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Australian Open Mailbag: Serena's Loss; Just How Good is Frances Tiafoe?

Jon Wertheim checks in from Melbourne to answer your questions on Serena Williams, Frances Tiafoe, Roger Federer and more.

It’s Wednesday, which means mailbag day...lots of questions, but we just have time for a speed round.

But first, quick thoughts on Karolina Pliskova coming back from a 1-5 deficit in the third set to beat Serena, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.

• Even given the history and high bar for theatrical matches, this was a stunning result. Serena holds match point at 5-1, get called for a footfault, rolls her ankle on the next point…and wins only eight points the rest of the match.

• It’s hard to blame the official. This was not a subjective call, like Carlos Ramos’ at the U.S. Open. You footfault or you don’t. Obviously no one foresaw Serena injuring herself seconds later.

• Credit Pliskova for her persistence. Serena was clearly compromised, but that hardly guarantees defeat. She is undefeated on the year but no win was as close to as big as this one.

• Having just seen Serena leave the court and then seen her team huddle dispiritedly, this was clearly a devastating defeat. She had played so well in the first week and had a real chance—as a mother, at age 37, two years removed from her No. 23—to win her record-tying 24th Major.

• Some solace for Serena and her fans: as a mother, she is now 19-3 in Grand Slam singles matches. The pursuit of history will continue.


How good is Frances Tiafoe? I can’t quite tell watching him. Sometime he looks amazing. Other times, like last night against Nadal, he looks like he has a long way to go
Darren G.

• Good question, and I’m not sure I have much of an answer. Frances played a set against Grigor Dimitrov that was as high in quality as any you’ll see. He played three sets against Nadal that suggested two players at two distinctly different levels. Overall, there’s so much to like here. Frances is improving steadily. Hitches and all, his forehand is a weapon. He fitness is getting better and better. After winning Delray last year, he now starts February without the pressure of defending all those points. And yet he leaves with some motivation, knowing he didn’t make even a slight dent against Nadal. All in all, a great tournament. He ought to leave encouraged but not complacent.

Doesn't Naomi Osaka seem like a lovely and likable person?  Her sly and silly sense of humor is very charming.  Her humility is admirable.  Her candor is especially notable given her shyness.  And, oh yeah, her tennis is terrific.  I'm a fan.
Chris Brown

I’m not in the business of telling people whom to root for. But trust your instincts. (Your instincts on Osaka are dead-on.)

Broader point: this is unquantifiable of course, but go down the rankings and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a player unworthy of your fandom. Really, this is a high-water mark for “them’s good people” players. Hand-to-jahweh, there’s no jerk among the stars, even outside the Titans. Halep, Tsitsipas, Frances, Cilic, Dimitrov, Osaka, Keys…literally pick a name and you can scarcely go wrong. Irony: tennis politics are now at all-time high. The corridors here are filled with off-line meetings and political angling and uncertainty, a lot of backstabbing and, frankly some frontstabbing. Meanwhile the players themselves could not, collectively, be cooler. 

I may have missed it, but I haven't seen the Tennis Channel list who is not at the Aussie Open. It seems like after all the injuries to star players, this must be the most well attended Aussie Open that I can recall.  I only see two missing from the top 10s— Juan Martin del Potro and Andrea Hlavackova in women's doubles. Off the top of my head, I know CoCo Vandeweghe and CiCi Bellis aren't there, too. It would be good to come up with a list of at least notables and reasons they aren't at the tournament.

Thanks again for your splendid coverage.
Russ, Los Angeles

Off the top of my head: Delpo, Gasquet, Donaldson, Pospisil, Coco, Lucie Safarova, Bellis. Overall, a healthy field. Long may it continue.

JUNG: Reliving the 2009 Australian Open Semifinal Between Fernando Verdasco and Rafael Nadal

I must agree with you, Mr. W, that Federer playing clay season means that he wants to accumulate more points to go back up the ranking (provided he wins some trophies and does not lose early in Wimbledon and US Open.) 
Ng, Canada

• It’s going to be an interesting spring for Federer. The rankings are not a priority right now. But Federer wants to be ranked high enough so he has the benefit of seeding. What I was told by a source I trust: Federer genuinely does not know how much longer he will be playing. But every tournament is now a chance to confront his mortality.

We can all speculate. Wimbledon 2020! Tokyo Olympics! Laver Cup 2020! But it’s really results-driven. If he falls in Indian Wells and Miami to players far beneath him, playing at a substandard level, he might not finish out the year. Bottom line: enjoy the guy while it lasts. Respect the difficulty of the decision. And don’t be surprised one way or the other.

Regarding that call by the referee to give Kei Nishikori the point, rather than replay the point, after a challenge by Pablo Carreno Busta overturned the out call: shouldn't Nishikori have said, "Let's replay the point?” Is he permitted by the rules to do that? 

I don't think Nishikori's inaction rises to the level of Kerber and Cibulkova, who accepted points they clearly didn't deserve at majors, but I saw it an example of less than optimal sportsmanship. 
Muhammad Cohen, Hong Kong

• A few of you mentioned this.

A. I don’t blame the chair umpire at all. Nishikori is the one who would have been hindered and he makes that shot 99 times out 100. (Including this one.)

B. Nishikori could have replayed the point. But don’t blame him either. It’s not his fault that ball was called erroneously.

C. I can’t remember a player being more remorseful in defeat than PCB. Cut him some slack, too.