A woman in the crowd kissed the carrot she grasped for good luck. Like Jannik Sinner’s ‘carota’ fans in Italy and his burgeoning legion of devotees around the world, she sensed victory. Sinner led 5-3, 30-all in the deciding set of the Australian Open final. But Daniil Medvedev, a tenacious competitor, had taken the last two points.
Could Medvedev somehow come back just as Sinner had after losing the first two sets? The preternaturally calm Italian attacked with a forehand that the tired Medvedev barely reached and couldn’t return. 5-3, 40-30 championship point. With the poise of a veteran champion, 22-year-old Sinner moved his opponent around the court to set up his signature shot. Then he unleashed a rocket forehand down the line for his first Grand Slam title.
If Sinner’s fans were nervous wrecks during pivotal points in the 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 final, especially during the last game, their hero wasn’t. “I like to dance in the pressure storm,” he said. “I like it, because that’s where, most of the time, I bring out my best tennis.”
Perhaps the gangly strawberry blonde’s remarkable sangfroid comes from Sexton, a small town in the German-speaking region of Italy just seven miles from the Austrian border. There he was a standout skier — nicknamed ‘Jan the Fox’ — until he switched to tennis at 13. His father worked as a chef in a ski lodge, while his mother was a waitress. Jannik likes to describe himself as “humble.”
His surname is comically ironic because he’s likable and low-key off the court and well-behaved and fair on it. “Jannik is an incredibly nice guy in the locker room,” said Nick Kyrgios, the 2022 Wimbledon finalist. “You always see him as super professional, but he’s like a sponge. Ever since he came on tour [in 2019], that first match he played against Steve Johnson in Rome, the locker room was watching and thinking — ‘Who is this skinny guy who has the crowd in the palm of his hand?’”
One such admirer at the Australian Open final used a fun pun on his T-shirt — “I’m a Sinner.”
Sinner says he loves the solitude and problem-solving of tennis. Medvedev, known for his high tennis IQ, laid a trap for the less experienced Italian in his first Grand Slam final. Instead of his usual counter-punching style, the Russian surprised him by returning first and second serves several feet closer to the baseline than he had in previous matches and attacking as often as possible.
The tactics paid off handsomely. After holding serve for 45 straight games, Sinner was broken in the third and ninth games of the 6-3 opening set. “We’ve flipped the script,” said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. “Medvedev is the aggressor.”
Sinner should have taken the advice of 1920s tennis champion and genius Bill Tilden: “Always change a losing game.” Instead, he continued to play passively and fell behind 5-1 in the second set. When he broke serve for 5-2, the partisan crowd roared. Though encouraging, it wasn’t enough as Medvedev took the second set, 6-3.
For the third time, the Russian enjoyed a two-set-to-love lead in a major final. He won the first against Novak Djokovic at the 2021 US Open (denying the Serb a calendar-year Slam) and lost the second to Rafael Nadal at the 2022 Australian Open when he failed to counter Rafa’s fifth-set aggression. Medvedev would suffer the same fate this fortnight.
Was Jannik playing possum for two costly, losing sets? Was he crazy like a fox?
Maybe both. Sinner had a plan, as he explained after the final. “I had this feeling that he might come out a little bit more aggressive,” Sinner said of Medvedev’s tactics. “He played really, really well for the first two-and-a-half sets. I just tried to stay positive. I tried just to play even level and just stay as long on the court as possible, knowing that he has spent so many hours on the court. The more the match goes on, maybe physically I’m a little bit better today. When you win one very important game, the match can change occasionally, and that was the case today.”
Strange role reversal
Coached by highly regarded Darren Cahill, Sinner was prescient in two respects. En route to the final, Medvedev had competed in many more games (259 to 177) and many more hours (23 hours, 33 minutes to 14 hours and 44 minutes).
Also, this strange role reversal would likely last only so long before both players reverted to their natural styles. Sooner or later, the long, grueling rallies would drain Medvedev of energy, and his running would slow, and his shots lost power.
Then Sinner, five years younger and fresher, would seize the initiative. Remember Muhammad Ali and George Forman’s Rumble in the Jungle, when Ali’s ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic sapped Forman’s energy, and then Ali knocked him out in the eighth round.
Sinner’s plan worked but not until Medvedev came within six points of the title, with Sinner serving at 4-all, 40-all in the third set. Nerves got to Medvedev, as they often do to players during closing time, and he made two unforced forehand errors. Sinner pumped his fist after the 6-4 set as most of the 15,000 Rod Laver Arena spectators cheered for the popular Italian.
