MELBOURNE — The 2020 Australian Open is now in the books. As is our tradition, let's clean out the notepad with 50 Parting Thoughts from Melbourne.
• Novak Djokovic is your Australian Open champion. Casual fans will see the result and say, ”Of course he is.” And it’s true, Djokovic is becoming to Melbourne what Nadal has become to Paris. But the process here is as important as the outcome. Djokovic won with his usual blend of offense and defense. But he also served tremendously and went into lockdown mode when matches tightened. Whether it was the pivotal first-set tiebreaker against Roger Federer or the final hour against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic—the new No.1— betrayed the true champion’s knack for precision under pressure. When we talk about "talent" in tennis it tends to means natural shotmaking. But is there not talent in finding accuracy in the most tense moments?
• Sofia Kenin, the 21-year-old American, is your women’s winner, outfighting Garbine Muguruza in the final. She becomes the 11th different woman since 2017—that is 11 of the last 13—to win a Major. A surprise champion? Sure. But it’s amazing what you can achieve when you take the court determined not to be the second-best player.
• Dominic Thiem is getting closer to becoming the first player born in the 1990s to win a Major. The first final he lost, he said, effectively, “I’m getting there.” The next time, he said effectively, “Rafa on clay was too good.” After tonight, he’ll be having a different conversation with himself. At 3–3 in the fourth set, he was 12 games from winning. And Djokovic simply wouldn’t let him get to the line.
• Garbine Muguruza applied the defibrillator to her career here. Unseeded and coming off a thoroughly forgettable year—ended, fittingly, by a loss in China to Kenin—Mugu summoned her old self, winning six matches, including a ferocious battle against Simona Halep in the semis. More important, under new/old coach Conchita Martinez, Mugu again looks happy. You hope she recalls this event for the career jump-start and not for losing a winnable final.
• Slowed by a groin injury—Roger ails, as it were—Federer faced seven match points against Tennys Sandgren in the quarters. The groin loosened, the opponent tightened, and Federer somehow prevailed. In the next round, he led Novak Djokovic 5–2, but then the window closed and he, clearly still compromised, lost in straight sets. (A pause to point out how deftly Djokovic handled a difficult occasion.) Losing to Djokovic is one thing and losing to a player who entered ranked No. 100 is something else. But the second Major in a row, Federer’s body betrayed him.
• Ash Barty, the top seed, deftly handled five opponents and immeasurable pressure, as the top seed who happened to be from the host nation. In the semis, she retreated—literally and figuratively—failing to convert set points in both sets and falling to Kenin. She was criticized for bringing her niece to the post-match presser—“a human shield”—which seemed much ado about nothing. More curious, I thought, were her remarks, especially that she would sign up for her results any time. You’re the top seed at your home and, two matches from the title, you lose to a No. 15 player who’d never before been in this position? No shame in that, but it ought to sting.
• Muguruza is close. But I can’t recall seeing a player resurrect himself the way Alexander Zverev did. The first two weeks of January, he was a hot mess. During the ATP Cup, he double-faulted 31 times in 31 service games, left his father in tears and looked like a player on the verge of a breakdown. Without any apparent epiphany or Road to Damascus moment, he spent the latter two weeks of January—same country, same surface, same racket, personnel—doing a convincing impersonation of a No. 1 player. And, ironically it was his serve that distinguished him. Good on him, as the Aussies would say. We eagerly await what’s next.
• Rafa Nadal, the top seed, lost in the quarters to Thiem in one of the better matches of the tournament. Theory: Nadal put great energy—physical and spiritual—into beating Nick Kyrgios in a much-hyped match and was somewhat spent in his next match. But credit Thiem for owning the baseline, pounding away, and essentially out-Nadalling Nadal.
