MELBOURNE — As another major enters the history books, we clean out the ol’ notebook. Your 50 Parting Thoughts from the 2019 Australian Open…
• All praise Novak Djokovic, who played something resembling tennis in umami form, beating Rafa Nadal to win his record seventh Aussie Open men’s title and 15th Career Slam, moving him past Pete Sampras. A year ago, his career was teetering; now he’s seeking a calendar Grand Slam.
• Naomi Osaka backed up her U.S. Open title in remarkable fashion, winning the Australian Open women’s title. She becomes the 26th player to attain the WTA’s No.1 ranking—and the first Asian to do so—and now enters a whole new level of celebrity. Osaka was impressive, as usual, with her ball striking. But between her winning four three-setters and stepping up and serving out matches, she showed again that she has inner calm to offset her violent hitting. We have a new star.
• Rafal Nadal played six rounds of exquisite hardcourt tennis here, winning 18 straight sets. Then he entered the Djokovic vortex. As it is, he should be pleased with his campaign—especially as it came shrouded in such uncertainty—and pleased that the French is the next major, giving him a great chance to pad his Slam lead on Djokovic and close the gap with Federer.
• Petra Kvitova came within a few games of authoring one of the sport’s great comeback stories. As it is, she did herself proud, winning 13 sets, reaching her first major final in five years, returning to Grand Slam excellence—and doing it all with her characteristic good cheer and sportsmanship. She should be thrilled with her tournament and the state of her game.
• France’s Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert completed a doubles career Slam, beating Melbourne-born John Peers and Finaland’s Henri Kontinen, the 2017 winners, in the final.
• In the women’s doubles event, unseeded Shaui Zhang and Aussie Sam Stosur beat the top seeds (Katarina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova) in the quarters and the second seeds (Kiki Mladenovic and Timea Babos) in the final to take the title. Well earned.
• This tournament’s exercise in the art of framing: If you’re Lucas Pouille, is your enduring memory of the 2019 Australian Open your unlikely run to the semifinals? Or your getting just four games off Djokovic—and getting broken more than he held—once you got there?
• Discuss: does this billboard from tournament sponsor Vegemite go too far in its “slagging” as Aussies say? Or is it fair game?
• If the freshman aren’t beating the seniors consistently, they’re at least getting closer. Stefanos Tsitsipas was a breakout star, beating Federer in round four and then backing it up with a grind-em-out win over Roberto Bautista Agut (a Greek earn, as it were) before running into the Nadal buzzsaw. In the process, he revealed a winning personality—”he’s an old soul, isn’t he?” wondered Rod Laver—to accompany his winning game.
•In the boys final, top-seed Lorenzo Musetti of Italy beat Emilio Nava of the U.S., 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (12). On the girls’ side, No. 1 seed Clara Tauson of Denmark (daughter of Caro!) won the title, beating Leylah Annie Fernandez of Canada. Colette Lewis has your junior tennis recap. Of course she does.
• Frances Tiafoe broke through—to some degree—on the men’s side, beating Kevin Anderson, backing it up with two more wins and reaching his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. He then visited Nadal’s construction site. There’s so much to like here (including the fact that Tiafoe went through the spanking machine in his last match so he leaves confident but not complacent.)
MAILBAG: Just How Good is Frances Tiafoe?
• How far has Danielle Collins come in such a short time? Never mind that she was losing in the first round of challenger—prize money, $882—a year ago. At the end of 2018, she availed herself to the U.S. Fed Cup team and played behind Sofia Kenin and Alison Riske. (We hear she was a model teammate and betrayed no bitterness.) Then, 60 days later she reached week two of a major. And while I read all the email and tweets, I don’t share the outrage over her attitude. So often we talk about players lacking self-belief. Collins has a huge fund of confidence. (If swagger were a secret love for Tennis Channel programming, she would be Brad Gilbert.) Collins should be rightly applauded for it.
