Australian Open 2020: The Novak Djokovic and Sofia Kenin show!

By capturing his fifth Grand Slam title in his last seven majors, Novak Djokovic claimed his 17th overall, leaving him just two behind Rafael Nadal and three short of Roger Federer’s record 20.

Novak Djokovic gestures as he holds the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after defeating Austria's Dominic Thiem in the final of the Australian Open.   -  AP

 

The odds were against Dominic Thiem, and he knew it. The best bet for a Next Genner to break the Big Three’s stranglehold at the majors was soberly realistic. “It’s unbelievable, twice in Roland Garros finals, twice facing Rafa,” acknowledged Thiem. “Now facing Novak here, he’s the king of Australia, so I’m always facing the kings of the Grand Slams in these finals.”

Not only had the King of Hard Courts won a record seven Australian Opens, but Novak Djokovic enjoyed other advantages. The unfair tournament scheduling gave him an extra day of rest and preparation before the final. That mattered because Thiem had battled through gruelling, four-set matches against Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev, while Djokovic dropped just one set in six matches. The slower courts this year also favoured the relentlessly efficient Djokovic over the more powerful but sometimes erratic Thiem. Finally, one wonders whether the mild-mannered, deferential Austrian has the “killer instinct” of Nadal or Sofia Kenin or yesteryear champions Jimmy Connors and Monica Seles — that’s imperative in a fiercely competitive sport.

Even so, Thiem had reasons for optimism. He had defeated Djokovic in four of their last five matches, including their last two at majors, though never on an outdoor hard court. Equally important, last year the two-time French Open finalist known for his clay success won his first Masters title on hard courts at Indian Wells and then reached the final at the ATP Finals. And in his third major final at 26, Thiem brought the experience to fight through nerves and display his marvellous shot-making.

When the 32-year-old Serb easily held serve to start the final and then broke serve to shoot ahead 2-0, there were no signs of what he would afterwards call a “turbulent” match. Not until Thiem had broken back to make it 4-3 and then held for 4-all, anyway. Then, noisy spectators disturbed Djokovic during a rally, and he yelled, “Shut the **** up.” Despite his domination Down Under, the Serb remains the least beloved of the Big Three, and the majority of the crowd were rooting for Thiem — an experience Djokovic has said he’s become used to.

Soon enough, though, Djokovic wrapped up the opening set 6-4 when Thiem double-faulted on set point. It looked much like a replay of the 2019 final when Djokovic trounced Nadal.

But tennis, often a sport filled with surprises and momentum swings, produced a strange twist in the plot. Taking the ball early from the baseline, Thiem frequently dictated rallies and broke serve for 2-1 in the second set. After Djokovic broke back to even the score at 4-all, a brutal, 29-shot rally wore both players down, as they grunted louder and louder. Two time violations cost the weary Djokovic a point, and the exasperated Serb made three straight errors to blow his service game.

During the changeover, an angry Djokovic touched chair umpire Damien Dumusois’ feet, which is prohibited, and sarcastically said, “Great job, man. You made yourself famous. Well done.”

Dominic Thiem had beaten Novak Djokovic in four of their last five matches, including their last two at majors, though never on an outdoor hard court.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

After losing his poise and the second set 6-4, Djokovic, renowned for his fitness and stamina, suddenly lost his energy in the third set. Afterwards, he explained, “I started to feel really bad on the court. My energy dropped significantly. To be honest, I still don’t understand the reason why that has happened. I was hydrated well and everything. Apparently doctor said I wasn’t hydrated enough.”

Djokovic’s first serve speed dropped 7 miles an hour, and Thiem raced ahead 4-0. When the Austrian, serving for the set a 5-2, hit a swing volley winner, the pro-Thiem crowd roared. A few points later, Thiem captured the third set 6-2. He had all the momentum now.

The last time a player had rebounded from being down 2-1 in sets at the Aussie Open was way back in 1988 when Mats Wilander edged home country favourite Pat Cash. And Djokovic had never done it in seven previous Grand Slam final losses.

But the fickle fans wanted a five-set finale, not a Djokovic collapse. So they greeted him with chants of “No-le! No-le! No-le!” when he struck three straight forehand winners in the opening game of the fourth set.

Though generally a high-percentage player, Djokovic isn’t regarded as a brilliant tactician. That reputation should be upgraded. Down 1-all, 30-40, he escaped the break-point crisis with a surprise serve-volley and put away a crisp backhand volley. “One point and probably one shot separated us tonight,” Djokovic later said. “It could have gone a different way.”