Now Medvedev found himself in a tactical quandary. He lost the third set and the momentum. He knew he had to change a losing game and that the problem-solving Sinner wouldn’t change his winning game. But, as Patrick McEnroe said, “I don’t know if Medvedev has the energy he had in the first two sets to hit the ball hard.”
With Sinner about to serve at 3-all in the fourth set, Cahill yelled, “He’s tired. Keep working him.” Jannik needed that encouragement because he fell behind love-30 and then 30-40 break point. He escaped the crises with three aces.
When Sinner broke serve to take the set 6-4, the crowd erupted with loud cheers, while the stoical Italian calmly adjusted his racket strings during the break.
Both players had losing five-set career records — Sinner 5-7 and Medvedev 7-9.
At 2-3, Medvedev serving, Sinner had his tired foe on the ropes. A backhand passing shot winner made it love-30 and a forehand crosscourt winner broke Medvedev’s serve and spirit.
Three games later, Sinner made history as the first Australian Open champion not among the legendary Big Three since 2014 when Stan Wawrinka upset Rafael Nadal.
He also became the first Italian man to capture a Grand Slam singles title since Adriano Panatta won the 1976 French Open and the youngest men’s AO champion since Novak Djokovic in 2008.
Lastly, he dealt The King of Hard Courts, his first loss as the No. 1 seed after entering the AO at 47-0.
Tennis aficionados and historians will also remember Sinner as a massive streak breaker thanks to his 6-1, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-3 semifinal upset over Djokovic.
If the result was surprising, the score was shocking. Djokovic had to stave off a match point in the tiebreaker just to extend the match to four sets.
Beating the GOAT at Melbourne — where The Djoker had amassed a perfect 10-0 record in both semifinals and finals — was a testament both to his superb performance and Djokovic’s mystifyingly abysmal play.
When Novak committed his 13th unforced error, a backhand approach that landed deep, to lose his serve and fall behind 5-1, the crowd murmured in disbelief. A game later, ESPN analyst and 1980s superstar John McEnroe said, “I’d be truly amazed if Novak continued to play at that level.”
At 2-all in the third set, McEnroe borrowed a catchphrase from the 1970s TV show What’s My Line where contestants tried to figure out who the masked celebrity was.
Mac quipped, “Will the real Novak Djokovic please stand up?,” adding “soon.” This Djokovic wasn’t an impersonator at least during the tiebreaker, his forte.
In retrospect, the much-improved Sinner should have been considered a slight favourite given his terrific record against elite opponents in the past four months: 2-1 against Djokovic, 1-0 against Carlos Alcaraz, and 3-0 against Medvedev.
During the press conference, Djokovic graciously told the crowd, “I want to congratulate Sinner for playing a great match. He outplayed me completely today.”
Then he admitted, “I was shocked by my level — in a bad way. This was one of the worst grand Slam matches I have ever played.”
On Djokovic’s ghastly 54 unforced errors, Navratilova, who won her last major title at the US Open at a record-setting 49, said, “When you get older, those bad days get worse.”
Ironically, Novak, who befriends and encourages young, talented players, generously gave Sinner several tips during the 2021 Monte Carlo tournament. The most valuable advice was that Jannik should become more unpredictable. Sinner took it to heart and added finesse shots, improved his volley, second serve, and serve return, and enhanced his athleticism. All that versatility came back to haunt Djokovic recently.
Alexander Zverev showed that he’s regained the high-powered game that earned an Olympic gold medal in 2021 and reached the 2022 French Open semifinals when a horrific ankle injury derailed his career. The 26-year-old German seemingly wasn’t distracted by domestic abuse allegations by a former girlfriend and the coming May 31 trial in Berlin as he provided several entertaining, hard-fought matches.
Lukas Klein, a Slovakian qualifier ranked No. 163, extended Zverev to a 10-7 match tiebreak, and the 6’6” German barely averted another upset, eliminating 19th seed Cam Norrie in a 10-3 match tiebreak.
Last year Zverev led the ATP with a first-serve average of 129.5 mph, with a highly consistent 70% going in. No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz, whom some pundits predicted would win his third major title in Melbourne, had no answer for Zverev’s rocket serves and tamely lost 6-1, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4. Alexander not only averaged 127.5 mph but made an astounding 85%. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone serve this hard, this big, and this high,” said John McEnroe. “It was absolutely the best match he’s ever played.”
Zverev faced Medvedev in the semifinals. There was no love lost between the two. The German called the Russian “one of the most unfair players in the world” for taking a questionable toilet break at the 2023 Monte Carlo Masters.