• As usual, “Serena Williams” and “theater” formed a formidable doubles team. Up match point and leading 5-1 in her quarterfinal against Karolina Pliskova, Serena was called for a foot fault. (Which should be challengeable, by the way.) On the next point, she rolled her ankle. She won no more games (and only eight more points), eventually losing 7-5 in the third set. One of many takeaways: there was concern whether Serena would return physically from motherhood. She’s answered that eloquently—she’s gone 19-3 in Slam singles matches since her return, and while she may have lost a half-step of movement, she’s still remarkable. But emotionally, it’s been rough. A mid-tournament injury (while playing doubles with Venus) in Paris; an emotionally spent Wimbledon final; the U.S. Open final debacle; and then the misfortune of Australia. That 24th major title has sure been sly and elusive.
• After a terrific first week, Roger Federer fell in round four to Stefanos Tsitsipas, a mild—not crushing—disappointment. Federer announced afterward that he was reversing his recent policy and will play the clay season, after all. Like Kremlinologists, this was dissected immediately. He feels good and wants more matches. No, wait, he wants a victory lap. My advice on retirement speculation: resist. His decision will be results-based. When he no longer feels capable of competing at a level satisfactory to him, he’ll retire. Until then, just enjoy the show.
• Man, it seems like years ago that Andy Murray announced he would be unwinding his career. Regardless of whether he chooses to have another surgery, the immediate reaction and the outpouring from the tennis community was quite something. He must have felt like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral. The moral: for all the bromides about character and honor, people really do take notice.
• Like a player on a win streak, proposals for on-court coaching have been picking up momentum. The WTA has been continuing to push hard, despite the continued string of embarrassments and the regrettable optics—to say nothing of the perversion of the sport and its unique demands of self-sufficiency. We were told that by 2020, the Australian Open may well allow for mid-match coaching. The U.S. Open is, of course, on board as well.
• The Sascha Zverev, Best-of-Five-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure is, lamentably, becoming quite a serial. The No. 4 seed fell in the fourth round to No. 16 Milos Raonic, which actually wasn’t a huge upset. But his going down 6-1, 6-1, 7-6—dropping the first two sets in less than an hour—is shocking. Zverev broke Raonic’s serve in the first game of the match. He then, unaccountably, lost 12 of the next 13 games, pausing only to make smithereens of his racquet. If you think this dismal performance, coming the day after Tsitsipas’s master class over Fed, is a coincidence…well, do I have an ATP World Team Cup to sell you.
• As the NFL makes clear each Sunday, tennis deserves high marks for its replay and challenge technology and execution. Now it needs to be expanded to calls such as foot faults. The stakes are too high and the technology is too good not to strive for 100% accuracy.
• Amanda Anisimova—whose older sister played for Penn, we dutifully point out—had us rethinking the conventional wisdom that teenagers can’t win Slams anymore. The Floridian, who doesn’t turn 18 until around the U.S. Open, scored a huge win over Aryna Sabalenka and reached the middle weekend. There’s so much to like about her game, not least that she plays strategically and doesn’t mind winning with defense.
• The hot pick to start the tournament, Sabalenka had a disappointing event, mustering just five games against Anisimova and betraying no gameplan other than hitting the hell out of the ball. Perhaps some consolation: her attire seems to be popular. When she threw a headband into the stands, two women played tug-of-war. Neither relented, the feud escalated, and both were thrown out by a security guard.
• We talk about a “million dollar idea.” By orders of magnitude, that sells short the genius inspiration of calling the Australian Open the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific. Wouldn’t you love to have been in the Tennis Australia meeting when someone threw that idea out there.
Bruce: “Anything else? No?”
Becky: “Actually, yes, Quick thought: we should, like, tag this event “The Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific.”
Carl: “Well, that wasn’t on the agenda. I have a noon call so can we wrap soon?”
Bruce: “Becky, why would you suggest that? We’re the Australian Open last time I checked.”
