“I've never been to a major where there have been so many feel-good story lines.”
— Mary Carillo, Tennis Channel analyst
Just when Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, the new Top 2, were supposed to reign Down Under, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the old Top 2, stole their thunder. Living legends Federer, Nadal, and Serena Williams overcame challenges, enthralling tennis fans, who were also riveted by rousing comebacks, record-smashers, and intriguing newcomers. Here are the stories behind the stories at the most exciting Australian Open this century.
1. What drove Federer, who by consensus was already the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) player, to continue on the Tour despite not having won a Grand Slam title since the 2012 Wimbledon?
When one divines the reasons why, four come to mind for this sports immortal, often considered sui generis for his many-splendoured genius. Though his drought at the majors caused some pundits to predict doom and gloom, Jolly Roger always remained optimistic that he would capture his 18th major title, and there was good reason for that. In his four majors before the 2017 Australian Open, he’d come close to winning, reaching two finals and two semifinals. He was also healthy again after aggravating a surgically repaired knee injury that had sidelined him for the last six months of 2016.
Like virtually every great champion, he relished the competition. He often called playing against Nadal “the ultimate challenge.” Indeed, before Federer fought back from a 3-1 deficit in the deciding set to overcome Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 for his fifth Australian Open title, he trailed Nadal 23-11 (9-2 in majors) in their storied rivalry. He also reveled in the challenge of knocking off Murray and Djokovic, who finished far ahead of everyone else in the year-end 2016 rankings.
Unlike 14-time major winner Pete Sampras, for whom the Tour became drudgery in his twilight years, Federer, at 35, enjoys life on the Tour as much as ever, complete with two sets of twins in tow. This happy camper has always liked the travel, the locker-room camaraderie with fellow players, and reuniting with tournament staffs he’s befriended during the past 18 years. Federer banters with the sometimes-critical media and patiently does revealing, and at times emotional, press conferences in three languages after every match, win or lose. He’s so relaxed and fan-friendly that he poses for selfies before big matches.
The Mighty Fed loves playing the sport and mastering its many intricacies. Like basketball great Larry Bird who used to add a new move or shot to his repertoire every season, Federer figures no shot—from “tweeners” to half-volleying opponents’ bullet serves—is beyond his incomparable talent. His coaches attest that Fed always has fun at his hard-working practice sessions, too.
As envious Chris Evert, a retired superstar and now ESPN analyst, noted, “Have you ever seen a player with so much sheer joy at his shot-making? Would you want to give that up?”
2. Serena Williams controlled her nerves. Yup, even The Great Ones get the yips at times—whether it’s missing a two-foot putt, a basketball layup, or a routine football pass. Some even choke for extended periods as Serena did in the 2015 US Open semifinals against Roberta Vinci, and to a lesser extent, in the 2016 Australian Open final against Angelique Kerber.
This year, though, her fiancé and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian watched her Aussie Open matches, and that seemed to calm the high-strung Serena. “I’m so uptight during tournaments,” Serena confided. “I don’t think it was relaxing for him. I’m really crazy at tournaments, everything has to be perfect. He’s been super supportive.”
One might have expected that Serena, whose only match after the 2016 US Open was a disastrous, 88-error loss to journeywoman Madison Brengle in the Auckland tune-up event, would look nervous and rusty at Melbourne. Instead, the amazing American, young and eager at 35, hit the court running with straight-set wins over former top-tenners Belinda Bencic and Lucie Safarova.
Sure, Serena faced only one top-ten opponent, whom she decisively defeated, No. 9 Johanna Konta 6-2, 6-3. And former world No. 1s Maria Sharapova (drug suspension) and Victoria Azarenka (had a baby in December) missed the tournament. Even so, Serena didn’t drop a set on the way to her 23rd major title, breaking the Open Era record she shared with Steffi Graf. She’ll face tougher draws as the season moves on, but during this fortnight Serena displayed devastating power, smart shot selection, and steady nerves.
