MELBOURNE – Cleaning out the notebook from the 2018 Australian Open, where Caroline Wozniacki won her first Slam and Roger Federer won his 20th.
• Roger Federer wins the 2018 Australian Open title, beating Martin Cilic in a wild—and then suddenly routine—men's final. We're coming close to exhausting the store of adjectives and superlatives and fun facts here but....this means many things. a) Federer has now won 20 majors, i.e. 10% of those held in the Open Era, which began 50 years ago. b) He increases his career lead over rival Rafael Nadal, 20-16. c) A child born when Federer won his first major would now be in high school. (And, preempting: yes, a child born when Serena won her first would now be in college.) Apart from the sheer volume of winning, this longevity is just remarkable.
• Caroline Wozniacki won her first career major—and took over the top ranking—beating Simona Halep 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4 in a tense final. Wozniacki is a terrific athlete, but when she resists fallback defense and dictates points, she is a superior player. Which was the case in Australia. In gaining the biggest trophy of her career, she no longer wears the lariat of “best player never to win a Slam.”
• Marin Cilic may have lost his second major final in a half-year to Roger Federer. But he deserves much credit getting to the threshold, not least beating Rafael Nadal in the quarters. Earlier this week Michael Stich—winner of one major—was inducted into the Hall of Fame. With a major (2014 U.S. Open) and two other finals, did Cilic play himself into Newport this week?
• It's easy to say that Simona Halep’s misbegotten play in big matches continues to be an issue. But anyone who says that conveniently overlooks her semifinal war, as well as the assorted close calls she averted just to get the last match. Says here, she’ll get hers eventually. And if she does so with a new clothing deal, so much the better.
• For as often as athletes talking about “hitting the reset button” and “rebuilding years,” Angelique Kerber has already made us—and more important, herself—forget her dismal 2017. She came within a point of reaching the final (losing the likely Match of the Year to Halep 9-7 in the third) and has already won 10 matches to start the season.
• Hyeon Chung, like March, came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, retiring in the semifinals on account of what he called “mega-blister.” But the 21-year-old South Korean was the revelation of the tournament for five rounds, having beaten both Sascha Zverev and Novak Djokovic. Never mind a strafing serve or a killer forehand. The ability to toggle between offense and defense is the prerequisite for success in the modern era, which augurs well here.
• Smiting forehands and playing with poise that sometimes eluded him in the past, Kyle Edmund broke through at this event, reaching the semis and looking very much like a potential top player. Smiting forehands and playing with poise that sometimes eluded her in the past, Elise Mertens broke through at this event, reaching the semis and looking very much like a potential top player.
• What a pity that Rafael Nadal’s body betrayed him. Up 2-sets-to-1 against Marin Cilic in the quarters, Nadal suffered a hip injury, thereby depriving tennis of another Federer-Nadal Super Bowl. The good news: it looks like he’ll miss three weeks and this may not even impact his tournament commitments. The bad news: this quick recovery blunts the valid point Nadal raised after the match: tennis officials aren't doing nearly enough to address the spate of player injuries.
• In a men's draw ventilated with upsets, Austria's Oliver Marach and Croatia's Mate Pavic won the men's doubles title, beating the Colombian team of Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah in the final 6-4, 6-4 on Saturday. On Sunday, Pavic returned to Rod Laver arena—this time with Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski—and captured the mixed doubles title, beating Rohan Bopanna and Timea Babos 2-6, 6-4, 11-9. With Martina Hingis recently retired and the team of Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands sidelined as the latter recovers from injury, the women’s doubles field was wide open. The team of Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic took the title, denying Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina a career Slam. If this can jolt Mladenovic’s confidence in singles (see below) so much the better.
• 17-year old Sebastian Korda, son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, boys' singles title over Taiwan's Chun Hsin Tseng, 7-6(6), 6-4, becoming the fifth American ever to win the Australian Open boys' singles title and the third in the last 50 years. En Shuo Liang became the first player from Taiwan to win the girls singles trophy, beating France's Clara Burel 6-3, 6-4 to mark her 18th consecutive singles victory.
• Novak Djokovic was gracious in defeat. He always is. But even before his loss to Hyeon Chung, it was abundantly clear that his right elbow was far from 100%. You play armchair doctor at your peril, but wonder whether he’ll be able to avoid surgery. A stalwart in the second week for so much of his career, Djokovic has now reached just one Grand Slam semifinal since winning the 2016 French Open.
