Wrapping a busy month in Melbourne when some thoughts on our first Grand Slam champions of 2021:
1. DJOKOVIC DOMINATION
This was supposed to be it. The end of Novak Djokovic’s reign in Australia.
Riding his 20-match win streak, with all those titles, wins over Top 10s and with Djokovic struggling against the likes of Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, and with injury; the Russian Daniil Medvedev was going to do what have never been done before: Take the Serb down in the Australian Open final.
Hell, I thought Djokovic would win, but not like he did. Not by that scoreline and not that easily. Yet in the end, he made Medvedev look mediocre.
Right from the start, you could see how well Djokovic was striking the ball and moving. He looked so comfortable and confident in every facet of the game. Even after losing the early break, he was all business and Medvedev wasn’t able to rise to the challenge.
Djokovic jumped on Medvedev’s second serve and controlled that match from that standpoint.
And by the end of the second, Medvedev was a beaten man. That streak, those wins, those titles. And he knew it wasn’t going to happen on this day.
It’s one thing to beat these Big 3 players in an ATP best-of-3 event like the ATP Finals, it’s other to do it in a Slam.
Djokovic knows the road is long and that you can’t win the Australian Open or Slams at the ATP Finals or Paris Indoors or the ATP Cup. You have to have the right mindsight, preparation, experience and know when to peak.
Speaking of peaking…
2. AWESOME OSAKA
Naomi Osaka is now 12-0 when she reaches the quarterfinals at a Slam. She’s never lost. And she’s just 23.
What I love about watching Osaka is just how calm and in control she is. Against Serena last week Wednesday night, she got down a break quickly after a miserable start, but there was absolutely no panic. No emotion. Nothing.
Even down those match points in the fourth round against Garbine Muguruza, she’s stayed focused, stable and unfazed by the situation. It’s incredible to see from such a young person.
You hear it a lot in team sports in the U.S.: You can’t tell by their face if they are winning by 20 or down by 20. That’s Osaka.
And that’s an awfully, awfully tough thing to learn. Few have and even few have it and can win.
If Osaka can figure out how to play on surfaces other than cement, she’s basically going to be the Big 1 of the WTA because there’s really no one who is going to challenge her — Kenin? Gauff? Andreescu? Sabalenka? I don’t see it right now.
She’s by far the best in the game.
3. BIG 3 RULES
With some deference to Roger Federer who hasn’t won since the 2018 Australian, the men’s tour is really turning into the Big 2!
We’ve gone from the Big 4 to the Big 3 and now Big 2.
Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have now won 10 of the last 11 Slams. The only miss was Dominic Thiem’s title in New York where neither he nor finalist Alexander Zverev beat a Big 3 (Djokovic got defaulted, Nadal opted out and Federer’s been injured). Had they faced on of them, guess what? Probably a loss!
So for all the talk of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Zverev, Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov, Matteo Berrettini and the others taking over the tour, it isn’t happening.
And when you look at the French and Wimbledon, Nadal and Djokovic will be rightfully favored at each. Going further down the line, Novak will likely be favored to win in New York and again next year in Melbourne. Then it’s the 2022 French and you get my drift.
There’s seemingly no end to the dominance! Medvedev could have changed that and he didn’t even come close.
4. SERENA COMES UP SHORT
I give a lot of credit to Serena Williams. Having a baby a few years ago along with some previous serious health scares, it would have been easy and understandable for her to simply hang it up. But at age 39, she keeps fighting to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
What’s more remarkable is that she keeps rebounding after these tough losses. Victoria Azarenka, Osaka and Andreescu at the US Open. Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon.
Each loss devastating it its own way, but instead of sulking and giving up, Serena gets up off the mat and goes right back after it.
She came into the 2021 Melbourne month of tennis as fit as she’s been since childbirth. And at her age, she gave the field a true run, beating Sabalenka and whipping Halep.
Again, at age 39 in a pandemic with a child, and there she is still going deep in Slams is absolutely one of the most amazing stories in sports today.
5. RANKING SYSTEMS
When I look at the rankings this morning and see Ash Barty No. 1 or even Federer at No. 5, you have to double-take.
