- With week one of the Australian Open in the books, our SI expert roundtable gives their thoughts on the young Americans, the biggest disapppointments and who they now think will win the title.
With week one of the Australian Open in the books, our SI expert roundtable gives their thoughts on the young Americans, the biggest disapppointments and who they now think will win the title.
There have been some terrific performances from young Americans, namely Frances Tiafoe and Amanda Anisimova. Does this tournament represent a turning point for the future of American tennis, or is it simply one good tournament?
Jon Wertheim: Both are ascending stars. Both have been terrific, showing off not only precocious talent but poise beyond their years. I'm not sure it's a triumph for American tennis so much as it's a triumph for tennis in general. Pause, though, and note how differently they arrived at this point. Tiafoe's backstory is well known (his father was a handyman at a Maryland tennis club, exposing Frances to the sport, and he benefitted from USTA support); Anisimova, the daughter of Russian immigrants, was born in Jersey, moved to Florida and has been in the bosom of IMG for years. It speaks well of the sport that there is no singular path to success, even for two players from the same country.
Stanley Kay: Without a doubt, the American contingent has had a strong tournament. But is it a turning point? I’d argue it isn’t: The future already looked bright for U.S. women even before five Americans reached the round of 16. I would agree Melbourne could mark a turning point for Tiafoe specifically—I think we’ll start to see him consistently reach the second week of majors in the near future, especially on hard courts. But while there were other bright spots, like Taylor Fritz beating Gael Monfils, I don’t think the general state of American men’s tennis changed significantly this week. Tiafoe is the exception.
Jamie Lisanti: This deserves a two-part answer. For Frances Tiafoe, this type of success at majors has been long-awaited and highly anticipated. The tools have always been there, but a few unlucky draws (Federer in round one at the 2017 U.S. Open, for example) and early exits (his two previous best finishes at a major before this were third-round at Wimbledon ’18 and second round at the ’18 U.S. Open) have left him out of majors early, and therefore out of the conversation for big chunks of the season. He still hasn't beat his best performance at a major, but it does seem like things are finally clicking in best-of-five for the 20-year-old. I mean, have you seen his rendition of LeBron James’s “Silencer” celebration? This kid is feeling it and I am here for it.
When it comes to Amanda Anisimova, Sofia Kenin and other young Americans who have impressed this week, I think their promising results are more indicative of the future of American tennis. Tiafoe was once in their shoes. He’s played through the “next-big-thing” headlines and the highs and lows of the tour, working his way up to the position he’s in now. These young women have proven they belong in the conversation. Now, it’s the time spent and the matches played while in this stage that will shape the trajectory of their careers. For these players, the “turning point” won’t happen with one tournament or one match. Just ask Tiafoe—it takes a long time to build LeBron-level confidence.
Daniel Rapaport: Speaking of Tiafoe, he needs one more win to really cement this as his breakout tournament. The good news for him is he has a very winnable match coming up against Grigor Dimitrov. Tiafoe's progress has been steady, and few doubted he'd eventually become a second-week fixture at Slams. So, in a sense, this was just a matter of time. But reaching the quarters is a whole other step. For the women, I'll say absolutely. Five in the round of 16, including Anisimova, who won't turn 20 until the 2021 U.S. Open? It doesn't get much more impressive.
Tristan Jung: For Anisimova and American women’s tennis, it’s not a turning point, just a continuation of the trend. Anisimova is probably the start of a new generation, but the previous group of young Americans have achieved major success already. I would just add a couple more names to the new wave: Danielle Collins and Sofia Kenin, who both have played very well in January. Collins won her first Grand Slam match and now faces Kerber in the round of 16.
For the men, Tiafoe’s run is important for him personally. As for American men’s tennis, the answer seems to be volume of late, and it’s inevitable that someone breaks out to become a consistent top-10 player. Tiafoe proving himself to be the best of the group is a good start, but until he retains his success in 2019 or the rest of the class catches up, it’s not a turning point.
Who was the most disappointing player during the first week?
