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TENNIS: SERVING ACES DOWN UNDER

February 03, 2019

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Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic

The ball went long, Novak Djokovic sunk to his knees and looked up to the heavens. He had annihilated Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, despite the latter being tipped as ‘favourite’ to win the match. The 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory gave Djokovic his 15th grand slam title, taking him past Pete Sampras’s haul of 14. He is now third on the list of the most titles behind Roger Federer and Nadal, bringing down the curtain on the first major tournament of the 2019 season.

However, this wasn’t the only significant story coming out of the tournament. Here we take a look back at the two weeks of exciting tennis witnessed at Melbourne Park.

DOMINANCE OF VETERANS

The year 2019 has started off in the same fashion as 2018 ended, with the stalwarts of the game strengthening their grasp on all the top prizes offered. All four Grand Slams in 2017 and 2018 were secured by the remaining members of the Big Four — Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and Andy Murray (who retired earlier this year). This strength was again visible in the Australian Open, highlighted by the lineup of the final.

The prodigious young talent that tennis lovers saw at the recently concluded Australian Open along with the resilient senior lot signifies that the sport is in good hands

The dominance is both unprece­dented and surprising, not in terms of a group of players having a stronghold over the honours but due to the fact that all three players show no signs of ageing. At the ripe age of 37, Roger Federer is still going strong. To put that into context, only one man in the history of the sport has won a Grand Slam after turning 37 — Ken Rosewall was 37 years and two months old when he won the 1972 Australian Open. Modern legends Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi won their last Slams at ages 31 and 32, respectively. They had both spent at least two years in retirement by the time they reached Federer’s age. It is this longevity and strength, coupled with the beauty and effortlessness with which he plays that makes Federer such a unique player.

Rafael Nadal will turn 33 this year. He still covers the court faster than most youngsters and breaks down opponents at will with his brutal groundstrokes and baseline play. He reached the final without losing a set; and his semi-final victim Stefanos Tsitsipas, who saved an incredible 12 break points and four set points while ousting Federer in the fourth round, claimed that he failed to understand how anyone could beat the Spaniard.

Djokovic will turn 32 this year, and yet he’s just become the first player ever to win the Australian Open seven times, and three successive Grand Slams on three separate occasions. He’s still in good shape, and was recently declared the fourth fittest athlete in the world by Sports Illustrated. The manner in which he blasted past Kei Nishikori, Lucas Pouille and Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final of the Australian Open was reminiscent of his extraordinary form and unwavering resolve.

If recent tournaments and trends are anything to go by, we should expect to see all three of them to continue producing jaw-dropping tennis for at least a few more years to come. With Federer set to appear in the draws of Roland Garros this year for the first time since 2015, this could well be a very exciting season of tennis.

ASIA’S NEW CHAMPION

Women’s tennis has found itself a new superstar in the shape of Naomi Osaka of Japan. She was ranked as low as 72 in March last year when she won her first ever Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title. She has stormed to take the number 1 spot off Simona Halep after becoming the first player to win back-to-back grand slams since Serena Williams won the French Open and Wimbledon in succession in 2015. The 21-year-old has become the youngest top-ranked player since Caroline Wozniacki in 2010. She enjoys the status of being a real crowd favourite, evident from her popular post-match interviews and press conferences. In her press conference after winning the title in Melbourne, she admitted that she had forgotten to smile with the trophy despite being instructed to before the match, prompting laughter from all the journalists.

The year 2019 has started off in the same fashion as 2018 ended, with the stalwarts of the game strengthening their grasp on all the top prizes offered.

Osaka’s biggest assets are her talent and mental fortitude, both of which have been on full display in both the Grand Slam finals she’s played (and won). In the US Open final last year, she beat Williams in straight sets in a match that will forever be remembered for the American stalwart’s meltdown in response to chair umpire Carlos Ramos warning her for receiving coaching tips during the second set. A prolonged heated debate ensued, which resulted in Williams being penalised a game and fined $17,000 when she called the umpire a “thief”, her third code violation of the match. But Osaka kept her cool throughout the game, patiently waiting at her baseline and displaying maturity way beyond her age. She only let her emotions take the better of her during the trophy ceremony, when she shed tears due to excessive booing by the pro-Williams crowd.

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka

And now, in the final of the Australian Open against two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Osaka saw three championship points saved in the second set, before conceding the set under extreme pressure from Kvitova as she showed signs of resurgence. Osaka left the court covering her head with a towel, which she later revealed was to conceal her tears; but once she returned she had her game face back on. The way she composed herself after losing four straight games and failing to capitalise on multiple match points would have done any old-timer proud, let alone a youngster in her third major final. She won the final set after going a break up to cap a 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 victory in, arguably, one of the best finals in recent times, and became the first winner of the self-proclaimed “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific” from the region since Li Na of China in 2014. And this time, the spotlight was on her.

However, the trophy ceremony was just as emotional as the previous one. Both the players are among the most likable on the tour but Kvitova was the fans’ favourite for the day, and for good reason. Just over two years ago, a knife-bearing burglar entered the Czech’s flat in her native city of Prostejov. Kvitova came out of the incident with multiple cuts on her left (playing) hand, causing excessive damage to tendons and nerves. Doctors feared she may lose movement in the hand as she underwent immediate surgery. It took her almost three months to regain movement in her hand and fingers. Despite a difficult end to the 2017 season on her return, she started finding her rhythm in 2018 before her mammoth leap to the final at Melbourne Park and the second spot in the WTA rankings. Considering the nature of acceptance speeches she’s had to make, Osaka will probably find her first normal one a bit boring.

With the advent of Osaka and the revival of Kvitova, the women’s game sees two hard-hitting versatile players who can easily pop the popular assumption that Serena Williams will win any major tournament she enters in form. Evident from the fact that Karolina Pliskova was taken down by Osaka in the semi-finals after she sent Williams packing one round before, this ensures that women’s tennis is progressing towards interesting times.

ARRIVAL OF THE NEXT GENERATION

Overall, the level of tennis in the Open was top-notch. The third round encounter between Fernando Verdasco and Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori’s marathon to beat Pablo Carreno Busta in the fourth round, Maria Sharapova’s victory against fellow former top-seed Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova’s dogged display to save four match points against Serena Williams and eventually beat her, and the women’s final itself are just a few matches that showcased the very best the tennis tour has to offer.

The encouraging thing to take away from the tournament is the fact that the next generation has well and truly arrived. The presence of the likes of Naomi Osaka (21), the women’s champion and world number one Ashleigh Barty (23), who beat Maria Sharapova before falling to Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals, Aryna Sabalenka (20), Elina Svitolina (24), Madison Keys (23), Stefanos Tsitsipas (20), conqueror of Roger Federer, Francis Tiafoe (21), who beat Kevin Anderson before meeting Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals, Daniil Medvedev (22), Denis Shapovalov (19) and semi-finalist Lucas Pouille (24) have made sure that the sport is in good hands.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 3rd, 2019