Australian Open qualifying dark horses — Germany claims United Cup

The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, Jan. 9, 2024

G’Day mates and Happy Tennis Tuesday! The 2024 season is officially underway with a loaded first week under our belt. Before I get into what happened Down Under, we’re already beginning Grand Slam action! The Australian Open qualifying event is this week and first round play did start, but rain in Melbourne thwarted some plans.

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Like I do every Slam, I wanted to pick three names I could see not only qualify, but do some damage in the main draw. Instead of just three names, I’ve decided to break them down by local, seed and unseeded. *Note that this was done before Tuesday play and my predictions are usually cursed*

Local: Arina Rodionova

Arina Rodionova is also the No. 7 seed and the Australian No. 1. But wait, why is the top Australian player playing in the qualifying of her home Grand Slam? Great question, reader. Unfortunately, the 34-year-old was denied a main draw berth in favor of younger players such as Taylah Preston, Olivia Gadecki, Kimberly Birrell and Daria Saville. Rodionova, who emigrated to Australia from Russia, has long been a Tennis Australia outsider and wasn’t surprised at the snub. Still, Rodionova’s previous 12 months have been outstanding — a year that included 7 ITF World Tour titles and 79 match wins.

This past week in Brisbane, she reached the third round thanks to a win over 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin. That week alone would probably guarantee a wild card berth. However, it was clear Tennis Australia’s politics benefitted those in the system, on top of the reciprocal agreements with the USTA and FFT, the Asia-Pacific wildcard selection and then 2019 champion Caroline Wozniacki requesting one, too. Throw in the players entering the main draw with a protected ranking, like Ajla Tomljanovic, Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka.

It’s stories like Rodionova’s that make you wonder if Slams should swap wildcards — at least in Tennis Australia and the USTA’s case. Could you also cap Special Ranking entries? Is that fair? Who knows, but Rodionova is going into qualifying heated and is looking to give Tennis Australia a lesson.

Seeded: Renata Zarazua

No. 2 seed Renata Zarazua hails from Mexico and has been finding some career-best form the last couple of months. Though she lost her opening match of the season this week in Canberra, the 26-year-old broke into the singles Top 100 for the first time to become the first Mexican woman to reach that milestone since Angelica Galvaldon in 1996. In 2020, Zarazua qualified for Roland Garros and reached the second round — her only Grand Slam main draw to date. She ended 2021 ranked No. 127, but slid down to No. 350 at the end of 2022.

However, she had a career-best season in 2023, winning ITF World Tour titles at a $25k in Boca Raton and a $60k in Lexington. However, she ended her season by winning a WTA 125 event in Montevideo, Uruguay, a week after reaching the semifinals of the WTA 125 in Florianopolis, Brazil. Sure, she’s a much better clay courter, but she’s riding high on confidence and seems to be finding her footing amongst the world’s elite. Her draw is tough, with Australians Jaimee Fourlis and Destanee Aiava, as well as former Top 25 player Jil Teichmann in her section.

Unseeded: Alina Korneeva

Alina Korneeva is a name you’re likely going to hear a lot in the future. The current junior World No. 1, she’s the reigning junior Australian Open and Roland Garros champion and also reached the semifinals at Wimbledon. She won the Australian Open girl’s doubles title with current Top 50 player Mirra Andreeva, who she defeated in the singles final. In 2023, she won a $60k and a $100k on the ITF World Tour, but also made her WTA debut in Hong Kong where she qualified and made the second round, losing to another teen sensation in Linda Fruhvirtova. The Australian Open is her debut Grand Slam event as a senior player and she has a fun first round against No. 31 seed Sachia Vickery.

Should she get through that, the only player I could see give her trouble is the winner of the first round between No. 11 Anna Bondar and Hsieh Su-Wei. She’s young and though inexperienced at the professional level, she’s constantly performed well in pretty much all of her events. I think the moment and also returning to the site of her initial Grand Slam triumph might help settle those nerves if she has any. Again, keep her name on your radar and don’t be surprised to see her in the Top 100 this year.

Onto links!

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This Week in Women’s Tennis

Germany captured the United Cup in stunning fashion, saving championship point in their 2-1 win over Poland in the final. They also saved match points in two of their three matches in their 2-1 semifinal win over Australia, which was perhaps my favorite match of the tournament.

In a rematch of the Australian Open final, Elena Rybakina destroyed Aryna Sabalenka to win the title. In doubles, Lyudmyla Kichenok and Jeļena Ostapenko won their third team title by winning a straight-sets encounter over Greet Minnen and Heather Watson.

Now a “veteran” at only 19, Coco Gauff won her second consecutive ASB Classic title, defeating Elina Svitolina in the final. Anna Danilina and Viktoria Hruncakova defeated Marie Bouzkova, who has teamed up with Conchita Martinez, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands to win the doubles title.