JW: I think it's worth noting that the first answer is "not a lot." As we write this, the contenders remain. Playing their first tournament since the 2018 U.S. Open, Serena and Nadal have been great. For the first time in almost a decade at a major, all eight of the top eight women reached round three. Kevin Anderson's the highest mens seed gone, but he was physically compromised. Defending champ Caroline Wozniacki lost —but it was at the steady hands of Maria Sharapova. I guess I'll say Aryna Sabalenka, who came in with much momentum (some unwise prognosticators even picked to her to win) and was defeated soundly by Anisimova. But Sabalenka has never played deep in a major and was barely in the top 75 at this point last year. That tells you a lot about far she's come, but also how relatively upset-free free this draw has been.
SK: Jack Sock received a favorable draw against a fellow wild card and wasn’t able to capitalize, losing in four sets to world No. 159 Alex Bolt. Sock continues to impress as a doubles player—he and Jackson Withrow are in the round of 16—but his yearlong singles funk continues. For the sake of American tennis and his own career trajectory, hopefully he’ll be able to find some form.
JL: Donna Vekic and Dominic Thiem share honors in this category. After a semifinal finish in Brisbane in the lead-up and a first-round win over Kiki Mladenovic, Vekic fell short to surging Australian Kimberly Birrell. The young Aussie has had a superb start to the 2019 season, but Vekic was the more experienced player and I thought she’d be able to smartly and strategically fend her off. I still believe 2019 will be a breakout year for Vekic, but this certainly wasn’t the start she was hoping for.
Are we surprised that after a first-round five-setter, Thiem called it quits in his match against wildcard Alexei Popyrin due to soreness and fatigue? Of course not. Thiem has been increasingly susceptible to injury and fatigue, but what’s surprising for me is the timing of this one. Aren’t we all supposed to be refreshed, recovered and ready to rock for the Australian Open? I understand the Melbourne weather can be brutal, but at age 25, Thiem is too young to be facing these issues so frequently. Let’s hope he takes this extra time at the beginning of the season to address them.
DR: At this point it feels like beating a dead horse, but it has to be Sock. A four-set loss to a player ranked outside the top 150. His drop is almost hard-to-believe—he finished 2017 as the world's No. 8 player; he just signed up to play a challenger next week. You have to wonder how much longer he'll continue the singles grind, particularly given his sustained doubles success.
TJ: Well, I picked Kevin Anderson to win to solely be contrarian, and he flamed out spectacularly. Not sure anyone else rated him, though. Khachanov, Sabalenka and Wozniacki also lost early, but as a Korean-American I’m most disappointed in last year’s semifinalist Hyeon Chung, who lost in four sets to Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Chung still does not look anywhere close to his form from 2018, and I’m starting to think that was a flash in the pan.
Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza finished started their second-round match after midnight and finished past 3 a.m. Should such a late start be allowed?
JW: No. It's a cute media story. "Tennis Never sleeps!" "Graveyard shift!" "She took a nap at the changeover!" "They ate breakfast after shaking hands!" But it's not cool. It taxes fans and employees. And worse, it has a material impact on the competition. Timea Bacsinszky, Muguruza's next opponent finished her match 13 hours earlier. How is that fair? Simple fix here: no match can start after X o'clock.
SK: As nice as it was for East Coast viewers to watch Konta–Muguruza before work, player safety should be paramount. So I’ll defer to Jo Konta, who told BBC Radio 5 Live that she worried about the danger of playing at such an hour. “I don’t agree with athletes having to physically exert themselves into the wee hours of the morning,” she said. “I don’t think it’s healthy. I think it’s quite dangerous.” Organizers should keep Konta’s view in mind when they schedule matches going forward.
JL: These things inevitably happen at majors, especially when men’s matches are scheduled on main courts ahead of women’s matches. On the surface, it is not an ideal situation for either player and the winner of the match will always be at a disadvantage in the next round, with post-match obligations, recovery exercises and meals extending into the early morning hours and throwing off sleep schedules. But there are a lot of factors for the tournament to consider when scheduling, and I think the right decision was made. If Konta and Muguruza woke up and planned their day around playing a match that night, scheduling meals and arriving to warmup at a specific time, only to be sent home just as they were about to step on court, we’d have a larger issue. Perhaps the biggest lesson is simply the structuring of the schedule: don’t put a women’s match after a men’s match on a main court if you don’t have the means to move the women’s match to another court.
