Naomi Osaka celebrates with the Australian Open trophy. Photograph by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters
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A star is born, another returns to glory: Notes on the 2019 Australian Open

Women’s tennis has a new star in Naomi Osaka, peak Novak Djokovic wreaks havoc in the men’s game, and other observations from the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.
Exie Abola | Feb 02 2019

I usually don’t pay much attention to the entirety of a Grand Slam tournament. I just note the progress of the top players, especially Roger Federer, my favorite, and tune in seriously late in the second week. This time I tried watching as much of the Fox Sports broadcast on SkyCable as I could, as much as that inconvenient thing called real life would let me. I even caught YouTube highlights for the matches I didn’t see. I was so successful doing the couch potato thing I smelled like a root crop at the end.

Paying attention to the day-to-day gives you a kind of tunnel vision, in which that day’s events acquire outsize importance but which seem overblown days later. The people at The Tennis Podcast (a gem I discovered in the middle of the tournament and which I will now make a regular part of my fan experience) said as much, noting how the many narratives can shift dramatically just twenty-four hours later. At the end of the tournament, with the bow neatly knotted on the whole thing, you wonder why you cared so much about all the other stories.

So these are my highlights, the events and impressions that struck me the most during the fortnight.

• It started off with a bang. Andy Murray, the shortest leg in the Big Four, the one who never had as much talent as the other three but who made up for it with pit-bull determination, announced just as the tourney went underway that he would retire this year. Then he promptly played a very Andy Murray match versus Roberto Bautista Agut, seeded No. 22, in the first round. The Scot fell behind two sets, then heaved and puffed and gritted through the next two, which he won in tiebreaks. The crowd roared him on. By the fifth he couldn’t stand straight, and the Spaniard won running away. It felt as if Murray had won anyway, then the tributes poured in. Here’s hoping his latest hip surgery goes well.

Andy Murray. Reuters

• Maybe the best early-round match I caught: Ivo Karlovic vs Kei Nishikori. Big server versus classic counterpuncher. The Japanese number one, whose best result was a finals appearance at the 2014 US Open, seemed comfortably ahead, two sets to love. But in the third and fourth sets, the same thing happened. At 5–5, Nishikori fell behind 0–40 in his own service game, then promptly got broken. The 6–11 Karlovic then served out each set with ease. Early in the fifth set, it was déjà vu all over again. Nishikori fell behind 0–40 yet again on his serve, and the break points felt like match points. Karlovic was raining down thunderbolts, as he often does, racking up 59 aces for the whole match. Amazingly, instead of buckling yet again, Nishikori took the next five points and forced a super tiebreak.

Karlovic plays an astounding number of tiebreaks; in 2018 about half of the sets he played ended with a tiebreak. And for his career he was won about half of them. (That’s a low number. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, two of the three career leaders in tiebreak-win percentage, have won more than 60% of theirs.) It was also my first time to see the super tiebreak, an innovation at this year’s Aussie Open, in action. Karlovic nosed ahead early but Nishikori came back and pulled it out. It was Kei’s second five-setter in two rounds of action. He would play another barnburner against Pablo Carreño Busta, which ended with a controversial call and a tantrum from the Spaniard. Nishikori’s reward for all that effort: a quarterfinal against Djokovic in which he had to retire midway through the second set. Get well, Kei, and see you at Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic. Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

• The young guns on the men’s side are good and exciting, but they have a ways to go. Denis Shapovalov, the 19-year-old from Canada, made it to the third round and took a set off of top-seed Djokovic. The teen dropped the first two sets then won the second against a surprisingly conservative Serb. Sure enough, the world No. 1 got pissed at himself and bageled his opponent in the fourth set. A pissed off Djokovic is a sight to behold.

Shapovalov has long, loopy groundstrokes that work well against most opponents, but against the elite they look vulnerable, especially his backhand. If you’re a lefty and you have a one-handed backhand, it needs to be top class (think Federer, Wawrinka, Thiem) if you’re going to hang with the best.

Denis Shapovalov. @denis.shapovalov on Instagram

• Alex de Minaur, another 19-year-old, is an Aussie who plays a lot like local hero Lleyton Hewitt. The young Aussie won the Brisbane tournament leading up to Melbourne, and he crashed into the Rafael Nadal express in the third round. No amount of cheering and egging on mattered. Nadal took De Minaur’s game apart easily. Like Hewitt, the youngster plays a scrappy, grinding style that wins hearts. His wicked footspeed helps. Against Nadal, his weakness was exposed: the lack of a true weapon. This is true of most young players, yes, but it seems particularly true of De Minaur. He might be this generation’s Vitas Gerulaitis, the fleet-footed American who never quite reached the lofty heights of Borg, Connors, and McEnroe because he didn’t have that one weapon that scared them.

