Grand Slam fever grips tennis fans all over the world as the 2023 Australian Open kicks off. For the next fortnight, The Indian Express will bring you the biggest storylines of the day, and the best matches to watch at timings suitable for Indian audiences, every morning.
(1) Iga Swiatek vs Jule Niemeier (Round of 128)
1.30pm, Rod Laver Arena
Two Grand Slam titles. Eight tour-level titles. A 37-match winning-streak. Year-end World No. 1 ranking wrapped up by October. 2022 is a hard year to follow up for Iga Swiatek, but at the Australian Open, the Pole will be looking to consolidate her place at the summit of the game.
Swiatek’s remarkable winning streak began in February, but the seeds of her incredible season were sown in Melbourne, where she navigated back-to-back wins from losing positions on her way to the semifinal.
This year, despite being the top seed, she faces a mountain to climb to get out of her quarter – which contains four former Grand Slam champions and two finalists. To do so, the 21-year-old will need to show the fight and grit to be able to eke out wins even when she is not at her best, making her first round encounter a symbolic one.
🪃Hi @AustralianOpen! I missed you.
— Iga Świątek (@iga_swiatek) January 11, 2023
Swiatek had arrived in New York in poor form, with a row over the match balls providing an unnecessary negative distraction. The Pole showed the kind of character that top champions often do, winning even when she looks down and out, when her serve was not quite clicking, and the timing of her groundstrokes was off.
The catalyst for that was a fourth-round encounter against Germany’s Jule Niemeier – her first-round opponent on Monday. Niemeier won the first set 6-2 and looked to be able to comfortably deal with the Pole’s offence with baseline aggression of her own. Swiatek was unable to push her behind the baseline, prompting her to be too aggressive with her groundstrokes and miss her shots.
Swiatek reset, showing her composure and experience in being able to deal with setbacks, and as the timing on her shots began to click, she turned on the afterburners to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-0. It was a trailer of what was to come, that Swiatek sensed the opportunity of winning her first non-clay Major and she was not about to let it go.
Niemeier is 0-2 in 2023 so far, and her US Open result only did enough to get the World No. 63 back into the top 10, but she showed Swiatek she can bring her A-game on the big stage, and it’s a test that the Pole is not planning on taking lightly.
Growing up, tennis was @iga_swiatek’s sole focus.
— The Players’ Tribune (@PlayersTribune) January 15, 2023
“For sure, Jule, we played on US Open, and you saw how intense that match was, how tough. It’s not going to be easy,” Swiatek said at her pre-event press conference. “It’s nice also that we played not so long ago so I can take a lot from that match. Now I know how her ball feels on the racquet. So we’ll see.”
The surface might prove to be tricky too. Played in rising Australian temperatures, the surface at the Major in Melbourne Park usually awards the big topspin-hitters. But there has been no discernible pattern regarding the surface’s speed, and Swiatek, being an accomplished clay player, prefers it on the slower side.
Keep an eye on the crosscourt exchanges on the forehand side, and how long it takes for Swiatek to drag Niemeier wide and unload one down-the-line, a tactic that works well for her when up against a hard-hitter.
While Rafael Nadal’s first-round test against Jack Draper will likely take all the eyeballs on Monday, Swiatek’s first round could prove to be significant too, by signalling whether or not she can actually mount a title challenge over the next fortnight. Getting through early tests and this tough a draw, on a surface she is not particularly fond of, is part of keeping your place among tennis’ elite.
This tournament could show if Swiatek can take her remarkable 2022 form, and translate it into a sustained period of domination on the women’s tour. And it starts with Niemeier.