Australian Open: Swiatek Wins Tough Challenge Over Kenin

Iga Swiatek (photo: Tennis Australia/Vince Caligiuri)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 16, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

Women’s world No. 1 Iga Swiatek was asked the other day during her Australian Open pre-tournament news conference just what would make 2024 a good season by her standards. A good question, considering that ever since Ash Barty‘s surprise retirement in March 2022, the Polish star has risen to the top of the WTA Tour rankings while winning four major titles.

“The only thing that is different is the Olympics,” Swiatek said in response to the reporter’s question. “For sure I’d love to have a good result on the Olympics. But I don’t see a point of looking at what’s going to happen in July because we have plenty of tournaments that are important before. I’m kind of taking it step by step. I’m not looking that much forward.

“I remember last year I was kind of analyzing what I can do throughout the whole year. I mean, I got tired just thinking about it,” Swiatek added, smiling as she spoke. “This year I’m just thinking about until the end of Australian Open, then I’m going to think about my next goals.”

Indeed, as Swiatek figures, let’s see what happens as the Australian Open unfolds. On Tuesday, she began her quest for a first Happy Slam crown against 2020 champion Sofia Kenin of the United States, whom she triumphed over in the finals of the 2020 French Open to win the first of her three Roland-Garros titles. Kenin has gone from being ranked outside the Top 200 at the start of last year to her current spot at No. 38 after battling a rash of injuries and inconsistent play.

As it happened, Swiatek beat Kenin 7-6(2), 6-2 in an hour and 51 minutes on Rod Laver Arena but had to fight hard for her victory. She simply handled the pressure moments better than Kenin and her 17th straight victory moved her into the second round. Swiatek has not lost a match since September last year to Veronika Kudermetova in Tokyo, and her current winning streak is the longest on the WTA Tour since she posted a 37-match win streak in 2022. The loss snapped a four-match winning streak on Rod Laver Arena for Kenin going back to her 2020 title run.

Swiatek struck 30 winners to 21 unforced errors, converted four of nine break points and outpointed her opponent 80-63. She benefited from 34 unforced errors by Kenin.

In her on-court interview, Swiatek said: “It wasn’t easy to find my rhythm at the beginning and I felt a little bit off. I felt like Sofia did everything to keep it that way, so huge respect to her. She won this tournament, so she knows what to do. But I’m happy that I managed to bring my level up in the second set.”

Swiatek also gave props to Barty. “She helped me change my mindset in 2022. She really motivated me. … I’m really grateful for her. I don’t know if I’d be World No. 1 if she was still playing. She was a huge inspiration.”

Next, Swiatek will face 54th-ranked American Danielle Collins, who defeated Angelique Kerber of Germany, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1.

What’s the hardest part about playing Novak Djokovic? Ask Alexei Popyrin

Unseeded Alexei Popyrin of Australia, ranked 43rd, is the next opponent for 10-time AO champion Novak Djokovic on Wednesday. After the 24-year-old Sydney native beat fellow Aussie Mark Polmans on Monday, Popyrin was asked to describe what’s hardest about playing Djokovic, whom he has only played once (and lost to in 2019). He replied:

Alexei Popyrin, Australian Open

Alexei Popyrin (photo: Tennis Australia/Vince Caligiuri)

“I don’t think he’s got any weaknesses. He’s physically strong, got really good forehand, really good backhand, solid from the back, amazing serve. Like he is the greatest of all time in our sport, so to get there, you have to have no weaknesses.

“But I have big weapons in my game that I believe can do some damage.”

Paula Badosa has learned the virtue of patience

Paula Badosa of Spain, who only 20 months ago was ranked No. 2 in the world then missed much of last season after cracking her L4 vertebrae competing in Rome, is back on the court competing. From being sidelined, the now 100th-ranked Badosa has learned the virtue of patience.