Alex de Minaur. @alexdeminaur on Instagram
Rafael Nadal. Thomas Peter, Reuters

• Frances Tiafoe, the new hope of American tennis, beat 20th-seed Grigor Dimitrov in four close sets in the midday heat on the day he turned 21. At the end he looked gassed, his legs rubbery, and he could barely mumble during the on-court interview that followed. He made it to the quarterfinal where he fell to the Nadal buzzsaw. He has the funkiest forehand around. On the backswing he extends his arm and cocks his wrist at such an awkward angle you wonder he doesn’t get hurt. It’s a powerful shot, but hit the ball hard to his forehand and he catches the ball late. Plus, Nadal’s loopy forehand to the Tiafoe’s backhand gave the righty trouble, and he never could time the ball.

Frances Tiafoe. @australianopen on Instagram

• It wasn’t all young versus old. Milos Raonic vs Stan Wawrinka was a pleasant surprise in the second round. A Swiss never as accomplished or as beloved as his more famous compatriot, Wawrinka had surgery late in 2017 and has been on the comeback trail since. Once ranked as high as No. 3, he fell past No. 250 some time last year. He came into Melbourne unseeded and had the misfortune of facing 16th-seed Milos Raonic, who seems to be over his own injury issues. It was a nail-biter, a four-set match with four tiebreaks. Stan the Man looked like his old self, except with a service stance more closed, his shoulders turned away from the net. His backhand looked strong as ever, as he pumped line drives into the deuce corner again and again. Tough luck to have to face the tall, lanky Canadian in the second round, and they produced a match that wouldn’t have been out of place in the second week. I hope the Swiss stud returns to the top ten.

Stan Wawrinka. @australianopen on Instagram

• The upset of the tournament, and the match of the tournament to my mind, was Stefanos Tsitsipas beating Roger Federer in the round of sixteen. I was rooting for Federer, of course, as I have all these years. But I was also impressed by the young Greek. He’s only 20 years old, yet he played as if he belonged on the court with the greatest of all time. He began nervously, going to deuce in the opening game on his serve, receiving two time violations along the way. But he held on, and for the rest of the match his serve was unbreakable.

Roger Federer. @australianopen on Instagram

And that was the story: Federer converted none of 12 break points, ten of them in the second set. (His worst break-point conversion rate ever, it turns out.) Over the first two sets the Swiss held serve easily, while the Greek’s service games would take a while—four minutes, six minutes, eight minutes—as Federer mounted a challenge. But with each threat Tsitsipas either forced an error or launched winners. His composure was impressive. After taking the tight first set Federer would have changed the course of the match had he broken in the second. But he didn’t, and on to another tiebreaker they went, this one going to the youngster. After two hours of gritty, high-level tennis, it was tied.

At that point I had little faith that Federer would win. At age 37, it’s getting harder for Roger to win physical affairs, and his opponent was a fresh 20-year-old who ran like a gazelle. So my heart sank as the match wore on, and sure enough, the young gun outgunned the illustrious champion. “That felt like a changing of the guard,” John McEnroe said, interviewing Tsitsipas after the match. Yes, it did.

Stefanos Tsitsipas. @australianopen on Instagram

• Tsitsipas looks like the sport’s next star. He looks the part. He lost to Nadal, yes. His game isn’t quite there yet despite the win over Federer. As it does most everyone, the height and bite of Nadal’s forehand bothered his backhand. And he did drop a set in each of his matches; he needs to be more efficient. But he’s tall, quick, and deploys a strong, all-court game with good touch at the net. He seems tough as nails; against Nadal he threw everything he had in the first two sets. The kid’s rock star looks are a nice bonus. If any of this crop of youngsters will rise to elite status, my money is on this guy.

• Another Slam, another disappointment for Alexander Zverev. He looked great in getting to the third round, then fell meekly to Raonic, 6–1, 6-1, 7–6. After winning the first game he dropped 12 of the next 13. Again, he’s only 21. But the greatest players found success early. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic won their first Slams at age 21, 19, and 20. Zverev clearly has all the physical tools, and he’s already beaten those three. Only at the Slams does he shrink to the occasion. ’Tis a puzzlement still.

Alexander Zverev. @australianopen on Instagram

• The men’s singles final, on the last day of the tournament, turned out to be the dud of the fortnight. I salivated at the thought of a rematch of their brutal 2012 final that ended past midnight and lasted nearly six hours. So did everyone else. But it was clear early on that it wasn’t to be. Nadal didn’t seem that bad, at least to me. He started shakily, as if nervous. (He denied it at the post-match presser.) Nadal lost his opening service game, sliced a forehand return on a second serve (a strange shot), and blasted a sitter that he never misses long and wide. He seemed demoralized from the start.

Nadal. Aly Song, Reuters

After the match he spoke of not being fully prepared to play the kind of defense necessary to tussle with an in-form Djokovic. He withdrew from the Brisbane tournament leading up to Melbourne on the heels of ankle surgery in November. “Physically I couldn’t push him,” he said. Gone was the relentless attacking game he had used so beautifully to carve up his earlier opponents.

The fearsome Nadal forehand was landing short in the Serb’s ad court, and Djokovic slashed sharp crosscourt backhands that gave the Spaniard fits. If Nadal’s is the second-best forehand on the court, he’s in trouble.