Nuria Parrizas Diaz won her third career WTA 125 event at the Workday Canberra International with a two-set win over Harriet Dart, while Veronika Erjavec and Darja Semenistaja dashed home hopes with a win over Kaylah McPhee and Astra Sharma in the doubles final.

Paula Badosa is eager to step on the court in Adelaide for the first time since August, while Naomi Osaka is pleased with her first week back after two matches in Brisbane.

Victoria Azarenka swept the Australian Open junior draws in 2005 and is a two-time women’s singles champion, but nearly two decades after she first stepped in Melbourne, she’s still a contender. However, she still hopes to benefit the tour as much as she can while she’s playing.

Ons Jabeur, who is rumored to be switching clothing companies, also had a documentary come out that delves into the heartbreak at Wimbledon and her health scares last year.

Two-time Australian Open semifinalist Madison Keys is the latest player to withdraw from Melbourne — this time due to a shoulder injury.

Want to feel old? Ksenia Efremova is the latest teen prodigy to win an ITF World Tour title:

The ITA announced their first set of collegiate team rankings, as well as their media rights agreement to host the NCAA Championships on ESPN. I also loved this bit on Sheila McInerey, who is celebrating her 40th season as Arizona State’s head coach.

The USTA has hired outside counsel to investigate their safeguarding policies and procedures to make sure players are protected from abuse and sexual misconduct.

Iga Swiatek and Angelique Kerber are among the early entries for Stuttgart, while Emma Raducanu will be there as well as in Abu Dhabi.

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Tweet of the Week

I wish it was my birthday Down Under. Great content here at the WTA 125 in Canberra:

Five at The IX: Brisbane & United Cup

Q. Great match. You played 106 matches in 2023, which is phenomenal. Probably in a lot smaller crowds than what you had out there. What was it like having that Aussie support?

ARINA RODIONOVA: Oh, it’s so great. I think that’s the reason why I’m having so much fun out there because, as I say, I’ve done the hard work. I’ve played in the small cities, small tournaments where no one is watching. Yeah, I think it’s a little bit like a reward for me just even being here.

Obviously winning is a great bonus, but, yeah, playing this level of tournament and being at home and being healthy enough. Like last year I couldn’t even play the week before Australian Open because my injury was still not great.

Yeah, I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be here and just enjoy the moment because you never know how many more years I’ll be able to do that. Again, having fun out there.

Q. Angie, what’s the experience been like for you these few days, considering it’s been 18 months since you played a tournament?

ANGELIQUE KERBER: You know, I mean, for me to starting my comeback like this, I mean, it couldn’t be better, to be honest. I had, like, yeah, five tough matches. It was a completely cold start for me. I had no idea where I am.

I played good matches, tough ones. But of course the match yesterday where I was feeling great on court again and I was feeling the emotions, the energy on court. And the whole ten days here, it was amazing.

This is what I really missed, to be honest. I really miss to play in front of the crowds. Playing also for Germany is always an honor, especially with this amazing team and the background, and having so many good matches. Knowing now a little bit where I am before the first Grand Slam of the year, before Australian Open.

Yeah, I think we can be all proud how we played, especially Sascha, of course. It was a marathon week for him, and he survived. You know, I’m really proud of Sascha, how he, yeah, handled all the situations, especially the two match points down.

Q. What were you most happy about your game this week?

ELENA RYBAKINA: We talked a lot actually with the coach. As I said, I was not able to practice enough the week before coming here. Also first few days here it was really tough with the jet lag and everything.

We actually talked and watched a bit of tennis. Usually we don’t get as much time to do so. Also it was raining in the beginning of the week, so again I was ready to practice but because of the weather I couldn’t really.

I just pleased with the way I started the tournament because I was not feeling the greatest physically still after illness and everything. Just the decisions on the court and everything we talked with the coach, I managed to bring it on the court.

Q. Iga, I’m interested in how you feel, like, some of the work in the offseason that you were doing has been kind of going so far in the United Cup and leading into the Australian Open? And if you’d be able to talk a little bit about what some of those things were that you were changing in your game.

IGA SWIATEK: Well, I played two volleys in today and also one drive volley (smiling). That’s something that wasn’t so often before.

This is something that we worked on, you know, me going forward a little bit and not always staying on the baseline. It’s something that, you know, we have been working with the coach actually since we started, but now, you know, I’m taking more shots from the air.

So I feel like, you know, if we’re going to get this done, I’m going to be a player that has more complete game, you know, than before. Yeah, for sure it’s a step forward.

Q. Some players are very superstitious about having big matches right before a Grand Slam. Do you think that adds a bit of hype to this match or do you look at the tournaments as separate events?

ARYNA SABALENKA: I would say that every tournament is separated event. Like, doesn’t matter who wins that match, it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to win that match in the next tournament. Every tournament, it’s a new story. It’s just a preparation before the big tournament.

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By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
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Written by Joey Dillon