Fifty parting thoughts from the Australian Open
MELBOURNE -- Fifty parting thoughts from the 2015 Australian Open, where the No. 1's prevailed, as Serena Williams won her sixth title and 19th major overall and Novak Djokovic battled to take home his fifth title in Melbourne and eighth Slam overall.
• Serena Williams won her 19th major in dazzling fashion, beating Maria Sharapova in an exquisite final. To me, this was Michael Jordan versus the Utah Jazz. An elite athlete elevating in a crucial moment never gets old.
• Novak Djokovic took the men’s title, beating Andy Murray in Sunday’s final 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0. This capped two weeks of dominance for Djokovic. Check that: it capped five years of dominance. This guy is becoming to Melbourne what Rafael Nadal is to Paris.
• Maria Sharapova was, understandably, upset after eating her—all together now— 16th straight loss to Serena. She ought to be plenty proud of herself, though. She staved off a match point in the second round just to stay alive. And her battle Saturday was a thing of beauty.
• Murray may have lost in the final—for the fourth time in Melbourne—but he ought to be thrilled with the state of his game after a dismal 2014.
• What a tournament for Madison Keys, who reached the semifinals and, as a result, is expected to break into the top 20. We tie ourselves to the mast to avoid the seduction of the Hype Machine. But—between the ferocious ballstriking and the sense of self on display—it’s hard not to envision great successes.
• The scene-stealer on the men’s side was also a 19-year-old. Following his breakthrough Wimbledon, Nick Kyrgios announced himself, not only by reaching the quarterfinals, but by doing so with an abundance of flair and charisma. Remember the AC/DC catchphrase, “If it's too loud, you're too old?” Feels like the same applies here. If you’re disdainful of his flash, look inward. We wish players were more expressive and less robotic. You get a guy like this and you criticize him for…what? a wacky hairstyle? Pink headphones? Contributing a few nickels to the swear jar? Give the kid a break.
• We all like churn and new faces. But note that when the new ATP rankings come out, the Big Four—Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal—will be ranked No. 1-4. You get the feeling there’s a bit of added motivation, given how intensely the ATP has pushed the “Young Guns” Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. In deeds, if not words, the top guys seem to be saying: Nothing personal, but we’re not quite through here.
• Viewer discretion advised. But check out both doubles draws: a bloodbath of upsets, including the Bryan Brothers who, unrivaled as they are, have lost at five of the last six majors. In the end Simone Bolleli and Fabio Fognini became the first all-Italian team to capture a Grand Slam men's doubles title in more than 50 years as they beat Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
• In the women’s event, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova played classic righty-lefty doubles and took the title.
• In the mixed event, Martina Hingis and Leander Paes won the title with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor. As a bonus, here we are, barely a month into the year and everyone is playing for second place in the Shot-of-the-Year contest:
• In the juniors, Russia's Roman Safiullin won the boys’ title and Slovakia's Tereza Mihalikova won the girls’ title.
• The surprise of the tournament? Sadly for me it was the play of Roger Federer. He came in ranked No.2, having won a tune-up title and reached the finals and semis of the previous two majors. That he would lose early with sluggish, passive play against Andreas Seppi—not exactly a young gun himself—was unexpected. Anytime Federer does anything now, it’s cast in the context of his age and eventual retirement. One match is not dispositive. But, still, what a lousy day at the office. (Also note: After a break at the 2014 U.S. Open, the Curse of Federer is back. Like so many before him, Seppi beat Federer and then lost his next match.)
• How exhilarating and encouraging was it to watch Venus Williams do a fairly convincing imitation of…Venus Williams? Maybe the best part of her Australian campaign: She won multiple three-setters, a good indication that she is managing her fatigue issues. While Venus is likely stinging more than she let on from her inability to close out Keys (who was nervous, injured and 19), all in all, it was her best major event in almost half a decade.
• The good news for Rafael Nadal: the French Open is the next major on the calendar. The less good news? He leaves Melbourne with his game/body/confidence shrouded in questions. Though the opponents were of a different caliber, Nadal’s loss was similar to Federer’s: torpor when moving, curious errors, a retreat in the final-set tiebreaker. Nadal is terrific—we’re talking Serena-like terrific—at recovering from defeat and reversing his fortunes. But he’s due for an uptick these next few months.