DR: I'm with Jamie on this one. I fail to feel the outrage, especially because the players have a day off in between. They probably didn't get to bed until 5 am, sure, but they can sleep until the afternoon the next day. Weathering suboptimal conditions is part of the grind of a Grand Slam. Also, organizers didn't do this on a whim—as Jamie mentioned, there were specific circumstances that led to such a late start time. There was no better solution.
TJ: While the match was one of the best in the tournament so far, I’m not sure there’s anything to be done for the late start argument. Konta’s frustration is understandable: the latest match in U.S. Open history ended a full 46 minutes before Konta's and Muguruza's did. However, there is little tournament organizers can do, as the night matches are both fun and staples of the program. If the players instead play the next day, they presumably get less rest, and they just aren’t going to move a big stadium match to Court 6 so they can get it done quickly.
Give us one dark horse on both the men’s and women’s side that is capable of reaching the semifinal.
JW: Anisimova and Tiafoe.
SK: As of writing, only two unseeded players remain on the men’s side: Frances Tiafoe and Tomas Berdych. I would not tab either player as a likely semifinalist, mostly because they’re in the same quarter as Rafael Nadal. But of the two, I think Tiafoe is slightly more likely, mostly because Berdych faces Nadal in the fourth round rather than the quarterfinal. Tiafoe, who faces Grigor Dimitrov in his fourth round match, will hope for a Berdych upset or at the very least a five-set match that empties Nadal’s tank.
On the women’s side, Amanda Anisimova is the obvious pick. She beat everyone’s favorite sleeper, Aryna Sabalenka, to reach the fourth round. Petra Kvitova will challenge her in the fourth round, but bet against this teenager at your own peril.
JL: There’s a clear choice on the men’s side: Frances Tiafoe. For the women, let’s go with Danielle Collins.
DR: I think Berdych's pace off the ground could give Nadal some trouble, so I'll go with him. On the women's side, I'm fully aboard the Anisimova bandwagon.
TJ: Amanda Anisimova is the pick on the women’s side. I would like to applaud big-hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for turning around a terrible 2018 and making the round of 16. She’s a very dangerous player, but I don’t see her getting past two excellent defenders in Stephens and Kerber.
On the men’s side I would’ve said Australian hero Alexei Popyrin, but he lost an epic five-set match against Lucas Pouille. The only two unseeded players left are Tiafoe and Tomas Berdych. The only way I see an unseeded player making it is if both win their matches and get to play in the quarterfinals.
Re-do time! If you had another crack at picking winners of both the men’s and women’s singles tournament, who would you take?
JW: Four sets ain't much of a sample size, but Serena has been terrific. Like Federer, she sure ain't showing her age. And I'll stick with Djokovic, though if you gave me the field (the remaining players) I'd be inclined to move my money over there. Federer and Nadal haven't been tested. Zverev, Tiafoe, and Borna Coric and clawing their way out of the egg. Lots of intrigue remains.
SK: Tristan might need a re-do, but I’m perfectly content to stick with my original picks, Novak Djokovic and Angie Kerber.
JL: I’ll pass. I’m sticking with my picks: Novak Djokovic and Elina Svitolina.
DR: I'll stick with Djokovic d. Federer, but I have a hard time picking against Serena Williams right now. So I'll jump from Ashleigh Barty to her.
TJ: My Serena pick still looks great! My Anderson pick absolutely does not! I think I'm still going to go against the grain and take Rafael Nadal here. Djokovic has the benefit of not having to play two of his main rivals until the final, but he could have issues with Zverev or Raonic, both of whom are playing well. Regardless, a semifinal of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and one Next Gen interloper is very likely, and the Big Three all have about an equal shot to win given recent form.