The Australian Open basically serves two primary purposes: Entertain us and set the table for the rest of the tennis season.
Following a delightful two-week run that saw Aryna Sabalenka's first Slam title, plus some shocking mid-tournament plot twists, early-tournament Andy Murray heroics, strong showings from American males and -- oh yeah, Novak Djokovic's 22nd Slam title -- we can say that the tournament officially accomplished the former.
Now let's do the latter. It's time to lay out who looks the best and who's most likely to make runs at future Slams.
Here's what to expect, and what to follow, from the tennis months ahead.
The 10 best men's players in the world at the moment
We know that ATP and WTA rankings -- and the tournament seeds that are derived from them -- are not necessarily predictive power rankings, and that was never more clear than in Australia, where the top seed on the men's side went to Rafael Nadal, who entered the tournament having lost six of his past seven matches while battling injury. The second seed went to Casper Ruud, who entered having lost eight of 13. They both exited in the second round, while Djokovic, the No. 4 seed but obvious betting favorite, rolled to the title.
To determine the actual best players in the world at the moment, then, I'm going to use a combination of ATP/WTA points, my favorite publicly available predictive rating (the simple Elo rating system at Tennis Abstract) and a combination of my own eyeballs' impressions and a look at who performs best against other top players.
No matter what approach we use, of course, there is only one possibility for the top name on the men's side.
1. Novak Djokovic
ATP ranking: 1
Tennis Abstract ranking: 1
2023 record (Australian Open result): 12-0 (champion)
With much of the world easing up on COVID-19 restrictions and vaccination requirements, Djokovic has been able to play enough tennis to find his top form again. He began 2022 in (completely self-inflicted) scattershot form, winning in Rome and reaching the finals in Belgrade but falling in a few quarterfinals and clearly lacking the fitness levels we're used to seeing from him.
Since losing in four sets to Nadal in the French Open quarterfinals, however, he has lost just twice. He ground out his seventh Wimbledon title in the summer, and he won five of the six tournaments he has entered since the fall. He lost only one set in November's ATP Finals, and after losing a second-set tiebreaker to qualifier Enzo Couacaud in the second round in Melbourne, he won the final 17 sets he played. Only four went to even 5-all.
Djokovic will turn 36 in May, but he has once again established his most dominant level. With Nadal in such poor form, and assuming Djokovic's hamstring injury doesn't take a turn for the worse, it seems there might be only one possible rival for Djokovic in 2023. But that rival has to return from injury first.
2. Carlos Alcaraz
ATP ranking: 2
Tennis Abstract ranking: 2
2023 record (Australian Open result): 0-0 (withdrew because of a leg injury)
He hasn't played since retiring in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters in November, but the reigning US Open (and Rio and Miami and Barcelona and Madrid and Umag) champion took advantage of Djokovic's low tournament total to race to No. 1 in the world. He won seven matches in a row against top-10 opponents last spring.
He ran out of gas late in the year, then suffered a pair of injuries -- an abdominal tear in the fall and a hamstring injury that prevented him from competing in Melbourne -- but his trajectory, and his ability to turn weaknesses into strengths in record time, is something we haven't seen since Nadal's and Djokovic's rises. He is on pace to return in February, and I'm just going to assume he finds a rhythm pretty quickly.
3. Stefanos Tsitsipas
ATP ranking: 3
Tennis Abstract ranking: 3
2023 record (Australian Open result): 10-1 (runner-up)
So many top players we assumed would be entering their peak years at the moment are struggling to maintain form and produce results. Ruud has achieved almost nothing since winning the second set of the US Open final against Alcaraz. Daniil Medvedev is down to 12th in the ATP rankings, and Matteo Berrettini has fallen out of the top 20. Alexander Zverev is still working back from his gruesome French Open injury.
Tsitsipas, however, has done well. Not counting five losses to Djokovic -- who, again, is back to another plane of existence -- Tsitsipas is 15-4 against top-10 opponents since last May. His 0-3 record against Alcaraz suggests he might be able to hope for only a No. 3 ranking moving forward, but he appears to be a step ahead of the rest of the pack, at least.
4. Andrey Rublev
ATP ranking: 5
Tennis Abstract ranking: 13
2023 record (Australian Open result): 4-3 (lost to Djokovic in quarterfinals)
Unless you don't think Alcaraz will find fifth gear for a little while upon his return, the top three seem pretty clear at the moment. Nothing else in the men's game makes much sense at the moment, however, and it doesn't really feel like anyone deserves the No. 4 ranking.