Todd: “That’s preposterous. Melbourne is, like, 8,000 km from Shanghai. That’s like calling the U.S. Open the Grand Slam of America and the fertile Argentine lowlands.”
Carl: “Don’t you mean Argentinian?”
Becky: “Sure. But this is a way to expand our footprint to an area that doesn’t have a Major. They’ll feel included. Maybe we can pick up some sponsors. It’s like brand colonization. No one else is claiming it. Why not us?”
Carl: “Whatever. I gotta bounce, kids. Ping me later.”
Mike: “Wait, I rather like Becky’s idea. Especially if tennis grows in Asia and the Chinese economy heats up, we might really be able to capitalize on that.”
Todd:“ We’ve got Bunnings Warehouse as a sponsor. You think they want to share space with, what… Kia Motors? Next thing you know we’ll have Mandarin signage.”
Becky: “As you like, gentlemen. But who knows? By 2019, we could be watching matches in an arena named for, I dunno, Chinese booze maker. Just don’t take credit for the idea.”
• I think we’re on solid ground calling the Australian final-set tiebreak experiment an overall success. In the decisive set, players competed in a 10-point breaker. This foreclosed the possibility of these farcical, Isnerian, beard-growing marathons. At the same time, the 10-point breaker mitigated the sense of a random shootout. That said, as I write this, only six of 250 singles matches went the distance. That was sure a lot of sturm and drang for a policy change that barely affected 2% of the matches.
A lot of you guys brought up that all four majors now have different rules for deciding sets. Me? I ain’t bothered. The four Slams are played on four different surfaces, in four different nations, with a different number of covered courts. The differentiation among the quartet is part of what makes tennis fun.
• Here’s old soul Stefanos Tsitsipas on the social dynamic of the Tour:
Q: Roger just said you were rather timid and you didn’t speak too much, but on the court you don’t look timid at all. How are you really?
Tsitsipas: I do all the talking in the court (smiling). I’m not shy. Actually, I was shy when I was a kid but not anymore. I learn to find my comfort when I’m with people. I think I’m comfortable meeting new people and having a discussion with someone. Not many of the players, you know, want to be friends on the Tour. That’s a problem. That’s an issue, you know, unless you speak the same language. That’s why you see all these Spaniards, Latin Americans, hang out with each other…but I would love to, yeah, have more friends on Tour. It’s not easy with all the traveling and everything. So I’m definitely not going to have friends out of the Tour because they can’t afford to travel with me. I’m working on it.”
• Best idea I heard this entire event: a Mueller Report for tennis. An independent actor comes in, wields subpoena power and investigative muscle, and exposes all the conflicts and institutional rot. How much does the ITF get from Sportradar for the data that is used for gambling and fomenting/fermenting all the match-fixing at the lower levels? (And why is the ITF allowed to keep this deal, when players can’t accept gambling endorsements, tournament can’t accept gambling sponsorships, and doing so runs counter to the independent review recommendations?) How much does the USTA and other federations pay for the coaching and training of top pros who are already making millions, using funds that are diverted from players who truly need it? What are the travel budgets of high-ranking employees from tennis non-profits, who reliably show up in the first-class lounges but struggle to articulate what function they actually serve at events? What are the financial conflicts and commission structures of the various ATP and WTA board members? How much are the former players on the ATP advisory board being paid? How are the same management companies that are representing players also lobbying to decrease prize money? What are the conflicts of the ITF Board members? How much are various players paid in appearance fees and what other items—such as non-disparagement clauses—are written in the contracts? What sort of fees do management groups get when tournaments relocate? All these dirty and unseemly secrets: Just put ‘em all out there. Sunlight as disinfectant and all…
• Five players who didn’t get out of the first week, but impressed us nonetheless: Former Georgia Tech star Chris Eubanks, who rocks a one-handed backhand, stands 6’8”, weighs in at about 175 lbs. and presents himself well. Sofia Kenin is quietly in the top 40 and had Simona Halep pinned up against the cage—we’re trying to migrate from lazy boxing clichés to lazy MMA clichés—4-2 in the third set, before…wait for it…tapping out. Canadian teen Bianca Andreescu, who beat Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams to start the season, qualified here and won two rounds. Alexei Popyrin, a 19-year-old Aussie who won’t need many more wild cards. And a Nashville-style shout out to Singaporean qualifier Astra Sharma, a Vanderbilt grad putting off medical school to give this whole tennis thing a shot.
