Naomi Osaka Gets Better, Serena Gets Older - UBITENNIS
Connect with us

Grand Slam

Naomi Osaka Gets Better, Serena Gets Older

American sports writer Art Spander reflects on Williams’ exit from the Australian Open.

Avatar

Published

on

September 10, 2020 - Serena Williams in action against Victoria Azarenka during a women's singles match at the 2020 US Open. (Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA)

The tears told us more than Serena Willams’ words. She had been asked after what we might consider a momentous, if unsurprising defeat, whether this was it. 

 

Whether the way she touched her heart as she strode sadly across the surface of Rod Laver Arena was a sign that, half a year from her 40th birthday, it was time to retire — from the Australian Open, if not tennis.

Her response in oh-so-many words was classic Serena, a blend of defiance and acceptance. This lady did not become the best women’s tennis player ever — and who cares if Margaret Court has one more Grand Slam victory than Williams? — because she gave in easily. 

The hope was that Williams, two nights ago, would defeat Naomi Osaka and advance to the Aussie Open finals. It was a false hope. Osaka is 23. She keeps getting better (yes, in that chaotic win over Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open, Osaka was just 21).

Serena keeps getting older.

We’re all victims of Father Time. That’s sports. That’s life, really, but we notice it more in the athletes. One day you’re the new kid. In the blink of an eye you’re a veteran, looking over your shoulder or across the net.

Serena losing to someone 16 years her junior is no sin. Nor is it any fun, no matter how much you’ve accomplished. Athletes are taught never to quit, never to concede. A Tom Brady may keep going, but he is rare.

Venus Williams kept getting knocked out in the opening rounds of Slams, until a victory in the first round of this Australian Open. Some would choose a less tortuous path. 

Who knows about Serena? She’s a wife and a mother. She’s also a competitor.

The tennis player who decides immediately following a loss, no matter how unexpected or enervating, is rare. Nobody wants that stinging defeat to be the final line in their resume.

 A day before the Osaka-Williams match, the sports talk show conversations were consistent. On ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption,” both Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser said they were pulling for Serena but expected Osaka to win.

Williams lacked her primary weapon, the devastating serve. Our bodies change. Our styles change. Maybe the serve will be there another day. Most likely it will. This was the day she needed it, and she didn’t have it.

The years and the tournaments go past. Serena’s last Grand Slam triumph was the 2017 Australian. Four years and a lifetime ago, Osaka was a kid. Now she’s a champion.

As is Serena. She has the 23 Slams. The question was, could she add one more? You know the answer.

“Today was not the ideal outcome or performance, but it happens,” Williams wrote in her post after the match.

Athletes have a tendency to think the results will get better, especially when for years they were better.

“I am so honored to be able to play in front of you all,” she posted. “Your support, your cheers, I only wish I could have done better for you today. I am forever in debt and grateful to each and every single one of you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I adore you.”

What she doesn’t love is the negative questions from the media, which doesn’t make her any different from the rest.

I don’t know if I’d ever tell when I’m going to retire,” she said with some agitation. Then she walked away, and left the press conference, insisting, “I’m done.”

At least for now.

Article by Art Spander and published with his permission

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Featured

US Open, Steve Flink: “Djokovic’s loss had more to do with fatigue than pressure”

A recap of the last Major of 2021, from Raducanu’s triumphant journey to Berrettini and Zverev’s improvements. What was Rod Laver’s prediction for the men’s finals?

Avatar

Published

on

By

The 2021 US Open was historical from many points of view, starting with the full-capacity crowd coming back to Flushing Meadows. On court, we witnessed Djokovic’s bid for a Calendar Year Grand Slam fall short against Daniil Medvedev in the final, while Emma Raducanu took the tennis world by storm, winning as a qualifier and without dropping a set. These were just some of the topics of the tournament recap by Hall-of-Famer Steve Flink and Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta. Here’s their chat:

 

00:00 – Emma Raducanu’s historical feat: “She had an easier draw than Fernandez, who had to defeat many great players, but she was very impressive nonetheless!”

