Australian Open Week 1 Takeaways: Gauff in fine form, Djokovic close to more history

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his fourth round match against Adrian Mannarino of France at the Australian Open tennis championships at Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP)

Just one week remains at the first of four Grand Slams on the tennis calendar as the best men’s and women’s tennis players known to our universe compete Down Under at the Australian Open. 

While Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka have looked formidable, upsets have rocked the state of the women’s field, while Novak Djokovic is doing what he always does in Melbourne — win, win, and win some more. 

Here are six takeaways from the first week at the 2024 Aussie Open: 

Coco riding the wave, Aryna powers into the second week 

She’s simply built different. 

After a breakthrough win at the US Open last summer, the maiden major of her career, Coco Gauff looks keen to continue her firestorm on the tennis world. 

She’s opened 2024 in flawless form, winning a title to open the year at the ASB Classic in Auckland, and has now rolled into the second week of Melbourne without so much as a hiccup.

While Gauff’s movement is the best in the women’s game, she looks to be striking the ball with even more conviction and pace from the back of the court, and her two-handed backhand wing is particularly unrelenting and accurate. 

While Coco faced a test of sorts against American Caroline Dolehide in the second round, she’s largely been in control of her own destiny on the courts, losing a combined eight games in three of her four wins this past week. She’ll again be a heavy favourite in her upcoming quarterfinal with Marta Kostyuk of the Ukraine. 

She also seems to be on a possible collision course with last year’s champion, Aryna Sabalenka. With the weight of the world off her shoulders, Sabalenka is swinging free and easy from the back of the court and has the most powerful game women’s tennis has to offer. She’s also completely dictated play, getting broken just once across four matches, and winning 81 per cent of her first serve points. 

If anything, perhaps it’s a mild shame these two would have to meet in the semis — their last meeting was the three-set final at Flushing Meadows, site of Gauff’s huge breakthrough. 

Novak unflappable, Sinner looms, Carlitos cruising in bottom section 

There is really nothing left to prove for Novak Djokovic on a tennis court, as he’s firmly established himself statistically as the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. But why not set more records in the process? 

Djokovic tied Roger Federer’s career mark of 58 Grand Slam quarterfinals, surging into the final eight in Melbourne with a 6-0, 6-0, 6-3 demolition of veteran Frenchman Adrian Mannarino. 

With every match, the Djoker has gotten better and better. He struggled in his opening round against 18-year-old Dino Prizmic, needing nearly four hours to win in four sets, then received an equally stern test from Aussie favourite Alexei Popyrin, fending off three set points in the third and rallying for a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 victory. 

Two mostly flawless performances have followed, and Djokovic has particularly excelled on serve, hitting 17 aces in his win over Mannarino. He’ll face American Taylor Fritz next, and has dominated their head-to-head 8-0, most recently beating him in straight sets at the U.S. Open. 

Another triumph in Melbourne and Djokovic will officially be alone atop the tennis stratosphere of champions with a record 25 majors. 

Sitting just below the 24-time slam champion in the second quarter of the field, Italian Jannik Sinner has been breezing through the field with remarkable ease and calm. 

The 22-year-old is a perfect 12-0 in sets so far in Melbourne, and his serve has been broken just twice across his four matches. Sinner’s baseline power and precision has always been evident, but he’s now further improved other aspects of his game including his serve and return. 

If he can get past Andrey Rublev, a potential showdown with Djokovic looms, and the Italian has won two of their last three encounters. 

The finals clash that many are salivating for is a possible rematch between Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, and the young Spaniard made his goal perfectly clear that he wants another crack at the 24-time major champion in a slam final. 

The pair have established a compelling rivalry the last two seasons, meeting five times with Novak holding the 3-2 edge over five matches. 

Top 10 stars crash out early  

It was a week of disappointment for a number of the top women’s players in Australia. 

Elena Rybakina, pegged by many as a top contender to win in Melbourne, may have had the most surprising dismissal of all. Russia’s Anna Blinkova overcame the 2022 Wimbledon champion 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, winning the final set tiebreaker by an astounding score of 22-20. The tiebreak was the longest played in singles Grand Slam tennis history, and Blinkova admirably fought off eight match points, including this spellbinding rally: 

Blinkova’s resilience to come through were only surpassed by her endearing words following the victory: 

Meantime, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek fell victim in the third round to the brave hitting of Linda Noskova of Czechia.  

The 19-year-old kept Swiatek off balance throughout the match and used her fearless groundstrokes to finally dismantle her opponent 3-6, 6-4, 6-4. Noskova showed plenty of signs of a breakout last season, reaching two WTA finals and beating four top-10 players. She’ll clash against Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina next.

