Wozniacki’s gain, Halep’s loss and other themes

The lessons we learned from the Australian Open, and other conclusions we can draw from the season’s first major.

When luck favoured the Dutch: Up against an extremely easy draw, Caroline Wozniacki faced no top-20 player before the 2018 Australian Open final.   -  Getty Images

Are we going to see young players step up? Are we going to see injury-riddled players come back?” Mary Carillo, a Tennis Channel analyst, posed these questions seconds after 20-year-old Belinda Bencic calmly drilled a forehand winner to upset 37-year-old Venus Williams, the 2017 finalist, in the Australian Open opening round. Two days later, Bencic, a rising star rebounding from injuries, was upset herself.

Nearly two weeks later, the finalists in the wide open women’s field didn’t fit either of Carillo’s categories. Instead, these survivors epitomised a timeless maxim that superstar Bill Tilden wrote in his 1920 book, The Art of Lawn Tennis: “Champions are not born. They are made. They emerge from a long, hard school of defeat, discouragement, and mediocrity, but they are endowed with a force that transcends discouragement and cries ‘I will succeed.’”

Let’s look at the lessons Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep provided at the 2018 Australian Open, and see what other conclusions we can draw from the season’s first major.

1. Like Tilden, Wozniacki didn’t win her first Grand Slam title until she was 27 — in her 43rd attempt. Although the blonde Dane finished 2010 and 2011 ranked (undeservedly) No. 1, her quest for a major seemed quixotic. Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams overpowered Wozniacki in the 2009 and 2014 US Open finals, and she had reached just one other major semifinal in the past six years. Though persevering during tough times, still she contemplated retiring in 2016.

Another heartbreaking defeat in the final: A dejected Simona Halep with the runner-up trophy at the Australian Open. The Romanian will learn from the long, hard school of defeat.   -  Getty Images


Frustrated, Team Wozniacki replaced coaches almost as often as Donald Trump fires members of his administration. Either none of these coaches or her father-coach Piotr, a former pro soccer player, figured out the overriding problem — she lacked aggressiveness — or they did and Wozniacki didn’t heed their advice. The tide finally turned, though, when she captured the prestigious WTA Finals last November.

Sometimes it takes luck as well as time to win a major. With an extremely easy draw, Wozniacki faced no top-20 player before the 2018 Australian Open final and then, in the quarterfinals and semifinals, faced only unseeded opponents. But, more importantly, she improved her service speed and accuracy and added power and topspin to her once-mediocre forehand. As ESPN analyst Chris Evert appositely noted, “She’s been forced to change her game.”

Wozniacki was well-aware that this century’s power players have captured 68 of 72 major trophies and all five Olympic gold medals with just four exceptions — Anastasia Myskina, Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta and Sloane Stephens.

After Wozniacki won the first set of her 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 Australian Open final victory over Halep without losing a point on her first serve, Pam Shriver said, “This is the new age Wozniacki service game.” Much like Andy Murray, she learned that even the smartest and steadiest defence needs to be complemented by plenty of bold offence to seize Grand Slam glory.

2. Interestingly, both Halep’s playing style and career trajectory closely resembled Wozniacki’s. The 26-year-old Romanian vied with Wozniacki for the dubious distinction as the best active woman never to win a major. In 30 attempts, Halep came closest when she suffered heartbreaking three-set losses in the 2014 and 2017 French Open finals. Critics questioned her will to win, her volatile temperament and her stylish but unintimidating game.

But “the new Simona,” as she called herself, silenced critics in every way Down Under. Despite a painful ankle sprain, she outlasted Lauren Davis, escaping three match points, in a 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 third-round marathon. Then she outfought former No. 1 and resurgent Angelique Kerber 6-3, 4-6, 9-7, saving two match points, in the highest-quality and the most entertaining match — male or female — of the tournament. Halep prevailed partly because she belted a career-high 50 winners.

A revelation: Hyeon Chung, with funky eyeglasses, took the Australian Open by storm. The Korean knocked out Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev before foot-blisters forced him to retire against Roger Federer in the semifinals.   -  Getty Images


The tough draw and brutal matches eventually took their toll on Halep. During the second set of the final, she felt dizzy and had a headache. By 3-all in the deciding set, Evert said, “Simona is playing on fumes and a prayer.” The gritty Halep finally succumbed 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, but she went down swinging, with 40 winners.

In defeat, Halep found a blueprint to win her maiden major title at the French Open or elsewhere: go big with shots or go home early, channel emotional energy positively, and fight to the finish no matter how great the exhaustion or how daunting the odds. As Tilden said, Halep will learn from the “long, hard school of defeat,” transcend discouragement, and succeed.