06:18 – Barty and Osaka’s premature exits: “Hadn’t she lost to Rogers, Barty would have won the whole thing…”

09:35 – Was Fernandez too tired during the final?

20:17 – The Canadian defeated Aryna Sabalenka, who once again missed out on a big chance: “She seems to have a split personality…”

25:24 – The men’s final – how distant was Djokovic from his best form?

28:59 – “Djokovic is the best at handling the pressure, I don’t think that was the main reason behind his defeat…”

35:05 – Was the crowd actually on Nole’s side or did they just want to witness history being made?

39:16 – What was the secret behind Medvedev’s winning tactics?

41:50 – Djokovic fell short of the Grand Slam in a similar way to Serena Williams – how similar are their performances?

50:16 – Rod Laver’s prediction for the final…

52:25 – Who is the best claycourt player, Djokovic or Federer?

55:05 – Carlos Alcaraz won over the hearts of the crowd – how quickly will he reach the Top 10?

56:29 – Is Zverev on the right track to win a Major? What about Berrettini and Sinner?

62:48 – The Canadians: who will have a better career between Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime?

Transcript by Giuseppe Di Paola; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa

Continue Reading

Featured

US Open, Medvedev Finds His Spot among the Greats, but Djokovic Is Not Done Winning Yet

The Russian can become a threat on every surface. The world N.1 couldn’t find his best game to clinch the Grand Slam, but won over the crowd like never before

Avatar

Published

on

The cognoscenti of tennis have been waiting for a couple of years for Daniil Medvedev to place his name among the game’s elite performers as a champion at a Grand Slam event. Medvedev has been on the verge of this accomplishment for quite some time. Through the summer of 2019 and on into the fall, he made immense strides as a player of the front rank. In that span, he made it to the final of all six tournaments he played. Most importantly, he moved agonizingly close to establishing himself as the U.S. Open champion. Confronting none other than Rafael Nadal, Medvedev was down two sets to love and trailing by a service break in the third set but, stupendously, he nearly won that match and claimed that title.

 

Medvedev pushed Nadal into a harrowing five setter that stretched from late afternoon well into the evening. He even battled back from two breaks down in the fifth set and saved two match points before Nadal held on from 30-40 in the last game of a compelling contest to win 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. Medvedev had concluded 2018 stationed at No. 16 in the world but his stirring surge in 2019 enabled this estimable individual to reach No. 5.

The 6’6” Russian continued along his ascendant path in a stellar 2020 campaign. He made another spirited run at the U.S. Open crown, sweeping into the semifinals without the loss of a set before losing to an inspired Dominic Thiem. Undismayed by that setback, Medvedev was invincible at the end of 2020, capturing back-to-back titles as the Masters 1000 event in Paris and the year-end ATP Finals at London, where he went undefeated in the round robin event. Moreover, he ousted the top three seeds in that tournament—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem—and that was an unprecedented feat.

In that spectacular span of two tournaments and ten match victories in a row, Medvedev accounted for no fewer than seven wins over top ten players. By the time Medvedev reached his second Grand Slam tournament final at the start of this season, he had raised his total to 20 matches in a row. Many authorities believed Medvedev would make his breakthrough on that Melbourne stage and take his place as a major champion, thus underlining his authenticity.

But Djokovic denied Medvedev that prestigious prize, playing a masterful strategic match and executing it to the hilt, winning a ninth Australian Open with a comprehensive 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 triumph.

That setback took more than a little wind out of Medvedev’s sails. He did make some amends that could be construed as positive steps. Arriving at Roland Garros with a career match record of 0-4, Medvedev found some confidence on the red clay and went to the quarterfinals but, much to his chagrin, he was soundly beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals of the French Open. Medvedev had toppled Tsitsipas in six of the seven head-to-head battles they had fought up until Roland Garros, so that setback had to be stinging.

On to Wimbledon went Medvedev, and once more he reached the fourth round of a Major. But he let a two-sets-to-one lead against Hubert Hurkacz still from his grasp in a two day meeting, falling in five sets. And yet, Medvedev did recover his form over the summer when he won the Masters 1000 title in Canada.