• Before the event, the bookstore in the fire-ravaged village of Cobargo, New South Wales, had a new sign outside: “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.” It was hard to exaggerate the fears and distress caused by the fires. It was also hard to exaggerate tennis’s dignified and charitable response, so many—individually and collectively—raising funds. Fortunately the rains came and air quality wasn’t an issue during this event. Still, this event has a real existential issue to contend with. Whether it’s fires or 110-degree days or other offshoots of man-made climate change, there are some real concerns here….
• Back to Zverev…..For the Hamilton crowd….
“My name is Alexander Zverev
And there’s a million things I haven’t done.
But just you wait, just you wait.”
In the end it only ended up costing him $50,000, which, cynically speaking, is a bargain for an image cleanse. Even before he lassoed his serve and played so well….by vowing to donate his entire winner’s check—should he be so lucky—to bushfire relief, Zverev courted more good will than he has in five years of playing top-shelf tennis.
• Ah, the predictability of women’s tennis. Three of the four top doubles teams made the semis. And the fourth team: the Chan sisters, seed No. 7. In the end, the title went to Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic, who beat Barbora Strycova and the super awesome Su-wei Hsieh.
• In the wild west of the men’s event, the title went to Joe Salisbury and Indiana’s own Rajeev Ram who beat a pair of Aussie wild cards Max Pucell and Luke Saville.
• In the mixed Barbora Krejcikova and Nikola Mektic took the mixed title, beating Jamie Murray and Bethanie Mattek Sands.
• In the juniors, Victoria Kasintseva of Andorra (a lefty) beat Weronika Baszak of Poland to win the girls. In the Franco-Franco war, Harold Mayot beat Arthur Cazaux. Colette Lewis, naturally, has you covered at zootennis.com.
• Early in the tournament, Nick Kyrgios impersonated Rafa Nadal by mocking his idiosyncrasies. In the fourth round, Kyrgios impersonated Nadal by competing honorably, staying focused and behaving like an adult. Unfortunately, Nadal was on the other side of the net, eliminating Kyrgios in a well-played, well-contested fourth-rounder. (The scoreline, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, was identical to the Wimbledon scoreline; but the tenor of the match was altogether different.) I’m not sure what we learned about Kyrgios here. He’s blazingly talented? We knew that. He’s a Man of the People, who prefers playing on general admission courts? Check. He draws fans and ratings? Check. For all his stumbles and acts of self-sabotage, he’s, ultimately, decent? Check. His commitment level precludes him from winning best-of-five matches against the Big Boys? Knew that, too.
• I feel like—and this is no knock—we always need an asterisk, especially in an individual sport. But Caroline Wozniacki played her last match* here, falling to Ons Jabeur. Wozniacki will likely get the Newport nod. While the top line of her tennis epitaph will be her win here in 2018, Woz also deserves loads of credit for helping to erode any Heathers culture—Mean Girls to the younger set—and showing you can compete fiercely against the opponent and still be friendly and collegial.
*assumes no un-retirement.
• Serena Williams has made a hobby of jack-knifing conventional wisdom. But she missed a real opportunity to win that elusive 24th major. She had plenty of time off; she was playing well; the draw—already bereft of the last player to beat her, Bianca Andreescu—was starting to yawn open. Then she went out to Qiang Wang, who scored the biggest win of her career. Serena, realistically, is unlikely to win on clay. She’ll always have a shot at Wimbledon, but she’ll need to be at her fleet-footed best. Assuming she plays the Olympics, she’ll need to regroup before the U.S. Open.
• This is the kind of observation you leave off Twitter because the tribalists and the extremists will take it to an unpleasant place. But I was struck by the radically different outlooks between Federer (and Nadal) and Serena. This is meant not as a value judgment, but simply as an observation. Here’s Serena after losing to Wang, “Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, it's all on my shoulders. I lost that match. So it is what it is.” In the post-match press conference, not once did she mention her opponent by name.
