The new decade got off to a rousing start with something new from the men — the ATP Cup — and something familiar, if not in recent times, from the WTA: Serena Williams hoisting a singles trophy. The win in Auckland was Williams’ the first in three years.
Also familiar: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic slugging it out in a high-stakes shootout, this time in the inaugural ATP Cup final, with Djokovic leading Serbia to a hard-fought — and hard-sought — win. Those events set up three of the storylines for the upcoming Australian Open. Let’s take a closer look at them and others:
Can Serena lock down her 24th Grand Slam singles title?
Auckland may be just a lower “international” grade WTA event. And the player Williams beat in the final, Buffalo’s own Jessica Pegula, is ranked just No. 84. But this may be just what Williams needed at the start of a new year to set herself up for a final challenge to Margaret Court’s record.
Williams, 38, is clinging to the final spot in the WTA top-10 rankings (she’ll be seeded outside the top eight for the first major). Her aura of invincibility has faded. Bold younger players relish the chance to create headlines by defeating an icon. Worst of all, the magic that Williams once conjured in Grand Slam finals has gone missing. She won 21 of the first 25 major finals she played. She’s 1-7 in her most recent.
But the “Happy Slam” has often been Williams’s happy place. She’s mounted amazing resurgences in Melbourne, crafted career-shaping moments, won more often on those hard courts than anywhere else other than Wimbledon (seven titles at each). She does fine without the hype of New York, the pressure of Wimbledon, or the clay Rubik’s Cube of Paris. Williams lost heartbreakers the last two times she played in Oz, including last year’s quarterfinal collapse against Karolina Pliskova. Williams led 5-1, 40-30 in the third set when she rolled an ankle. She never won another game.
After Auckland, Williams has one more reason to feel confident. In a moment of honest self-reflection she told reporters there: “I really felt like I was close [to the record] but I didn’t really show up in those [recent] matches. I have to figure out a better way to compete in those. It was tough for me.”
Karolina Pliskova secures her third Brisbane International title with a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 win over Madison Keys.
Is the ATP Cup too much of a good thing?
A natural competitor to the restructured Davis Cup, the ATP Cup also is the flagship men’s tuneup for the Australian Open. In the latter department, it has already made a big impact. In the final on Sunday in Sydney, Djokovic logged a critical — perhaps prophetic — straight-sets win over No. 1 Nadal to spearhead Serbia’s win.
The victory extended Djokovic’s hard-court winning streak over Nadal to nine matches and a surreal 19 consecutive sets. It also helped put the painful second half of 2019 further back in Djokovic’s rearview mirror. The way Nadal aced Djokovic out of the year-end No. 1 ranking for 2019 was not only impressive, it was unexpected and potentially legacy-shaping for both men. In winning the US Open, Nadal moved to within one Grand Slam of Roger Federer‘s record 20 major titles, leaving Djokovic trailing with 16.
Not for long, perhaps. Djokovic’s record in Melbourne is exceptional: 68-8 with seven titles. He’s had a handful of career-defining moments in Rod Laver Arena. At 32, he’s still the youngest of the three men vying for the Grand Slam singles title record. He needs a win in the coming weeks if he hopes to push for the record. Nadal is fully aware of the stakes.
The Spanish star has had some terrible luck at Australian Opens in the past, winning just once in five finals. He’s been knocked out by injury. He’s lost excruciatingly close, record-setting matches. He’s been ambushed by friend and foe alike. This year, though, he’s healthy, and he’s coming in with plenty of prep work. Nadal played six singles (4-2) and two doubles matches (2-0) in ATP Cup.
Because of the team ethos, the ATP Cup featured long days and often nights for all team members. The three-match ties were exhausting, especially for those, including Nadal and Djokovic, who played doubles as well as best-of-three set singles. The final result was sullied for some by Nadal’s decision to forgo the decisive doubles after his singles loss to Djokovic. Nadal cited fatigue as the reason.
The complaints about ATP Cup echoed almost verbatim those leveled at the revamped Davis Cup that was played just six weeks earlier. Ironically, Nadal led Spain to a win at home in Madrid in that competition. Having experienced both events, Nadal sees neither the need nor the room for both.
“I think is a great competition, but at the same time I can’t change my mind that two World Cups [within two months] is not real,” he told reporters after the final in Sydney. “So is not possible. We need to find a way to fix it, and we need to find a way to make a big deal with ITF and ATP to create a big World Team Cup competition, not two World Cups in one month.”
Djokovic appears to have the advantage going into the first major of the year, but Grand Slam events, where matches are best-of-five played every other day without any of the team event bells and whistles, are a different proposition that these team events. Don’t count out Nadal just yet.
Make way for the next generation
The tennis narrative for some years now (especially in the ATP) has predicted a “changing of the guard.” The theme gave rise to the #NextGenATP campaign, and it also put a spotlight on rising WTA stars like Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Belinda Bencic and others. Who was going to step up to cut down — and perhaps take the place — of a tennis giant?
