10 Break Points From The Australian Open
This year’s Australian Open has come to an end with Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki winning the singles titles. It has been a tournament that has attracted a record crown to Melbourne Park, but some of the issues raised by players are worth talking about further in 2018.
1) The scheduling of matches
The scheduling office at the Australian Open did not show a lot of love for women’s tennis. Out of the nine instances where the night session on Rod Laver Arena included a men’s and women’s match, the women went on last seven of those nine nights. When the women follow a best-of-five men’s match, the women often don’t take the court until at least 10 or 11pm. There’s not much energy for those matches in front of a mostly empty arena at that late of an hour. While the tournament tried to balance that by often scheduling the women first in the Margaret Court Area night sessions, any time where the women go on second can leave them without much of an atmosphere. Years ago it was customary for the women to always go on first. While it’s been a nice experiment to mix that up in the pursuit of equality, we should go back to the way it was as long as the men continue to play best of five. It’s also unfair that three of the four women’s quarterfinals are played during the day, as are both their semifinals. Scheduling the women on weekdays with sparser crowds, while the men get the prime time spotlight at night, is not fair. This was even more of a shame in a year where the women’s tournament was much more captivating than the men’s. I understand TV partners can have a lot of influence over such decisions, but it’s time for all parties involved to re-think the tournament’s scheduling.
2) The ATP calendar
Following his retirement from the tournament, Rafael Nadal had the following to say: "Somebody who is running the tour should think a little bit about what's going on. Too many people are getting injured. If we keep playing on this very, very hard surfaces what's going to happen in the future with our lives?" These comments come in the wake of other top male players such as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Milos Rainic continuing to struggle with injuries over the past six months. There's many changes the tour can consider to limit the damage to players' bodies, including decreasing the amount of hard court tournaments, as well as going to a best-of-three set format in at least the earlier rounds of the majors. Regardless of what the change is, it's clear the governing bodies need to consider the health of the players as a higher priority.
3) The hot weather
Speaking of the health of the players, this heat rule in Australia is ridiculous. Not only is the "wet bulb" standard confusing, but the standard required to close the roofs and halt play on outer courts is way too high. It's not fun to watch players suffer from the effects of the heat, which result in lower quality matches. It was highly uncomfortable to watch Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils play during one of the hottest days of the year, which is just one of many examples where a match suffered due to the heat. In addition, it's uncomfortable and unsafe for the fans. The modern game of baseline rallies is too grueling for such conditions. The Australian Open has three roofs – let’s make better use of them.
4) The grunting of players
The level of grunting/shrieking/screaming coming out of Aryna Sabalenka during her first round match against Ashleigh Barry was excruciating to listen to. It was an automatic use of the mute button, or even worse for the sport, a channel changer. It was so absurd that fans in the crowd began imitating it, to the point where the chair umpire had to ask they stop. The WTA has been saying for years that it would work to prevent this annoying form of gamesmanship at a younger age. But this 19-year-old is proof significant progress has not been made, and it's a shame: it drives fans away from tennis.
5) Changes to the draw
There was much talk during the tournament of how starting with next year’s Australian Open, majors will go back to only having 16 seeded players in the singles draws. Simon Cambers did an analysis here that’s well worth reading, regarding how the number of early round upsets decreased in the men’s singles draws after seedings were extended from 16 to 32 players. It’s appealing in that 16 seeds will result in more interesting matches during the first week of the majors, as players ranked 17-32 will no longer be protected from playing a seeded player before the third round. For example, at the Australian Open, 17th-seeded Nick Kyrgios could have drawn top seeded Rafael Nadal in the opening round. However, will we end up with worse matchups in the second week? If so, I’d argue this is not a positive change. I wonder if the major title counts of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic would be the same under the 16 seed format, and if their records will be harder to chase now.