• To the delight of the players, the fans (and, sadly, those doubting climate change) you know what was a non-factor this event? The weather. In years past this has been an oven with a tennis tournament tacked on. This year: temperatures that might as well have been custom-ordered and had little impact on results.
• Tim Smyczek is long gone, off to continue his quest to elevate his ranking and earn a living as a pro player. But his gesture of sportsmanship against Nadal still echoes. He has dismissed it as a kneejerk reaction but, in a way, that only makes it more impressive. This wasn't market-tested or suggested by an agent. It was a reflexive instance of simply doing-the-right-thing. I’m sure Smyczek would rather be known for winning matches; but being known as a model for sportsmanship ain’t so bad either.
• In what has been a career-long pattern for him, Tomas Berdych scored a signature win at a major and then failed to build on it. Berdych hit through Nadal and not only won in straight sets but showed superior mental powers in a third-set tiebreaker. He then fell to Murray in that tense semifinal. What is the prevailing emotion: pride in his run to the semis; or disappointment that he lost once he got there?
• Friction is tricky, isn't it? As fans, we like rivalries and a sense that the competition has a personal referendum attached. Players recognize this, too. Andy Roddick, among others, has been vocal about the need for more dramatic tension in tennis. We like it when there’s “beef” as the Americans say —or “a slapfight” as we heard on Aussie TV—between the competitors. Yet the athletes resent being in the middle of controversy. Visibly amped up, Murray stared down Berydch, glared at Berdych’s camp and pumped his fist more often than Pit Bull. (His fiancée’s reaction also suggested this was no ordinary match.) All of this is great. He need not apologize. But to then blame the media and the public for manufacturing a storyline was a little disingenuous.
• That said, Murray’s postmatch praise of Amelie Mauresmo—and manifesto on women coaching—was terrific. ICYMI, as the kids put it:
• Another nice major for Ekatarina Makarova, who reached the semis in singles and doubles. Too bad she had her worst performance in her biggest match, thoroughly neutralized as she was in the semis by Sharapova.
• “Seeking coach to work with ascendant tennis player. Employer is age 20, willing to work hard; can veer toward stubborn. Must be prepared to improve playing patterns and to help balance her on-court focus with off-court opportunities. At behest of Andy Murray, will consider female as well as male applicants. Cannot guarantee a personal response to all inquiries, but please send résumé and references to Genie Bouchard.”
• You will not find a player easier on the eyes than Feliciano Lopez, who won three matches and pushed Milos Raonic to five sets in round four. A scythe-like lefty slice. Serve-and-volley tactics. Picturesque volleys. We’ve talked before about the tennis twist on the “halo effect.” We like a player’s overall personality or we like their looks and it colors how we view their tennis game. But in this case, Lopez could take to the court wearing a beekeeper suit and we would be saying the same thing.
• If you missed the Daily Data Visualizations on SI.com—a collaboration we did with IBM— here’s the full gallery.
• When someone finally gets around to funding a tennis reality show, here’s hoping they don’t scrimp on scrutinizing the fraught triangle (a love triangle if you will—and I know you will) among a player, a coach and a significant other. We’ll leave it at that for now.
• The fiercest rivalry in tennis over the last year: the battle between players and tournaments over prize money. Dan Kaplan is reporting that the tournaments have hired Jeff Kessler, a prominent New York sport labor lawyer, to contest the latest vote on anti-trust grounds. One interesting twist: The players could be represented by the ATP’s outside counsel of Proskauer (traditionally a management firm) while Kessler, now representing the events, usually advocates on behalf of players.
• We hear all the rhetoric about the Aussie Open being the “Happy Slam,” and so player-friendly. Here’s a big concrete example: every player—including qualifiers in both singles and doubles—gets a $2,500 travel voucher. But a lot smaller touches are just as effective. Players get five free string jobs per session. The tournament brings animals from local zoos to the lounge, so players can pose with koalas and alligators. There’s an on-site CPA.
• One nagging question about Keys: Given her ballstriking, power and athleticism, how on earth did she come to Australia ranked outside the top 30? Don’t ask her new coach. “Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are,” says Lindsay Davenport. “It hasn’t taken much to tap into her talent. I’m not sure why this didn’t happen sooner. She had the talent and drive already. The dots were obviously not being connected. But the past is the past. I know the positive environment now has really helped her believe, and we’re excited to keep going forward.”