3. Korea, a country with a modest tennis tradition, nevertheless produced the revelation of the fortnight: Hyeon Chung. This fresh new face with funky eyeglasses and a refreshing personality brings an unusual back story. There’s more to his futuristic, thick-rimmed white glasses than meets the eye. When Chung was a boy, his doctor recommended looking at the colour green to improve his high-level astigmatism. Grass courts and many hard courts are green. His parents encouraged him to continue focusing on tennis where the cardinal advice is “Keep your eyes on the ball.”

At the ATP Next-Gen Finals last December, the husky 21-year-old decisively won all five matches, including two against the rising Russian Andrey Rublev and one against Canadian hotshot Denis Shapovalov. But young Chung truly broke through by reaching the Australian Open semis. There, painful foot blisters forced him to retire at 6-1, 5-2 against eventual champion Roger Federer. Earlier, the 6’ 2” unseeded Korean stunned his idol, six-time titlist Novak Djokovic 7-6, 7-5, 7-6, and wore down the more-touted Next-Genner, No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev 5-7, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.

On these performances, Federer said, “He is incredibly impressive in his movement. He reminds me a lot of Novak.” After beating Chung, Federer said, “We will see much more of him. Top 10 for sure.”

Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon champion, also lavished Chung with praise. “Chung has enormous potential,” Cash wrote in The Times (UK). “He out-Djokoviced Novak in their match, employing great athleticism and tremendous shot selection. He is built for the modern game.”

Three more assets will help Chung make the top 10: a top-notch serve return, the ability to redirect crosscourt shots down the line and vice versa, and a calm temperament.

Brit with grit: In terms of athleticism and versatile racket skills, Kyle Edmund may not be in the same league as his countryman Andy Murray, but he possesses a more stable and upbeat demeanour.   -  Getty Images


Another propitious sign is that Chung has embraced his new notoriety and the high expectations that come with it. His Instagram followers multiplied tenfold to more than 100,000 during the Australian Open, prompting Chung to quip, “The number will soon reach a million, I hope.”

4. A Brit with grit made the AO semifinals, but it wasn’t Andy Murray. The former world No. 1 missed the tournament and underwent hip surgery in Melbourne. Although Kyle Edmund doesn’t have the athleticism and versatile racquet skills of Murray, he possesses a more stable and upbeat demeanour.

Edmund is often compared to four-time major winner Jim Courier. Not only is he a solidly built, good-looking blond and a tireless worker, but he’s stylistically similar. “He has a huge serve, huge forehand, and he hits the ball very strong,” Rafael Nadal told The Times (UK). “I really believe in his potential. I really think he is going to have a great year.”

Edmund served notice in the first round that he had the right stuff when he upset No. 11 Kevin Anderson, the 2017 US Open finalist, in five sets after trailing two sets to one. He then rebounded from the same deficit to overcome Nikoloz Basilashvili in five sets. Edmund’s best victory came over No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov in a four-set quarterfinal.

What I like most about the 23-year-old Edmund is his zest to compete. “You know, it’s a battle. It really always feels better when you win these matches at the Grand Slams,” he said. “It’s a test of so many things like endurance, mental, physical. Best-of-five sets should always stay in the men’s game. It’s a true test of quality and grit.” Right on!

5. It’s much too soon to panic if you’re 20-year-old Alexander Zverev. Even so, the ambitious 6’ 6” German has to be concerned about his disappointing play at Grand Slam events. His third-round loss to the No. 58, but much-improved Chung meant Zverev once again failed to even reach the quarterfinals of a major. Equally disturbing, he faded meekly in the stretch as the 5-7, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 score shows. Going from bad to worse, Zverev won just five points in the deciding set. Another stark stat: he has yet to defeat a player ranked in the top 50 in a best-of-5-set match.

“I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slams,” confided Zverev. “It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here. I’m still young, so I got time. I definitely have some figuring out to do for myself.”

Zverev has sound stroke technique in every department, though he can sharpen his volleys. But his game lacks variety and subtlety. So when his power shots miss, or he tentatively under-hits his groundstrokes, he has no Plan B. The Great Ones can win on their mediocre days. Zverev has to learn how to do that. Perhaps his older brother Mischa, a serve and volleyer, can teach him a few tactical tricks.

One for the future: Marta Kostyuk is the youngest player to win main-draw matches at the Australian Open since teen queen Martina Hingis in 1996.   -  Getty Images


6. Two AO debutants deserve special recognition. On the distaff side, if Elina Svitolina doesn’t become the first Ukrainian to claim a major title, that honour could go to Marta Kostyuk in the 2020s. When the 15-year-old Kostyuk, a qualifier ranked a lowly No. 521, stunned 25th-seeded Peng Shuai 6-2, 6-2 in the Australian Open first round and then reached the third round, she became the youngest player to win main-draw matches there since teen queen Martina Hingis in 1996.

As a little girl, Kostyuk was motivated to play to be near her very busy mother, a tennis coach. So she practised from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer. In an interview with the WTA Insider, Kostyuk recalled, “I would be winning, 5-0, 40-0, and I would miss one ball and I would throw my racquet and get so angry. ‘How could I miss that!’ I was a perfectionist. In school everything had to be good, my marks had to be good. In acrobatics, everything had to be good.”