6) The new clock
One innovation that was a welcome addition to the sport is the introduction of a countdown clock for the pre-match warm-ups. A clock on the scoreboard counts down one minute for players to walk onto court and report to the umpire at the net, followed by a five-minute warm-up. They’re then allowed just one minute to be ready to play the first point. It's a common sense change to speed up the time from when players walk onto court and when the first point is played. If players go over the allotted time, they receive a fine. Most fans likely didn't even notice this new rule, which makes me like it even more. Subtle changes like this for the sake of expediency and transparency are always welcome.
7) Zverev’s punishment
Mischa Zverev was fined $45,000 for what was deemed an unprofessional first round performance. A new rule allows players to still receive half their first round prize money if they withdraw prior to their match, and allows a healthy player to not only take their place in the draw, but also the other half of the first round prize money. This is a result of the large number of male retirements that happened in the first round of majors in recent years, as players not ready to compete at their best were not inclined to withdraw before the match as they would lose all their prize money. Yes, this punishment seems rather harsh in Zverev’s case, as Mischa is a player with a good reputation. He cited a viral illness as his reason for retiring during the second set, and perhaps he arrived to the court hoping to tough out the illness and give his all. But the clear message sent to players going forward is a good one: you’ll be better off financially if you withdraw rather than retire mid-match.
8) Talks of a union
Tennis is a sport filled with conflicts of interest, some more harmful than others. But it was still surprising to hear of Novak Djokovic’s unannounced closed-door meeting with the ATP Player Council. As the Daily Mail first reported, Djokovic asked for non-players to leave the room, and then spoke for close to an hour about the need for a players’ union. The ATP is a governing body that represents both players and tournaments, and there is speculation amongst players that they are not getting their fair share of increased revenues from the tournaments. There was even speculation regarding a potential boycott of next year’s Australian Open, but Djokovic played down that talk when speaking to the media. This may be the biggest tennis story to follow as 2018 progresses.
9) Halep’s heroics
If tennis gods exist, they really owe Simona Halep a break. Following a tortuous 2017 Grand Slam season, her 2018 Australian Open was just downright cruel. After saving match points in multiple matches that went passed 6-6 in the third set, she was just two games away from winning her first major title before losing the last three games of the women’s final to Caroline Wozniacki. Halep complained of feeling faint at times during the final, and was later taken to a hospital for treatment of dehydration symptoms. Considering the long matches she played in the hot temperatures, it’s no wonder. It was so refreshing to see a first-time WTA number one so valiantly fight for their first Grand Slam title following their ascent to the top of the rankings: too many recent new number ones have immediately faded after achieving that honor. Karma owes Halep a few good draws at upcoming majors.
10) Federer’s legacy
As tennis fans, we are really lucky to be able to see this record-breaking men’s era, featuring such likeable players that are not afraid to share their emotions with us. Watching Roger Federer’s twentieth major victory was special enough. But his emotional post-match speech, followed by extended applause as tears ran down his face, was just a great moment in sports. The 36-year-old still loves the game so much, and we should embrace every last tournament where a uniquely talented champion with such character is present. Federer, as well as the other veteran champions like him, will not be easily replaced when they retire.
Novak Djokovic’s Moment Too Big For Tsitsipas
Perhaps, it was too much for Stefanos Tsitsipas to think about achieving in one day. That’s beating Novak Djokovic and winning his own initial Grand Slam title, not even to think about the bonus part of the package — becoming the No. 1 player in the world.
At any rate, it obviously wasn’t meant to be for Tsitsipas to derail Djokovic.
Djokovic accomplished it all in one neat package. Say hello to the player many tennis experts are now calling the greatest player ever. Of course, that’s a little premature due to the fact Rafa Nadal was all alone with 22 Grand Slam titles before Djokovic matched the total on Sunday by winning the Australian Open’s men’s singles title.
FORGET THE GOAT TALK
Then, there’s the great Roger Federer, in reality, possibly the greatest player who ever lived.
So, forget GOAT. It doesn’t matter, whether Nadal or Djokovic wins another Grand Slam title.
Poor Federer. He’s probably home with his children laughing about all of this.
And Rod Laver? Of course, Laver was on hand to watch Djokovic’s superhuman effort.
Back to reality. The moment.
Djokovic lived there Sunday night.