That question has become less interesting than the one the young players of either tour are asking each other on a daily basis: “Whaddaya got?”
Next Gen standouts Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas aren’t engaged in rivalries with Federer or Djokovic. They’re feuding and pulling out all the stops against each other, or other Next Gen grads — staples like Daniil Medvedev or Denis Shapovalov. Osaka, Bianca Andreescu (who will miss the Australian Open with a tender knee), Aryna Sabalenka and others don’t appear as fired up about taking out a Williams, Simona Halep or Angelique Kerber as in asserting their dominion over each other. What good will it do to beat veteran champions if you can’t throttle your peers?
“At some point it’s like this: The big names go away, life goes on,” Medvedev told ESPN.com in an interview long before his magical summer of 2019. “That’s natural. Now there is a lot of movement underneath the top. We younger guys were all good, but you cannot say at 14 who will be really good. It’s being decided now, so we have to keep fighting each other to prove something.”
The competition at the WTA level promises to be particularly fierce. There were 14 women 21 or under in the top 100 at the start of this year. Three of them were already Grand Slam champions (Andreescu) or semifinalists (Marketa Vondrousova, Amanda Anisimova). Don’t expect the older luminaries to go quietly into the night, but look for the youngsters to bring the noise in Melbourne.
Can Ashleigh Barty overcome the home Slam jinx?
Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt played an Australian Open singles final but lost it. Samantha Stosur, the former US Open champ and last best Aussie hope, was beaten in the first round in Melbourne seven times in 17 starts. She never even got past the fourth round. Mark Philippoussis, Wendy Turnbull, Pat Cash, Pat Rafter … all of them played in Grand Slam singles finals at other majors but never at home after Chris O’Neil became the last Aussie to claim the title in Melbourne. She did that in 1978.
Barty’s combined skills and temperament seem suited to the task. Her palette of strokes, so artfully employed on the clay when she won the French Open, could paint an equally pretty picture on the medium-speed blue hard courts of Melbourne. Quick and crafty, Barty handled the big power of Pliskova without losing set on a similar hard court in the final of her breakout tournament last year, the Miami Open.
Ranked No. 16 at the start of last year, Barty ripped through a succession of opponents at her home major, then eked out a three-set win over former champ Maria Sharapova before she lost in the quarterfinals to explosive No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova. Establishing a winning tradition at a tournament counts for a lot. Barty is off to a good start with a 6-2 record since her return from a head-clearing hiatus early in her career.
Unfinished business for Pliskova
Sometimes you wonder how No. 2-ranked Pliskova, the Czech Republic’s 6-foot-1 power server, has managed not to win a Grand Slam title. She’s been ranked No. 1, beaten both Serena and Venus Williams in the same Grand Slam tournament and played a major final. History suggests she should come with the warning label: “Contents may dissolve under pressure.” And she’s already 27 years old.
But wait. While just eight men and 10 women in the Open era won their first major titles at age 26 or later, eight of those women did it fairly recently, between 2010 and 2018 (Halep was the last to accomplish it). With a few exceptions, Pliskova played tough if not always winning tennis last year. At the 2019 Australian Open, she recovered from match point down to defeat Serena Williams and played an high-quality final against Osaka.
Last week, Pliskova had the composure to outhit and outlast Osaka and Keys in back-to-back three-set matches to win the title in Brisbane. She’ll be a definite threat in Melbourne.
Federer walking a razor’s edge
While Nadal and Djokovic were flexing their muscles in an ATP Cup clash, Serena and Ash and Naomi were tuning up their games, Federer was responding to climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, who called out the Swiss star on social media for his commercial relationship with Credit Suisse, a bank that invests heavily in fossil fuel-related industries.
Federer, who is in Melbourne preparing for the Australian Open, released a statement this weekend in response.
“I take the impacts and threat of climate change very seriously, particularly as my family and I arrive in Australia amidst devastation from the bushfires,” said Federer’s statement, sent to Reuters.
“As the father of four young children and a fervent supporter of universal education, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the youth climate movement, and I am grateful to young climate activists for pushing us all to examine our behaviours and act on innovative solutions.
“We owe it to them and ourselves to listen. I appreciate reminders of my responsibility as a private individual, as an athlete and as an entrepreneur, and I’m committed to using this privileged position to dialogue on important issues with my sponsors.”
On Wednesday, Federer will be one of the headliners, along with Williams and Nadal, for the Rally for Relief charity event at Rod Laver Arena, with proceeds going to bushfire relief efforts.
Federer seems to be getting better preparation for a role in public office than an appearance in the second week of a Grand Slam event. He launched his amazing late-career surge with a win at the Australian Open in 2017, but he’s been as far as the finals in just one of his past six majors.
While he’s presumably healthy and fit, he hasn’t played an official match since early November. Federer extols the virtues of leading a well-balanced life and escaping from the prison of profession, but in a sport based on repetition and familiarity with the psychological stress of competition he’s leaving himself very little margin for error.