MELBOURNE – Five thoughts from Day 3 of the 2020 Australian Open, where Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic cruised into the third round; Serena Williams, Madison Keys and Caroline Wozniacki all advanced; and 15-year-old Coco Gauff mounted a comeback.
• Serena Williams is 38 years old and has gone three years without winning a major singles title. A lot has to go right for her to take another. But a lot can go right. So far in 2020, a number associated with clarity, Serena has found lucidity. She started the year winning her first title post-motherhood, taking Auckland. Here in Melbourne, the weather has cooperated, the schedule has cooperated and her health has cooperated. And Serena is playing dynamite tennis, striking with such accuracy it compensates for any slight loss of movement. On Wednesday night, she beat Tamara Zidansek handily 6-2, 6-3, thundering into Round 3. Yes, Serena’s issues lately have come at the back end of majors; not the front end. Yes, she has five rounds to go. But this one is lining up nicely.
• The cliché goes like this: Careers are marathons, not sprints. If we’re going to keep with that analogy, the leaderboard changes and different competitors surge ahead—or lag behind—at different times. We spoke on Tuesday of Frances Tiafoe, who was a top 30 player less than a year ago and is now outside the top 75 and struggling to win matches. The converse: his peer, Tommy Paul, a young American, who struggled at the challenger level after the juniors, got sideways with the USTA, and even considered a new career. But now, at 22, he is ascending so quickly he risks vertigo. Already in the top 100 and arrowing upward, he scored a signature win today, taking out Grigor Dimitrov—a semifinalist at the previous major, we add—by winning a fifth-set tiebreaker. A flashy player and extraordinary shotmaker, Paul plays tennis made for House of Highlights. But it was his will as much as his skill that got over the finish line.
• Sometimes tennis players win because they are playing their best and hitting with a marriage of power and precision. But the champions find ways to way when they’re having a meh day and office. They simply decide that, while this may not be a match worthy of preserving in amber, they are going to survive and advance. On Monday Coco Gauff played a terrific match, beating Venus Williams. On Wednesday, she revealed just as much about herself slogging through a subpar day against No. 73 Sorana Cirstea. Gauff lost the first set and had trouble controlling her shots. Down 4-5, 15-30 in the third set—two points from defeat—she missed a serve. On her second ball, she clocked a 104 mph second serve into the body. She never looked back, winning 7-5 in the third set. Before talk turns, inevitably, to her showdown with Naomi Osaka, let’s dwell for a moment on a 15-year-old who already knows how to win.
• An American (Sloane Stephens) won the U.S. Open 30 or so months ago. Andy Murray has won Wimbledon twice since 2013. France’s Mary Pierce won in Paris in 2000. It has, by contrast, been more than 40 years since an Aussie won this event. But we have a real candidate this year. Ash Barty is the top seed and playing like it. Today she turned in an authoritative, unflustered performance, beating veteran Polona Hercog in straight sets. Next up, a different kind of opponent, the ascending Russian Elena Rybakina.
• Since 2008, Novak Djokovic has won the Australian Open more often than he has not. Today he became the second player in the Open Era (after Roger Federer) to win 70 matches at this Slam, taking out Tatsuma Ito in straight sets. We think of Djokovic as the sport’s best returner. But that often comes at the expense of underrating his serve. Today he won 43 of 46 of his first serve points (a silly 93%), hit 16 aces and didn’t even give Ito a sniff of a break point. An eighth title means he will be to this event what Federer is to Wimbledon. Think about that.