On the next point, the Serb conjured a forehand volley winner. Lady Luck intervened and a routine slice backhand resulted in a net cord winner and a crucial service hold. Crisis averted.

It was rather ironic that Djokovic, a nonpareil ground-stroker, was bailed out by his underrated volley. For the entire match, he won a superb 83 percentage (24 of 29) of his net points. As ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said, “When it really matters, you know he’s not going to miss.” Djokovic didn’t miss any big points thereafter, and closed out the fourth set 6-3 with an ace.

Two stats looked ominous for Thiem heading into the deciding fifth set. Djokovic boasted a terrific 30-10 record in five-setters, and he had won nine of his last 10 Grand Slam finals.

When Djokovic secured the only service break he needed in the fifth set to go ahead 2-1, the verdict seemed almost inevitable. In the fourth game, he stumbled but did not crumble. Leading 3-1 but down a break point, he escaped again with another winning serve and volley.

ESPN analyst and former world No. 1 John McEnroe said, “You have to be patient and then go big when you have a chance against Djokovic.” Splendid advice, but the Serb’s penetrating ground strokes, improved second serve — he worked rigorously on it during the off-season — and incomparable serve returns gave Thiem very few good chances to “go big.” Near the end of the final, Thiem’s patience wore thin, as he erred with reckless shots to give away the last game.

Although the first major final of the 2020s gave us a long, close match, its 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 scoreline revealed, strangely, no especially close, suspenseful sets. The final may have been “turbulent” for Djokovic, but events far more serious preceded and coincided with the tournament.

In his eloquent victory speech to the Rod Laver Arena spectators, Djokovic, a citizen of the world in the mould of Arthur Ashe, reflected on recent tragedies, especially the recent deaths of former basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash. “With huge bushfires here in Australia, conflicts in some parts of the world — people dying every day, obviously one person that I considered close in my life, and who was a mentor to me, Kobe Bryant, passed away as well with his daughter. I would just like to...say that this is a reminder to all of us that we should stick together more than ever. Be with our families. Stay close to the people that love you, that care about you.”

A devoted family man, Djokovic also alluded to a two-year timetable to win as many majors as possible because of his two young children. “I guess they are coming to an age where I really want to spend time with them and be the best possible father, and not be on the road all the time,” he said. “I am coming closer to the stage where I have to adjust to that. I have to probably play less.”

By capturing his fifth Grand Slam title in his last seven majors, Djokovic claimed his 17th overall, leaving him just two behind Nadal and three short of Federer’s record 20. The legendary Big Three now have grabbed an astounding 52 of the last 60 majors, including the last 13. This gerontocracy rules with such an iron hand that no active player under 31 has won a major title. And other than Thiem and Zverev, the best of the much-touted Next Genners — Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Denis Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev and Felix Auger-Aliassime — lost early at Melbourne Park.

For every winner there is a loser in the cruel sport of tennis. After losing his third straight major final, Thiem tried to see the bright side. “These guys brought tennis to a complete new level,” he said. “They also brought me probably to a much better level.” True enough, but that level wasn’t quite good enough against Djokovic, who regained the No. 1 ranking.

“I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level,” Thiem said. “I really hope also that I win my maiden Slam when they’re still around, because it just counts more. I just feel a lot of emptiness now.”

The mosquito bites her way to a major title

She was overlooked and undervalued. All the headlines and storylines focused on tournament and fan favourites.

The first major of the decade was bursting with intrigue. Could 38-year-old Serena Williams, the odds-makers choice at 14-5, at long last win her record-tying 24th major? Would resurgent Naomi Osaka defend her title? Could 15-year-old phenom Coco Gauff keep notching up sensational upsets? And would Aussie heroine and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty become the first countrywoman to capture her home Slam in 42 years?

Despite being dismissed as a 35-1 long shot, Sofia Kenin has always believed in herself. Ever since she started hitting tennis balls at three-and-a-half years old, her father Alexander noticed her exceptional hand-eye coordination and steely determination.

“She was the scariest little creature I ever taught. She was so locked in and focused,” recalled Rick Macci, the renowned Florida coach who guided her from age 5 to 12. “Her fight, determination, and thirst for competition were off the charts. If she lost a practice match, she begged me to play that opponent again. I called her ‘The Mosquito’ because she would not go away. She handles pressure better because she’s all about the fight.”

In a 2006 interview that has become the rage online, seven-year-old Sofia already had her eyes on the ultimate prize. “I want to be a champion. I want to be No. 1 in the world,” the adorable kid said matter-of-factly. Not lacking in confidence, she offered that she could even return master blaster Andy Roddick’s serve “if I split [stepped] and prepared early.” Practising three hours a day, she learned fast.

