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WHAT DO WE WANT FROM OUR AUSSIES ON TOUR IN 2024



As the Australian summer of tennis starts to come come to an end, with only one month of ITF events remaining, there is much to reflect on and consider for our Australian contingent as they now embark far and wide in their professional pursuits. 


At the happy slam, Alex de Minaur was our leading man and, for the first time, was considered a genuine threat at a slam level. Storm Hunter was moments away from a maiden fourth-round singles appearance. Alja Tomljanovic successfully continued her return to the WTA Tour after a 2023 season that almost didn’t start.  Matt Ebden won his second grand slam doubles major, and Emerson Jones was a finalist in the girls' singles. 


That said, our overall singles performance wasn’t great.  Outside of de Minaur, no other Australian man made the third round and the only women to make the second were Tomljanovic and Hunter.  We’ve had better. 


It begs the question, did our singles brigade underperform in a down year or is this an accurate reflection of our cattle?


de Minaur, now inside the top 10, is world-class; and in the latest rankings update at the start of this week there are eight men in the top 100, which itself is a wonderful demonstration of national depth.  However, at the time, de Minaur was the lone Australian in the top 40 so he wasn’t expected to have any company in the round of 32.  


The women’s side, for now, is less encouraging.  Undoubtedly, our best talents Tomljanovic and Saville are coming back from injury and are ranked 223 and 148 respectively.  


Arina Rodionova is our highest-ranked prospect at 99 and seven others are ranked between 100 and 200 including the younger duo of Olivia Gadecki (21) and Taylah Preston (18).  


All that is to say, on ranking alone, none of Preston, Gadecki, Hunter, Saville, or Tomljanovic were favoured to beat their round one opponents nor progress any further. 


On that analysis, and ignoring factors like the home crowd advantage and injury-affected seasons prior, the Australian Open was an accurate representation of our singles talent. 


So what can we expect for the remainder of 2024 and what would make it a success?


Men’s side 


Success for our men could be measured by seeing more Australians entrenched in the top 40 to support de Minaur.  It’s all good and well having players in the top 100 but as a grand slam nation we want players going deep into the majors; not just turning up.  


And, almost surprisingly, we’re off to a great start thanks to two individuals in particular. 


Starting the year ranked 55, having spent most of a stuttering 2023 between 50 and 103, a rejuvenated Jordan Thompson has found his career-best form in his 11th year on tour.  The New South Welshman picked up his first ATP Tour level title in Mexico this week (def. Ruud 6-4, 7-6) and has won at least one match in each of his six tournaments to date in his rise to world number 32 (the magic number to achieve a Roland Garros seeding).  


Impressively, Thompson’s worst loss of the year, in terms of ranking, was at the hands of then-world number 25 Lorenzo Musetti in Adelaide. 


Highlighting Thompson’s development is the source of his improvement.  When thinking of Thompson you’d ordinarily associate him with a counter-punching style of play.  However, this year, Thompson’s serve has become one of his biggest weapons.  Thompson has the second-highest percentage of points won on second serve (57%) on tour with only Novak Djokovic (57.6%) winning more.  He’s even in the top 20 for the percentage of points won on first serve too. The ATP’s stats partner, Infosys, rates Thompson’s serve as the 9th best on tour so far in season 2024. Pretty good for a grinder.  


Similarly, the prodigiously talented Alexei Popyrin has had a strong start to 2024.  After picking up a win in Brisbane, Popyrin defeated Marc Polmans in the opening round of the Australian Open before falling to world number 1 Djokovic in an enthralling four-set battle.  Although starting the year 2-2 is not necessarily a sign of fireworks, Popyrin was playing at a high level throughout.  The 24-year-old, now coached by Xavier Malisse, carried this good form forward to the ATP 250 in Qatar this week where he picked up three good wins before losing to eventual champion Karen Khachanov in the semi-final.  


Now ranked at a career-high 38 the test for Popyrin, who has shown significant promise for years now, will be whether he can carry this momentum forward and turn 2024 into a career year.  


As to whether any other Australians will join de Minaur, Thompson, and Popyrin in the top 40, that remains to be seen.  Max Purcell, who pushed Casper Ruud to five sets at the Australian Open, is the next based by ranking at 62 but has two more challenger titles about to drop off his ranking after his clean sweep in India twelve months ago.  Purcell’s coach Nathan Healey is firmly of the belief that his pupil is a top 20 talent, however with a few ordinary losses to start this year, Purcell will need to start finding back-to-back wins again soon.


Other candidates include Chris O’Connell, Rinky Hijikata, Aleks Vukic, and Thanasi Kokkinakis however all seem a fraction off the pace at the moment.  


O’Connell has been stop-start this season.  The former boat cleaner is currently in the top 70 but hasn’t delivered a big scalp for a while.  We’ve seen he has the game, but we need to see more of it. 