• Prior to the Australian Open, the tennis world was captivated by the mixed doubles matches at the Hopman Cup. Teams like Zverev/Kerber and Federer/Bencic and Serena/Tiafoe drew more interest than Djokovic’s losing in the Middle East. Then the first major rolls around and mixed doubles is treated like the tire aisle at Costco: You know it’s there, but it doesn’t much hold your attention. For the record, Rajeev Ram and Barbora Krejcikova beat John-Patrick Smith and the aforementioned Astra Sharma to win the title.
• This feels like piling on, but the substandard tech can’t go unnoticed. For all the Australian Open does right—and the examples are abundant—this is a glaring unforced error. Players noticed it early. You guys, not wrongly, complained for two weeks. Basic omissions—no PDF of draws? No qualifier results on the app?—earned its disfavor with the media. When you aspire to run a first-class international sporting event, this simply cannot happen.
• The ATP Team Cup, coming to Australia in 2020, is the whitest of elephants, an event few fans desire, one as ill-conceived as it is murkily funded. This event will:
1. Muck up the tennis calendar for the first few weeks of the season.
2. Leave the WTA in the lurch. (Allegedly there’s a women’s event headed to Adelaide, but it will be overshadowed by men’s coverage.)
3. Create problems for players like Tsitsipas and Anderson, who are great but have no countrymen of note.
4. Be unlikely to lure Federer (who has his own team event and rightly resents another) and Nadal, who can make more money playing in the Middle East. A Tennis Commissioner would have nixed this in five minutes.
• Do reserve some sympathy for Tennis Australia for its grudging involvement. If TA doesn’t step in, this event is held in Dubai or Doha or somesuch far-flung precinct; the Australian Open loses all its run-up and pre-tournament promotion, eroding its television; players wouldn’t arrive until a few days before the matches. This was making the best of a bad situation. But here’s my question: when the Australian Open agreed to the ATP’s prize money increase demands in 2015, how did the tournament’s lawyers not draft a clause stipulating that, in exchange, the Tour agreed that it would not disrupt the “Australian summer” tourney schedule?
• If tennis had weight classes, Camila Giorgi might be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game. She is 5’6”, can’t weigh much more than 100 lbs., moves with grace….and has a game that ranges from A to B, as Dorothy Parker would say: Aggression to Bashing. To borrow another phrase, she makes every shot a power shot. In her matches, she often regresses and starts missing. But when she’s on, it’s a thrill to watch her out-hit the heavyweights.
• The scariest moment of the tournament may have occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Ashleigh Barty-Maria Sharapova match. Nick Kyrgios suffered a pre-tournament spider bite. (Of course he did.) An encounter with a Spidercam, though, would have had more serious consequences.
Speaking of cameras…
• Petra Martic was up 3-1 in both sets yet lost in the third round. When she left the court, she sobbed uncontrollably, a moment captured by cameras—and there were lots of them—scattered in tunnels throughout Rod Laver Arena. One player saw this and complained to tournament organizers this was unacceptable and the video should be removed. That advocate? Sloane Stephens, the player who had beaten Martic.
• Several of you—including a former Grand Slam champion—pointed out this exchange a reporter had with Maria Sharapova following her round-four loss to Ash Barty:
Q. You took meldonium legally for 10 years to deal with your health problems. Now that it’s banned and you can no longer take it, is that a struggle physically to deal with it, the demand of a Grand Slam fortnight?