A first-hand insight into Kenin’s fierce competitiveness and burning ambition came from all-time great Martina Navratilova, who defected from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1975 to pursue her tennis career in America. “Sofia’s family had to get out of the Soviet Union to blaze their trail,” Navratilova wrote in The Times (UK). “When you come from that sort of background, it is not an option to quit. Whether you grew up in Russia or America, you still have that family history. You just have to keep going. That is Sofia’s attitude on the tennis court. She just keeps going and plays her best tennis until the match is over.”

Sofia Kenin throws her towel into the crowd after defeating Australia's Ashleigh Barty in the semifinal.   -  AP

 

Though the Russian-born, 21-year-old Kenin always ranked No. 1 among American juniors, she was never a teen queen like her idol, Maria Sharapova. Sofia’s pro breakthrough didn’t come until she was 20, when she won three small tournaments last year and upset Williams at the French Open. Her ranking soared to a career-high No. 12, and she received the 2019 WTA Most Improved Player award.

The Australian Open started under azure skies without a trace of smoke from the tragic bushfires that ravaged the island nation, and it soon became clear that “The Friendly Slam,” as the tournament is nicknamed, might continue the parity trend — seven of the past 11 major champions were first-timers.

In the talent-stacked top half of the draw, high seeds were ambushed in shocking upsets. Gauff, who was trounced and then was comforted by Osaka in a memorable US Open encounter four months ago, avenged it Down Under. This time, the big-serving American whipped the surprisingly listless Japanese-Haitian 6-3, 6-4 on Rod Laver Arena. Coco then asked for a selfie with Laver, saying: “I need a selfie for Instagram.”

Gauff’s girlhood idol, ageing legend Williams, put up more of a fight but also was eliminated in the third round. This time, it was Wang Qiang who turned the tables. The 28-year-old Chinese veteran had won only one game and 15 points when Serena massacred her in the US Open quarterfinals. Textbook technique, smart tactics and sangfroid gave Wang a well-deserved 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 victory. Now Serena’s quest to overtake — or even equal — Margaret Court’s hallowed record appears increasingly quixotic.

The third round also proved disastrous for three other putative contenders. Second seed Karolina Pliskova, often called the best active player without a major title, was bounced out by No. 30 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6, 7-6. Garbiñe Muguruza, the two-time major champ who started the tournament with the flu and without a seeding, overwhelmed No. 5 Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-2 in a portent of things to come. In another eyebrow-raising thrashing, No. 6 Belinda Bencic was overpowered 6-0, 6-1 by No. 28 Anett Kontaveit.

The most eagerly anticipated fourth-round match pitted Kenin against Gauff, whose 35-1 long shot odds had improved to 11-1 after she upset Osaka. Despite her No. 14 seeding, Kenin was flying under the radar, overshadowed by other Next Genners, especially Gauff. But Kenin, the more solid ground-stroker gradually out-grinded Gauff, the flashier shot maker, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 in what could become a big 2020s rivalry.

Nearly all the spectators rooted for Gauff, but that didn’t ruffle Kenin. “Of course she has a lot of hype,” said 21-year-old Kenin, after reaching her first major quarterfinal. “She has a big name. I just tried not to let that get the better of me. I want to show who I am, show my best tennis, show why I’m there, why I belong. I’m doing that.”

Kenin showed more of her best tennis to take out Ons Jabeur 6-4, 6-4. The versatile, clever Tunisian had made history as the first Arab to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal with impressive upsets over No. 12 Johanna Konta, No. 27 Wang, and 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, playing her last pro tournament.

Once again Kenin would have to face a crowd favourite in her semifinal against immensely popular Barty. But that palpable support could be a double-edged sword for the cheerful Aussie. Would she sizzle or fizzle under the great pressure, which was often compared to what Andy Murray faced until he became the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon?

Barty had survived a 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 scare against Alison Riske, and then, by outplaying 2019 runner-up and seventh seed Petra Kvitova 7-6, 6-2, had raised expectations that she could end the long title drought.

But Barty would have to beat the oppressive heat as well as Kenin. The temperature would soar to a tournament-high 102 degrees and a 4.8 heat reading, just short of the 5.0 it takes to close the roof.

Ashleigh Barty.   -  AP

 

Though only 5’5” tall, Barty belted a tourney-high 29 aces and attacked and defended with incomparable athleticism. Her Achilles heel: a shaky two-handed backhand and a one-handed slice backhand prone to clipping the net or sailing deep. “Barty’s backhand is incredibly attackable,” said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert.

