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Five in focus: Alcaraz, Rybakina, De Minaur, Osaka, Thompson

  • Matt Trollope

Each month, we turn to our experts to give their thoughts on players making waves.

As the tours converge on the Californian desert for the 2024 edition of Indian Wells, we caught up with former Australian pros Todd Woodbridge and Wally Masur to discuss five players capturing the spotlight and generating interest in March.

Carlos Alcaraz

Since winning Wimbledon last year, Carlos Alcaraz has not appeared in another final.

But while the tennis commentariat grows increasingly worried about the young Spaniard's apparent slump, Woodbridge is anything but.

"Give him space. Let him breathe,” Woodbridge said.

"This is a period of absolutely coming to terms with stardom, money, fame, pressure, time management. And what's so important is that team that's around him. I think they're a really good team.

"He's young; he doesn't have that ability of Novak (Djokovic), yet, to dictate every term on the court. He's got sheer brilliance and exuberance and youth and athleticism and shot-making, but that's still coming together.

“You cannot have a game that's as fundamentally complete as his and keep that together at 20. It needs time to keep maturing and building and getting that consistency.”

Alcaraz began 2024 with a quarterfinal run at the Australian Open, ending with a curiously flat loss to Alexander Zverev. A semifinal run followed in Buenos Aires, before his Rio De Janeiro campaign was cut short by an ankle injury.

Judging by his performance in the inaugural Netflix Slam exhibition in Las Vegas, Alcaraz is moving relatively unimpeded again – just in time for his Indian Wells title defence beginning this week.

“Let's not forget, opponents have now watched 50 matches of him online. They're now getting a grip on what to expect when they play him. And how they're going to play him, not how he's going to play them,” Woodbridge observed.

"What he's doing was extraordinary, to win two majors. He's only 20!”

Elena Rybakina

Speaking of Indian Wells title defences, Elena Rybakina will be attempting to do the same when she kicks off her campaign in the Californian desert.

The Kazakh has won more matches on tour than any other woman in 2024, building a sparkling 17-3 record after winning titles in Brisbane and Abu Dhabi as well as reaching the WTA 1000 final in Doha.

Yet it has not been completely smooth sailing for the world No.4, who was forced to withdraw from Dubai due to illness and also suffered earlier-than-expected losses in Adelaide and at the Australian Open.

Her loss to Anna Blinkova at Melbourne Park continued a slightly lean run at the majors; since her Australian Open 2023 final, she has reached just one quarterfinal.

"That crazy match she didn't get through against Blinkova; if she wins that, she might win the Australian Open,” Woodbridge said.

"I think she's primed to go again in majors. From afar, and watching and knowing from experiences, she's putting an enormous amount of pressure on those tournaments. She has to find a way to go into those being freer and looking at it from a different mental perspective.

"If Rybakina can change her approach and go into majors with a bit of a different mentality, I then think she's going to be a force in the next three.”

Alex de Minaur

Alex de Minaur at the weekend defended a title for the first time in his career, triumphing again in Acapulco to retain his place in the world’s top 10.

In the quarters, he beat nemesis Stefanos Tsitsipas for the first time in 11 meetings before going on to outplay Casper Ruud in the final, a result elevating him into third place in the ATP Race to the Finals.

"Because of his attitude and his work ethic, he's built this aura about himself, and it's continuing to grow,” Woodbridge said.

"When you're playing Demon, you know that you have to be at your very best, both physically and mentally, and if you're any way under, you just don't see a way to get a victory.

Alex de Minaur celebrates being a back-to-back champion at the ATP 500 tournament in Acapulco, Mexico. [Getty Images]

"You can also see some technique changes in his serve, so he's altering that piece by piece, and he needs to, and he knows that. He knows he's got to get more shape on the forehand, and that's happening.

"Everyone said, 'oh he's only a little fella'. Well he's not little, by any means, when you stand next to him. But he's now starting to build bigger legs and he's getting a heavier game because of that. It looks like he's put on muscle, and that's helping him enormously with his weight of shot. He's not getting beat up as badly by some of the bigger hitters, as what he used to.

"He's becoming like a David Ferrer of his peer group.”

Ferrer is a former world No.3 who contested six Grand Slam semifinals, a stage of a major Woodbridge thinks De Minaur should realistically be targeting.

Jordan Thompson

A week before De Minaur’s Acapulco triumph, another Australian was outplaying Ruud in an ATP final in Mexico.

That was Jordan Thompson in Los Cabos, who at age 29 won his first ATP singles title and rose to a career-high ranking of world No.32.

Should he maintain that position, a first-time Grand Slam seeding would follow.

"He's always had great athletic ability. The only problem is, because of his personality, he's very, very careful. He's played well within himself. He used his athleticism reactively, not proactively,” Masur commented on a recent episode of The AO Show podcast. 

"Over time, I think he's realised that's not the way the game's going. You can't just beat people with legs and heart; you've got to win your share of points, you've got to step up to the plate.

“He's got a big serve, he can volley well... I think (coach) Marinko (Matosevic) has been instrumental in convincing him to play more aggressively, to take the ball on the rise, to use his skill set, just to play a bigger game, and win a bigger share of points.”

Masur believes the signs were already there that Thompson – who beat sixth-ranked Alexander Zverev in the Los Cabos semis – was trending in the right direction.

"If you go back to the Brisbane tournament earlier this year, he played (Rafael) Nadal in an absolute epic, three hours plus, in really humid conditions. Got through that, finished late at night, and then played really well against (Grigor) Dimitrov the next day,” he said.

"It's all coming together nicely for him. And at 29, make no mistake, he's got a good four or five years left in him. He's looked after himself. 

“We'll see his best tennis coming.”

Naomi Osaka

Another player trending in a positive direction is Naomi Osaka.

The four-time major champion has now played four tournaments in her comeback to tennis as a mother, most recently reaching the WTA 1000 quarterfinals in Doha.

Having started the season unranked, Osaka has worked her way back inside the top 300 and will look to rise higher with a strong result at Indian Wells, where this week she opens against a qualifier.

"I think she's on the right track to get back,” said Woodbridge of the former world No.1, who won her first professional title at Indian Wells in 2018.

“Hers is a game style that, for me, is purely confidence and momentum. This is going to be her challenge, actually understanding that you have to have more than just momentum to get back here. You have to be able to look at enhancing your game. I think for her, it's about learning to have a bit of defence in her game.

“When she's on, offensively, best in the world, right? But you've got more players (on tour) with a bigger game.

“You had Serena with a big game, who she could match. But now you've got a Rybakina, a Sabalenka, a Swiatek. They've all got big-hitting games. So you're not beating one player, you've now got three and four, and everybody else has adapted to that, while she’s been out.

“She's still in that mode (of adapting); she's still actually getting back up to speed, with everything.

"I think it's going to take a little longer than she might have anticipated, but I think if she's patient, it'll be OK."