MARIA SHARAPOVA: Is there another question?
Sharapova is well within her rights to decline answering. But the interrogator is equally within his rights to pose the question. Totally fair game. An athlete fails a doping test. The athlete proffers an explanation that pertains to personal health—opening the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence, as we would say in the law. The athlete serves a suspension. When the athlete returns, the athlete has to be prepared to deal with the fallout.
• Statistical pet peeve: why are we including “aces” under “winners” in match stats? Reilly Opelka officially had 97 winners against Thomas Fabbiano in their round two five-setter. Oh, wait, 67 of those were aces? That’s a huge download of untouched serves, of course. (Fifth most in history.) But it also means that he hit only 30 winners off the ground in 53 games. No wonder he lost.
Speaking of ratios, it’s impossible not to like Opelka. “Great kid” is as much a part of his taxonomy as “seven-footer.” But find me a player who is more laid back in life and then more maniacal during matches.
• Tennis really takes this “no-clock-time-is-elastic” business seriously. There are best-of-five matches that span entire afternoons. There is no meaningful off-season. And this tournament we had a match—Garbine Muguruza versus Johanna Konta—that started after midnight. And because no sport does irony like tennis does irony, the match ended 7-5 in the third set, at 3:12 a.m. Some common sense—the rarest of tennis commodities—is in order here. It’s brutal on everyone, not least the players. Muguruza left the facility after 4:00 a.m. This is not cute and not a test of character. It’s manifestly unfair and needs to be changed. No one should be taking the court after midnight. Period.
• Andy Murray’s quasi-retirement announcement overshadowed an announcement made the same day: Gordon Smith, Chief Executive of the USTA, is stepping down at the end of the year. That sound you heard? That’s the reverse gear beeping off the Brinks truck as it backs its way into Craig Tiley’s driveway. When Larry Scott— former WTA Tour CEO and current Pac-12 commissioner—has tired of college politics and wants to return to the relative benignity of tennis politics, well, he’s a candidate, too. But coming soon: an alternative idea, deep outside of the service box. We’ll call it the Shriver/Wertheim Plan. Stay tuned.
• Story to follow: the steadily growing impact of China in the tennis ecosystem. There are more events than ever in China, including the WTA’s year-end soiree, which is offering more in prize money than its ATP counterpart. There are sponsors, like 1573. Most importantly, there are players. As we prepare to induct Li Na into the Hall of Fame, note that six Chinese women were in the main draw. But note, too, that this is a one-gender phenomenon, at least as of now. The highest-ranked Chinese male is 28-year old Ze Zhang, at No. 216.
• From the qualies draw, also known as the Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Vera Zvonareva—once the No. 2 player in the world—has made a spirited and admirable comeback and is now back in the top 100. But on the cutoff date, she was one spot away from the main draw. The top seed in qualifying, she lost in round one. (And because she did not make the final round, she was ineligible for a lucky loser spot.) She stuck around for doubles but lost in round one. We think this every year: lovely city, Melbourne. But for most players, it’s a hell of a long way to come to lose early.
• Lauren Davis reached the third round of the 2018 Australian Open and played in the best match of the tournament, a battle with Simona Halep that ended 15-13 in the third set. She was not in Melbourne this year and she was missed, and it was good to see her name on the Newport Beach Oracle Challenger list. Also missing from this event: Juan Martin del Potro, Richard Gasquet, Jared Donaldson, Coco Vandeweghe, CiCi Bellis and Lucie Safarova who, we are told, plans on playing her last event—doubles with Bethanie Mattek-Sands—this spring.
• Player after player complained about lets on serves. Namely, balls that clipped the tape but did not trigger the machine sensor and balls that missed the net but did. John McEnroe mentioned that it’s time to reconsider this rule. He’s right. Here’s a change that speeds up matches, eliminates controversy, adds some fun unpredictability and doesn’t advantage the server.