All that perfectionism is paying off for the slender, 5’11” prodigy. “She’s poised beyond her years,” said all-time great Martina Navratilova, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “We’ll be seeing a lot of her in the future.”

Although Alex de Minaur lost a four-setter to 19th-seeded Tomas Berdych in the AO first round, his breakthrough Australian campaign made him another player to watch. The just-turned-19 Aussie made the Brisbane semis with victories over 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and No. 44 Steve Johnson. De Minaur continued his excellent form by defeating No. 40 Fernando Verdasco, No. 30 Damir Dzumhur, No. 36 Feliciano Lopez, and No. 42 Benoit Paire to reach the Sydney final. De Minaur is often compared to former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt because of their 5’11” stature and hyper-competitiveness — both celebrate winning big points with fist-pumps and shouts of “C’mon!” But De Minaur, dubbed “The Demon,” plays much more aggressively than Hewitt and resembles Belgian star David Goffin in technique and tactics.

De Minaur has absorbed Davis Cup captain Hewitt’s advice, and it showed in his Cup debut against Germany in Brisbane two weeks ago. He nearly upset heavily favoured Zverev in a 7-5, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 thriller. De Minaur, who lives and trains with coach Adolfo Gutierrez in Alicante, Spain, should benefit greatly from the Spanish clay-court influence.

“I put my goal to be top 100 by the end of the year,” 139th-ranked De Minaur said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to reach that goal. I now believe I can do it.” With his work ethic, top-notch strokes, and athletic talent, “The Demon” will likely crack the top 50 this year.

7. In no particular order, we learned several other noteworthy things. Angelique Kerber is back. Her 6-1, 6-3 thrashing of Maria Sharapova and 6-1, 6-2 drubbing of Madison Keys proved that. After plummeting from No. 1 to No. 21 last year, Kerber spent December training harder than ever. It took a sensational performance by Halep to stop her in the semis. The resurgent German veteran looked happy and confident and could easily win her third major this year.

Sloane Stephens can’t stand prosperity. After shocking everyone, including herself, by winning the US Open last year, she has even more shockingly lost all eight matches she’s played since then. At the AO, Stephens managed to lose to Zhang Shuai 2-6, 7-6, 6-2 after serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set. “She needs to get that hunger and intensity back,” pointed out ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. She also needs to get into better physical shape.

Garbine Muguruza, the player many experts pick to reign in the post-Serena era, was ambushed 7-6, 6-4 by 32-year-old Su-Wei Hsieh, in the second round. With an unpredictable variety of angles, drop shots, and depth, the 96th-ranked Hsieh cleverly confounded the powerful but less-versatile Muguruza.

On a comeback trail: Though she fell to Simona Halep in the semifinals, Angelique Kerber looks good to win her third major this year.   -  Getty Images


The 24-year-old Spaniard, a two-time major winner, lost for a second reason. “Muguruza looks uptight. There’s no joy in her tennis whatsoever,” noted Navratilova. “She was a different human, let alone tennis player, when she won Wimbledon last year. She needs a coaching change.” Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion, recently rejoined Muguruza’s coaching team. She temporarily replaced regular coach Sam Sumyk for the 2017 Wimbledon when he awaited the birth of his child at home.

During the Australian Open, Tennis Channel analysts Courier, Lindsay Davenport, and Jon Wertheim touted the Universal Tennis Ratings (https://myutr.com) and contrasted the quite different UTR rankings with the justifiably criticised WTA rankings. The UTR is based on three criteria: a player’s results from the 30 most recent matches, their margin of victory or loss, and their defeat of higher-ranked players and not being defeated by lower-ranked players.

More than 700,000 players worldwide have a UTR, and it’s the official rating system of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association in the United States. Unfortunately, it is also badly flawed. More about that in a future column.

You won’t find the doubles team of Mate Pavic and Oliver Marach among the “Player Profiles” in the 2018 ATP World Tour Media Guide. In January, the 24-year-old Croat and the 37-year-old Austrian streaked from semi-obscurity to perfection. The duo opened the season by taking tournaments in Qatar and Auckland. Seeded No. 7, Pavic and Marach then captured the Australian Open for each’s first career Grand Slam title to complete a perfect 14-0 month. That Marach achieved it in his 40th appearance at a Grand Slam event no doubt would have pleased Bill Tilden.

After they defeated 11th-seeded Colombian duo Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah 6-4, 6-4 in the final, the jubilant Pavic said, “I opened my mobile, I have 200 messages. With emotions and everything, I’m not going to sleep a lot. We still haven’t lost a match!” Pavic also paired with Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski for the mixed doubles title.

Pavic’s feat will likely be a trivia question in 10 years, but this year Mate The Great boasts the distinction of being the only man or woman to win two titles at the Australian Open.

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