Wrapping up two weeks in Melbourne after Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic made history at the 2019 Australian Open.

By Jon Wertheim
January 30, 2019

A little Q/A on a lot of flight….

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Was the women's event at this year's Australian Open the best the tournament has ever had? It seems very possible. Besides crowning a new top-ranked player, there were countless three-set matches, and the clashes between big stars seemed to start early and not let up. All told, it felt like the most competitive Aussie Open I can remember.
Jason Rainey, Austin, Texas

• Agree. One the women’s side, 11 players entered with the chance to leave with the No. 1 ranking. Through three rounds, the draw was sane. Then there were strange results—none more so than Danielle Collins beating Angie Kerber 6-0, 6-2. But Serena beat Halep in three tight sets. Pliskova beat Serena in three tight sets. Osaka beat Pliskova in the three tight sets. In the end the two finalists were among the original 11. Bonus points: they each had media-ready, tennis-transcending backstories. And the woman who won the last Slam of 2018 won the first of 2019. In three sets.

Compare that to the men’s side. The last three rounds of men’s matches: 

Djokovic d. Nishikori 6-1,4-1 ret.
Pouille d. Raonic 7-6, 6-3, 6-6, 6-4
Tsitsipas d. Baustista Agut: 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6
Nadal d. Tiafoe: 6-3, 6-4, 6-2
Djokovic d. Pouille: 6-0, 6-2, 6-2
Nadal d. Tstistipas: 6-2, 6-4, 6-0
Djokovic d. Nadal: 6-2, 6-3, 6-2

The moral of the story? Sometimes the men carry the day at these events. Sometimes the women carry the day. Instead of comparing and scoring this, embrace the fact the tennis presents such a rich value proposition and such hedging.             

Resolution for 2019: collectively, tennis devotes less time to arguing over how the pie should be allocated; and more time to how to grow it.

Everyone talks his returns, but Novak Djokovic’s serve may be the most underrated shot in tennis. 

• No argument here. His serving stats say it all. Against Nadal—not exactly a slouch of a returner—Djokovic was not broken, won 80% of his first serve points and a ridiculously (and demoralizing) 84% of his SECOND serve points.

What is your opinion on BMS sharing what went down in the locker room after Serena lost? Cool or uncool to talk about on air?

• Backstory: after Serena’s loss, Bethanie Mattek-Sands accounted and recounted to ESPN that Serena was in the locker room, deeply upset as she was consoled by Venus. Players had turned off the volume on the TV so Serena was spared commentators talking about her losing the last six games of the match, BMS recalled. Great details that inform the viewer, no doubt. This is why she’s becoming a favorite at ESPN.

Should she have revealed these details? This is sufficiently close to the line that we need to invoke a sort of ethical Hawk-Eye.

Usually I’d say there’s a certain sanctity to the locker room. Especially with all those cameras around the complex, the locker room represents a safe space that carries—impliedly if not expressly—an expectation of privacy. I recall that a few years ago in Paris, players were displeased when competitors in the “Legends” event saw Serena in discomfort in the locker room before latter round French Open matches; and promptly revealed this on television.

But context is important, too. BMS is longtime friends with Serena and a fellow American in her mid-30s. She knows the code as well as anyone. She was, I’m sure, cautious not to overstep or breach any confidentiality. 

There is a lot of Monica Seles in Osaka’s game.
James, Portland

• We engaged in a similar thought exercise in the TV compound. Osaka’s game reminds you of [blank.] No obvious winner. The gratuitous allusions to Serena’s power. Seles is a good one, though I wish you had given your reasoning. One interesting name: Sampras. A player who burst on the scene and then, it became clear, was there to stay. An introverted personality that betrayed no interest in fame.             

What did you think of the Sloanester's Australian run this time out?
Dr. Botanis

• So-so. Sloane Stephens looked great for the first week. She then got a crappy start time— ‘round midnight—for her fourth round match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. She wins the first set. By then we’re way into the a.m. and the stands are thinly peopled. Stephens has a bit of lapse. With no energy in the stands, it was as though everyone went flat. She ends up losing in three sets. (All credit to Pavlyuchenkova for one of the better wins of her career.) 

Two points about Sloane 1) She needs to figure out her coaching situation. She indicated to me that she was taking a break from Kamau Murray but wasn’t splitting with him. b) I can’t break confidences and tell the full story, yet. But I also don’t want this to go unremarked upon. So I’ll just say that: she recently did something extraordinarily cool and selfless recently that would make her fans—and tennis in general—proud. 

