The Base Line: Dimitrov and Rybakina make dream starts but Nadal comeback halted

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The Base Line: Dimitrov and Rybakina make dream starts but Nadal comeback halted

Dimitrov and Rybakina with their Brisbane trophies
Dimitrov and Rybakina with their Brisbane trophiesProfimedia
In a new weekly feature coinciding with the start of the 2024 season, Flashscore's Tolga Akdeniz rounds up all the big results and issues from the non-stop, unabating world of tennis.

It feels like the 2023 season came to an end just yesterday, but somehow, we are already just under a week away from the start of the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open. 2024 promises to be one of the most blockbuster, jam-packed years of tennis in a while, with the Olympic Games taking place on the draining clay courts of Paris to add a little bit more spice. 

I cannot wait to see what unfolds over the next 11 months. The Olympics will put the cats amongst the pigeons a bit, forcing players to rethink their schedules and find ways to manage their bodies. A gold medal is the last piece of silverware missing from the stacked trophy cabinet of Novak Djokovic, and he has expressed his desperation to win one for Serbia. But he also firmly has his eyes on a calendar Grand Slam (winning all four Grand Slams in the year). At 36 years old, how will his body hold up? Knowing Djokovic, pretty well.

Djokovic will yet again be the man to beat in 2024
Djokovic will yet again be the man to beat in 2024Profimedia

I won't get ahead of myself though. I'll reveal some of my predictions a little later on. Anyway, let's get into some of the results from the first week of the new season. 

Dimitrov and Rybakina put down markers

Grigor Dimitrov is an ATP champion for the first time since 2017. 2240 days on from winning the ATP Finals in London, he is finally back in the winner's circle, after beating Holger Rune in Brisbane.

Dimitrov's trajectory has only been trending upward over the last 12 months. He ended last season looking really good, reaching the final of the Paris Masters before losing to *checks notes* Djokovic. He has now got 2024 off to what is pretty much the perfect start. 

The elegant Bulgarian has always possessed bags of potential, earning the nickname 'Baby Fed', due to some similarities with the great Roger Federer (the shotmaking and singlehanded backhand). However, he faded away for several years and just looked like someone who was never going to live up to the hype.

But maybe finally, FINALLY, something has clicked in his head. With the Australian Open just around the corner, has he suddenly made himself a contender? 

On the women's side in Brisbane, one of my personal favourite players, Elena Rybakina, looked in imperious form as she stormed to the title, thumping Aryna Sabalenka in the final 6-0, 6-3.

In the five matches she played, she lost just the 15 games. Irresistible.

I think people forget just how well Rybakina started 2023. She lost an incredible Australian Open final to Sabelenka, a match that easily could have swung either way, before winning two WTA 1000 titles in Indian Wells and Rome. 

She struggled in the second half of the year due to injury, illness, and some really shoddy tournament organisation. But she has come out in 2024 looking fresh and ready for business. On her day, she is practically unplayable. There is no bigger or cleaner hitter of a tennis ball on the WTA Tour. If she ends up winning her second Grand Slam crown down in Melbourne, it would come as no surprise to me.

Mr Consistent, AKA Andrey Rublev, won his 15th ATP title in Hong Kong, as he continues to demonstrate what an expert he is at winning the type of tournament that possesses a slightly weaker field. He is a player who is better than the rest, but not quite alongside the elite.

That is no criticism of him. He is just 26 years old, and he has had a really strong career so far. But we are all still waiting for him to make an impact at a Grand Slam. The Russian has reached the quarter-finals at every single major, but has yet to reach the final four. He will be heading to Melbourne with confidence though, and will be desperate to break that barrier.

Rublev with his Hong Kong trophy
Rublev with his Hong Kong trophyProfimedia

Meanwhile, Coco Gauff was victorious over in Auckland, successfully retaining her trophy after downing Elina Svitolina in three sets. The American is obviously going to be one of the favourites for the first Grand Slam of the year, but I'm not sold.

She showed massive strides towards the end of last year, which was capped off with her winning the US Open. She showed great heart and mental resilience in that final, but that victory was as much down to Sabalenka imploding and her game falling to pieces as it was Gauff being good. I'm not fully convinced she will come out on top with everyone else at their best at this current moment in time.

United Cup stars

I do enjoy the United Cup. It's a fun little way to start the season. Team tournament always brings out different emotions and certain players manage to raise their level. This time, it was the turn of Alexander Zverev and Germany to step up, as he guided his country to the trophy as they downed Iga Swiatek's Poland in the final.

I don't want to dwell too much on the individual matches and clashes, but more so on the two people who stood out the most to me.

One of those people was Alex de Minaur. The Aussie won three of his four singles matches, including the biggest win of his career against Djokovic. His performances also mean he has now climbed into the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time.