On Court 6 Monday evening, Badosa struck 23 winners and made just seven unforced errors in a 6-1, 6-3 win over American Taylor Townsend to advance to the second round against Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Add to it eight aces and no breaks of her serve and it’s all given Badosa, 26, a positive outlook, something to build upon. Her goals, she told the WTA website, include: “stay healthy first and being in the final rounds of tournaments.”

“It’s the first win of the season, but especially for me it’s the first win for me after I don’t know how many months, six, seven months, struggling with the injury everyone knows. So, for me it’s very special to be back, to get back a win,” Badosa said afterward. “I’m really happy that I played pretty well and I stayed very consistent.”

Auger-Aliassime’s first win of 2024 is the longest of his career

No. 27 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada garnered his first victory of the 2024 season early Tuesday morning. He outlasted Dominic Thiem of Austria, 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (5), 5-7, 6-3, in four hours and 59 minutes. It’s the longest match of the young Canadian’s career and didn’t end until shortly after 1:30 a.m. in Melbourne. Auger-Aliassime thanked the Margaret Court Arena crowd that stayed up past all their bedtime to witness the exciting finish.

Thiem outhit Auger-Aliassime 57 winners to 54, but made more unforced errors, 66-54. There were plenty of exciting moments.

“There’s a lot of relief,” Auger-Aliassime said in his on-court interview. “It’s crazy, in these matches you go through really all the emotions. It was a great level, a great match, and I started well. Then, this is sport, sometimes it sucks. You’re trying your best, and he also played well and it was a struggle for me.

“At the end, I didn’t want to fail mentally. I didn’t want to disappoint myself with my effort or have any regrets when leaving this court today. It was frustrating, the way it went in that third set. I thought, ‘You need to be tough, you need to stay strong’, and I’m happy I did because now I’m really happy.”

A tale of a trio of sixteen-year-olds

For the first time since 2005 – 19 years ago – three women’s players under the age of 17 have reached the second round in Melbourne. In 2005, the trio consisted of Nicole Vaidisova, Michaella Krajicek and Tatiana Golovin. Fast forward to 2024, the new trio features three 16-year-olds: Brenda Fruhvirtova of the Czech Republic, and Russians Alina Korneeva and Mirra Andreeva.

“I think it’s difficult when you are 16 and you win first round of Grand Slam. It’s so difficult to feel this in my side, like in my body, because I really can’t understand that I’m here and I’m not play junior already,” Korneeva said Sunday after defeating Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

“At the same time, I try already think about tomorrow, about the practice tomorrow, and I will watch my opponent tomorrow.”

Korneeva’s next opponent is none other than No. 10 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil, who eliminated Fruhvirtova’s older sister Linda, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2. Meanwhile, Brenda Fruhvirtova will take on defending champion Aryna Savalenka and Andreeva is the next opponent for No. 6 seed Ons Jabeur.

Tuesday’s Australian Open results

Wednesday’s Australian Open order of play

Around Melbourne Park

By the numbers

Seven of the Top 10 men’s players – No. 4 Jannik Sinner, No. 5 Andrey Rublev, No. 6 Alexander Zverev, No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 8 Holger Rune, No. 9 Hubert Hurkacz and No. 10 Alex de Minaur – have yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Of the three who have won a Grand Slam crown, No. 1 Novak Djokovic has won 24 majors, No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz has won two, and No. 3 Daniil Medvedev has won one.

“Quotable …”

“I’ve been in this situation for a couple years now. Probably the only thing that has changed is now that I am at the ranking that I am, there’s a little bit more hype around me.

“But saying that, I haven’t changed the slightest. For me, I still enjoy every moment I’m here. It’s a blessing starting the year in Australia, playing in front of my home fans.

“I don’t really associate playing in Australia as nerve-wracking or more pressure. In fact, I associate it as just excitement. I walk out and I’ve got an unbelievable crowd behind me, so I’m very fortunate for that.”

— Australian No. 1 Alex de Minaur, ranked No. 10, during his post-match news conference Monday, on whether being the top-ranked player in his country is a blessing or a curse. De Minaur opened on Rod Laver Arena and advanced to the second round by retirement over Milos Raonic of Canada.