• Sometimes Nick Kyrgios—who reached round four, showing growing maturity—doesn't just cleave public opinion; he cleaves individual opinion. You love the fact that he plays doubles, performing on the lesser courts and putting some coin in the pocket of his journeyman, countryman partner. At the same time you wonder what the hell is he doing playing doubles—spending hours on the court; subject to the whims of the schedule—when he should be focusing on winning the singles title. You love that that he challenges convention; you wonder what the hell he is doing without a proper coach.
But this point needs stressing: this not a phenom cursed with this peel-me-another-grape sense of entitlement. It’s quite the contrary. There’s this endearing populism to the guy. He’s more comfortable hanging out with kids and mingling with fans and playing on back courts than he is dealing with the establishment. (As we noted at the time, on the afternoon of the biggest match of his career, he spent some of his warm-up time playing with a gravely sick child.) Kyrgios clearly rejects the social conventions of tennis. But he does so by gravitating to the people, not away from them.
• Thanks to this Vogue article, we learned a bit more about Serena’s difficult childbirth, her powers of self-diagnosis and the reason her recovery forced her to withdraw herself from this event. My mind went also to Venus Williams. You’ll recall that Serena’s childbirth coincided with the 2017 U.S. Open. Imagine Venus knowing about her sister’s difficult pregnancy and still reaching the semifinals. The sisters head to Asheville for Fed Cup, which suggests both have an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It would be their sixth. New York fans can see them both at Madison Square Garden in early March. Then, presumably, it’s on to Indian Wells.
• Before Djokovic struck his first ball, he made news when, at the pre-tournament players’ meeting, he brought up the subject of prize money. The timing was odd. (Why would Djokovic bring about this distraction on the eve of his first event in six months?) Djokovic’s retreat was odd. (When given the chance to give his Samuel Gompers speech, he retreated and claimed his words were taken out of context.) But good for Djokovic for floating this idea. As players become more important and the Grand Slam revenues become the main source of income, the ATP structure—a partnership between players and events—becomes increasingly problematic. Courts and jurisdictions are split on whether independent contractors can, in fact, unionize. But good for Djokovic for questioning the status quo. Interesting to see where—if anywhere—this goes from here.
• Speaking of, here’s another example in favor of a union. In a tune-up event in Auckland, the organizers took exception to the effort and professionalism of Jack Sock, who was getting an appearance fee to show up. The tournament could be right. Sock could be right. But this is a classic labor-management dispute. They should not be on the same side of the table.
• You never write anyone off in this sport, not when you only need to win seven matches to flip all scripts. Two weeks of top-shelf tennis and you completely rewrite the code. That said, Maria Sharapova still seems, well, rusty. Sharapova is still capable of exceptionally strong sets; but she mustered just four games against Kerber in the third round.
• It was maddening watching Sascha Zverev, the fourth seed, look so mirthless and flustered as he capitulated 6-0 in the fifth set of his third round match. For those scoring at home, Zverev has never beaten a top 50 player in a best-of-five match. He disappointed at yet another Slam and is now sub-.500 since beating Roger Federer in Montreal last August. Then you listened to Zverev’s postmortem and you remember that he’s only 20 and suffers no delusions of grandeur:
Q. The fifth set is more physical or a mental problem, you think?
ALEXANDER ZVEREV: “Definitely not physical, so... I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slam. It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here. I'm still young, so I got time (smiling). I definitely have some figuring out to do for myself.”
• Zverev was the No. 4 seed in the men’s draw. The No. 4 seed in the women’s draw was Elina Svitolina, who also has won many titles (10) and has a high ranking, but has never been to a Slam semi. Svitolina was, improbably, the pre-tournament betting favorite to win the women’s title. She won four matches—three of them against qualifiers—before wilting against Elise Mertens in the quarters.
• Busy tournament for Ivan Ljubicic. He coaches Roger Federer and manages Marta Kostyuk, the 15-year-old Ukrainian who qualified and reached round three.
• Much was made Simona Halep’s absence of a clothing contract, having parted ways with Adidas last year. No one wins here. It looks bad for all parties when the No. 1 player in the world is buying clothes off the internet. And apart from the guarantee, Halep is losing out on bonuses. A player like Wozniacki will make millions (from Adidas, ironically), both by winning Slams and finishing the year with high rankings.
• Never mind Garbine Muguruza and Zverev losing. The great upset of the tournament was the massive fail on the app and website. How does a tournament so detail-oriented, so buttoned-up, so responsive to fans globally, allow this to happen? It wasn’t just the lack of functionality and the 503 errors and the crashing. Compare the content of Roger Federer’s bio here to Roger Federer’s bio at the U.S. Open. You know it’s bad when, in 2018, fans were getting live scores by Googling: “Australian Open results.” As the prophets say: a global sporting event with trash technology is like a racket without strings.
