The sunshine slam delivered once again. It’s hard to imagine another tournament this year, or any year, delivering more feel-good stories and sheer happiness in the tennis world. For two weeks we were taken back in time to the recent past and the halcyon days of Venus and Serena and Federer and Nadal. Four great champions who met for improbable ninth major finals in their storied rivalries, and at the end two undisputed GOATs emerged.
Serena Williams had only played two matches since the US Open, one of them a torrid error-strewn loss to world No.72 Madison Brengle. She came to Melbourne untested and potentially unprepared. After she received the draw from hell most thought it unlikely she would make the second week, let alone win the whole thing. Although I thought an early loss quite possible I picked Serena for the title, she has always been at her most dangerous when counted out and flying almost under the radar. Her tennis rose to each new test through the draw, she played better this tournament than at any point last year, with the possible exception of her last two matches at Wimbledon. Now with No.23 under her belt, health and desire-willing, the sky is the limit for Serena.
Roger Federer came into Melbourne likewise having played almost no tennis for the last few months, after he too received a nightmare draw most assumed he’d be lucky to make the quarter-finals and lose to Andy Murray. Today, Federer himself said a quarter-final would have been a good result for him. Instead, he pulled off probably the single most impressive tournament of his entire glorious career, beating four top ten players, winning three five set matches in a row, including coming back from a break down in the fifth against his nemesis Nadal, all at the age of 35, a pensioner in tennis terms. Will he win another? Probably not, but only a fool would rule it out, and no matter, with No.18 he has put distance between himself and Nadal, likely more than Rafa can manage to make up.
Venus Williams pulled off the biggest surprise of all the finalists. Federer and Serena had both made the semi-finals in their last majors, Venus had reached one semi-final in the last 7 years and her time at the top seemed a distant memory. Aided by a kind draw she turned back the clock, made her second serve the least vulnerable it’s been in years, and toughed out an in-form big-serving Coco Vandeweghe in the semi-final to set-up another all-Williams affair. Venus’s run disproved the chorus of doubters calling for her retirement for the last five years and showed that only a player should decide when it’s time to hang up their racquet.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni last played a grand slam semi-final before Serena Williams won her first in 1999. She went through many dark years when even playing in another grand slam, let alone reaching the final four, seemed impossible. She beat some top players to get to this point and at 34 reached a new career high ranking. An inspiration to any sports person going through a prolonged tough time.
Rafael Nadal reaching the final was arguably a bigger step forward for him than Roger Federer’s improbable run, he hadn’t even reached a grand slam quarter final for nearly two years, beset by injuries and lack of form. Yet, one reason I predicted him to make the final this year was that he had shown the level was still there in flashes throughout the last year, he felt due a resurgence. Losing a lead and the last five games of the match today will sting, but with Djokovic in crisis, expect Rafa to be a prime contender for his tenth French Open in a few months time.
Grigor Dimitrov can be proud of his run to the semi-finals and the way he fought against Rafael Nadal to the end in their five set classic. After a rough few years, he looks to be back where he belongs, if he keeps up the hard work there’s no reason he can’t be lifting the trophy this time next year.
Alexander Zverer had been proclaimed the future of tennis for some time before he was drawn against Rafael Nadal in the third round of this tournament in what many predicted would be an upset. He didn’t beat Nadal but he showed the hype was legitimate and with another couple of years physical work he can be the present of tennis too.
The Bryan Bros were many people’s pick to retire in 2016 after a bad couple of years, but they’re still out there and reached the final of the Australian Open once again. They may have fallen short, but it was an encouraging start to the season for men’s doubles biggest stars.
British tennis may have seen its most reliable star, Andy Murray, lose earlier than expected, but Dan Evans and Jo Konta more than made up for that with impressive runs through the tournament. More contrasting characters it is difficult to imagine, but winning is what counts.
Andy Murray suffered his earliest loss at the Australian Open in years, and in his first major as No.1 he seemed to feel some of the pressure. Yes, he lost to an inspired opponent playing beautiful throwback tennis, but he made no real tactical adjustments, particularly on return, to counter Mischa Zverer’s all-out attack tennis. He’s wisely skipped Davis Cup this time and hopefully will return rested later next month.
Angelique Kerber looked like a dead woman walking throughout the tournament until Coco Vandeweghe put her out of her misery. Now that’s she lost the No.1 ranking which seemed to be a mill stone around her neck hopefully she can get back to playing the tennis that got her there.
Novak Djokovic looks to be in genuine crisis now. Where does he go from here? The only way is up, the only question is if he wants to, or if at nearly 30, he might be tiring of the grind of the tour. We’ll find out over the next six months.
Karolina Pliskova was most pundits pick for the title, despite having only reached the second week of a major once before, in her run to last year’s US Open final. That inconsistency bedevilled her again, losing a match she probably shouldn’t have to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
Nick Kyrgios showed flashes of why the tennis world would love to see him on top of the game in his round one win, but once again his attitude and on-court behaviour became the talking point in his second round loss. Does he really want to put in the work to make the top echelons or is he happy to carry on coasting as he is, which is still a pretty nice life. Sadly it seems like the answer may be the latter.