Rublev is as close as anyone to deserving it, however. The 25-year old still has yet to reach a Slam semifinal, and he started the year poorly in the Adelaide tournaments, but he has made the quarterfinals of six of his past 10 Slams, and he's 6-5 in his past 11 matches against top-10 opponents (5-3 against non-Djokovics). He took down Holger Rune in an incredible five-setter in Melbourne, and only the draw (which placed him in Djokovic's quarter) probably prevented a semifinal run or better in Australia. He has a lot of rankings points to defend this spring, but he's in good enough form to potentially do just that.
5. Daniil Medvedev
ATP ranking: 12
Tennis Abstract ranking: 4
2023 record (Australian Open result): 5-2 (lost to Sebastian Korda in third round)
Two sets into last year's Australian Open final, Medvedev had definitively established himself as the best player in the world. He had swept Djokovic in the previous U.S. Open final, and he was up two sets on Nadal in Melbourne. He lost the next three sets, however; it was the beginning of what is now a nine-match losing streak against top-10 opponents.
But his form is solid. He won in Vienna in October, he lost three third-set tiebreakers (!!) in a strong but winless showing at the ATP Finals, and he lost only to Djokovic in his Adelaide tuneup. He lost a pair of tiebreakers to a nearly flawless Korda -- tiebreakers are becoming a serious issue -- but he still played mostly well in Melbourne. In the absence of an obvious No. 5, I'm going to give the 27-year-old the benefit of the doubt.
It appeared Fritz had hit his ceiling for a while there. The 25-year-old spent most of 2019-21 ranked in the 20s and 30s but broke through that ceiling in 2022. And he did so with Netflix's cameras focused on him. As one of the subjects of the "Break Point" series, he beat Nadal and Rublev to take the Indian Wells title in March, then won a pair of other titles and reached the semis of the ATP Finals.
The last step in Fritz's development: Dealing with life as a favorite. In the past year he has won seven matches against top-10 opponents but lost six to opponents ranked in the triple digits, including first-week upsets in three of his past four Slams. As soon as he learns to bring at least his B-game in every match, his ranking could rise even higher.
Everyone else's instability was great for Auger-Aliassime in 2022. After a disappointing second-round exit at the US Open, the 22-year-old unleashed a 16-match winning streak in the fall before losing to Holger Rune, Fritz and Ruud in succession. He finished the year a career-high sixth in the ATP rankings, continuing a sure and steady rise (he was 21st at the end of 2020, 11th at the end of 2021). He hasn't started 2023 in amazing form, however. He lost to Popyrin in his first match at Adelaide 1, and he dropped four sets in his first three Australian Open matches before falling to Jiri Lehecka in the fourth round.
FAA has won only 47% of his points in 2023; the winning streak isn't that far in the rearview, but he's losing some of the benefit of the doubt.
8. Jannik Sinner
ATP ranking: 17
Tennis Abstract ranking: 6
2023 record (Australian Open result): 5-2 (lost to Tsitsipas in fourth round)
Sinner's rapid rise has stagnated a bit. His end-of-year ATP rankings surged from 78th in 2019 to 37th in 2020 to 10th in 2021, but after missing a few weeks here and there because of various ailments, he didn't play as many matches in 2022 and slipped to 15th. Since beating Alcaraz twice over the summer, on both grass (Wimbledon) and clay (Umag), he has lost his past four matches against top-10 opponents. He fell to Korda in Adelaide, too.
Still, as with Medvedev, his strong Tennis Abstract ranking suggests his form isn't too far away from where it needs to be. He took Tsitsipas to five sets in a nip-and-tuck fourth-round loss in Melbourne, and his upside is obvious. He went 15-4 on clay in 2022, and if the injury bug is kinder, he could be particularly dangerous in the coming months.
9. Holger Rune
ATP ranking: 9
Tennis Abstract ranking: 9
2023 record (Australian Open result): 3-2 (lost to Rublev in fourth round)
Rune was the 2022 version of Sinner: The 19-year old's end-of-year ranking was 473rd in 2020, 103rd in 2021 and 11th in 2022. He was still playing challengers as recently as last April, but he took down Tsitsipas in the French Open fourth round, and he surged in the fall, reaching four finals and winning two. He beat Tsitsipas again to win Stockholm, and he's the only person in the past four months to beat Djokovic, having taken a 7-5 third set to win the Paris Masters.
