We have officially reached the Round of 16 at the Australian Open, but the first week in Melbourne hasn’t been without drama.
No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal was beaten by Mackenzie McDonald in the second round in straight sets. Daniil Medvedev was also eliminated in the third round by Sebastian Korda. And Nick Kyrgios was forced to withdraw from the tournament before it even started because of a knee injury.
There’s a lot we learned through the first week, and I’ll break down my observations and takeaways below.
Is Nadal Done?
First, I want to preface this section by saying that this is no slight to Nadal, who is one of the greatest tennis players of all-time and a no-doubt Hall of Famer.
However, Nadal’s days of being a top player on the ATP Tour are over.
That may seem shocking for casual tennis fans, especially since Nadal won two majors in 2022.
But if you’re a consistent fan of tennis, you know that Rafa’s play has significant dropped off over the past six or so months.
Nadal just doesn’t have the fitness and his body is not able to withstand the rigors of the tour anymore. We saw it at Wimbledon in 2022 — when he was forced to withdraw from the tournament before his semifinal match vs. Kyrgios — and we saw it again this past week against McDonald.
But even when he’s playing without an injury, he doesn’t look even close to the player of old.
Rafa lost his opening matches in Cincinnati (Borna Coric) and Paris (Tommy Paul) at the end of 2022. He also looked shaky in the US Open, losing sets to Rinky Hijikata and Fabio Fognini before getting eliminated in four by Frances Tiafoe.
The Spaniard went 1-2 in the ATP Finals to end 2022, and didn’t start 2023 with much confidence either, losing two straight matches to Cam Norrie and Alex de Minaur in the United Cup.
Then it got even worse, as he struggled against Jack Draper before getting completely outplayed by McDonald. Even before suffering his latest injury, Nadal was down a set and a break and couldn’t hit past the American’s elite defense and consistency.
Ultimately, out of respect for Nadal, I don’t want to say this will be his last season on tour. But what I will say: his level is dropping off rather quickly. He’s not capable of competing with the likes of Novak Djokovic and other top-10 players right now.
We had a good idea of this before Melbourne, but this past week certainly confirmed that notion.
The Official Breakout of American Tennis
I’ve been very vocal on this site about the positive state of American tennis. Frances Tiafoe reached the semifinals of the US Open, Taylor Fritz is in the top 10 (more on him below) and Sebastian Korda, Tommy Paul, Jenson Brooksby, Brandon Nakashima and Maxime Cressy have all shown flashes.
I didn’t even get to mention Reilly Opelka, who is currently coming back from injury.
And guess what? That’s not all.
Eight Americans reached the Round of 32 in Melbourne. They have officially taken over the tournament.
And here’s where we stand:
- We already talked about McDonald above, but beating Nakashima in five sets and then earning the biggest win of his career against Nadal qualifies as a successful event for someone who is ranked 65th. You can’t fault him for losing to Yoshihito Nishioka in the third round after two emotional victories. He also suffered an injury in that match, so keep an eye on his status moving forward.
- It was a disappointing finish for Tiafoe — who lost to Karen Khachanov in the Round of 32 — but his demeanor and swagger hasn’t dropped off. If Tiafoe can continue to serve like he has, he’s not going anywhere.
- Brooksby also lost in Round 3, however, he defeated No. 2 seed Casper Ruud rather convincingly. The American can place his groundstrokes better than almost anyone on tour when he’s playing well, and that was certainly the case against Ruud. He had an excellent game plan in that match, even though he struggled to close it out because of nerves.
- While Michael Mmoh is a fixture on the Challenger Tour, he’s far from a walk in the park for any opponent. Mmoh lost in Round 3, but he beat Alexander Zverev (who’s still working himself back from a significant injury). This is a huge confidence booster for the 25-year-old who stepped into this event for David Goffin. He even had his flight booked home before the Zverev match.
- Ben Shelton wasn’t even a pro a year ago. He also had never left the country before this trip to Australia. Now he’s in the final 16 of a major. The 20-year-old Shelton is a top-notch server and should be a serious contender to be one of the best Americans in tennis in the years to come.