Here was Federer a few hours later, after nearly losing to Millman, “John played an unbelievable match….The demons are always there.” Two 38-year-old champions. One reduces pressure by telling herself every match is on her racket and the opponent is, essentially irrelevant. The other reduces pressure by referencing all the internal and external threats. Not better. Not worse. Just different.
• Tennys Sandgren reached an Australian Open quarterfinal for the second times in three years. Two years ago, his joy at a career result was leavened by a social media controversy. This year he had seven match points against Roger Federer and couldn’t quite—to use the cliché of the tournament—“get over the finish line.” Still, he ought to leave with his head high. He has worked himself into peak physical shape and played tremendously for 4.9 matches.
• Speaking of….one of my duties at this event entailed interviewing players after their matches. Sometimes it was the stars; sometimes it was the unknowns pulling upsets. The age ranged from Coco and Yannick Sinner to Djokovic and Monfils. Men, women, Americans, Europeans, locals. My takeaway: man, what a lovely collection of people. You really have to look hard to find a jerk in the current crop of players.
• Dear Coco Gauff: We want to dial back the hype, to respect your age, to give you some time and space to grow. And you are making that very difficult. For the third straight major, Gauff walks away a winner. While Gauff’s run came to an end against Sonia Kenin—precisely the kind of relentless, unflappable player a 15-year-old will struggle to beat—it’s hard not to leak optimism here.
• Speaking of American players, C-vowel-C-vowel, who lost their final set 0-6 but will still depart on a high note…how about Cici Bellis? Finally healthy, she reached the middle weekend.
• A lot of you wrote about Kobe Bryant. I’ll report what I wrote the other day: “Kobe was at the 2019 U.S. Open. Sometimes celebrities come, get a photo op, watch Serena or Federer for a few games, and leave. Kobe was there for days, marveling at play, walking around, watching players other than the stars, really considering the nuances of the sport. I knew that he was friendly with Osaka and Djokovic etc. I was blown away by how deeply he impacted so many players.” While we’re here, his tennis-themed book can be purchased And, here’s the Tennis Channel interview we did.
• A sub-theme of Olympic eligibility will ring throughout these next few months of the season. For some countries, the line-ups are set. For others it’s a real derby. Bearing in mind that there are only four slots per country, Sonia Kenin helped her chances of representing the U.S., as did Ali Riske. Sloane Stephens and Amanda Anisimova did not. Keep an eye on the doubles team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Kenin, as well as Coco Gauff and Caty McNally.
• I was going to suggest we all stop with the lazy cracks about Diego Schwartzman’s height and simply acknowledge he’s a damn good tennis player. Then I came across this essay on the ATP site. And our appreciation of the guy only grows.
• We talk about players self-flagellating. But (new dad) Fabio Fognini takes it to another level with his curious habit of missing a shot and then punching his racket with his bare hand….which turned his fingers and wrist into carpaccio in three straight matches.
• You know who had a rough event? The ATP Finals. For three years running, the year-end championship featured a winner outside of the Big Three—Dimitrov, Zverev and, most recently, Tsitsipas—leading to the inevitable speculation that the glass ceiling, trapping so many in middle management, was cracking. Yeah, not so much. We say it again. The great tennis secret hiding in plain sight: the difference between best-of-three and best-of-five sets.
• We all look at trends when making predictions. But, man, we caution against reading too much into non-Slam results. In Brisbane, Danielle Collins beat Yulina Putinseva 6-1, 6-0. Here? Putinseva won 7-5 in the third. Likewise, Heather Watson beat Elise Mertens 7-5 in the third in Hobart. Here? Mertens won 6-3, 6-0. Of course the big ones: In New York, Serena did to Qiang Wang what Peter Wells did to Peter Luger. She surrendered only 15 points in 44 minutes. Here, Serena lost 124 points and fell in 160 minutes. Likewise Coco Gauff completely reversed the script on Naomi Osaka.
