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COMMENT: It Won’t Be Easy To Take The Top Ranking Away From Naomi Osaka

Charleston Post and Courier columnist James Beck reflects on Naomi Osaka’s Historic win at the Australian Open!

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Naomi Osaka! What a surprise this last year!

 

Two straight Grand Slam titles and the world’s No. 1 ranking.

Even Serena Williams might have a difficult time regaining the top ranking from Osaka. If the powerful 21-year-old Japanese stays healthy and keeps her head, she is likely to be No. 1 as long as she wants.

A year from now, Osaka may own four or five Grand Slam titles.

A SMALLER VERSION OF SERENA

Osaka is just a smaller model of Serena. Maybe she’s not quite as strong as Williams, but Osaka appears to be better than Serena in several areas.

I believe Osaka may actually be faster than Serena, and for sure quicker and more mobile.

Osaka’s serve may not be quite as strong as Serena’s. Osaka’s serve is in the same league, not the single smooth brute strength motion as Serena’s, but Osaka’s power comes from the added acceleration on the downswing.

Even if it’s not Serena’s serve, Osaka’s serve is outstanding. It should carry her to a bunch of Grand Slam titles.

OSAKA PROVES HOW GOOD SHE IS

Obviously, there doesn’t appear to be anyone out there at the moment capable of surpassing Osaka’s ability. Osaka is a terrific athlete.

Osaka’s upset of Serena in last year’s U.S. Open final obviously wasn’t an accident.

Neither was Osaka’s win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s Australian Open final.

Kvitova played excellent tennis most of the match with her incredibly low ground strokes from both sides and almost unreturnable out-wide serves on the ad side. Of course, Kvitova is a left-hander, and such serves are her bread-and-butter shots.

WAIT UNTIL WIMBLEDON?

Who could forget that Kvitova is a two-time Wimbledon champion? And she has overcome career-threatening injuries to reach her current level of tennis. She is not someone that Osaka or anyone can overlook in the future, especially in a few months at Wimbledon.

There was no denying that Osaka was the better player in this one match, other than when she had triple match point in the second set. One of those “I don’t want to be here” emotions must have overcome Osaka for a brief time.

I can’t forget what I saw happen last April at the Volvo Car Open, way out on the club court with a crowd of a less than 2,000 watching. There was Osaka walking to her bench in the midday heat during a round of 16 match against Julia Goerges. Osaka was sending a verbal message to her coach that she didn’t want to be there.

And sure enough, Osaka soon was walking off the court in defeat.

A CAUTION FLAG

Osaka’s revelation at the Volvo Car Open brought out a caution flag about a player who only a few weeks earlier had earned a huge  payday at Indian Wells.

What was she thinking? To be playing in a big tournament on the WTA Tour would have been almost any tennis player’s dream. But not Osaka’s.

She has won a couple of much larger paychecks since then. But you almost have to wonder what might happen when she wins a few more of these big paychecks the size of her two Grand Slam paydays and everything isn’t going her way. Will she really toss in the towel?

Or will she have the never-say-quit drive of a Serena Williams?

Few players have Serena’s level of mental toughness.

But right now, Naomi Osaka is the face of women’s tennis.

James Beck is the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at

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Novak Djokovic’s Moment Too Big For Tsitsipas

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Image via Australian Open twitter

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. 

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Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open

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Novak Djokovic - 2022 Nitto ATP Finals Turin (photo Twitter @atptour)

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. 

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A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris

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image via https://twitter.com/RolexPMasters

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.

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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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUTX37tFaos

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.

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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.

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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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