• On a bright technology note, I really enjoyed spending time with Machar Reid, who heads innovation for Tennis Australia. He and his team are doing next-level data work on everything from time stats to “game age.” (Who knew that, as a function of workrate , Djokovic and Murray have played as much hardcourt tennis as Federer , who, of course, is more than a half-decade older?) Highly recommend following @TennisAusGIG .
• A few years ago, flailing quarterback Robert Griffin III decided to ask an accomplished veteran, Tom Brady, for some professional advice. Brady, as is his right, declined. Compare this to Roger Federer. A fter watching Sascha Zverev wilt in yet another major—this time getting bageled in the fifth set against Chung— Federer approached the young player and, unsolicited, offered some real and concrete wisdom.
“‘I just think it's important to sometimes take a step back and actually see the good things you've done, give yourself time, maybe set the bar a bit lower. First let's maybe try to look for a quarters or a semifinals, not just right away think coming to the Australian Open, U.S. Open, I have to win this thing….I know people talk, but for the player, it's not easy if you've never been there. I remember I had a hurdle to pass the quarters. I only did that back in 2003 for the first time. I was 22. Either I played quarters or I lost first round’….That's what I told Sascha. I said, ‘Be patient about it. Don't put yourself under unnecessary pressure. Learn from these mistakes. Whatever happened, happened.’”
a) This is terrific advice, in a vacuum
b) It’s even more meaningful coming from one of the few people on the planet who knows about wearing the necklace of expectation
c) What character it betrays that Federer would impart this advice on a colleague who—unlike Brady/Griffin—competes against him directly.
• Athletes tend to resist “moral victories.” But Lauren Davis ought to leave here with some swollen confidence to match her swollen feet. She hangs with Simona Halep in the best match of the tournament. While she ended up losing three match points and capitulating 15-13 in the third set, Davis—at 5’2”— a) hits more winners than the world No. 1 player b) knows her fitness can withstand a four-hour match on hard courts and c) didn’t get tight, so much as she made the opponent reveal her courage.
• It’s easy to be happy for the WTA. An organization adrift, at least financially, for quite some time was thrown a life preserver. Gemdale and Shenzhen outbid Singapore and now will host the year-end championships from 2019 until 2028. While the “$1 billion” figure is misleading—it includes the construction fee for a stadium—the payout for the players and the tour is considerable. If the WTA can use some of this lucre to invest in technology and the much-anticipated streaming services, so much the better.
• As we wish him a fast recovery, say this about Andy Murray’s hip injury: tennis’ loss is Twitter’s gain. Murray’s tweets and Facebook posts are alternately witty and confessional. I believe it was Jim Courier who made the observation that—like Nadal when he’s been out—it’s interesting that Murray speaks of missing competition, not winning per se.
• I want Neville Godwin as my stock-picker. Despite coaching Kevin Anderson to the U.S. Open final, Godwin left Anderson’s employ and now works with Hyeon Chung. Anderson lost in the first round. Chung, a rising star brimming with upside, reached the semifinals.
• A few weeks ago, we wrote about one of the fun quirks of this event: from Larry Fitzgerald to Ben Stiller, American celebrities can stroll the grounds unmarked. This happened last week to Will Ferrell. And he didn’t like it:
Jim Courier: Have you had a chance to explore Melbourne? Have people been recognizing you, or have you been going incognito?
Ferrell: You know what? No one is recognizing me, and I'm really upset by that. So I have been walking through the streets dressed as many of the characters I have played in films, and people still aren't recognizing me. So that's been a little disappointing. Yeah.
• Five players who didn't escape the first week but impressed nevertheless: Jessika Ponchet and her one-handed backhand. Alex de Minaur, though he had an empty tank after an hour. Destanee Aiava, daughter of a Samoan powerlifter and kickboxer, who led Halep up 5-2 in the first set. Mackenzie McDonald, the former NCAA champ who took Dimitrov to 8-6 in the fifth set with stylish and bold play. And another backward hat tip to Denis Shapovalov, who served for the match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before retreating.