- J.J. Wolf has to play Shelton in the Round of 16, but he too has been on the come up over the last few months. Typically residing in the Challenger Tour, Wolf made the finals in Florence, beat Roberto Bautista Agut at the US Open and topped Holger Rune and Denis Shapovalov in D.C. Wolf’s power is a huge asset for him.
- Paul had a monster year in 2022, reaching the highest ranking of his career (28) in September. After defeating Brooksby in straight sets, Paul is into the Round of 16 at a major for the second time in his career. Paul is one of the more gifted athletes on tour, and will face RBA next.
- Finally, we have Korda, who stunned Medvedev in straight sets. This result didn’t just come out of left field, though. Korda has been playing awesome tennis dating back to last season. He reached the finals of Adelaide this month, defeating Andy Murray, Jannik Sinner and RBA in the process. He also had a match point against Novak Djokovic in the final. Korda is seriously playing like a top-10 player.
So, there you have it. I know that’s a lot, but the depth and state of American tennis is exciting. The future is extremely bright for the country and snapping the major-tournament drought is coming sooner rather than later.
The Ups And Downs of Felix
Felix Auger-Aliassime is seeded No. 6 in this tournament and is seventh in the world overall. But man is the Canadian inconsistent.
We knew this based on last year’s results. He had two stretches where he literally couldn’t be beaten (Rotterdam and Marseille earlier in the year and then three straight titles late in the year).
But then he has patches where he could lose to anyone on tour. That came in the middle of the summer in 2022, when Felix lost in the second round at the US Open and really wasn’t a factor at all during the warmer months.
Now in this event, Auger-Aliassime looked dead in the water against Alex Molcan before Molcan essentially gifted him the match with countless error after error. Felix played what I would call 3 or 4 out of 10 tennis in that match, especially in the first two sets.
He then dropped a set to Francisco Cerundolo, who is seeded in this event but is not exactly known for his play on fast hard courts.
Felix winning these matches despite not playing his best is obviously a strong sign as to how talented he is, but that’s never been an issue for him. We all know how great he can be, and that’s why it’s concerning to see him go through these lapses.
He might be the most inconsistent player in the top 30 in tennis. Sinner is up there — as he can be inconsistent with his ball striking even within the course of particular matches — but Felix is much more mature on tour.
Felix is looking to make a leap from a great player who capitalizes on winning “lesser” tournaments to an elite player who is wins lesser tournaments but also competes for titles in majors.
Will he reach that status in Melbourne? TBD, but it’s not looking likely.
Another Tough Result for Fritz
I did a deep dive into Fritz this offseason, mentioning that this was a huge year for the American to take a step similar to what Felix is looking for. Fritz is a top-10 player, but he hasn’t shown he’s ready to truly compete for titles at Grand Slams.
While making the quarterfinals at Wimbledon was a step in the right direction, he hasn’t been consistent enough in tennis’ biggest events.
Remember, Fritz lost in the opening round of the US Open to qualifier Brandon Holt. He was picked as a dark horse by many — including me — before the event, and the expectations and pressure certainly seemed to get to him in Round 1.
Then this past week, Fritz dropped a set to Nikoloz Basilashvili and lost to Alexei Popyrin. That’s not a knock against Basilashvili — who actually played really good tennis for the last hour and a half or so of that match — or Popyrin — who has an excellent serve and had the Aussie crowd backing him — but Fritz shouldn’t have major issues with either player.
There’s something about major-tournament pressure that seems to get the best of Fritz. And I’m not sure we’ll see him breakthrough this year unless changes are made.
Sir Andy Murray
Respect goes out to Andy Murray. At 35 years old and a hip resurfacing later, Murray brought back his vintage game in Aussie.
He defeated Matteo Berrettini in five sets in the opening round, attacking the Italian’s ugly backhand time and time again.
Then Murray came back down two sets to love against Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis. He was grinding out the match at nearly FIVE A.M. IN THE MORNING.
While Murray lost in the third round to RBA, I think everyone can appreciate what we’re seeing from the Brit. He played the match of the tournament thus far, and proved to himself that he still has game.