A new era in tennis, and old favorites at the Australian Open

No more Fed. No more Serena. With the Australian Open poised to kick off the 2023 tennis season, the game already feels very, very different.

It has been since the final years of the 20th century that the Grand Slam cycle started without either Roger Federer or Serena Williams as a competitor. Their retirements in the final quarter of last year made for a 1-2 punch that would leave any sport stumbling and trying to find its bearings.

One way to measure the length of time that Federer and Williams dominated the sport is to consider the massive change that has occurred in Canadian tennis alone during that time. Back before the two superstars happened upon the tennis scene, Canada had only had one top 10 player (Carling Bassett) in either men’s or women’s tennis. Canada hadn’t had a Grand Slam singles winner or even a finalist, and usually wasn’t in the top group in the Davis Cup. It felt, from a Canadian perspective, like Daniel Nestor against the world every year.

Fast forward and Canada is a consistent factor in the sport. We have two players in the top 20 in the men’s game, and two women among the top 50 female players. Canada won the Davis Cup last fall, and Bianca Andreescu ended Canada’s Grand Slam singles drought in 2019. Three others, Eugenie Bouchard, Leylah Fernandez and Milos Raonic, have made it to Grand Slam singles finals in the past decade.

Canadian tennis, in other words, came of age during the Fed/Serena era. When a few Canadians managed to beat one or the other along the way, it was always viewed as a significant milestone. Andreescu, in fact, beat Williams for that historic win at the US Open.

But Federer and Williams are gone. So where does that leave the sport, and Canadian tennis, now?

In a very interesting place, as it turns out.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, no longer banned from Australia, are back in Melbourne on the men’s side. Nadal, 36, is the defending champion, and Djokovic, 35, is trying to tie the Spaniard with a 22nd career Grand Slam singles title.

Nadal won the Australian and French opens last year. The second half of his 2022 season, however, was slowed by injuries, and he’s started this year slowly with a pair of surprising losses.

Djokovic is coming off a bizarre year in which he wasn’t welcome at various events because his personal science motivated him not to be vaccinated against COVID in the middle of a deadly pandemic. All the tournaments seem happy to welcome him again, and he started this season winning in Adelaide last week.

“Obviously what happened 12 months ago was not easy for me,” said Djokovic, who was deported from Australia after being blocked from the competition. “It’s one of these things that stays with you for, I guess, the rest of your life. ”

Djokovic won Wimbledon and the ATP Finals last year and has to be the men’s favourite, particularly with world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz currently out with an injury. Russian star Daniil Medvedev and Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios are expected to be central figures over the next two weeks, with the unpredictable and often disgraceful Kyrgios trying to become the first Aussie men’s winner since 1976.

Kyrgios is coming off his best season, but is currently battling knee and ankle injuries. He is also due in court next month on an assault charge involving a former girlfriend, a charge he is trying to have dismissed on the basis of mental health grounds.

Right after those headliners, Canada’s two best men’s players, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, figure prominently in the pre-tournament narrative. They powered Canada to that Davis Cup triumph, and both were hard-luck quarterfinalists a year ago in Melbourne.

Auger-Aliassime, now No. 7 in the world, lost to Medvedev in a five-set heartbreaker. He plays countryman Vasek Pospisil in the first round next week. Shapovalov lost to Nadal last year in a compelling five-set match in which the Canadian seemed unable to maintain his composure, a common theme so far during his promising career.

On the female side, Canada has four entrants after Toronto’s Katherine Sebov got through qualifying to get into her first Grand Slam main draw. She joins Andreescu, Fernandez and the unsinkable Rebecca Marino.

The women’s draw, really, is 21-year-old Polish superstar Iga Swiatek and everyone else. Not only is Serena gone, but Aussie star Ashleigh Barty retired after winning her national tournament last year and the mercurial Naomi Osaka is pregnant and won’t play. Also with child is another former Australian Open winner, Angelique Kerber, who hopes, like Osaka, to resume her career later this season.

That means outside of Swiatek, who won Roland Garros and the US Open last year, it’s pretty wide open. If either Andreescu or Fernandez could get hot, they could theoretically be right in the mix, but that’s a fairly big “if” at this point. Andreescu played 31 matches last season, the most she’s played since her big year in 2019, but she’s languishing at No. 42 in the world.

That said, she’s only 22 years old, far too young to be counted out. Fernandez, meanwhile, is two years younger, but has fallen from No. 13 in the world last year to No. 39. The lefty needs to refine her weapons and become physically stronger, and Melbourne will be a chance to see what the off-season has brought to her game.

That’s part of why the Australian Open is so interesting every year. After a brief break in the tennis grind, we get to see what form different players are in to start the new season.

For a long time, since before anyone took Canada seriously as a tennis country, Fed and Serena were very big parts of that annual conversation. It feels strange indeed that they’re not this year.

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