Hijikata, who has made two quarter-final appearances at 250 level this year (Brisbane and Delray Beach), appears, for now, to lack the weaponry to attack the top 40. His speed and competitive spirit are world-class, however, Hijikata is missing a serve or forehand at that same level to propel himself to the next level. 


Elsewhere, Aleks Vukic will need to turn things around quickly to attack the top 40 (or 50 for that matter) with a back injury currently halting his progress and successive wins remaining elusive this campaign. On the eye test, Vukic has a top 20 forehand and an elite serve, which will take you a long way in this game, he just needs to get his body right. 


Similarly, it would take some huge results for Thanasi Kokkinakis to reach the top 40.  The South Australian currently sits just inside the top 100 but prefers to play a lighter schedule to keep himself mentally fresh throughout the year which can leave him open to ranking slides.  


All in all, Thompson and Popyrin are well on their way to helping de Minaur fly the Australian flag.  The only question is whether they can maintain the rage for the next eight months and whether they’ll get any help along the way.  


A reasonable pass mark would see the men maintain their presence of eight players in the top 100 with three of those inside the top 40.  Ideally with two of which, currently de Minaur and Thompson, in the top 30.  


Women’s side 


Success for our women would require a re-emergence into the top 100 and we should hope for at least 4 by year's end.  Let’s look at the most likely candidates. 


Arina Rodionova is there.  Ranked 99 Arina has exceeded expectations in the last 14 months and is truly battle-hardened.  At 34, it’s unlikely we’ll see Arina skyrocket to the top 50 if it hasn’t happened yet, but after a year where she picked up 78 wins and seven ITF titles, there’s no reason that can’t translate to enough wins on the main tour to stay in the top 100 all year. 


Alja Tomljanovic is still working her way back from injury after recently undergoing surgery to remove non-cancerous tumours from her uterus. There’s no doubting that Alja is a top 30 player and provided she returns to the tour soon enough, we should see her back in the top 100 this year. 


Daria Saville is in the same boat. While her comeback from a ruptured ACL has not been as quick as her return from achilles surgery in 2022 that saw her re-enter the top 50 inside seven months, we can forgive Saville for her more modest progression.  With a career-high ranking of 20, Saville’s time will come as she gets fitter and can step on the court with increasing regularity.  Such is her impact, Saville is only five rankings sports and nine points behind Queenslander Olivia Gadecki who has played nearly twelve extra events (29 to 17).  


Trending in the right direction is 18-year-old Taylah Preston.  After making the final at the WTA 125 event in Puerto Vallarta, Preston is now ranked 153 and is clearly our best young hope. Those next 53 rankings spots will be a big jump, but given she’s only a teenager, it’s not too ambitious to suggest the top 100 is in her future; and soon. 


Our Australian Open star, Storm Hunter is another on the cusp, and it’s clear she’s good enough too.  So good in fact that Alja Tomlanovic told the press in Melbourne she’s encouraging Storm to quit doubles and focus on singles now that she’s proven herself with the world number 1 doubles ranking.  Hunter has qualified for three of the last four grand slams and made a final of a WTA 125 event in India a fortnight ago.  If she can manage her schedule correctly, she should be top 100 no later than by the US Open.  


The Ash Barty-mentored Olivia Gadecki is another we can expect big things from.  Now ranked 143, the 21-year-old is considered a genuine top 100 talent by her peers with her big-hitting tennis frighteningly good when she’s on song.  The issue for Gadecki has been her consistency but that’ll come with maturity.  Although her top ranking is only 127, Gadecki is 3-10 in ITF finals.  If she can start to turn those around, a double-digit ranking beckons.  


Someone unfortunately trending in the wrong direction is Queenslander Kim Birrell.  After reaching a career-high ranking of 100 in September 2023, Birrell has struggled to maintain her good 2023 form and is now ranked a comparatively distant 159 with only one win in qualifying to her name this year.  She’s shown she’s good enough to be a top 100 player, but she’ll have to turn the tide quickly. 


Also in the top 200 are Astra Sharma (138) and Priscilla Hon (170). Both have been in this second tier before and for quite some time.  Hon, who only recently returned to the top 200, is in form having made the semi-finals of an ITF event in Traralgon last week following a title in Burnie a fortnight earlier. Sharma, on the other hand, hasn’t played since a loss in the second round of qualifying at the Australian Open. 


Keep an eye also on the recently naturalised Maya Joint. Joint is only 17 but is ranked 336 and won the second of two events in Burnie two weeks ago after also making the third round of qualifying at the Australian Open.  Whether Joint is a realistic prospect to make the top 100 in 2024 will depend on whether she goes through with plans to play at the University of Texas this upcoming college season.  


Realistically, there is a stack of talented Australians ranked outside the top 100. We need at least three others to join Rodionova by year’s end.  It shouldn’t be out of the question to expect more, either.


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