• The most ferocious battle this event was not accounted for on a scoreboard and went unresolved. Select members of the ATP players’ council and ATP board—led, it’s no secret, by Justin Gimelstob, who was here for several days of meetings but left before the event—would like to see ATP CEO, Chris Kermode, relieved of his duties. This call for regime change will resume at Indian Wells. The long and short of it: we need to hear from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. While they are not on the players’ council, they have more moral authority than anyone. The “we are at a critical point and we need consistency” thinking favors Kermode. On the contrary, “we are at an inflection point and need a change at the top” dooms him.
• Best TV moment: During the Alex De Minaur/Henri Laaksonen match, an intrepid Aussie courtside reporter noted that the court was soiled. He then added, “I can report that a bird has defecated on the court, and it was not Laaksonen.”
• Your 2019 Hall of Fame inductees: Li Na, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Mary Pierce. All of them won the Australian Open and French Open. Click here to see who was not voted in.
• Lots of feedback—which is always welcome—about the Tennis Channel coverage. I hate playing publicist, but the morning pregame show with Brett Haber, Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier and myself is always good fun and, at most events, precedes the 11:00 matches. We’ll be at Indian Wells next. If you liked the features, direct your gratitude at Wilder Woods Campbell’s mom, Shelby, as well as her entire team.
• On the first day of the tournament, Carlos Ramos was assigned to Court 20, and there was concern that he was being demoted after his (unwanted and, to many, unwarranted) role in the 2018 U.S. Open final. But after that, he worked big courts and big matches…though, pointedly, none of Serena’s. And, more generally, for a controversy that transcended sport (to say nothing of tennis) a few months ago, there was remarkably little fallout from it noticeable at this event.
• A personal favorite moment…I did a Tennis Channel interview with Tsitsipas after his second-round win. There was some technical difficulty and we had to start over. With other athletes, they would either walk away or express their annoyance. Tsitsipas, though, is a gear geek—and shutterbug, as they would say in bygone era—and immediately starts troubleshooting. He’s conversing with the crew about what had gone wrong, about which batteries and memory cards last longer. When the problem was fixed, he was as good as ever.
• Television ratings, like poll results, can be contorted and distorted. But consider that Australia’s population is roughly 25 million. And consider that more than 10 million Aussies have tuned in to Channel Nine’s broadcast of the Australian Open over the first six days of coverage. On the middle Saturday night, Channel Nine achieved a 53% audience share of people 16-39. And Alex Popyrin/Lucas Pouille was the featured match. Those are, relatively speaking, Super Bowl ratings.
• Channel Nine was surely disappointed that Nick Kyrgios went down early, but he stuck around to do some commentary and held his own. This goes to the Dr. Jennifer Melfi dime=store psychology explanation of Kyrgios: he’s great when there’s no pressure. Put him in an exhibition and he’s charming. Put him in the Laver Cup and he’s in heaven. Put him in a match that matters, when competition creates a character referendum, and he’s not comfortable.
• File this away: on average, a winning player wins 55% of the points played. (The loser obviously claims 45%.) So when, say, Danielle Collins wins 68% of points in a match—as she did against Angie Kerber—she is absolutely dominating. On the other hand, when you hear a commentator say, “Through four sets they’ve won the same number of points!,” remember that it’s not such a statistical anomaly at all.
• Remember the excellent film Lost in Translation, premised on a star (Bill Murray) crossing the Pacific to film lucrative commercials he hoped no one else would see? The Australian Open version: these spots for Uber Eats, which induced both cringes and smiles:
ON THAT NOTE, ENJOY YOUR GLUTEN-FREE DUMPLINGS WITH SESAME PRO-AWN TOAST… ALWAYS FUN GEEKING OUT ON TENNIS WITH YOU GUYS. BACK TO THE REAL WORLD. SEE YOU IN INDIAN WELLS!
Article written by Jon Wertheim #SportsIllustrated