Medvedev led their rivalry 11-7, including 5-1 last year, but they’d never met at a major before. Two tiebreakers that Daniil won made the difference in his nip-and-tuck 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory. And a fluke shot in the fourth-set breaker was the unkindest cut of all for Zverev. Two points away from taking the set, and serving at 5-all, the German mishit an improvised a slice forehand return that turned into an accidental drop shot winner. Medvedev then smacked an ace to grab the fourth set. “Sometimes you need to be lucky, and today was my day,” Medvedev remarked.
Against Sinner, luck didn’t help Medvedev, who lost his third final at the Australian Open and fifth overall. With the young guns ready to take over the men’s game in the post-Big Three era and Daniil’s mediocre career result on grass and clay, the colorful Russian may wind up a “One-Slam Wonder.”
“What Jannik did today was to show that this young generation is going to fight till the very end,” said Cahill. “I think Carlos is similar, with the excitement level they bring to the game, and their personalities and their likeability. Seeing the young players come through and have success drives each and every one of them.”
Kyrgios, now a Eurosport TV commentator, raved, “This is going to be such a big leapfrog [for Sinner]. Now he’s got this one, he’s going to be unstoppable.”
While Medvedev wouldn’t go quite that far about Sinner, he said, “He doesn’t miss much, and that’s why he has a Grand Slam, why he has a lot of titles, and why he’s winning a lot of matches. I would think he’s top three, top five, on tour. Maybe top one.”
Let’s not write off the GOAT. “Doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the beginning of the end,” Djokovic warned.
Sabalenka overpowers Zheng for second Australian Open title
When her parents sent 15-year-old Aryna Sabalenka to the national tennis academy in Minsk in 2014, the coaches thought she was too stupid for the sport.
Her father Sergey, a former ice hockey player, knew better. Aryna recalled, “He told me then that I have everything I needed to achieve this goal — I just had to learn myself better, to learn how to control my emotions, and one day I’d be world number one. It was like our dream.”
That dream came true last September when she grabbed the top spot, but it was bittersweet. Sergey, who unexpectedly died in November 2019, did not live to see it.
Her dad had set another goal that she was determined to fulfill — two Grand Slam titles by age 25.
A year ago in Melbourne, Aryna finally exorcised the demons that had plagued her in extremely close, high-stakes matches to win her first Grand Slam crown, overcoming Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a ferocious, power-hitting final.
Still, doubts persisted about her newfound mental toughness. “Pressure is a privilege,” as tennis legend Billie Jean King famously said, but Sabalenka, who turned 25 last May, succumbed to the P word at the next three majors in 2023. Karolina Muchova, a hyper-athletic Czech ranked a misleading No. 43, upset her 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 in the French Open semifinals. Then, at Wimbledon, Tunisian trickster Ons Jabeur bamboozled her with a disruptive blend of power and touch shots, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, in another disappointing semifinal.
Two months later in New York, Sabalenka overwhelmed five opponents before coming back to outlast red-hot Madison Keys 0-6, 7-6, 7-6. “She broke the curse of the US Open semifinals,” ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said, referring to the heartbreaking three-set losses Aryna suffered against heavy underdog Leylah Fernandez in 2021 and Swiatek a year earlier.
The 2023 US Open final demonstrated once again how cruel tennis can treat players — especially the stars. Teen phenom Coco Gauff, buoyed by the fervent Flushing Meadows crowd, absorbed and defused Aryna’s power and added topspin for forehand consistency to upset the increasingly error-prone Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 for her first major title.
Nothing motivates a tennis player more than revenge. “I’ll follow that son-of-a-b*@#h to the ends of the earth,” Jimmy Connors memorably vowed after Bjorn Borg humiliated him in the 1978 Wimbledon final.
Sabalenka had a score to settle with rising star Gauff in the 2024 Australian Open semifinals. After pummeling No. 9 seeded Barbora Krekcikova 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, Aryna said, “I love it. After [the] US Open, I really wanted that revenge. It’s always great battles against Coco, with really great fights. I’m happy to play her, and I’m super-excited to play that semifinal match.”
Before their eagerly anticipated rematch, former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, now a Tennis Channel analyst, voiced what many wondered: “[At] the last three majors, Sabalenka has really melted down. Does Sabalenka have the mental game to hang in there?”
The 5’11” Belarussian, brimming with confidence, started with an ace and held serve easily, as she raced to a 5-2 lead. The momentum abruptly switched as Gauff, the game’s best defender, used her speed to surge ahead 6-5 after staving off a set point when serving at 4-5. But the American couldn’t close the deal, and three forehand errors set the stage for a tiebreaker that would prove critical.