• Good for Keys for winning her shootout with Petra Kvitova. But what’s up with our defending Wimbledon champ? Kvitova has talent to burn, she plays a huge game, moves well and is left-handed. She is too good a player to lose in the first week of a Slam, something she has done at every major since 2012, Wimbledon notwithstanding.
• Hats off to Madison Brengle, for her run to the fourth round. Some players mature later than others and Brengle, age 24, has played the best tennis of her career over the last few months. She also had one of our favorite press room exchanges of the event:
Q. What have those conversations been like after your matches calling home?
Brengle: My mom is just obsessed with the towels. Did you get another towel? Mom, I won. She’s like, But the towels. So, all right, got our priorities straight.
• Dear Mrs. Brengle: know that you are not alone. The entire sport has a towel obsession. Those kids in the back of the court? Those aren't ball boys; they are cabana boys. Countless points were delayed because players can no longer go consecutive points without toweling off. My favorite: When there’s a double fault and the returner still beckons for a towel. Speed it up, folks.
• Another rough event for Sloane Stephens, who bowed out in round one to Victoria Azarenka. There are a lot of swirling questions about Stephens’ level of motivation, interest and passion. But she asked for a wild card at the Antwerp event. Take that as a good sign. Also, I think of Keys and I think of Bernard Tomic. For years, we heard about Tomic’s talent and his work ethic and how they were at odds. The adults couldn’t get through to him. You know what did? The ascent of Nick Kyrgios. A new face got all the attention and it spurred him. Maybe Stephens sees the success of Keys and it triggers something.
• For all the talk of the ascending Australian men—Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, and Tomic who, for all his career drama, is still only 22—there wasn’t much talk about Australian women. One reason: The top prospect, Ash Barty, is taking an indefinite leave, while dealing with what was described to me as “pre-burnout” symptoms.
• As tennis catchphrases go, “The margins are small” is becoming the “Thirty is the new twenty.” Trite but true. Micro: consider that Maria Sharapova was a point from losing in the second round to a qualifier. She lines up a shot as if it’s an iPhone distance to the left, she’s out of the tournament. Instead, she finished second and takes home a seven-figure check. Macro: here’s a great stat, courtesy of guru Craig O’Shaugnessy. In 2013, Roger Federer had, by his standards, a subpar year. He went 45-17 and won just one title and barely $3 million. In 2014, he went 73-12, won five titles and $9.3 million. In 2013, he won 54 percent of the points he played overall. In 2014, he won 55 percent of the points he played. In other words, winning just one percent more points in the course of a season resulted in 28 more match wins and $6 million more in prize money.
• We’ve written in the past about our disdain for the “reciprocal wild card,” the cartel-like practice among the four countries fortunate enough to hold majors. But we were dazzled by both French players, Oceane Dodin and Lukas Pouille. She looked thoroughly at home on the pro tour, beating Alison Riske and pushing Pliskova to three sets. Remember the name. (French Federation to the USTA: “We'll see your Oudin and raise you an O. Dodin.”) And Pouille, he should have beaten Monfils in round one.
• Speaking of Monfils: Heard a great story about him and Gilles Simon. Monfils approached Simon last year and asked, “Do you think I can win a major?” Nothing if not frank, Simon responded, “No. Not unless you treat your career with more professionalism.” The two continued speaking, and Simon added specifics and brought his coach, Jan de Witt, into the discussion. One thing led to another and—with Simon’s blessing— now de Witt coaches Monfils as well.
• One more for the Federer file: So Federer loses that match to Seppi and crosses the net to congratulate the opponent. He then vacates the court as soon as possible—in part because he is unhappy in defeat, but in part to surrender the stage so Seppi can take his victory lap and do his on-court interview. In his haste, he forgets to shake the hand of chair umpire James Keothavong. Federer realizes his omission and, despite having lost a brutal match, later seeks out Keothavong to apologize.
• She’s undoubtedly disappointed now, but for Victoria Azarenka, this was a swell event. She learned that she’s still capable of top-shelf tennis, winning three rounds, including a comprehensive defeat of Caroline Wozniacki. She also learned that there is still ample work to be done, especially in terms of fitness, if she wants to get back to her old level. When she is back in the top five at this time next year, it will come as little surprise.
