After the shock retirement of Australia’s very own world No. 1 Ash Barty, many Australians have been left pondering; do any of our current Australian players have the capabilities to match Ash Barty and win a major?
What I’ll start off by saying is that we absolutely cannot underestimate just how difficult it is to win a major (or three in Ash’s case), and careers that don’t result in winning a major, or even getting to the top of the game certainly shouldn’t be seen as failures - in fact in some instances, they are tremendous success stories.
Since the rise of tennis in Europe in the 1970/80's, only five Australians (Pat Cash, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt, Sam Stosur & Ash Barty) have been able to get their hands on a slam trophy in the singles game.
What Ash Barty was able to achieve is nothing short of remarkable, winning a major on clay, grass and most recently hard court. And when you consider the fact that she left the game, played professional cricket, came back and won three slams by the age of 25, it's quite frankly hard to believe. But Barty’s retirement has left Australian tennis in a bit of a pickle if you’re looking for someone to still be alive at the pointy end of a major, particularly on the women’s side - which is where I’ll begin my search for our next slam champion.
Currently, Ajla Tomljanovic is the only Australian ranked inside the top 100 in the WTA Rankings, sitting at No. 42. To put it bluntly, when it comes to claiming big scalps and going deep into majors, Tomljanovic’s career to date has been a case of so close, yet so far. But that’s not to say she doesn’t have the ability to take that next step.
Tomljanovic’s second half of the 2021 season saw her discover career-best form, reaching the quarterfinals of a slam for the first time in her career at Wimbledon, subsequently leading to her reaching her career-high ranking of 38 in February this year.
But can Tomljanovic win a slam? Considering she is yet to win a title on the WTA Tour and the difficulty of winning a major, the answer is probably no. Taking a look at the major winners on the women’s side in recent years would suggest it’s certainly possible, but at 29-years-of-age, it would take a remarkable rise in the twilight stages of her career to be able to do so.
As we scroll further down the rankings, you’ll find a plethora of Australians that occupy ranking spots outside the top 100, but do any have the ingredients it takes to win a slam?
Daria Saville was ranked inside the top 20 before her career was halted by a treacherous run of injuries, but the much-loved Aussie is now back on tour and closing in on a return to the top 100. At her best, it’s fair to say ‘Dasha’ is quite possibly the best Australian in the women’s game at the moment and it would be awesome to see her back at the pointy end of the rankings.
Can Dasha win a slam though? Before all her injuries, it was certainly a possibility, so I suppose if she’s able to rise back inside the top 20, it’s possible. But that in itself is an extremely difficult task, and it would probably be one of the more remarkable slam wins in decades if she would be able to get the job done.
At 160 in the ranks, 20-year-old Olivia Gadecki endured a meteoric rise in 2021 - a year where she made her WTA Tour debut and claimed her maiden top 5 win, defeating former slam champion and world No. 4 Sofia Kenin.
Gadecki is the highest-rated Australian ‘youngster’ on the women’s side, but we need to see more of her at the top level, against the best, before the possibility of winning a slam can even be discussed.
In recent years, all eyes were on Destanee Aiava. Now 22-years-old, Aiava has a career-high rank of 147, which she achieved as a 17-year-old, but she hasn’t come close to reaching the great heights that many predicted she once would.
Aiava made her slam main draw debut at the Australian Open in 2017 as a 16-year-old, becoming the first player born in the 21st century to feature in the main draw of a slam. She has featured in the main draw of the Australian Open on four occasions but is yet to win her maiden slam main draw match.
Those who had the pleasure of watching Aiava as a teenager would’ve had no doubt that the feisty Aussie had what it took to reach the top of the women’s game and possibly win a major.
But unfortunately, a range of injuries and other factors has seen the Australian fall outside the top 450 in the ranks and now she faces a long way back if she is ever going to reach the great heights that were once bestowed upon her.
Teenagers Charlotte Kempenaers-Pocz and Taylah Preston are rated very highly internally at Tennis Australia and could very well charge up the ranks in future years, but only time will tell whether they have what it takes to achieve the hail mary in this sport.
Looking even further into the future, 13-year-old Tahlia Kokkinis is rated extremely highly, but it is too early to determine whether she obtains what it takes to win a major, let alone reach the top of the women’s game.
Now shifting over to the men’s side of things.
I think it’s fair to say the men’s game in Australia is currently in a much healthier position than the women’s game, and there are several Aussie men who could be capable of lifting a major trophy.
When it comes to lifting a major trophy, Nick Kyrgios is the first Australian that springs to mind. There is absolutely no doubting Kyrgios’ ability. I personally think he has the ability to be the best player on the planet, and in an alternate reality, he could’ve quite possibly won a handful of slams already. But everyone knows the Kyrgios story and it would require a significant mental shift if he were to ever go deep in majors and win one. But hey, stranger things have happened and despite admitting on several occasions that winning a slam is not on his list of priorities, at the end of the day there is no doubting when it comes to his ability on the tennis court, Kyrgios has what it takes.
23-year-old Alex de Minaur is the highest-ranked Australian on the men’s side, currently sitting at No. 21 in the ATP Rankings.
‘Demon’ has been as high as 15 in the ranks, but what has stopped him from taking that leap into the top 10 are the struggles he has endured when coming up against the top echelon of players on the tour.
De Minaur holds a 6-23 record against top 10 ranked opponents, but is still young and has time to swing that record in his favour. However, with the recent rise of Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Aliassime and other teens, Demon is going to need to add some more weapons to his game if he’s ever going to be able to reach the top 10 and possibly win a slam.
Thanasi Kokkinakis is the next Aussie that comes to mind.
Had the 26-year-old endured a relatively injury-free career, who knows - he could already have a slam trophy in his cabinet. But unfortunately, the South Australian has suffered more injuries than most, and has barely been able to stay on the court for an extended period of time since he burst onto the scene as a ridiculously highly talented teen.
However, that’s not to say winning a slam is out of Kokkinakis’ reach.
There is still no doubting the talent and firepower of Kokkinakis’ game, and after six years outside of it, he is now ranked back inside the top 100 after a tremendous start to the 2022 season which has seen him claim his maiden ATP Tour title.
His game matches up with the best and if Kokkinakis is able to stay fit, I still hold hope that he has what it takes to win a slam. But the reality is, he has a lot of work to do if he is ever going to reach the heights he could’ve if injuries had not been in the equation.
James Duckworth, Jordan Thompson and John Millman are all ranked inside the top 100, but if I’m being honest, winning a slam is probably well out of reach for this crop.
Sitting just outside the top 100 is Alexei Popyrin.
The 22-year-old has some serious weapons and oozes X-factor. He has already won a title on the ATP Tour and won multiple matches at all four slams, but Popyrin’s game is still a long way off where it needs to be if he is to put himself in the slam-winning equation. The positive though is that he has what it takes and if he’s able to harness his power and grow into his frame, Popyrin might one day find himself at the top of the men’s game.
Looking way into the future, like Kokkinis on the girl's side, 13-year-old Cruz Hewitt - (the son of former slam champion Lleyton) is rated extremely highly. But once again, it’s far too early to know whether he has what it takes.