But then, it might not have mattered. Djokovic was simply sublime. “Near the gods,” one of the commentators enthused about his play. He was terrifying and relentless. To say he doesn’t have a weakness is an understatement. Better to say: Everything is a strength.

The result adds a layer of drama to the French Open. Can Djokovic lay siege to Roland Garros (aka Fortress Nadal) and beat the King of Clay? They should meet in the final there too, and if the Serb prevails, a calendar Grand Slam might be on the horizon. Holy cow.

• If the men’s final fizzled out, the women’s final lived up to its lofty expectations. Naomi Osaka proved her US Open victory (capped by a notorious final against Serena Williams) not to be a fluke.

Not that she waltzed into the final. In the third round Su-wei Hsieh, a player everyone hates to play because of her discombobulating spins and angles, had her on the ropes. For a while Osaka looked like she might be another top player cut down by the Taiwanese at a Slam, alongside Garbiñe Muguruza (last year in Melbourne) and (Simona Halep at Wimbledon). Then down a set and a break in the second, Osaka stopped overhitting and managed her nerves. She took the next ten of eleven games to take the match.

Su-wei Hsieh. @australianopen on Instagram

The experience might have served her well in the final. It was hard to root against Petra Kvitova, the hard-hitting lefty who had already won two Wimbledons before personal tragedy struck: two years ago an armed intruder barged into her apartment, and she fought him off but not before he stuck a knife into her left hand. She’s been on the comeback trail since, and Melbourne was her first Slam final in almost five years.

Petra Kvitova. Edgar Su, Reuters

The match was a wonderful counterpoint of two hard-hitters, Kvitova slicing her serve wide to give Osaka fits, Osaka pummeling winners from the baseline. The first set was tight and went to the Japanese, and late in the second she was up a break and 0–40 on the Czech lefty’s serve. Three match points, and a close but decisive victory seemed in the bag for the 21-year-old. Then it fell apart. Kvitova saw off the match points and took the game, then broke Osaka, then took the set.

Tied at one set apiece, I thought, How can she ever come back from this? If Osaka goes on to lose the match this might be one of those heart-wrenching but instructive losses young athletes use as a stepping stone to future greatness. With tears streaking her face, Osaka asked the umpire if she could leave the court. She walked off with a towel over her head.

Petra Kvitova. Edgar Su, Reuters

When the match resumed the transformation was amazing. The anxious, girlish player was gone. No more cries of “Come on!,” just a small fist pump and a glance at her box, the look on her face betraying no emotion beyond calm determination. If Kvitova hit a winner, she just shrugged. She kept her lips sealed, as if inside her mouth was a demon that would have sent her into defeat had she let it loose.

She did let loose with her game. She broke early and kept threatening the Czech’s serve. She kept her small lead despite the desperate aggression of her opponent. In her penultimate service game Osaka blistered three forehand winners into the ad corner. She wasn’t waiting for Kvitova to make mistakes. She was taking this.

And she did. Funnily, when she finally won, she still didn’t shriek or shout. Her mouth stayed shut, and she crumpled into herself, then rose and beamed. Not since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 had a first-time Slam winner taken the next one. As the commentariat said the day after, with near unanimity, a star is born. Oh, and she became world No. 1 for the first time in her career after the final.

I eagerly await her next encounter with Serena Williams. It should be a doozy.

• In my piece from two weeks ago I didn’t mention the women, and it’s because I don’t pay as much attention to them. My fault, I know. I’ve already discussed the final, so here are a few notes on the women’s side of the tournament:

• Danielle Collins gave No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber a good thrashing in their fourth round match. The 25-year-old American crushed the former champ 6–0 in the first set in 18 minutes and wrapped up the match in 55. It was such a dominant display of power tennis it was a surprise Kerber even took two games in the second set. The American, who had never won a match at the Slams, made the former champion look like a rank amateur.

Danielle Collins. daniellecollins.fans on Instagram

The Collins backhand is as loopy as her forehand. The full windmill on the backhand side is rare. Usually players take the racket to the waist and fold it back before unfurling it with an upward, forward snap. It works for her, and she made it all the way to the semis where she took eventual finalist Kvitova to a tiebreak in a tight first set before fading in the second.

Serena Williams. Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

• Serena Williams lost in a puzzling way to Karolina Pliskova in the quarters. She went up 5–1 in the third, having solved the tall Czech’s power game. Then the wheels came off. A bizarre foot-fault call came at match point, then she turned her ankle. She dropped the next six games without winning another point on her serve. After the match she was gracious and didn’t blame the injury, only Pliskova’s excellent play. The loss upended a rematch with Naomi Osaka in the semis. In any case, the record-breaking twenty-fourth Slam remains elusive, and the 37-year-old Williams resumes her quest at Roland Garros.

Karolina Pliskova. karoninapliskova on Instagram

All of this in only the first of tennis’s four majors. I can’t wait for the French Open.

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