De Minaur always seems to step up during team tournaments, so I'm not sure how much we can really read from his impressive results at the United Cup. Regardless, he will love playing with home support behind him over the next few weeks, so he could pose a tough challenge for anyone.

World No.1 Swiatek was also utterly phenomenal, annihilating everyone in her path. But is that a surprise to anyone? The only surprise was that Poland didn't end up winning the whole thing. No more superlatives are needed for the four-time Grand Slam winner. The rest of the field will have taken note of the form she looked to be in.

A quick word on Djokovic. The 10-time Australian Open champion will be the red-hot favourite to reign victorious yet again, but he looked to be struggling with a wrist issue in his loss to De Minaur.

I'm not sure how much that means really. We've seen him carry injuries into the Australian Open multiple times before, and he finds a way to manage himself and end up lifting the trophy. But one to keep an eye on.

The comeback kings and queens

2024 is the year of the comeback. Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka made their returns after they both gave birth in 2023. The former managed just one singles win at the United Cup, while the latter fell to Karolina Pliskova in her second-round match in Brisbane. 

Both players will be delighted to get a win on the board and shake some of the cobwebs off. It is great to see both of them back on tour. At 35 years old, I'm not sure we should expect much from Kerber.

Osaka on the other hand, could be a major factor at the hard-court Grand Slams. All four of her Slams triumphs came at the Australian Open and US Open. We know what a force she is at these tournaments. However, will this year's Australian Open come a bit too early for her?

Emma Raducanu also played her first match since last April, after enduring some torrid injury issues last year. I think the signs were pretty positive for her. Like Osaka, she fell in the second round in Auckland, but she did go toe-to-toe with eventual finalist Svitolina, before she eventually tired and fell away in the final set. 

Her movement looked sharp and her groundstrokes were good. Hopefully she can spend a full year on tour without any issues.

But of course, the comeback everyone was waiting for, was of Spanish great Rafael Nadal. And even though it started better than anyone could have imagined, it ended in maybe the worst way anyone could have imagined.

After a stunningly impressive first match back defeating Dominic Thiem, Nadal then beat Jason Kubler before falling in the third round in Brisbane to Jordan Thompson.

Nadal had three match points, but failed to capitalise. His rustiness was evident, as he made some uncharacteristic errors in defeat. However, in the grand scheme of things, in what is expected to be his last year on tour, an early-round loss in Brisbane isn't that big of a deal.

The real issue is the minor hip injury he sustained, which he soon announced would keep him out of the Australian Open.

Nadal is the reason I got into tennis and one of my favourite sportsmen of all time. But I am a realist. I don't think it's the worst thing that he is missing the first Grand Slam of the year. 

Clearly, this injury isn't that significant, and the Spaniard is just making sure he is fully fit for the clay court season. Honestly, even if he performed at the level he did against Thiem, I doubt he would have made much impact at the Australian Open. I'd much rather he keeps himself injury-free and fully fit for Roland Garros and the Olympics. 

I'm sure Nadal has the same thoughts too. If this is to be his last year playing tennis, he will want to say goodbye properly at the place where he dominated like no person has ever dominated in any sport. And maybe he thinks he can go on a bit of a run at those tournaments too. 

My biggest wish is that he can bow out on his own terms, and injury doesn't force him into an early exit. Athletes like him deserve to have that privilege.

The King of Clay will want to bow out on his own terms
The King of Clay will want to bow out on his own termsProfimedia

2024 predictions

Normally I'd save the penultimate section for social media highlights and funny moments of the week, but as this is the first Base Line of the year, I thought it would be fitting to do some predictions for 2024 instead. I'll be short and sweet, and make sure you bookmark this, so we can have a collective laugh at my stupidity. Or, we can have a discussion about what a visionary I am...

Australian Open champions: Novak Djokovic and Elena Rybakina

French Open champions: Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek

Wimbledon champions: Novak Djokovic and Elena Rybakina

US Open champions: Jannik Sinner and Karolina Muchova

Olympic gold medallists: Novak Djokovic and Iga Swiatek

ATP and WTA Finals champions: Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka

Breakout stars: Arthur Fils and Qinwen Zheng

Tournaments this week

Adelaide ATP - Tommy Paul (1), Nicolas Jarry (2), Sebastian Korda (3), Lorenzo Musetti (4) 

Auckland ATP - Ben Shelton (1), Cameron Norrie (2), Francisco Cerundolo (3), Felix Auger-Aliassime (4)

Adelaide WTA - Elena Rybakina (1), Jessica Pegula (2), Barbora Krejcikova (4)

Hobart WTA - Elise Mertens (1), Emma Navarro (2), Lin Zhu (3), Xinyu Wang (4)

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