Rune was upset by Yoshihito Nishioka in his only Adelaide tuneup match, but he played well in Melbourne, winning three straight-set matches before falling to Rublev in a fifth-set tiebreaker. His serve could improve, but he already has one of the game's nastier forehands, and his upward trajectory is jarring.
10. Karen Khachanov
ATP ranking: 13
Tennis Abstract ranking: 21
2023 record (Australian Open result): 8-3 (lost to Tsitsipas in semifinals)
Despite dreadful recent form, you could make the case that Ruud has done enough to merit the No. 10 spot here. Cameron Norrie, perhaps. Even Sebastian Korda. But Khachanov's pure steadiness earns him the spot for now. He has spent most of the past five years ranked in the teens or 20s, and he's back up to 13th following his semifinal run in Melbourne.
It wasn't an easy run, either. He took down Frances Tiafoe in the third round, then put up a pair of bagels against Nishioka, winning 6-0, 6-0, 7-6 in the fourth. He took a thrilling first-set tiebreaker from Korda in the quarters, too, before Korda suffered a wrist injury that eventually led to his retirement.
Khachanov still seems to have a hard ceiling -- over the past year, he's 8-5 against players ranked between 11th and 30th but 0-11 against top-10ers -- but with so many top players out of form at the moment, he has a chance to rise even further.
The 10 best women's players in the world at the moment
Note: Simona Halep went 39-11 and reached seven semifinals in 2022 and therefore ranks second in the world in Tennis Abstract's Elo rankings. But she can't really go into a "best at the moment" list until we know how much time she's going to miss to suspension.
1. Iga Swiatek
WTA ranking: 1
Tennis Abstract ranking: 1
2023 record (Australian Open result): 6-2 (lost to Rybakina in fourth round)
If 2023 results were all that mattered, Swiatek would probably be No. 2 behind Sabalenka. Swiatek has enjoyed plenty of strong moments in January, handling Belinda Bencic with relative ease in the United Cup and dropping six combined games in her second- and third-round wins in Melbourne. But she has also lost a pair of straight-setters, first to Jessica Pegula in the United Cup and then to Rybakina.
Still, the 21-year-old -- yes, she's somehow still only 21! -- enjoyed a fall stretch in which she won 17 of 18 matches (and eight of the 17 wins were against the WTA top 10). And her 2022 dominance means that her 10,485 ratings points are more than double that of No. 3 Ons Jabeur. She has looked mortal in January, but she's still the safest bet in women's tennis.
2. Aryna Sabalenka
WTA ranking: 2
Tennis Abstract ranking: 4
2023 record (Australian Open result): 11-0 (champion)
She double-faulted on 26% of her second serves in 2022 -- among top players, only Coco Gauff and Daria Kasatkina came anywhere close to that -- and ended up holding less than 70% of the time. In a way, that forced the rest of her game to get stronger. She still reached the semifinals of two WTA 1000 events (Rome and Cincinnati), and with her serve rebounding she reached the finals of the WTA Finals, finishing the year fifth in the WTA rankings.
Now she has found her serve again. (She has held 88% of the time in 2023.) She has reached at least the semifinals of four of her past six Slams, and she just enjoyed a long-awaited breakthrough in Melbourne. If Swiatek is indeed still the best player in the world, Sabalenka is a clear No. 2.
3. Jessica Pegula
WTA ranking: 4
Tennis Abstract ranking: 6
2023 record (Australian Open result): 8-2 (lost to Azarenka in quarterfinals)
Pegula's stay in Melbourne ended with a bit of a thud when she lost 6-4, 6-1 to Azarenka. It was particularly disappointing considering both how good she had looked in January and how much her side of the draw had opened up with fourth-round upsets to both Swiatek and Gauff.
A Slam breakthrough is the only thing remaining on Pegula's to-do list after a spectacular couple of years. She has reached the quarterfinals of four of her past five Slams, and she reached the semis of four WTA 1000 events, winning in Guadalajara and reaching the finals in Madrid. Her biggest strength is a lack of outright weakness, and while a lack of elite traits might keep her from winning a Slam, her upside was obvious in her 6-2, 6-2 United Cup torching of Swiatek.
