Shake-ups expected at Australian Open as new Grand Slam year begins

A record 16 athletes in the men's singles draw are vying for the spotlight following Shingo Kunieda's retirement announcement 24 Jan 2023
A male wheelchair tennis player eyes the ball with focus as he prepares to return it during a match.
Argentina's Gustavo Fernandez is also the only player in this year’s draw to have previously won more than one Australian Open men’s singles title, having accomplished the feat in 2017 and 2019.
ⒸMark Kolbe/Getty Images
By ITF and IPC

The 2023 Australian Open Wheelchair Championships began in Melbourne on Tuesday, 24 January and with it the quest to become the first men’s player to achieve a calendar Grand Slam.

Since 2019 two men have come closest to achieving the feat and the retirement of 11-time Australian Open champion Shingo Kunieda on the eve of the first Grand Slam of the year leaves Gustavo Fernandez as the only currently active player to have won the first three majors of the year before falling short at the US Open.

Fernandez is also the only player in this year’s draw to have previously won more than one Australian Open men’s singles title. The Argentine triumphed at Melbourne Park in both 2017 and 2019, and since 2012 Maikel Scheffers, Gordon Reid and Joachim Gerard have all joined Kunieda and Fernandez on the list of champions.

Scheffers, Reid and Gerard join Fernandez in this year’s draw, which is significant in the fact that it is the first time that 16 men’s wheelchair players have lined up at Melbourne Park, providing the likes of Daisuke Arai, Ben Bartram and Takashi Sanada with the opportunity to make their Grand Slam debuts.

Top seed, 2021 and 2022 finalist and world No. 1 Alfie Hewett arrives at Melbourne Park fresh from beating Tokito Oda in the final of the Melbourne Open, the first Super Series event of the year.  

There are, of course, multiple story lines when it comes to considering who may reach the final or lift the trophy at the end of the week. Fernandez makes his seasonal debut in singles competition, while Gerard and Ruben Spaargaren reached the first men’s singles final of the year at the Victorian Open – Spaargaren doing so after a first career win over Hewett.

De Groot and Kamiji top women’s singles challengers  

You have to go back seven years to find a name other than Diede de Groot or Yui Kamiji on the Australian Open women’s singles roll of honour, such is the current dominance of the world’s top two ranked players. Their most recent meeting in the final of the Melbourne Open suggests that it may take something special to prevent either of them lifting the trophy again.

De Groot will be aiming for her fifth title at Melbourne Park, while Kamiji will go in search of her third title, having beaten two other Dutch players, Jiske Griffioen and Aniek van Koot in the 2017 and 2020 finals, respectively.     

Kamiji’s first match of 2023 against De Groot saw Japan’s world No.2 edge the opening set in the Melbourne Open final, but De Groot soon quashed any suspicions of vulnerability as she extended her winning streak to 75 matches since losing to Kamiji in the final of the same tournament in 2021.

Japan's Yui Kamiji is looking to fight back Diede de Groot after losing to the Dutch player during their last Grand Slam final at the 2022 US Open. @Sarah Stier/Getty Images

However, no player is unbeatable, a point that Zhenhen Zhu demonstrated when beating De Groot in the 2022 quarterfinals.

This year’s women’s singles draw is, again, notable for featuring 16 players for the first time, but that does not prevent top 10 ranked players being drawn to meet each other in the first round and both De Groot and Kamiji have drawn top 10 ranked opponents in Kgothatso Montjane and Lucy Shuker.

The last player other than De Groot or Kamiji to earn her place on the Australian Open roll of honour was Jiske Griffioen, who claimed the second of her back-to-back titles in 2016.

Griffioen is now more than three years into her comeback to competitive wheelchair tennis after initially retiring in 2017 and her latest Melbourne Park challenge will begin against Germany’s Katharina Kruger, who returns to the first Grand Slam of the year for the first time since 2018.

For several other players, including Angelica Bernal and Japanese trio Shiori Fumanizu, Saki Takamuro and Manami Tanaka it is a first Australian Open, while Argentina’s Maria Florencia Moreno will become the first women's player from Argentina to contest a wheelchair Grand Slam.

Schroder and Vink head quad singles field

All eight players in this year’s quad singles draw have previous Grand Slam experience, Canada’s Robert Shaw being the most recent to have made his debut at one of the majors when contesting the 2022 US Open.

Twelve months on from Sam Schroder upsetting the script in Dylan Alcott’s retirement match at Melbourne Park, earning the Dutchman his first Australian Open title, the world No. 2 is set to remain behind his countryman, doubles partner and world No. 1 Niels Vink at the top of the quad singles rankings whatever happens.

Wimbledon 2022 quad doubles winners Niels Vink and Sam Schroder are expected to be on opposite sides of the court during the Australia Open quad singles final. @ Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Form would suggest a Schroder-Vink final, especially after they went to three sets when contesting last week’s Melbourne Open final but having started 2023 by lifting the title at the Victorian Open, Heath Davidson will hope to make home advantage tell when he lines up against Schroder in what is arguably the stand-out quarterfinal.

That said, world No. 3 David Wagner’s quarterfinal against Andy Lapthorne has all the makings of being a fascinating contest. The doubles partners and reigning quad doubles champions have already played each other 70 times in singles competition and while Wagner holds a healthy advantage, it was Lapthorne who prevailed in three sets in their recent Victorian Open semifinal.

As Shaw made his Grand Slam debut at the 2022 US Open, Donald Ramphadi earned his first singles victory at a Grand Slam at the fourth attempt. Having started 2022 with a wild card for the Australian Open, Ramphadi will be looking to register his first singles win at Melbourne Park, while Shaw will hope to earn his first Grand Slam match win when the South African and the Canadian contest the remaining quarterfinal.