THE MOMENT WAS TOO MUCH FOR TSITSIPAS
Tsitsipas wasn’t ready for the challenge. Djokovic certainly was.
It’s as simple as that.
Novak played great. Tsitsipas didn’t give himself a chance to win.
Djokovic stayed in the moment. Tsitsipas allowed the situation to take over his game and apparently his mind.
Tsitsipas must have been back home in Greece where he would be crowned if he could be No. 1 in the world and win a Grand Slam.
NEAR-PERFECT NOVAK A LEGEND
Tsitsipas had his chances, even though he was down 4-1 in the first set before you could blink an eye.
He actually was two points from winning the second set in regulation, then quickly fell behind, 4-1, in the tiebreaker.
Tsitsipas took the third set to another tiebreaker, but lost the first five points and then lost the match, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).
He never seemed to be keyed into the match, repeatedly miss-hitting key shots, even to open courts.
Meanwhile, Djokovic was near-perfect. He surely is a great one, a legend.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open
It’s a good thing the Aussies allowed Novak Djokovic to stay in Melbourne this year.
Otherwise, the young crowd of players might have taken over completely in this Australian Open. After all, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev and Iga Swiatek among others didn’t stick around very long.
Novak is saving the day Down Under for the great ones.
This is an Australian Open unlike any in recent years. It’s almost like the Australian Open, with its usual midnight to early-morning Eastern Time matches has taken a step backward in world tennis.
American fans apparently no longer can watch those great matches that start at 3 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. ET, except on ESPN+.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN LOST IN THE SHUFFLE
This Australian Open appears to be kind of lost in the shuffle this January, virtually taking away its major status.
In the absence of those early-morning battles, I guess it’s okay that most of the top men and women other than Novak, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Tommy Paul, Elena Rybakina and Jessie Pegula have sang their Aussie songs and headed elsewhere, except maybe for doubles.
Don’t overlook the tall Russian Rybakina on the women’s side. She’s two wins away from her second Grand Slam title, having upended the top-ranked Swiatek in the round of 16 and then taking care of former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals.
ALMOST LIKE A COLLEGE EVENT
Ben Shelton and J.J. Wolf are certainly outstanding American college level talents that came racing out of the winter red-hot.
But like MacKenzie McDonald, who thrashed an unprepared Nadal with a college-like all-power game only to falter the next round against a journeyman player like Yoshihito Nishioka, it’s doubtful that either Shelton or Wolf can stand the test of the only great one left — Djokovic.
In the long run, Shelton especially and Wolf likely will be stars. But these newcomers aren’t likely to hit the tour with the greatness that Carlos Alcaraz displayed when he was healthy during the last half of 2022.
WATCH FOR THE OTHER STARS AFTER AUSTRALIA
Other stars from last year such as Jannik Sinner, Cameron Norrie, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime will make their own noise once the tour hits Europe and America.
As far as Americans other than Paul, I like the looks of young Jenson Brooksby, who upended the second-ranked Ruud in the second round. The 22-year-old Brooksby looks like a future star, that is if he gets in better physical condition.
Thus, Novak appears to be an almost certainty to sweep to his 22nd major title in an event that has been his own private playground for much of his career. That shouldn’t change on Sunday in the Australian Open final.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris
Across the springtime of 2022 and culminating at the end of summer, a 19-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz made history of the highest order in his profession.
Alcaraz was astonishing during that span, establishing himself as the first teenager in the men’s game since Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 to capture a major when he took the U.S. Open title. This electrifying performer now resides at No.1 in the world and will probably conclude the year at the top despite an abdominal injury preventing him from competing at the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin.
To be sure, Alcaraz has been the sport’s “Man of the Year” in so many ways. And yet, a fellow teenager has now joined the Spaniard in the top ten, and that surely is no mean feat.
