the contenders to his crown when the time comes for him to hang up his racket. Still only 24, the Greek burst into the spotlight in Melbourne in 2019 when he beat Roger Federer en route to the last four as a 20-year-old. Tsitsipias has lost three previous semi finals at this tournament, but has fully justified his ranking with a deep run this time around. His first three matches were all won in straight sets before a five setter epic against Jannik Sinner set up a last eight meeting with unseeded Czech Jiri Lehecka. Tsitsipas survived a third set wobble in his win over Karen Kachanov in the semis to make the showpiece here for the first time.

At a tournament with a hard-court surface on which he thrives, and in a city where he is warmly backed by its large Greek population, Tsitsipas has long appeared destined for success at the Australian Open. An aggressive baseliner, Tsitsipas uses his athleticism and power to try and dominate the points and wear down his opponents with punishing groundstrokes off both his forehand and backhand.

But to lift the trophy, he must beat a man eleven years his senior who has not lost a match here since 2018 – a record 27 consecutive wins. Everything falls in favour of Djokovic but all the pressure and expectation will be on the shoulders of the man from Serbia.

The winner of Sunday’s high stakes encounter will also become the new world number one.