The first Grand Slam of the year ended with the same champions as the last Grand Slam of the year gone by. The last time that happened was 1995 and the players in question were Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras. While that bit of trivia may or may not be a sign of things to come, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open triumphs after two weeks of entertaining tennis does give an indication of what to expect in the coming year.
Here’s are the takeaways from Australian Open 2019.
Osaka’s second straight Slam is good for tennis
Naomi Osaka scripted many records as she became the first Asian World No 1 in tennis. But the numbers that stand out are the ones associated with her consecutive Major wins as she broke the streak of eight different Slam champions since 2017. She is the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win her first two Majors back-to-back and the only woman to lift consecutive Grand Slam trophies this decade apart from Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams. This is the kind of consistency the women’s tour has missed in Serena’s absence, a void that neither of the four world No 1 players since have been able to fill. Only 21 and backing her first Major with another, the Japanese player has a strong chance to build a world-dominating season in 2019 and give the WTA a new power centre.
Top players show consistency
While upheaval in the women’s tour at Grand Slams is not uncommon, the Australian Open saw a more consistent show from the top-billed players, unlike the last few Majors.
Before the tournament, 11 women were in line to take the world No 1 spot depending on their performance. This depth has always been there, but now it is being backed with more concrete results. There was no seed carnage as seven of the top ten seeds made the fourth round or better, despite the usual wildcard of the women’s draw in the form of unseeded Danielle Collins, who reached the semi-finals. This is a great place to be as a women’s tennis fan.
Djokovic is back to being unstoppable… again
Djokovic was dumped out of his favourite Slam in the second round in 2017 and in the fourth round in 2018 as his career spiralled. He went for shock therapy with a new team, then needed a surgical procedure on his elbow and after falling out of the top 20 and a painful loss at French Open, there were questions if he could ever be back to his fearsome best.
Long story short: he now holds three of the four Grand Slams and looks in imperious form to win a several more, all the while consolidating his world No 1 rank. If that wasn’t enough, his stunning, straight-sets win over Nadal where he committed only nine errors should be a sign of how 2019 will unfold… perhaps similar to 2011 and 2015.
No change of guard but better showing from NextGen
Leave aside the final between the top seeds, and there is an interesting pattern in the men’s quarter-finalists. The last eight men standing were a curious mix of generations – Djokovic and Nadal were the members of the Big Four, injury-battling Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic were the “lost generation” representatives while the Next Gen had Stefanos Tsitsipas and Frances Tiafoe to wave the flag, and Roberto Bautista Agut and Lucas Pouille were the surprise packages, with each of them upsetting a top seed.
If this cross-section can be taken as an indication, the men’s tour might see a lot more competition in the middle. The ‘young boys’ are slowly finding their feet in best-of-five sets, even though they weren’t the ones most expected (Read that as Alexander Zverev and Karen Khachanov, both of who had beaten Djokovic in finals at the end of 2018.)
Serena Williams has work to do for 24
Serena Williams won her record 23rd Grand Slam while pregnant and after all that has happened since then – childbirth, life-threatening surgery, worst career loss – she has still made a strong comeback and was seeded 16th in Melbourne. Yet, she has been unable to cross the threshold everyone is waiting for — the 24th title that would tie her for most Slams in tennis with Margaret Court, by a strange mix of misfortune and mistakes.
An injury forced her out midway at Roland Garros, she had an inexplicable error-strewn final at Wimbledon and a full-blown meltdown in the controversial US Open final. At Australian Open 2019, she was foot-faulted on match-point, rolled her ankle and somehow managed to lose from a 5-1 lead in the decider in the semi-final.
The 37-year-old is strong and still plays a physically effective brand of tennis, but to win another Grand Slam title, she will need a lot more work mentally.
Andy Murray and the regrets of attrition
Andy Murray played what was, in all probability, his last match at the Australian Open as he tearfully announced his hip injury had made prolonging his career untenable. But it was a typically Murray performance in the opening round at Melbourne Park as he fought back from two sets down to push Bautista Agut, before running out of gas. The former world No 1 always played his tennis with hearts on his sleeve backed by single-minded focus, even when he continually fell short. In the end, this attrition may have cost him dearly, as he admitted. But in his own words, he wouldn’t mind if the first-round loss was his farewell, it was just that kind of a performance.
The oft-picked bone of contention at Grand Slam — scheduling — was under scrutiny once again as some strange decisions saw women play their matches after men’s five-setters, the most gruelling being the midnight start of Garbine Muguruza vs Johanna Konta which went on till 3.15 AM.
After his fourth-round upset to Tistispas, two-time defending champion Roger Federer said he will play the clay season after skipping it for three years through injury and fitness management. Obviously, the statement was dissected from all angles: was this farewell or just fun? Only time will tell.
The doubles action threw up some fun and surprising results: French pair Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert completed a doubles Career Grand Slam, unseeded Aussie champ Sam Stosur and Shaui Zhang beat the top seeds Katarina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova and defending champs Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos to lift the title while Rajeev Ram and Barbora Krejcikova beat the mighty impressive local wildcards Astra Sharma and John-Patrick Smith in the final.
And finally, no Indian, barring the evergreen Leander Paes, progressed beyond the first round in Melbourne, but Prajnesh Gunneswaran made his Grand Slam main draw debut at 29. Like Mahesh Bhupathi said, maybe it’s time India start to focus more on singles.