Denmark’s Holger Rune celebrated the most stupendously successful week of his career by improbably toppling the six-time champion Novak Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters crown. Rune upended the game’s greatest front runner with a final round triumph he will surely remember for the rest of his life. Somehow, despite being in one precarious position after another—and finding himself dangerously low on oxygen at the end— Rune fended off a tennis icon who had swept 13 matches in a row over the autumn. Rune upended an unwavering yet apprehensive Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to garner his first Masters 1000 title. The grit and gumption he displayed on this auspicious occasion was ample evidence that he authentically has a champion’s mentality, a wealth of talent and a reservoir of courage that must be deeply admired.
It was a fascinating contest from beginning to end. Djokovic was unstoppable in the first set, breaking Rune in the fourth game when the precocious Dane served two double faults which seemed largely caused by overzealousness. Djokovic won 21 of 26 points on serve, nursed the one break he got very professionally, and outmaneuvered Rune time and again from the backcourt. His controlled aggression was first rate. Serving for that opening set at 5-3, Djokovic closed it out at love.
He then reached 0-40 on the Rune serve in the opening game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity flagrantly with an errant backhand passing shot, a netted forehand second serve return and a cautious overhead that eventually cost him the point. Rune held on sedulously, and soon moved to 3-0. That opening game was critical, changing the complexion of the set and allowing Rune to believe he was in with a chance.
Rune held serve the rest of the way to make it one set all. But, once more, Djokovic took command. He broke the Dane for a 3-1 third set lead when Rune went for broke on a big second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic sought to cement his advantage in the fifth game, opening up a 30-0 lead and later advancing to 40-30. He stood one point away from a 4-1 lead which might have proved insurmountable, but Rune made the Serbian pay for a backhand approach lacking sting and direction, passing Djokovic cleanly down the line off the backhand.
Rune managed crucially to break back, closing the gap to 3-2 and denying Djokovic a hold he should have had. Djokovic was visited at the changeover by the trainer, who attended to a left quad issue that was burdening the Serbian. But thereafter Djokovic seemed physically fine and appeared to be wearing Rune down. Leading 4-3, Djokovic pressed hard for a break, but again Rune obstinately stood his ground and came up with the goods in the clutch.
There were two deuces in that eighth game, but the Dane refused to allow Djokovic to reach break point. On both deuce points, the 19-year-old unleashed dazzling backhand winners down the line before holding on gamely. The set went to 5-5, and Rune’s opportunism was again showcased. Djokovic was ahead 30-0 but Rune collected four points in a row to seal the break, taking the last two on unprovoked mistakes from Djokovic.
And so Rune served for the match in the twelfth game of the third set with a 6-5 lead. His lungs were almost empty as Djokovic probed time and again to climb into a tie-break. It was hard to imagine if Djokovic managed to break back that Rune would be able to stay with him in that playoff. He was exhausted from the mental, emotional and physical strain of the hard fought third set.
Six times in that last game Djokovic stood at break point, but he could not convert. Rune’s temerity when it counted was almost breathtaking. He erased the first break point by lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, and then benefitted from a shocking Djokovic netted running forehand on the second. Then Djokovic had complete control on his third break point, only to send a backhand drop shot into the net.
Rune remained unrelenting, saving the fourth break point with an overhead winner, and erasing the fifth when Djokovic pulled a backhand pass wide with a clear opening. Rune reached match point for the first time but his explosive second serve landed long for a double fault. Djokovic advanced to break point for the sixth and last time, only to be stymied by a service winner from the Dane. Soon Rune was at match point for the second time, and he closed out the account stylishly with a forehand pass at the feet of Djokovic, who was coaxed into a netted half volley. For the first time ever in 31 Masters 1000 tournament finals, Djokovic had lost after securing the opening set. Walking on court with Rune in Paris, Djokovic’s career record overall after winning the first set was 891-38 (just shy of 96%), which is a higher success rate than any other male player in the Open Era.
Through nearly the entire last game of the encounter, Rune knew full well he had to finish it off there. Djokovic was well aware that his opponent was physically spent. Both players understood that the match was totally on the line; Djokovic would almost surely have prevailed in the tie-break had they gone there. For Djokovic, the loss was disappointing but not necessarily devastating. He put himself in a position to win twice, but did not realize his goal.