Both players looked nervous during the poorly played opening set, which went to a tiebreaker. Buoyed by chants of “You go, Barty!” the Aussie surged ahead 6-4. But the gutsy Kenin fought off two set points with a forehand winner and a Barty backhand error and then took the tiebreaker 8-6.

Kenin pulled another Harry Houdini escape in the second set. With two more set points for Barty at 5-4, 40-15, Kenin ended a thriller point with a backhand volley winner, and Barty wasted the other set point with a forehand error. The opportunistic American used that momentum to grab 11 of the last 14 points and take nip-and-tuck match 7-6, 7-5. “I’ve dreamed about this since I was five-years-old,” the ecstatic Kenin told the stunned and disappointed crowd.

In the other half of the draw, Muguruza, whom pundits had also overlooked, was staging a career comeback. After winning the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon, she was touted as “The Next Great Player.” But she couldn’t stand prosperity. When her one-dimension power game faltered, she had no Plan B. She lost confidence and matches, plummeting to No. 36 by the end of 2019.

“Muguruza has looked so terribly unhappy on the court the last two years,” noted former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. “Conchita [Martinez, her coach] has tried to get her back loving the sport, loving what she does.”

It took a break from the game and a climb of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest (19,341ft) peak, to revitalize Muguruza. She said the five-day trek “definitely was a life-changing experience. It was a very hard challenge, completely different of what I do. You're climbing that mountain, and it’s only you. You don't get any award, any prize, any photo, any nothing up there. It’s really challenging, physically and mentally, to be there.”

Muguruza faced several tough challenges of the tennis kind at the Aussie Open. She followed up her victory over No. 5 Svitolina by knocking out No. 9 Kiki Bertens 6-3, 6-3 and No. 30 Pavlyuchenko 7-5, 6-3.

Simona Halep, the fourth seed and 2018 finalist in Melbourne, provided an even more demanding test for Muguruza in the semis. As ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, Halep’s coach, pointed out, “You can’t wait for Halep to miss. You have to make her miss.”

That’s exactly what the resurgent Spaniard did with a newfound versatility: besides aces, ground-stroke winners and aggressive stroke volleys, she saved points with defensive gets. The opening set was marked by power rallies and momentum swings. Both players saved set points in the tiebreaker before Halep blinked. Three errors, forced by Muguruza’s heavy hitting, gave the Spaniard the tiebreaker 10-8. Down 5-3 in the second set, she reeled off four straight games for an impressive 7-6, 7-5 upset. “If she can play every day like this, she can be No.1, for sure,” praised Halep.

As it turned out, Muguruza could play like that for only a set in a final only a clairvoyant could have predicted a fortnight earlier. In fact, Muguruza and Kenin comprised the lowest-ranked women’s final in the Open Era. And neither had ever reached the Australian Open semis before, let alone win the tournament.

That didn’t faze either of them, though Kenin’s mother was another story. She was so nerve-wracked by the excitement that when Sofia phoned her after the semifinal victory, she was told to hold on for a minute. Why? So she could have a drink to compose herself.

Muguruza, who had won 11 of 12 matches in 2020, stayed hot in the opening set. She grabbed 80 percent of her first-serve points and 71 percent of her points at the net to take the set 6-4. “If anyone can reset after losing the first set, it’s Kenin,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, who has known her for years.

Becoming more aggressive, Kenin broke Muguruza’s serve to go ahead 3-1. After she cracked successive forehand and backhand winners to stretch the lead to 5-2, the feisty Floridian spiked the ball and strutted to her chair a la Jimmy Connors. Kenin spiked the ball again after holding serve for 1-0 in the deciding set. The gesture may not endear her to some opponents or fans, but, like Connors, she likely doesn’t care.

Serving at two-all, love-40 in the deciding set, Kenin faced three break points. In a stunning turnaround, she blasted five straight winners — two forehands, two backhands and an ace — to escape and hold serve for 3-2. “Champions raise their level when their backs are against the wall,” said Evert, “and that’s what Kenin did.” The American called the pivotal sequence the “five best shots of my life.”

A game after the upstart thrived on pressure, the veteran buckled under it. Muguruza missed a routine approach shot and then double-faulted to fall behind 4-2. Nerves did her in again in the final game as she double faulted three times, the last coming on championship point.

Game, set and title, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, for Kenin. The first major champion of the new decade is a new star.

“She proved to us that she can play very well,” the gracious Muguruza told the crowd. “And play very well in the important moments, which is a different story. I think it’s even more special.”

In her victory speech, Kenin, the youngest American Grand Slam champion since Serena Williams in 2002, said, “My dream has officially come true. If you have a dream, go for it.”

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