“I’m still in the prime of my career,” crowed Serena after whipping her sister Venus 6-4, 6-4 in the final.
There’s no doubt about that!
3. Rafa is back. Just as winning the Aussie Open made Federer the early favorite at Wimbledon, reaching the final made Nadal the early favorite at the French Open. Resurgent Rafa admitted, “I never dreamed to be back in the final,” after he outlasted immensely gifted Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 in a 4-hour, 56-minute semi-final, the third-longest match in the tournament’s history.
Nadal has struggled with injuries far more than Federer during their careers. And his fall from the top was more precipitous, the Spaniard reaching just two quarterfinals in eight Grand Slam events since winning the 2014 French Open. Nadal revealed that his nadir came when a painful left wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the third round of the 2016 French Open. He was so demoralized that he wept in the car on the way back to his hotel. Asked at the 2017 Australian Open if he’s playing pain-free, Nadal replied, “What do you mean ‘pain-free?’ I’m not injured, no. Pain-free is a long time ago.”
Honest to a fault, he often expressed his surprisingly deep doubts to the media. But, as ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said after Nadal’s bravura semifinal performance, “The sheer quality of tennis has to get rid of some of Nadal’s doubts.”
His confidence also had to spike from relatively easy victories over No. 3 Milos Raonic and No. 6 Gael Monfils at Melbourne. Equally important was the confident, aggressive way Nadal competed on big points, especially during five-set matches, including his 4-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 comeback over rising star Alexander Zverev. The rejuvenated Rafa showed none of the tentativeness in pressure situations that had hampered him in five-set upset losses to No. 32 Fabio Fognini at the 2015 US Open, No. 45 Fernando Verdasco at the 2016 Australian Open, and No. 25 Lucas Pouille at the 2016 US Open.
Nadal, a 14-major champion, can still improve his groundstroke depth (to around 5 feet inside the baseline), and rallying court positioning (no deeper than 3 feet behind the baseline). He also must increase his first serve speed, which, against Federer, averaged only 177 km/h (110 mph), leading to just four aces and a mediocre 63% of 1st serve points won, far below Federer’s 76%.
Just a month ago, another Roger-Rafa final at a major seemed farfetched. Now it seems quite possible.
4. The graying of pro tennis continues. Incredibly, the men’s and women’s semifinalists averaged 31 years, 10 months of age. The only men’s semifinalist under 30 was 25-year-old Dimitrov, and the only women’s semifinalist under 34 was 25-year-old Coco Vandeweghe. Venus, at 36, became the oldest Australian Open women’s singles finalist in history.
The “Geriatric” Club also included 31-year-old Bethanie Mattek Sands who teamed with Lucie Safarova to win the women’s doubles title; 38-year-old American twins Bob and Mike Bryan, the doubles finalists; and mixed doubles winners, Abigail Spears, 35, and Juan Sebastian Cabal, 30, and finalists Ivan Dodig, 32, and Sania Mirza, 31.
What accounts for this unprecedented longevity? “I think people realize this is an amazing job, so it’s best to keep it,” Venus remarked after overcoming Vandeweghe to reach the Aussie Open final.
Of course, the answer is more multi-faceted and complex than that. More and more, established players compete successfully well into their 30s for several reasons. Years of experience have made them better tacticians and more well-rounded players. Improved nutrition and sophisticated training methods, such as the movement therapy Feldenkrais, have turned them into stronger and fitter athletes who can handle the great physicality. It’s inconceivable that a 110-pound, 5’4” teenager could ever again win a major as waifish, 16-year-old Tracy Austin did at the 1979 US Open. (At 5’9 ½”, muscular Serena was the shortest of the eight quarterfinalists, which included four women over six feet tall.)
In addition, byes for seeded players and flawed ranking systems favor top 100 players. Finally, only top 30 players, because they often receive lucrative “guarantees” (appearance money) besides greater prize money and burgeoning endorsement income, can typically afford elite coaches, personal trainers and racket stringers, hitting partners, physiotherapists, and sports psychologists.