Sometimes I think, by continuing this fad we may need to rename everything out there. Lots of famous people of the past were anti-Semitic, racist and so on. In a sense, their "dated" views are used to undermine their accomplishments, which they have obviously worked hard for.

• A lot of you had asked about Margaret Court Arena and the debate about whether her name should be on a venue despite her virulent homophobia? There was some back and forth on Twitter but I heard very little chatter among players. Anna Wintour weighed in and waded in. But truthfully, this was all but a non-issue on site.

My take is same as ever. Margaret Court is entitled to free speech and her opinions, however hurtful and offensive they may be. She is not entitled to be insulated from the consequences.

Hi Jon, Here's a note for the men's final that I thought was worth sharing (although I was surprised it had happened as much as it has). Rafael Nadal is the sixth men's player in the Open Era to not drop a set up until the finals and then lose the finals in straight sets. Here are the other times it happened...

1969 Australian Open: Andres Gimeno lost to Rod Laver 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 (field was only 48 and Gimeno had a first round bye)
1976 Wimbledon: Ilie Nastase lost to Bjorn Borg 6-4, 6-2, 9-7 (Borg also did not drop a set the entire tournament)
1991 U.S. Open: Jim Courier lost to Sfefan Edberg 6-2, 6-4, 6-0
2004 U.S. Open: Lleyton Hewitt lost to Roger Federer 6-0, 7-6(3), 6-0
2013 French Open: David Ferrer lost to Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3

This has happened far more on the WTA side given that it's best 2 of 3 (29 times, including twice to Serena Williams)

Blake Redabaugh

• No, thank you. Great tidbit.

How about the whole drama around Lleyton and the Aussies?

• I wrote about this the first week. Then it seemed unnecessary to let it sully the business end of the Slam. Again, Bernard Tomic is not exactly a choice witness and—especially following a loss—his words don’t exactly ring with moral authority. But his various complaints about Hewitt have been quietly articulated by plenty of others. Ben Rothenberg did a nice job here.

The f--- is this garbage? Doesn't take much for y’all to show y’all messy nature? Y’all always have strength for these low hanging fruits but for all the real problematic issues within tennis, y’all absurdly silence. Don't be that guy, Jon. Do better. Be better.

• I include this to make a point. 

Context: At 7-6, 5-3 during the women’s final, I tweeted this: “Osaka a game from another Major title....and a proper celebration”

Seemed innocuous to me. After all, last time Osaka won a major, she cried on the podium, as boos echoed through the stadium. Go read her press conference transcript and you’d scarcely know she had won. In the weeks that followed, she addressed the strange circumstance and the muted aftermath to winning her first major. The WTA’s (excellent) in-house coverage discussed this very point. This piece even was headlined: “Naomi Osaka: 'The memory of the U.S. Open is a little bit bittersweet.'” Winning the Australian Open would provide Osaka a second opportunity to celebrate, under considerably less fraught circumstances. 

So, I was surprised by the vile and vitriolic and wildly disproportionate response I received. In short order, I was “throwing shade” and “anti-Serena” and “trash tweeting.” And far worse.            

Especially at these majors, Twitter can add so much to the experience, and create such give-and-take for fans and media. Overall, you guys are awesome. You raise provocative points. You raise provocative questions. Time and again, you send nuggets I use on the air. One of you taught us the word “fillet,” an ancient Greek headband, and encouraged us to apply it to Tstisipas. (The word that is; not the headband). A player correctly his answered his own trivia question. (Tell us where to send the prize, James Duckworth.) A tennis fan in Chile retweeted a tennis fan in Ulan Bator. Twitter is custom-made for these events and, I’d argue that, on balance, it’s a force of good.

So let this be a periodic request. Pleading for civility on social media—especially during sporting events—is like pleading for vegetarianism at a Texas Chili Cook-off. I get that. And disagreement is not merely welcome; it is essential to meaningful engagement on this platform and others. Sometimes we all need to be challenged. Sometimes we are all flatly wrong and need to be called on it. But when dissent comes with profanity and ad hominem attacks and sweeping, baseless generalizations (“It’s so obvious you hate/love: Rafa/Roger/Novak/Serena/Martina/Chrissy/ice cream/Greenwich Mean Time/the Warren Court”) and nastiness way out of proportion, it contaminates the experience and has a chilling effect for everyone. 

It’s like tennis: be forceful by all means; but let’s stay within the lines. Sermon over.

Underreported story...Sam Stosur.