• Speaking of Osaka, this was something other than a vigorous and rigorous title defense. It wasn’t simply that she lost, falling in straight sets to Coco Gauff. It was the complete vacancy in defeat. And then there was her admission afterward, that she lacks the “champion’s mentality,” a blast of candor, but perhaps too great a confession?
• Tennis tends to concentrate on its flaws and unforced errors. But an awful lot goes right. Let’s start with replay. While other sports fumble with how and whether to improve accuracy without upsetting rhythms, tennis has pretty much nailed this. And what about globalization? Other sports try desperately to expand their empire. With little concerted effort, tennis’ internationalization is such that at least one player from each continent reached week two.
• Congrats, to the most excellently named Alex Bolt. You ran out of petrol against Dominic Thiem, but you sure pulled off the shot of the tournament.
• I was envisioning Federer fans watching that John Millman match without sound. Millman goes up 7-4 in the tiebreaker and the fans start crying. Only to realize that in Australia, it’s a 10-point breaker. There is a push for all the majors to agree to a single match-ending format. (And the 10-point breaker gets high marks.) Me? I don’t mind the inconsistency. The four majors are played on four surfaces in four countries with four distinct vibes. Why not four different decisive-set conclusions?
• Thank you, Kiki Bertens. You probably broke an unwritten omertà code here. But you spoke truth. Not all players are created equal and, as a result, some draws are better than others.
Q. What does it mean to you to make it to the second week? Round of 16, first time at a hard court slam?
KIKI BERTENS: It means a lot, to be honest. I think also my draw was pretty good. You have to be honest with that, as well.
• The excellent Simon Cambers reports that the WTA will begin experimenting with coaching from the stands, starting in February and running through 2020. A coach can give “verbal encouragement” and “hand signals” when their player is on the same side of the court. O-kay. And is technology allowed to be used? No one is really saying. The WTA’s rationale: “The new trial will allow coaches to coach their players in the form they are currently coaching from the box without getting penalized.” Let’s put aside the moral failure here. (You really want to react to rule-breaking by waiving penalties?) As long the majors continue to forbid mid-match coaching, this is destined to do more harm than good.
• The equivalent of the Friday news dump: Late on middle Saturday we got a release about the lifetime ban for Joao Souza. Read the details here. And this is a former top 75 player who was in the main draw of majors. Joao Sousa—note the second S, not Z—is a Portuguese player with an upstanding reputation who, quite rightly, asks that you not confuse him with his disgraced Brazilian colleague.
• The Houston Astros “sign-stealing” scandal—which has convulsed Major League Baseball this offseason—dovetails nicely with tennis’ match-fixing issues, which persists, though happily, not at the equivalent of a “World Series level.” The underlying point: the real virtue of sports is the unscripted, unchoreographed reality of it all. If the legitimacy of honest competition is undermined, the whole enterprise is worthless. Or at least turned into pro wrestling. Sports can deal with bad actors and carpetbagging franchises and changes to business models. But when you mess with the legitimacy of what’s being sold, the core has begun to rot.
• Long as we’re in the vice section….We kept hearing about Coco Gauff, the youngest quarterfinalist since Sesil Karatantcheva reached the round of eight at the 2005 French Open. Huh? Karatantcheva was popped for PED’s, based on a sample from that tournament. If we’re going to have an anti-doping policy with teeth, shouldn’t negating tainted match results be part of it?
• Pop quiz: what two-time champ, still in her late 20s, was not in the draw? I was surprised how little attention was devoted to the absence of Vika Azarenka. Other notable absences, for different reasons: Andreescu, the reigning major champ. Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, Jack Sock, Jared Donaldson.
• The usual nod to Tennis Channel. Your feedback is appreciated and considered. I agree that Ted Robinson was a welcome addition in Australia. And that Griffin Radcliffe killed it as a production assistant. I disagree that we should have worn ties. (Off-brand for this fiercely casual event.) Again, this is the Diego Schwartzman of networks: plucky and undersized but happily overachieving. Continuing the always-handy boxing analogies: We are also an extraordinarily close team, and it’s heartening that this camaraderie seems to punch through on the air. (It’s no wonder Brad Gilbert watches so fervently and is so collegial in his praise.)