Blasting a backhand winner for a quick mini-break and a 1-0 lead, Sabalenka extended that to 4-0. Controlling her power as well as her emotions, Sabalenka played a superb tiebreaker to prevail 7-2.
Highly animated but much less agitated this season, the new Aryna relentlessly attacked Gauff’s second serve. At 4-all in the second set, Gauff saved a break point with a backhand winner only to get broken two points later when her backhand sailed long.
Sabalenka reached match point at 5-4, 40-30, but Gauff boldly struck a forehand down-the-line winner to escape — temporarily. Aryna took the next two points with an ace and Coco’s backhand serve return error for a 7-6 (2), 6-4 triumph.
After exacting sweet revenge, Sabalenka smiled and blew kisses to the Rod Laver Arena crowd.
Sabalenka became the first to reach consecutive finals at Melbourne Park since Serena Williams in 2015-17. Pointing to her winning 14 of 17 points on Gauff’s second serve, Davenport called it “an A-plus performance. All-time great Martina Navratilova said, “She managed her emotions really well.”
Gauff, who failed in her last bid to win a major as a teenager, looked at the bright side. “A lot of positives to take. I didn’t feel like I played bad. I just felt there were certain points that I just didn’t win. So, it’s tough with the result, but I’m trying to look at the positives.”
The Floridian had plenty of positives to be proud of. Not only did she become the youngest woman to make the AO quarterfinals since Agnieszka Radwanska in 2008 without dropping a set, but she became the first teenager to make back-to-back semifinals at a major since 2007 and the first teenager to win 10 straight major matches since Serena.
Winning Ugly — the title of her coach Brad Gilbert’s best-selling book — Gauff survived a rollercoaster 7-6(6), 6-7(3), 6-2 battle against unseeded, world No. 37 Marta Kostyuk, the versatile and volatile Ukrainian. After the 3-hour, 8-minute marathon that set a record for her longest Grand Slam match, Coco said, “Didn’t play my best tennis, but really proud that I was able to get through. Problem-solving is tennis. Today was frustrating because I knew how I needed to play, I just couldn’t execute. Eventually I was able to find it, which is what I’m proud of. Mentally, I’m one of the strongest out there, and I try my best to reset after each point.”
In the top half of the draw, major upsets decimated the top seeds. No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who has trouble against power players, rallied from a 4-1 third-set deficit to edge 2021 AO runner-up Danielle Collins 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, but Linda Noskova, a 19-year-old Czech, ousted the speedy Pole 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
In a lesser surprise, (except for the score), the precocious 16-year-old Russian, Mirra Andreeva, used her superior strokes to trounce No. 6 and three-time major finalist, Jabeur, 6-0, 6-2. “Andreeva is on her way to becoming a superstar,” predicted Davenport.
Maria Timofeeva, a 20-year-old qualifier from Russia known as a great fighter, proved it by stunning 2018 Aussie titlist Caroline Wozniacki 1-6, 6-4, 6-1 and 10th-seeded Beatrice Haddad-Maia 7-6 (7), 6-3.
In the most dramatic first-week upset, Anna Blinkova, yet another Russian, outlasted No. 3 seed and 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (20). The fluctuating tiebreaker — in which Blinkova fended off six match points before prevailing on her 10th match point — prompted ESPN analyst Pam Shriver to say, “You don’t see 16 match points, maybe once in a lifetime.”
After the longest singles match tiebreaker in men’s or women’s tennis history, Blinkova wrote, “Never give up” on the courtside camera. Then she went down on her knees and cried.
The carnage opened up the draw for the highest seed left, No. 12 Zheng Qinwen. Despite not facing a top-50 opponent en route to the final, the 21-year-old Chinese dropped three sets, the toughest battle coming against Wang Yafan, her 94th-ranked compatriot, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (8). Conversely, Dayana Yastremska, Zheng’s semifinal opponent, knocked out three seeds — No. 7 and reigning Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova 6-1, 6-2, No. 27 Emma Navarro 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, and No. 18, two-time AO champion Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (6), 6-4. Thus, she became the first qualifier to advance to the AO semis since 1976.
But, as ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs noted, Yastremska is no ordinary qualifier. Stubbs probably meant that in two respects. She rose to No. 21 as a 19-year-old before the turmoil of the Russian invasion of her homeland and a doping suspension derailed her career. Early in the war, she got on a boat with her much younger sister to escape Ukraine and pursue her tennis career. Thoroughly impressed with highly talented Yastremska’s bold shotmaking, Stubbs said, “There’s no question in my mind if she plays her best tennis, she can win this tournament.”