4. Coco Gauff
WTA ranking: 6
Tennis Abstract ranking: 8
2023 record (Australian Open result): 8-1 (lost to Jelena Ostapenko in fourth round)
Gauff ran out of gas last year, losing her last five matches in the fall and dropping from fourth to seventh in the WTA rankings. But she was ridiculously sharp in rolling to the Auckland title and winning three straight-set affairs in Melbourne before her upset loss to Ostapenko. She seems to have raised her service game as much as Sabalenka: After winning 59% of her service points in 2022, she's at 67% in January, and she had saved 83% of break points before going a disappointing 0-for-3 against Ostapenko.
This was an incredibly encouraging start for the 18-year-old. Gauff reached the French Open finals and the quarters of both the US Open and three WTA 1000s despite clear and obvious room for remaining growth. If she maintains this serve, her ceiling gets even higher in 2023.
5. Ons Jabeur
WTA ranking: 3
Tennis Abstract ranking: 3
2023 record (Australian Open result): 3-2 (lost to Marketa Vondrousova in second round)
Like Gauff, Jabeur suffered a bumpy end to 2022, losing four of her last seven matches (albeit three to top-10 players). Unlike Gauff, she hasn't started 2023 with aplomb. She fell to teenager Linda Noskova in the semifinals in the first Adelaide tournament, and she needed three sets to win her first-round match before losing in three in the second.
Her return game has slipped just enough to make matches a lot more difficult, and she appeared to be putting a ton of pressure on herself against Vondrousova.
That's understandable in a way -- she had reached the finals of the past two Slams but lost both -- but it's not helpful. She remains a contender and might be the best player in the world on grass, but for the first time in a while she must reverse a run of poor form.
The 29-year-old enjoyed the best year of her career in 2022. She won in Cincinnati as part of a 13-match summer win streak, she reached her first Slam semifinal at the US Open, she won the ATP Finals in the fall and finished the season No. 4 in the WTA rankings. She even won the French Open doubles title with Kristina Mladenovic to boot. And she got a pretty friendly draw in Melbourne, too.
Slow starts against Leylah Fernandez in the second round (she had to win a first-set tiebreaker) and against Laura Siegemund in the third (she lost the first 6-1), however, were signs that she wasn't quite in fifth gear in Melbourne. She survived both matches but suffered an error-heavy, straight-sets loss to Linette in the fourth. It was a letdown after a brilliant run in the fall. We'll see how she responds.
7. Elena Rybakina
WTA ranking: 10
Tennis Abstract ranking: 18
2023 record (Australian Open result): 7-3 (runner-up)
She has won 14 of her past 16 matches in Slams, but she has gone just 14-10 in non-Slams in the same period. She has beaten 10 top-20 opponents in this span and lost to six outside the top 20.
So what's real? You're sure to get every opponent's A-game when you reach a pair of Slam finals, and Rybakina seems to need to play her way into tournaments. The 23-year-old didn't get any rankings points for winning Wimbledon, but now that she has risen into the top 10 after her run in Melbourne, that could make for more favorable draws, and we know what happens if she reaches the late rounds of a tournament. (She has won two-thirds of quarterfinals and semifinals in her career and six of eight since last summer.) She gets the benefit of the doubt after what we just saw, but more consistency is needed.
Back-to-back upset losses in Slams have distracted us a bit from how good Sakkari has otherwise looked. In between her second-round loss to Xiyu Wang in the US Open and her third-round upset against Zhu, she reached the finals in both Parma and Guadalajara and reached the semis in the WTA Finals in Fort Worth with straight-sets wins over Pegula, Sabalenka and Jabeur. And she began 2023 with extra oomph in her merely above-average return game, too.
Her serve betrayed her in a 7-6, 1-6, 6-4 loss to Zhu -- Zhu created 15 break points and broke five times -- but Sakkari's game is trending well overall. That's important considering she has a lot of points to defend in both Qatar (where she reached the semis last year) and Indian Wells (finals).
9. Belinda Bencic
WTA ranking: 9
Tennis Abstract ranking: 5
2023 record (Australian Open result): 8-2 (lost to Sabalenka in fourth round)
Bencic started 2022 horribly, losing five of her first 10 matches and nearly falling out of the WTA top 30. But she went 37-13 from there, charging back into the top 15 despite a series of poor results in Slams. She dropped only one set in rolling to the Adelaide 2 title, and it seemed like she would have a solid chance against Sabalenka in the fourth round. But after taking a 4-2 lead in the first set, Bencic lost 11 of the last 14 games and fell 7-5, 6-2.