• Full disclosure: I am deep in the tank for my colleague and pal, Martina Navratilova. She made news after her legend’s doubles match, when she showed up with a banner—she made herself in her hotel room—reading “Evonne Goolagong Arena.” This, of course, was a rebuke of Margaret Court. John McEnroe went on the court to support Martina the day after he posted this. (Both Martina and McEnroe were scolded, then apologized, for breaching tournament protocol.) Tennis Australia contorts itself like Simone Biles, trying to justify an arena named for a 24-time major champ who also traffics—present tense—in hate speech. To borrow from Boris Johnson, TA’s policy toward cake is pro-eating and pro-having. Sorry. This needle can’t be thread. If you won’t fully condemn a bigot, others will do the lifting you’re too craven to undertake.
• The Richard Williams movie, King Richard, is for real.
• A cruel bit of coincidence, three ascending players—Amanda Anisimova, Aryna Sabalenka and Jelena Ostapenko—lost their fathers in recent months. All three players lost in Week One. And now our periodic reminder: players aren’t immune from real life. There are romantic breakups and ill relatives and family feuds. Sometimes they, too, come to work shouldering stress other than the players on the other side of the net.
• Jim Courier is to the on-court post-match interview what Novak Djokovic is to the Australian Open. We all agree the pre-match interviews are excruciating for all involved, including the viewer. But these sessions after the match can often be quite revealing.
• Full disclosure: at last check there were 19 men who received fines—including a certain titan from Switzerland for an audible obscenity—totaling more than $50,000. In 127 matches, there was but a single woman fined, Alize Cornet, dinged, as well, for cursing. The gender studies discussion starts in 3, 2, 1….
• An all-time great movie, Lost in Translation, is premised on an actor going to Japan to shoot a commercial he hopes no one else will see. Today, that luxury no longer exists thanks to YouTube. And with that we present the Uber Eats campaign:
• There are cameras everywhere at the Australian Open. And while it yields some video, it goes right up to the line—Hawk-Eye review!—of privacy invasion. Yes, it catches players in revealing situations. There was Federer playing WWE with his team. There was also Coco Gauff walking right past Justine Henin. (Both gamely and correctly, Henin noted there were no hard feelings. She, after all, won her last major in 2007, when Coco was three.) If tennis players had a proper union—I know, right?—you wonder if they would ever abide by this.
• We save a broader disquisition about the state of media for another time. And I’d submit that, as a rule, the fewer barriers to entry, the better. But apart from financial upheaval, there are other drawbacks to the “disintermediation”—the wild west-ness—of the media landscape. A chief concern is declining professionalism. So it is that credentialed reporters ask a teenager gratuitous questions about her recently deceased father, ask a pale player about her choice of sunblock, liken Garbine Muguruza’s slump to a coma and “report”—titillatingly but erroneously—that Monfils injured himself playing a video game. You just hope the players differentiate the press room pros from the amateurs.
• Nice to see Jelena Dokic getting a lot of run as a commentator for Australian TV. She was more than capable. Lord knows tennis owes her some good karma.
• Food for thought: to what extent should we be concerned about participation— and does it impact the appeal of the ATP and WTA? The numbers are trending downward. The USTA—having already sunk a half billion dollars into welcome centers and short courts and free lessons—is redoubling its efforts to recruit players. But a friend points out that football participation trending downward, too. (And virtually no women play.) And yet the NFL is as popular as ever. Don’t we trust fans to appreciate Federer and Coco Gauff? Even if they’ve never picked up a racket?
• Always fun nerding out on tennis with you guys. We’ll do it again in Indian Wells. And the offer holds: if you want to receive the Mailbag each week newsletter style, just send your email.