Australian Open Recap
When the Australian Open began two weeks ago, there was a general feeling that this might be the major that some new faces would rise to the top on both the women’s side, which would have been hardly unexpected, and the men’s, which actually would have. In the end, however, both finals once again featured all prior Grand Slam winners.
Incredibly, eleven women had a statistical chance to become number one in the world based on the results of this tournament. For a women’s draw that has been wide open since Serena Williams’ pregnancy, this tournament seemed even more up for grabs than usual. American women once again had a strong showing with five of them, Serena, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, and upstarts Anna Anisimova and Danielle Collins, reaching the final sixteen. Of those five, only Collins, who crushed #2 Angie Kerber, and Serena, who survived #1 Simona Halep, moved on to the quarters.
There, Collins continued her magical run, never having won a Grand Slam match until this tournament, and it looked certain that Serena would join her, holding a 5–1 lead in the third set over Karolina Pliskova. Stunningly, however, Pliskova reeled off the last six games to take the match 7–5 in the third. Although the US announcers focused on a point where Serena rolled her ankle at 5–1, it did not appear to significantly hinder her movement. Instead, Pliskova just kept going for winners and making them, a streak that is not uncommon for her.
In the end, the final featured US Open champion Naomi Osaka and two-time Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitová. For Kvitová, just being on the court was a miracle. A knife-wielding home invader badly damaged tendons in all five fingers of her grip hand and there was real doubt should could ever play at a top level again. The match itself proved frustrating for both players. There were 24 break chances in the match with Osaka owning 14 of them, but they each could convert only three. Often times, both of them were able to serve their way out of trouble. Kvitová never really seemed to find her range the entire match, under constant pressure from Osaka. Osaka herself let three match points get away in the second set, and then the set itself, to set up a deciding third set. In the third, Osaka got an early break and managed to serve it out, winning the ultimately thrilling match 7–6(2), 5–7, 6–4,and claiming the number one ranking.
On the men’s side, it was once again another truly disappointing performance by the new young guns of tennis. Dominic Thiem retired in the second round and Alex Zverev was pushed to five sets by Jeremy Chardy that same round. But hopes for a real generational change in the guard were bolstered when Stefanos Tsitsipas seemingly overpowered Roger Federer in a tight four set thriller, 6–7(11), 7–6(3), 7–5, 7–6(5). But, in the fourth round, Zverev went out meekly to Milos Raonic and Daniil Medvedev was easily taken out by Djokovic. America’s Francis Tiafoe joined Tsitsipas in the quarters, having beaten both Kevin Anderson and the fading Gregor Dmitrov. Nadal took care of him in the next round and then crushed Tsitsipas in the semis, setting up yet another rematch between Djokovic, who had only lost two sets going into the final, and Nadal, who had lost none.
What was expected to be a death match between two legends at the top of their game turned into a rout. Nadal looked uncomfortable from the start while Djokovic looked like he could he hit any shot he wanted. I may be incorrect, but I believe Novak won 14 out of the first 15 points. He only lost one point on his serve the entire first set. Djokovic constantly kept Nadal off balance by going behind him and refusing to get into those side to side rallies where Nadal could exploit the angles. Instead he pounded the ball deep down the middle to Nadal’s forehand which usually resulted in a short ball Djokovic capitalized on. Nadal could not penetrate Djokovic with his usually reliable forehand and rarely with his backhand. He struggled to hold serve while never creating a break point on Djokovic’s until the third set. From the beginning, Djokovic ran away with this match, winning 6–3, 6–2, 6–3, in a totally dominant performance.
Both Federer in his match against Tsitsipas, and Nadal, in the final, looked just a quarter step slower than we are used to. Andy Murray, the fourth of the Big Four that has dominated for nearly the last decade and a half, announced he will retire from tennis this year due to a hip injury that actually threatens his quality of life. He displayed his characteristic guts by coming back from two sets down to force a fifth set against Bautista Agut in the first round in what was his last Australian Open match. Hopefully, he will be given his just reward to end his career at Wimbledon and given a hero’s send off by the hometown crowd.
Even so, the next generation on the men’s side was not able to break through in yet another major. You really have to wonder if what Marat Safin said when asked about the longevity of the Big Four was true. Safin replied, “Maybe these younger players just aren’t that good”. They certainly haven’t shown the ability to stay in top form for the seven matches required to win a major.
Originally published at thesoundings.com on January 27, 2019.