Nonetheless, it’s still shocking and bewildering that only seven men under age 25 rank in the top 50, just four women under 25 rank in the top 20, and the highest-ranked teenager, Daria Kasatkina, ranks only No. 28.
“I think this generation is going to inspire the rest of the generations to play a schedule that’s achievable, sustainable, and that allows you to play Grand Slam tennis for a long time,” Venus asserted. “This is beautiful for the game because it will be able to retain its stars for a long time, which is a great business model.”
That line of thinking is fine up to a point. But tennis also needs the regular infusion of new and exciting young stars. Who can forget how captivated we were by German wunderkinds Boris Becker and Graf, blond heartthrob Bjorn Borg, whiz kid Jennifer Capriati, zany Monica Seles, teen rebel Andre Agassi, and “spice girls” Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova.
5. One-handed-only backhand players had their fortnight in the sun Down Under. This dying flat and topspin stroke (two-handed players typically also have a one-handed slice) was showcased by three of the four men’s semifinalists: Federer, Dimitrov, and Stan Wawrinka. During the engrossing men’s final, ESPN analyst John McEnroe rightly pointed out, “This is the best Federer has ever consistently hit his backhand.”
McEnroe’s empirical observation was confirmed by Tennis Analytic’s Jeff Sackmann. In his well-argued article, “The Federer Backhand That Finally Beat Nadal,” Sackmann wrote: “Using the approximation provided by BHP (a backhand potency metric Sachmann devised), had Federer brought his neutral backhand, Nadal would have won 52% of the 289 points played — exactly his career average against the Swiss — instead of the 48% he actually won. The long-standing rivalry has required both players to improve their games for more than a decade, and at least for one day, Federer finally plugged the gap against the opponent who has frustrated him the most.”
The key to Federer’s much-improved backhand was hitting the ball very early and aggressively, often from a yard or more inside the baseline. That positional advantage not only enabled Federer to cleanly contact Nadal’s outstanding crosscourt forehand in his strike zone beforethe topspin became vicious and high-bouncing but also robbed Nadal of time to dictate the rally with his next shot. Against Nadal’s slice serve in the ad court, Federer’s positional advantage allowed him to start the point near the sideline rather than in or even wide of the alley. In both cases, the Federer backhand became a real weapon, forcing errors and producing 14 winners (compared to 9 for Nadal).
But don’t expect a big comeback for the one-handed-only backhand. Dominic Thiem, ranked No. 8, is the only other elite man under age 30 using a one-hander. All 32 women reaching the third round hit backhands with two hands. Denis Shapovalov, a 17-year-old Canadian Davis Cupper with a one-handed backhand, may become the litmus test for the future of this vulnerable, antiquated stroke.
Interestingly, the ATP and WTA Media Guides both note in their player profiles whether backhands are one-handed or two-handed. By 2030, if not earlier, that information may not be necessary. By then, everybody should have figured out that two hands are better than one.
6. A host of records were set at the Australian Open. The usual suspect, Federer, boosted his career record to 18 Grand Slam singles titles and became the first man to capture at least five singles majors at three different Grand Slam events (Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open). Lucic-Baroni, who won her first Australian Open match in 1998 and reached the Australian Open semifinals in 2017, established a record for the longest gap between match wins at a Grand Slam tournament, 19 years, breaking Kimiko Date-Krum’s Wimbledon mark by two years. Serena broke the Open Era record for major titles with 23, but just as remarkable is the fact that a record 10 of them came since she turned 30.
The most shocking record was created by No. 117-ranked, Uzbekistan journeyman Denis Istomin. He became the first wild-card entry to eliminate the defending men’s champion in any of the four Grand Slam events by upsetting 12-time major winner Novak Djokovic 7-6 (8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 in the second round.