Yet he recognized that perhaps the match he played in the penultimate round against Stefanos Tsitsipas had taken a toll on him mentally. He had crushed Tsitsipas in the first set. From 2-2 in the first set he won five games in a row and then had a 0-30 lead on the Greek competitor’s serve early in the second set. Tsitsipas escaped and stretched Djokovic to his limits before the Serbian came through from a mini-break down at 3-4 in the third set tie-break to win four points in a row. Djokovic was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4) but that victory required an inordinate amount of emotional energy.
An exuberant Rune was ready to pounce if given the opportunity. He did just that.
In fact, Rune set a Masters 1000 tournament record with five wins over players ranked in the top ten. His Paris indoor journey started when he fought back valiantly to defeat Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), saving three match points in the process (two in the second set, one in the third). After that escape, Rune stopped Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-1, Andrey Rublev 6-4, 7-5, Alcaraz 6-3, 6-6 retired, Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and then Djokovic.
Rune’s dynamic rise into the top ten has not happened by accident. He has won 19 of his last 21 matches, appearing in four consecutive ATP Tour finals during that remarkable span. He was beaten in the title round contest at Sofia by Marc-Andrea Huesler, won Stockholm over Tsitsipas, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final and now is the Rolex Paris Masters champion. Auger-Aliassime had won three straight titles before Rune stopped him in Paris. Djokovic had not lost since Auger-Aliassime defeated him at the Laver Cup. Rune refused to be intimidated by the size of their reputations and the strength of their recent records.
Rune wisely decided to skip the Next Gen ATP Finals this week in Milan. He will fittingly be the first alternate for the Nitto ATP Finals coming up in Turin starting on November 13. I have no doubt he will be ranked among the top five in the world by this time next year, and perhaps even reside among the top three. What impressed me the most in his match with Djokovic was his adaptability. Although Djokovic often set the tempo in that duel, Rune’s tactical skills were outstanding. At times he looped forehands and sent soft and low sliced backhands over the net to prevent Djokovic from feeding off of his pace. In other instances, Rune hit out freely and knocked the cover off the ball. He constantly shifted his strategy and Djokovic could not easily anticipate what was coming next. Rune employed the backhand down the line drop shot skillfully as another tool to keep Djokovic off guard.
No one in the game opens up the court better than Rune to set up forehand winners produced with a shade of sidespin that fade elusively away from his adversaries. Djokovic was the only player all week in Paris to comfortably return Rune’s serve, but on the big points Rune had an uncanny knack for finding the corners and landing big first serves. He saved ten of twelve break points against Djokovic. Moreover, he converted all three of his break points against a renowned opponent. Djokovic broke him twice but Rune would have lost his serve three more times if he had not performed mightily when his plight looked bleak.
What was most demonstrable at the Rolex Paris Masters was Rune’s propensity to play with immense poise under pressure. Not only did he survive that skirmish with the three time major champion Wawrinka in the opening round, but he somehow overcame Djokovic despite winning five fewer points across the three sets (97 to 92). Rune played the biggest points better than one of the most formidable match players of all time. He is a highly charged young player who has rubbed some players the wrong way with his high intensity bouts of abrasiveness on the court, but his comportment in Paris was very impressive and he did not put a foot out of line during his appointment with Djokovic. He handled the occasion awfully well under the circumstances.
In the weeks and months ahead, Rune will become a target of lesser ranked players looking to enlarge their reputations by virtue of striking down more accomplished adversaries. He will feel a different kind of pressure when he moves through the 2023 season in search of the premier prizes. But this is an enormously ambitious individual who is reminiscent of Alcaraz in terms of his outlook, sense of self, and mentality. They may well develop a stirring rivalry over the next five to ten years that will captivate galleries all over the world. Throw Auger-Aliassime into the mix with Alcaraz and Rune as well.
Tennis will be in exceedingly good shape in the years ahead. Djokovic remains in the forefront of the sport and he is a very young 35. The 36-year-old Nadal is not yet done by any means. But the younger generation is upon us, and it is apparent that Holger Rune is going to take his place among the game’s most illustrious players with increasing force, persuasion and urgency.
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