The draw in Melbourne was unkind, but the 25-year old has still made the quarters of just one of her past 10 Slams. It's her non-Slam form that has brought her back into the top 10 and makes her a player to watch in the upcoming WTA 1000s.
Quite a few players have a claim for the No. 10 spot -- Azarenka for reaching the semis in Melbourne, Kasatkina for ranking eighth in the WTA rankings, Paula Badosa or Danielle Collins (or even Madison Keys) for being consistently strong. But we'll give it to Kudermetova, if only because she would have been an obvious top-10 selection before a disappointing Australian Open.
She fell to Volynets, a qualifier, but she reached the quarterfinals of Adelaide 1, then beat both Collins and Azarenka on the way to the semis of Adelaide 2. And over the past year, she has gone 9-6 against top-20 opponents and 4-4 against the top 10. Despite being ineligible to play at Wimbledon, she won nine matches in the other three Slams of 2022, more than doubling her career win total there.
Five men and women most likely to win the French Open
Obviously players' form will shift constantly in the coming months, but based purely on what we've seen of late, let's set the table further by forecasting the rest of the year's Slams.
The first two here are extremely obvious. The No. 3 pick is a sign of respect. Nadal will miss the next few weeks because of a hip injury, but he might still have time to play his way into form in the spring. And even if he's at only about 80% or so, his 112-3 career record at Roland Garros is a reminder that he will be absurdly dangerous here.
A three-time finalist (and one-time winner) at Roland Garros, Halep would definitely land on this list if she were to return, but that doesn't appear likely at the moment. Instead, we'll go with last year's champion (Swiatek) and runner-up (Gauff), a player who enjoyed a clay-court breakthrough in 2022 (Jabeur, who went 17-4 on clay and reached the finals in Charleston, Madrid and Rome) and two who broke through in 2021 (Sakkari made the French Open semis that year, while Badosa went 17-3 on clay that year).
Sabalenka could obviously fit here, too -- she made the final in Stuttgart and won in Madrid in 2021 -- but we'll say she bears a bit more burden of proof on the dirt.
Five men and women most likely to win Wimbledon
3. Matteo Berrettini
5. Andy Murray
Alcaraz has played six total tour-level matches on grass and has lost to both of the top-20 players he has gone against there (Medvedev in 2021, Sinner in 2022). His development has been so rapid, however, that I'm going to just assume he does well in London this summer. Despite recent form, Berrettini and his big serve still earn a place on the list, and maybe this is the year Tsitsipas harnesses his own big serve into a decent run. (He's somehow just 5-5 all-time at the All England Club.)
Yes, the name in the No. 5 spot is based as much on sentiment as quality. But Murray has proven in recent years that he's as competitive and fiery as ever, and if he has one more deep Slam run in him, it would be most poetic here.
5. Petra Kvitova
Jabeur's variety and creativity translates beautifully on grass -- she's 21-3 on the surface over the past two years, with two titles and a Wimbledon finals appearance (a three-set loss to Rybakina). That consistency gives her a slight edge over both last year's champion and Sabalenka, who beat her on the way to the Wimbledon semis in 2021.
It's a virtual three-way tie, though, followed by Swiatek (who hasn't thrived on grass but is still Swiatek) and another sentimental choice. Petra Kvitova, now 32, remains a big-hitting threat capable of playing at a high level -- she's seventh in the Tennis Abstract rankings. She has made only two Slam semis in the past eight years, but if she's ever to make another six- or seven-win run, it'll likely come where she lifted the trophy in 2011 and 2014.
Five men and women most likely to win the US Open
OK, fine, Djokovic should be No. 1 here, too. But we needed a little bit of variety, and Alcaraz proved so damn much in New York last year.
A permanent Rybakina breakthrough could reshape this list, but for now we'll go with (A) the two best players in the world, (B) the two best Americans and (C) in Bencic, a player who seems to play her best in the U.S. All three of Bencic's Slam quarterfinal appearances (and her only semifinal) were at the US Open, and she has made the semis in recent years in both Indian Wells and Miami, too. If she's ever going to make a seven-match Slam run, New York might be the most likely location.