• Tennys Sandgren reached the quarterfinals, a career result and—potentially, anyway—one of those heartwarming stories. Before we go further, let’s acknowledge a very likable and complete game. His run, of course, was clouded when his social media activity was explored and exposed. In keeping with this cultural moment we’re having, there was very little middle ground here. To me, this redounded to a fairly simple principle. Sandgren can tweet and retweet and like—and delete—what he wants to, unambiguously abhorrent as some of them are. Everyone from Serena Williams to the countless appalled fans I’ve heard from, are free to express their disapproval. I’ve said my piece here. The good news for Sandgren: thanks to his run here, he will have automatic entry to most events for the rest of the year. This also means that, apart from the tennis, he will have ample opportunity to clarify his positions, should he see fit. Take it as an encouraging sign that he’s already begun apologizing:
• Maybe we can find some common ground here. Anyone else feel like we got a glimpse of the future? A whole generation will be applying for jobs and running for public office (and enjoying unexpected success in sporting event) while leaving this social media footprint, this trail of potential embarrassment and regret. If nothing else, Tennys-gate was a vivid example of the bromide: “Dance like no one is watching; tweet like it be read aloud in court one day.”
• Every time I watch a challenged football call, I think fondly on tennis’ review policy. And a reader, Scott K., summarizes it nicely: “After hearing someone on a Australian Open web broadcast talk about calling for a replay review on whether a player touched a net too soon, and another on whether a player didn't serve and keep up pace of play, it's worth noting that tennis appears to be the sport that has best executed replay for disputes. High level, simple line calls, don't get bogged down by the other minutiae that detracts from the fan and player experience. It ain't perfect, but the quest for perfection often hinders replay's ability to be additive to the game in every other sport that uses it. It's safe to say it's been relatively unobtrusive and incrementally positive since tennis adopted it, despite some obvious flaws.”
• Reality show idea for Tennis Channel: Coach Poach. We've talked plenty about how coaches pinball from player to player. But what about an outright switch? Last year Karolina Pliskova was working with David Kotyza and Barbora Strycova employed Tomas Krupa. In 2018, it's the reverse. This did not go over well. Because no sport does irony the way tennis does irony, the two played in the fourth round. Of course they did. Pliskova won in three sets.
• What do Qiang Wang, Christina McHale, Anastasija Sevastova, Barbora Strycova, Camila Giorgi, Aryna Sabalenka, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Shuai Zhang have in common? Each has beaten Sloane Stephens since she won the U.S. Open. One of our favorite truisms: “Careers are not linear.” But plot Stephens’ results on a graph and it looks like a large intestine.
• I got trolled for this to this last week, but I stand by this point: men’s and women’s tennis complement each other more than we often realize. Last Wednesday night, the Laver Arena crowd was enthralled watching Federer and his handiwork, never mind that the outcome of his match with Tomas Berdych wasn’t in doubt by the second set. On Thursday evening, the same crowd was enthralled for a totally different emotional experience, watching Kerber and Halep battle 9-7 in the third. A star vehicle movie one night; an action-packed cliffhanger the next. I’ll brave the accusation of “complementarian” to point out that the fans avid about both tours get the full experience.
• This tournament’s Every-Match-Tells-a-Story-Don’t-It? In the first round of doubles, Bob and Mike Bryan were down a set and 0-40, triple break point to Marton Fucsovics and Yoshihito Nishioka, not exactly two of the world’s most formidable doubles players. Nishioka gets a sitter forehand. He connects and, for all intents, the match is over and the best doubles team of all-time gets bounced in round one. Somehow he misses. The Bryans, win the game the match and last ten more days.
• I made my feelings known about Margaret Court and Margaret Court Arena. When you have a set of rights and seek to deny others that same set of rights, you are, by definition a bigot. Again, you are free to espouse your beliefs; you are not free from the consequences, including a reconsideration of whether buildings merit being named in your honor. I asked Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley what would happened if a player expressed discomfort playing on the Court. “When she first made those comments, the first group I went to was the players. I wanted them to know that was not our position….if a player came to us an said they didn’t want to play on those courts, we’ll work with them. How can we make you be comfortable?”
• Kristina Mladenovic performs well at her home Slam, knocking off the defending champ Garbine Muguruza and reaching the quarters. She’s scarcely been able to win a match since. Jo Konta performs well at her home Slam, knocking off Simona Halep and reaching the Wimbledon semis. She has lost far more matches than she has won since. Sloane Stephens WINS her home Slam, the 2017 U.S. Open. She is 0-8 since then. Beware, Ash Barty .
• Unsolicited tip for tennis federation executives: when players from your country are playing and you’re not attending their matches but, rather, sitting in the stands, leisurely watching other players….fans notice it on TV and word gets around.