• Right on. The best Australian woman of the last quarter century has always struggled at her home Slam. In her mid-30s, with her singles ranking unfashionably low, she partners with 30-year-old friend, Zhang Shuai. They beat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and take the doubles title. I’m buying that story. (And wondering why Stosur can’t play many more years in doubles, the discipline that was originally her specialty.)

Sam Stosur: future HOF-er? Here’s hoping she can win Wimbledon in dubs this year too.
Name misplaced

• More Stosur love! I think I’m buying here. Given precedent (and this is critical), given doubles excellence, given longevity and given overall good-peopleness, I’m inclined to vote: yes.

The Tennis Hall of Fame has made its bed here. There was a recent push to reassess qualifications and barriers for entry. Though it was never expressly stated, the message was: toughen up, folks. This needs to be a Hall of Fame, not a Hall of Very Good.

Then, the very next year, the two admitted players were Michael Stich and Helena Sukova. Lovely people. Great credits to the sport. But one singles Major between them and neither reached the No. 1 ranking. I know I’m not alone in shrugging perplexedly and, saying, “Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, fine. Players like Mary Pierce and Li Na are no-brainers.”

Back to Stosur, if we are applying the standards of other sports, is she a Hall of Famer? Highly doubtful. One major. Single digit titles. (Though so did Li Na.) A shaky career winning percentage. (Though Stich was under 70% as well.) But in the tennis ecosystem—and with the standards that have not only been set but have been reinforced—she’s certainly in the conversation.

Why do we keep calling it the Big Four in tennis? Andy Murray has only one three majors (same as Stan W.) and the other three are in the high teens at minimum. Yet I keep hearing this term. It's the Big three.  
Paul S.

• Yes, a theme for this week is “err on the side of over-inclusion.” The Tennis Ogre might point out that especially as the first member of the quartet to retire, his candidacy is further weakened. But look at Murray’s career—his body of work, his appearance in Grand Slam semis, his Olympic gold—and I’m okay adding him to the band.

Meanwhile here’s our new nickname for the other three.

Did I miss the tip of the hat and golf clap for Lucie Safarova, who quietly retired due to lingering illness? French Open finalist—a set away from victory—and a multi slam doubles player. Oh, and overall a seemingly nice person.  
Duane Wright

• You are correct, both in your observation and your characterization. Safarova, I’m told, 

a) didn’t want to schlep to Melbourne when she didn’t get a singles wild card and 

b) is hoping to return for one final hurrah, perhaps in Miami or Charleston to play doubles with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Speaking of…..

It's a shame @WTA not demanding the men get paid less prize money when they put in so much less time on court than the women?

• Exactly. Another example why “they play best-of-five versus best-of-three” is such a fatuous and easily obliterated argument. Never mind the 54-minute retirement win in the quarters, Djokovic—who doesn’t exactly play at a fast pace—was on-court for barely more than an hour in his 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 laparoscopic surgery of Lucas Pouille. The corresponding women’s match went 6-4 on the third. (I also say that if I’m the WTA CEO my response is, “We’ll play best-of-seven. We expect to be paid accordingly.”)

Want to argue equal pay as a value proposition, fine. Agree or disagree, that’s valid grounds for starting a conversation. But overall, can’t we agree that when men and women compete under one tent, equal prize money is the way to go? Sometimes the men will drive the event. Sometimes the women will. (Darren Cahill noted late in the tournament that ESPN’s best-rated match was Serena versus Pliskova.) 

A lot was made of the pressure Tsitsipas and Pouille faced playing their first Slam semis. It made me think about players who not only won their first Slam semi, but went on to win the title. While I haven't done an exhaustive search, it seems to be a pretty select group. Federer and Nadal of course. Serena and Sharapova. Sampras. Borg. Wilander. And fewer of the “first time surprise” winners than I would have thought, though Osaka, Ostapenko, Myskina and Kuznetsova all made the list.
Helen of DC

• Great point. It’s either flukes who caught lightning in a bottle—Gaston Gaudio, Iva Majoi. Jelena Ostapenko (so far). Or it’s the players who rocket to generational stardom. Long as we’re here, consider this about Nadal. He goes to the 2005 French Open as the overwhelming favorite. Yet a) he is still a teenager b) he has never been beyond round four of any other Slam c) he had never even before played the French Open….. And he fulfills the prophecy and wins the title.

Jon, What is best way to get a big crowd for doubles? Have doubles as nightcap to a singles match and have the singles match end early because of a retirement. Also have one of the doubles player from the host country. I am watching replay of doubles match between Stosur and Zhang vs. Strycova and Vondrousova and the arena looks packed as far as I can tell.

• Hold the matches in Australia.

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