World No. 5 Jessica Pegula lost in the second round to Clara Burel, last year’s Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova exited in the first to Dayana Yastremska, and three-time major finalist Ons Jabeur went out meekly to Mirra Andreeva.  

Just four women’s seeds reached the round of 16 this season in Melbourne — Anna Kalinskaya, Marta Kostyuk, Oceane Dodin, Dayana Yastremska, and Linda Noskova were all unseeded heading into the tournament and have had career-best runs. 

Felix shows signs of progress, Leylah and Denis struggle 

Back in November of 2022, Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime was at the height of his career. He had just completed a 16-match winning streak that led to three consecutive titles on indoor hard courts, qualified for the end-of-year Nitto ATP Finals, and achieved a career-high ranking of No. 6. 

Of course, in tennis much can change in a short span of time. The Canadian was beset by injury for much of last season and as a result, his form and confidence dipped significantly. He arrived in Australia just inside the top 30, and while he couldn’t make a deep run, he did make strides to get back on track. 

Felix opened with a thrilling five-set win over former U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem, outlasting the Austrian 6-3, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5, 6-3. It was one of his best performances in months, and he followed it up with a strong four-set victory over Hugo Grenier of France. 

Though Daniil Medvedev ended his rein in the third round, Auger-Aliassime looks back on track with his serve, high quality forehand, and play in the forecourt. He looks poised to return to form as his hard-court season continues in Rotterdam in February. 

Meanwhile, Denis Shapovalov will surely need more match play to rediscover his form on court — he lost in the opening round to Czechia’s Jakub Mensik. It was just Shapovalov’s second match on tour since July. 

Milos Raonic was unable to withstand his opening match physically, as he retired from action in the third set to Aussie favourite Alex de Minaur. 

On the women’s side, Leylah Fernandez reached the second round of the event, posting a straight-sets victory over qualifier Sara Bejlek before falling to huge-serving American Alycia Parks. It was an uncharacteristically flat performance from Fernandez, who only managed nine winners to 18 unforced errors.  

Toronto’s Rebecca Marino also qualified for the main draw in Melbourne and exited in the first round to Jessica Pegula. 

Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski and partner Erin Routliffe are still alive — they’ve reached the quarterfinals of women’s doubles.  

Veterans Vika and Elina make their stand 

There are just three remaining Grand Slam singles champions in Melbourne — and one of them is a two-time Australian champion.  

Victoria Azarenka, now a mother, and firmly in the latter stage of her career, has often brought forth her best tennis in Australia, assembling a 50-13 record at the event since she first debuted in 2006. She reached the final four last season, and with a wide-open field in the top section of the draw, a potential path to a sixth career Grand Slam final seems more than plausible for the 34-year-old.

Fellow mother Elina Svitolina has looked equally sharp Down Under, with three straight-set wins over the past week. The 17-time WTA titlist has one of the most balanced and stable baseline games, a quality that kept her inside the top 5 of the rankings from 2017-2020. 

Now that Svitolina is again a regular competitor on the tour, she’s a threat for a deep run at every Grand Slam — just last year, she reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the semifinals at Wimbledon. 

Can she go one step further in Melbourne? 

Zheng, Andreeva lead youth movement  

While veterans have shown their pedigree to make deep runs Down Under, the young crop of women’s talents have also shown poise and skill under pressure. 

At just 21 years of age, Qinwen Zheng of China is steadily rising towards the top 10. She’s an exceptionally athletic, all-court player who just two years ago was named WTA Newcomer of the Year, and late last season won the first two titles of her career. 

Zheng has looked ultra-impressive this tournament and leads the women’s field in aces hit with 29 over just three matches. Now, she’s knocking on the door of a quarterfinals run in Melbourne, and one can imagine an endearing friendship with 2014 Australian Open winner Li Na can only help. 

Given her age, Mirra Andreeva had perhaps the most remarkable week in Melbourne. The Russian-born teenager secured her first career top-10 win with a thrashing of Ons Jabeur in the second round, then staged an improbable comeback against France’s Diane Parry, erasing a 5-1 third-set deficit and saving a match point before triumphing 1-6, 6-1, 7-6(10-5). 

Andreeva is just the fourth player in the last 30 years to reach the round of 16 in singles at both Wimbledon and Australia before turning 17. If you want to feel absurdly old, watch her describe her growth in maturity at age 16: 

Though Andreeva was knocked out by former French Open winner Barbora Krejcikova in three sets in her following match, with her big result in Melbourne, she will now debut inside the top 40 next Monday.

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