When Ivo Karlovic outslugged Horacio Zeballos, 6-7 (6), 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 22-20, they set Australian Open records for the most games played in a match, 84, since the advent of the tiebreaker, and for the longest fifth set, 2 hours and 57 minutes. The 6'11" Croat also notched a record for the most aces, 75. During the marathon, 37-year-old, but tireless, Karlovic thought about John Isner’s historic longest match ever, 11 hours and 5 minutes, against Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon when Isner belted a record 113 aces. “I was hoping, a little bit, it could go that long so I could also have that record,” admitted Karlovic, who wanted a bit of immortality, too.
The enduring popularity of tennis in Europe, where the modern game was born in 1874, was confirmed by TV ratings. Eurosport’s coverage of the highly anticipated Federer-Nadal final reached 20.7 million viewers across Europe, making it the most-watched tennis match of all-time and the second most-watched sporting event in Eurosport’s history.
7. Who says the serve-and-volley game is dead? Not after it was revitalized by an unlikely exponent. Mischa Zverev, the much-older and much-less-heralded brother of Alexander, relentlessly used this tactic from a bygone era to upset No. 1-ranked Murray 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in a fourth-round shocker.
Calling it “definitely the best match of my life,” the 29-year-old journeyman whose family moved from Moscow to Germany in 1991 was completely overlooked going into the tournament and was overshadowed by his brother. Alexander, just 19 but seeded No. 24, and with wins over Federer and Wawrinka last year, is considered a “can’t miss” future star. In an interesting twist, it was Mischa who said, “My brother inspires me all the time.”
Mischa had earlier staved off two match points to outlast 19th-seeded Isner 9-7 in the fifth set. Against Murray, “Zverev served and volleyed out of his mind,” praised Cahill, a 1980s serve-volleyer. Besides serving and volleying 115 times, he volleyed 118 more times behind groundstrokes, occasionally chipping and charging to exploit Murray’s soft, and short, second serve. Zverev’s lefty serve swerved away from Murray in the ad court and also into his body to handcuff him. He further disrupted Murray’s rhythm by slow-balling him with slice backhands. But his lunging volley winners, reflex volleys, and deft half volleys most befuddled Murray, normally a resourceful, skillful counter-puncher.
Their contrasting styles, rare these days, intrigued and entertained spectators. As McEnroe pointed out, “You like to see one guy coming at you and the other guy counterpunching. It’s like a great boxing fight. It was a pleasure to watch.”
8. It may take another year or two, or even three, for the Next Generation to make their mark on both Tours. My pick to break through big is Reilly Opelka, the 2015 Wimbledon junior champion. The 6'11 ½", 19-year-old American won three qualifying matches without losing a set and then was barely beaten 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 by David Goffin, the 11th seed and eventual quarterfinalist. “For a guy just under seven feet tall, he moves so well, that’s the best upside of his game,” said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. “I like his net game. Like Karlovic and Isner, he has a beautiful serve with a fluid swing. Opelka moves forward a lot more than them, and he’s a lot more comfortable at net than Isner.” The Big O also possesses sounder groundstrokes.
Meanwhile, Marta Kostyuk, a 14-year-old Ukrainian, showed little respect for her elders, upsetting top-seeded Rebeka Masarova, a 17-year-old Swiss, 7-5, 1-6, 6-4 in the junior final. Afterward, Kostyuk, the second-youngest champ in the tournament’s history, surprisingly revealed, “I was more excited yesterday when I got through the semis.” Why? Because she took a photo with Federer, who is also coached by Ivan Ljubicic.
Another potential teen queen, with a memorable first name, made history at Melbourne. Destanee Aiava became the first player born in the 21st century to appear in the main draw of a major tournament. The 16-year-old Australian impressed in her 6-3, 7-6 loss to German veteran Mona Barthel, who reached the fourth round. “I wish I had served like that when I was 16,” said Barthel. “She has great strokes, a lot of power. I think she has a great future.”
The ruggedly-built 5’ 9”, 154-pound Aiava, born to Samoan parents, trains three to five hours a day, incorporating martial arts, to attain the goal that she put on the refrigerator when she was seven. It reads: “No. 1 in the world forever.”