• We say it again: Diego Schwartzman—all 5’6”, 141 pounds of him—is both the player so many of us wish we were and the one we hate to play against. When he played Nadal it was almost an act of cultural appropriation, an indefatigable opponent who gave no quarter. It speaks so well of Schwartzman that he is a top 25 player; it speaks so well of tennis that the sport’s highest level can accommodate such a diversity of body types.
• Want an animation of tennis’ brutal, Darwinian nature? Check out the qualifying draw. There were four former top ten players—Patty Schnyder, Vera Zvonareva, Sara Errani, and Roberta Vinci, who will retire at the Italian Open—in the draw. And none advanced. On the men’s side, each of the top 10 seeds lost, including No. 1 Taylor Fritz.
• Another qualifying draw loser: Bernard Tomic. This is veering into tragedy, almost a cliché for the downfall of an athlete. After losing, Tomic said testily: “I just count money, that’s all I do. I count my millions… End of the day, don’t like me or whatever. Just go back dreaming about your dream car or house while I go buy them.” (This act of self-sabotage was an “own goal” as the Aussie media called it. Love that expression.) He is now, reportedly, taking a break from tennis to appear on I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here, “the Network Ten reality show set in the African jungle.” As we have written before, Tomic is tennis’ answer to Nickelback, a figure you are almost decreed to mock and dislike. But at some point, is that community not obligated to intervene and throw itself in front of this train wreck?
• A rough tournament for CoCo Vandeweghe. Suffering from a flu, she fell in the first round. And adding insult to illness, she was docked $10,000—a tournament high (at the time) and 20% of her winnings—for an audible obscenity. Vandeweghe’s last six major results? 1R/SF/1R/QF/SF/1R.
• The biggest fine: Mischa Zverev who, pending appeal, was docked most of his first round prize money of $45,000 AU for a “G” offense, essentially failing to perform at a “professional standard” during the first round. We applaud this rule—and the effort to address the farce of players, with no expectation of winning, showing up simply for the losers’ check. But what a strange application. Mischa Zverev, a consummate professional, is defending fourth round points from 2017. He shows up sick and injured, and, we’re told, takes various antibiotics and anti-inflammatories in hopes of playing. He lasts just 48 minutes against Hyeon Chung (who likely would have beat him anyway.) And he gets slapped with—get this—the largest fine in the history of men’s tennis? More than Fabio Fognini, a serial offender who still offends. More than Tomic after he copped to tanking at Wimbledon? More than players who have struck officials with balls?
• It was almost 30 months ago that Genie Bouchard slipped and fell during the U.S. Open. Since then, we’ve had all sorts of twists—erased surveillance video, bizarre witness lists, preposterous damage claims—but no resolution. Mercifully, while the case remains on the docket as I write this, there is, we’re told, a likely settlement. Bouchard, meanwhile, continues to struggle. One wonders what effect this litigation has on Bouchard’s play. One wonders what effect Bouchard’s play has had on the litigation.
• Lots of you asked about the move to 16 seeds from the current 32. I could argue either way, but some points in favor of keeping 32: 1) Not sure anyone is waking up thinking, “You know what tennis needs? More unpredictability! These draws are too full of chalk!” Plenty of upsets as is. 2) The 32 seeds may blunt some drama in early rounds. But protecting the seeds pays off in later rounds. 3) For the top 32 players, they are guaranteed not to play a higher-ranked opponent until round 3. By that point they have earned more than $100,000. So think of this as something akin to a bonus plan.
• The Tennis Channel cut-and-paste….Thanks for all your feedback, good and bad. If you like the pregame with Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier, Brett Haber and myself, what it really means is that you like the handiwork of the behind-the-scenes folks: Mark Houska, Ross Schneiderman, Bob Mansbach, Brad Douglas, Brad Shaffer, Jordan Lieske and Mark Wiedemann. And Jamie Lisanti and Stanley Kay deserve raises, days off and name checks for their work on SI.com.
• Martina Navratilova (and Chris Evert for that matter) gives lie to the adage: never meet your childhood idols.
• Full disclosure: I didn’t see any of it. But it’s safe to assume that ESPN’s coverage was up to its usual standards. Nice to hear that Chris McKendry is getting a shot at play-by-play. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, not surprisingly, drew raves review from many of you.
• Daria Gavrilova lost, disappointingly, in round two. But we are suckers for candor. Here she is before the event.
Q:Any particular goals for the tournament?
A: Win the whole thing. Come on, no one says it, but everyone wants to win the whole thing.
Always fun geeking out on tennis with you guys. Enjoyed your texts, tweets and email. Back to the day job, but we'll do it again soon....