• It’s old news by now but Genie Bouchard and the infamous “twirl request” was, in context, more clumsy than sexist. Want sexist? What about the Australian Open organizers—in a rare unforced error—scheduling a newsy and significant Davis Cup press conference during the women’s semifinals? You’re announcing that Pat Rafter is stepping down and fixing a retirement date on Lleyton Hewitt while Serena Williams and Madison Keys are on court?
• In part because of conflict-of-interest concerns, but largely because the work product is quite strong overall, we generally stay out of the television criticism business. But here’s a pet peeve: Ignorance is seldom a virtue. When you— as a broadcaster paid to stay informed about the sport—watch a lower-ranked player and gleefully tell the viewer “I’ve never even heard of this guy!” it says more about you and your level of professionalism than the journeyman and his.
• And I know some of you were rough on Chris Fowler during this event, but I think you’re off-base. Here is a guy who calls the college football national championship game for an audience of 30+ million. He jumps on a plane and calls tennis for, literally, one percent of that audience. And there is no drop in his enthusiasm or preparation. (I think we need to bring the College Football Gameday set to Australia. Home Depot banners. Cooking demonstrations. Drunken fans with home-made signs saying things like “Djokovic still uses a Palm Pilot.” Hell, Tom Rinaldi is here already. Someone get on this.)
• Death to the selfie stick.
• I enjoyed meeting Ajla Tomljanovic for the first time. From the roll-your-eyes-at-tennis category: Tomljanovic plays for Croatia during WTA events and Australia during ITF events. Why? Because one organization requires the players to hold a passport; the other simply requires a declaration of nationality.
• Speaking of young players, we eagerly await the return of Laura Robson next month. One suspects she is following the Juan Martin del Potro’s wrist saga with trepidation. But she is as self-possessed as talent-possessed. And she only turned 21 last week.
• Nice to see Sweden back in the game. Remember Sweden? Home to smoked fish, Ikea, Volvo, Borg, Wilander and Edberg. For more than three years, no Swedish males have appeared in the main draw of a major. (Robin Soderling, Wimbledon, 2011.) This event, young Elias Ymer qualified for the main draw and his brother Mikael was in the juniors draw.
• Condolences to the family of Steve Wilkinson, the legendary—truly legendary—Gustavus tennis coach, who passed away at age 73 last week. And long as we’re talking college tennis, who else never realized that indie musician Brandon Bayliss is the son of decorated Notre Dame coach Bobby Bayliss?
• We talked about this on Tennis Channel —Martina Navratilova happily cracking wise—but women challenged line calls less often than the men, even controlling for sets; and they were right more often. And, to an eerie degree, these numbers are consistent from Slam to Slam. Sure, the slower average pace of the women’s shots might make calls easier to judge. And sure some men challenge calls, not with legit hopes of an overrule but as a show of frustration. But I still say there are deeper themes re: men and women and challenges to authority and confrontation. There’s some social psychology PhD. candidate who should jump on this.
• Since we’re coming up with projects, can one of our statistically-inclined friends scrape the data and come up with a metric for “minutes spent on court.” I wonder by the way, if this hasn't contributed to Serena’s longevity. It’s not just that she sometimes played fewer tournaments than her peers; it’s that once she got there, she would often limit her two-set shifts to 75 minutes or so. Thus her 33 years of age and her 17 years on tour are really misleading.
• We all had a good laugh over this Nick Kyrgios childhood photo. (We should have had a caption contest. My submission: “Jay! Tell Mahny to use zee cahn-TEEN-en-tal greep!”) But there’s a serious moral here somewhere. You never know what determination and genetics and puberty will yield.
• Isn’t it ironic, don’t cha think? Madison Keys’ hometown of Rock Island, Illinois, is directly across the Big Muddy from….Davenport. Iowa, that is.
• I didn't respond individually, but thanks, folks, for your kind words about the Tennis Channel coverage. Big tip of the Crocodile Dundee hat to the editors on the “Unstrung” pieces: Loy Maxon, Angela Evans, Tiffany McLoughlin, Chris Alperti and Jason Sanchez Rosa. And if you enjoyed the SI.com tennis coverage, thank Jamie Lisanti, who made it all happen in the wee hours back home.