Could Yastremska conjure more upsets to become the second qualifier in tennis history—after Emma Raducanu’s shocking 2022 US Open triumph—to win a Grand Slam singles title?
Navratilova, who defected from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1975, explained why Daayana and other Ukraine players fared so well since the war started. “They just will not give up because they have so much on their shoulders. They embrace the pressure.”
But nine matches had taken a mental and physical toll on the hard-hitting, but inconsistent Ukrainian. Zheng finally ended Yastremska’s Cinderella story 6-4, 6-4 with 33 winners and 11 aces.
Zheng’s run to the final would have fascinated Mao Tse-tung, China’s most famous tennis player before Li Na. Mao often practiced during his self-imposed exile following the Long March. “The daily games came to an end,” wrote Bud Collins in My Life with the Pros, “in a sudden-death manner when, one night, a goat ate the net.”
Zheng, who likely didn’t know this story, drew inspiration from a more recent and conventional source. She recalled, “I was once a fat kid,” and her parents told her to pick a sport, and she picked tennis. What ignited her passion for the game was watching Li Na capture the Australian Open ten years ago. “She means a lot, I think, for all the Chinese kids (my age),” said Zheng last year. “Because I think she’s the first one who won the Slams. I mean, that’s unbelievable for an Asian woman in that moment.”
The tournament invited Li, Zheng’s girlhood idol, to honor her on this 10th anniversary, and she surprised the delighted Zheng in the clubhouse lounge. The Hall of Famer and the blossoming star hugged and chatted. Li advised her to “keep it simple and not overthink.”
Neither that good advice nor vocal Chinese spectators dressed in red hats in the front row were enough to help Zheng dethrone Sabalenka in the final. Zheng had come a long way since 2022 when the WTA named her Newcomer of the Year and Most Improved Player of the Year in 2023.
In the final, both the players indulged in ‘first-strike’ power tennis, though Sabalenka did it better as Zheng found out when Sabalenka whipped her 6-1, 6-4 in the 2023 US Open quarterfinals, winning 16 of the first 19 points. With a potent serve that smacked a tournament-high 48 aces, a strong forehand, and superior court coverage that can turn defense into offense, Zheng had a puncher’s chance.
That small chance never materialised as a supremely confident Sabalenka, much like at the US Open four months earlier, streaked to a 3-0 lead. Zheng’s best chance for a service break came when she led 0-40 on Sabalenka serve in the third game. But the Chinese lost her nerve and played tentatively, allowing Sabalenka to seize five straight points, highlighted by a backhand winner at 30-40. The Belarussian took the opening set 6-3. No longer could opponents count on double faults, once her bete noire. Sabalenka committed just 10 in her first six matches, and she was even stingier in the final with none.
Instead, it was Zheng who double faulted three times to start the second set, the last on break point to give Sabalenka, a great frontrunner, a 1-0 lead. Aryna produced the most dazzling shot of the match at 30-all when she returned a second serve with power, spin, and accuracy for a severely angled crosscourt winner.
Zheng fought gamely with positive body language despite the match slipping away. When she overhit a forehand serve return to increase Sabalenka’s advantage to 3-1, the crowd moaned.
Throughout the final, the Belarussian’s high-percentage power tennis repeatedly elicited errors from Zheng, particularly high-bouncing, wide serves.
With new balls, the wind at her back, and a 5-2 lead, Sabalenka served for her second Grand Slam title. Could Zheng somehow stop her foe’s seemingly irresistible offense?
The Chinese stepped up her aggression and had a break point at 30-40. Sabakenka squelched that with a 116-mph ace, coaxed a forehand error, and finished it off with a forehand crosscourt winner.
In a low-key victory celebration, she raised her arms and blew kisses to the cheering crowd. Then she scurried to hug her team, tapping her easy-going fitness trainer Jason Stacy on his bald head. It was all good fun as Sabalenka slapped and autographed the bald dome before matches and even stretched her legs by kicking objects off it.
During her speech to the crowd, she evoked memories of Li Na’s funny remarks about her husband Dennis when she thanked her team and then wisecracked, “Without me, you wouldn’t be as good as well.”
Summing up Aryna’s 6-3, 6-2 masterclass, Mary Joe Fernandez said, “There are no holes in Sabalenka’s game. This is as dominant a performance as you’ll see in a Grand Slam final.”
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