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Three grand slams have now been ticked off as the tennis world turns its attention to the North American hardcourts ahead of the final few months of the season.

Despite a surprise Wimbledon champion in Marketa Vondrousova, the WTA Tour has seemingly settled into a more regular pattern this year led by Iga Swiatek, ArynaSabalenka and Elena Rybakina.

The ATP Tour meanwhile has witnessed an epic battle contested between Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz for the status of top dog, with a strong supporting cast hoping to stake their own claims for the title.

Amongst all the glamour and success stories, however, the engine room of tennis continues to be the lesser-fancied individuals hoping to have their own moment in the spotlight.

The question of who has the most to prove for the rest of the year does not necessarily equate to those who have had the worst seasons, or those falling shortest of expectations (although this is no doubt a common feature).

Rather, considering the individual journey of each player’s career, some will no doubt be more desperate than others for a strong end to the campaign, whether it be to solidify their successes thus far, or to rescue a faltering season.

Karolina Pliskova

Former world number 1 Pliskova has endured a difficult 2023, putting up a 13-11 record since her run to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and winning only one of her previous six matches.

The Czech split with coach Sascha Bajin for the second time last week, leaving Pliskova in a somewhat precarious position heading into one of her favourite parts of the tennis season.

A former US Open finalist, the 31-year-old has struggled to achieve consistently strong performances since reaching the Wimbledon final back in 2021.

Pliskova has shown in the past that she has the weapons to trouble anyone in the world, but a sharp turnaround in fortunes is required if she is to prove that her game still matches up with the very best.

Dominic Thiem

Thiem’s efforts to return to the top of men’s tennis have been well-documented.

A variety of setbacks over the last couple of years, most prominently a wrist injury, have seen the Austrian drop as low as #352 in June last year.

Thiem has since returned to the top 100 but heading into his week he found himself at #116 after a frustrating year but overnight he ended a drought of three years reaching his first ATP Tour level final since 2020 where he was runner up at the 250 in Kitzbuhel in his native Austria. The result pushes him back inside the top 100 to '90' live.

The former US Open champion now has has a 13-18 record this year, hardly what one might expect from Thiem, but also understandable considering his recent struggles.

Nonetheless, as doubts mount as to whether Thiem will ever recapture his best tennis, the next few months look to be significant in the 29-year-old’s career.

Could returning to the site of his greatest triumph be the trigger for a surge up the rankings?

Karolina Muchova

The Czech has had one of the most successful years of her career, reaching the final at Roland Garros and achieving a career-high ranking of #16.

Including Muchova on this list could be viewed as harsh, having exceeded all expectations which would have been placed on her at the start of the season.

A dip in form is a common occurrence for those reaching a grand slam final for the first time, with Muchova being no exception have won only one match and losing two since the final in Paris.

However, her inclusion on this list is less a reflection of recentr esults and more about whether she can re-settle into life on the tour after such a brilliant run and maintain a consistent level of performance.

As well as the mental challenge, Muchova will be desperate to get to the end of the season in reasonable physical condition having battled injuries so much throughout her career.

Felix Auger-Aliassime

Auger-Aliassime has had one of the more underwhelming seasons out of any top-level player in world tennis.

Having finished 2022 ranked number six, the 22-year-old appeared destined to establish himself as one of the toughest opponents on tour with his rock-solid baseline game and part-time coaching from Toni Nadal.

However, 2023 has proven to be a real struggle for Auger-Aliassime.

Posting a 13-12 record so far, the Canadian’s best results this year have been a quarterfinal appearance at Indian Wells and reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open.

A young player will inevitably have peaks and troughs early in their career, but now ranked outside the top 10 and with a bucket-load of points to defend in the coming months, Auger-Aliassime could find himself in a worrying position come the end of the season.

Iga Swiatek

The current world number #1 and holder of both the Roland Garros and US Open crowns surely has no place on a list about players with something to prove?

Of course, the standards which are applied to Swiatek are warped relative to almost anyone else on the tour, but the Polish superstar does have some work to do in the remainder of the year.

Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka have emerged as Swiatek’s strongest challengers at the top of women’s tennis, with Sabalenka coming agonisingly close to pinching the top ranking at Wimbledon.

The Kazakh and Belarussian have seemingly elevated their games to a new level in 2023 and both thrive on a hardcourt, as seen when they contested the final of the Australian Open back in January.

The part that Swiatek is yet to prove is whether she is still able to overcome her main rivals away from her beloved clay.

The four-time slam champ has lost her previous three hardcourt encounters cumulatively against Sabalenka and Rybakina – can she find a new gear to shrug off her nearest contenders once more?

Diego Schwartzman

Another player whose year has failed to live up to expectations is Schwartzman.

The Argentine has seemingly spent his career punching abovehis weight, but having dropped more than 70 ranking positions since the end of 2022, this end to the season looks to be a vital one in his career.

Schwartzman has a healthy record on the North American hardcourts, including at Flushing Meadows where he is a two-time quarterfinalist.

Whether Schwartzman has another twist in his career trajectory remains to be seen.

Daria Saville

Too soon?

Seeing Dasha back on the court is a treat in and of itself, having endured several years dogged by injury.

Saville had the best run of her most recent comeback last week, reaching the semi-finals in Hamburg.

But with Australian women’s tennis crying out for representation at the top of the game, Saville is seemingly the most likely to take up the mantle, having proven she can mix it with the best in years gone by.

Ultimately, the main goal for Saville will be getting through the rest of the year unscathed, proving to herself as much as anyone else that her body is still capable of holding up to life on the tour.

Stefanos Tsitsipas

The inclusion of Tsitsipas on this list is less about his current season and more a reflection of his overall career.

The Greek reached the Australian Open final at the start of the year and has had decent runs into the second week of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but it has taken until early August where today he won his first title of the year, the ATP 250 in Los Cabos, Mexico defeating Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4.

The lingering question though is whether Tsitsipas will ever be able to reach the top of the mountain, whether in terms of grand slam success or topping the world rankings.

Still just 24 years of age, Tsitsipas has plenty of time to achieve his ultimate career goals, but with the ascension of the likes of Carlos Alcaraz, Holger Rune and Jannik Sinner, one cannot help but wonder whether the Greek’s opportunity has passed him by.

The US Open has been a frequent roadblock in Tsitsipas’ path, where reaching the third round is still as deep as he has gone in the tournament.

Paula Badosa

Badosa has had a more underwhelming season than most, although much of that can be put down to misfortune.

Having reached a career-high ranking of number 2 in April last year, the Spaniard appeared set to be a mainstay of the top 10 for years to come.

However, a poor finish to last season combined with an injury-riddle 2023 has seen Badosa fall outside the top 30 in the world rankings, having been forced to withdraw from both the Australian Open and Roland Garros before retiring in her second-round match at Wimbledon.

Badosa has consequently struggled for consistent success in other tournaments, reaching only one semi-final this year.

The Spaniard has endured a difficult 12 months but will be determined to right some of the wrongs over the final few months of the season.

Alexei Popyrin

Last week, Popyrin had one of the runs of his career in Umag, defeating Stan Wawrinka in an epic final to claim a second career title.

Somewhat surprisingly, the result came on the clay, but nonetheless served as a timely reminder of Popyrin’s quality.

The big-serving Australian’s career is as clear an indication as any of the ups and downs which come with life on tour, having ultimately struggled to string together a series ofpositive results over an extended period.

However, the title in Umag has lifted Popyrin to a career-high ranking of 57.

The question now is whether he can kick-on into the end of the season, potentially cracking the top 50 for the first time and entrenching himself in the upper echelons of the game.


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