I know these are unusual circumstances and the rankings are apparently going back to the way they were after Miami, but Barty is not the No. 1 player in the world and Federer is not the No. 5 man. Not even close.
These rankings are so out of touch with reality that it’s said that this is what is put out for public consumption.
With points starting to drop again hopefully by the summer the rankings will be more aligned with reality.
6. AB-STRAIN-IAN OPEN
We’ve gone from a COVID outbreak to an ab strain outbreak. Has there even been so many abdominal injuries at a single event?
The theory is with players having so little time to practice serving (2 hours/max) and some with no time at all (hard quarantine players) during quarantine, ab issues were rampant as players were over exerting themselves when they got into match play.
That and the off-season didn’t help matters as we had several big name players succumb to the injury, and we nearly lost the champion.
Of course Djokovic left Melbourne with a 9th title and a torn ab muscle to go with it. Djokovic doubled-down on the injury saying after the win that the tear actually got bigger as the tournament went on!
“I just came actually came from another MRI that I’ve done this morning and the damage is bigger than what it was when it happened, when I did the first MRI after the third round,” he said, while parading his trophy in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton.
With proper treatment including injections and topical numbing agents, I guess a tear can be managed.
But just imagine how much better he would have been without the tear? Scary.
7. KARATSEV COMING OUT PARTY
There are zero people on this planet a month ago who thought Russian Aslan Karatsev would make the semifinals of the Australian Open. Absolutely zero.
But the Wawrinka-like bulldog was one of the surprise stories of the tournament, going through Doha qualifying then, as the world No. 114 in his first Slam main draw, upsetting the likes of Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Grigor Dimitrov to make a Grand Slam semifinal.
You know who haven’t made a Slam semifinal? Shapovalov, Coric, Fognini and Goffin among others. But this guy did it. And he did it by not flinching in the moment. He blew out Diego Schwartzman, came from two sets down against Auger-Aliassime and then took advantage of an injured Dimitrov.
And for the effort, his ranking jumped up to No. 42. It will be interesting to see where the 27-year-old goes from here. He might go nowhere or maybe he makes an even higher move.
Regardless, it was a run for the history books, not likely to be repeated in the next 15-20 years.
8. KYRGIOS THE ENTERTAINER
There truly may be no bigger attraction in the sport than Nick Kyrgios.
For someone who doesn’t particularly like tennis or put the time in to practice and do the right the things, he’s arguably the best bang for the buck in the game.
You watch Djokovic, Osaka, Serena, Nadal, etc play, then Kyrgios and it’s like two different sports.
Whatever those champions do, he’s not doing any of it. Jawing with the umpire, the crowd, sometimes the opponent. Then you have his wide array of trick shots, underhand serves, between the legs volleys and more, and he often executes them in eye-popping fashion and at moments in the match when discretion is of the highest importance.
But he doesn’t care.
The fans love it and honestly, while he’s not being true to the history of the sport per the tennis purists, it’s must-see TV. And if there’s anyone who’s going to get kids involved in tennis, it’s him.
11. ELECTRONIC LINE CALLING
“As your financial advisor, I suggest you buy shares in electronic line calling companies. Soon, all major tournaments will have no choice but to have lines called electronically. Invest now!”
RIP the challenge system.
10. AUSTRALIAN OPEN ORGANIZERS
Big kudos to the team in Melbourne for getting the players into the country, then through a 2-week quarantine, then deal with a minor hotel COVID outbreak and the subsequent fan restrictions that followed and more.
The logistics of that operation are more than book-worthy.
11. THE ROARS RETURN!
After watching two months of fall tennis in empty or near-empty stadiums, it was nice to hear the roar of the crowd again. And the players loved it as well.
It was a breath of fresh air to see faces in the arenas instead of cardboard cutouts, tarp or just plain old empty seats.
I know Australia is a unique situation with its location, but hopefully as the vaccine rollout continues and the virus wanes, we’ll get back to more spectators at more events.
Tennis and all sports for that matter are better with people in the stands.
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