And so he came into the U.S. Open as the No. 2 seed, quietly confident and cautiously optimistic, a man on a mission. Medvedev took advantage of a favorable draw. He did not drop a set prior to the quarterfinals, but did struggle slightly against the Dutch qualifier Botic Van de Zandschulp before winning 7-5 in the fourth set. But then he took apart No. 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets.

That win over the athletic Canadian took Medvedev into his third major final and his second in New York. To most avid tennis observers, it was a fitting way to settle the outcome of the last major in 2021 when it all came down to Medvedev against a man on an ineffable historical quest named Novak Djokovic.

The world No. 1 was coping with the kind of pressure that only a fellow of his extraordinary stature could possibly understand. Once he had captured his second French Open in June to put himself half-way to a Grand Slam, Djokovic had his mind fixated on that lofty goal. He went to Wimbledon not simply to win the world’s premier tennis tournament but to garner a third major in a row and go to New York in search of the last piece in the puzzle. No one in men’s tennis since Rod Laver secured his second Grand Slam in 1969 had taken the first three majors of the season to land in such lofty territory—one tournament away from a Grand Slam.

Surely Djokovic was informed by media figures and fellow players that only five players had ever taken all four major tournaments in a single year to win the Grand Slam. The first time it was done was in 1938, when the Californian Don Budge—owner of perhaps the best backhand tennis has ever witnessed—pulled off the remarkable feat. Maureen Connolly was next on the list in 1953, succeeding largely because her ground strokes were the best in the women’s game and her footwork was exemplary. The left-handed Laver—an incomparable Australian shotmaker— took his first Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and his second as a professional seven years later.

Next up was another Australian stalwart. Margaret Smith Court—a magnificent attacking player— realized her dream of the Grand Slam in 1970. Eighteen years later, it was Steffi Graf’s turn. The German with fast feet and explosive forehand was unbeatable at the Grand Slam tournaments in 1988.

So there you have it. No one since Graf has won the Grand Slam, proof of what a difficult task it is for both the men and the women. Keep in mind as well that some of the sport’s most luminous figures have never come close. To be sure, Roger Federer celebrated three seasons (2004, 2006 and 2007) when he was victorious at three of the four majors, but he never made it even half-way to a Grand Slam because he was unable to come through at Roland Garros in those years. The one year he won the French Open (2009) he had already lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final.

Nadal won the last three majors of 2010 in Paris, London and New York but he had been beaten at the Australian Open in the first one. The only time Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009, he suffered his first loss at Roland Garros against Robin Soderling and the Grand Slam chance was gone. Djokovic himself managed to sweep four majors in a row from Wimbledon of 2015 through Roland Garros of 2016. That meant he was actually half-way to a Grand Slam in 2016 but he lost in the third round of Wimbledon to Sam Querrey so that opportunity evaporated.

Meanwhile, a small cast of players has won the first three majors of the year to stand within striking distance of a Grand Slam. The first one was Jack Crawford of Australia in 1933. He took the first three and then was in the final of Forest Hills at the U.S. Championships. He was only one set away from the Grand Slam but lost to the gifted Englishman Fred Perry. Similarly, the Australian dynamo Lew Hoad was also one match away from a Grand Slam in 1956 but his countryman Ken Rosewall knocked off Hoad in the Forest Hills final. And then in 1984, Martina Navratilova was the champion at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. At that time the Australian Open was the last major fo the season, and Navratilova was beaten in Melbourne by Helena Sukova in the semifinals.

And so Djokovic was surrounded by all of these historical facts as he came to the U.S. Open this year. The 34-year-old was seeking to establish himself as the oldest player ever to win a Grand Slam, and he navigated his draw well across an arduous fortnight in New York. At the U.S. Open, his anxiety was evident all the way through the tournament but time and again Djokovic overcome his difficulties and raised his game when he needed to.

In the first round he went into a tailspin in the second set against Danish qualifier Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune but romped in the end 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1 as the teenager suffered with cramps. The Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor faced Djokovic in the second round and the top seed granted his adversary only seven games across three sets. 2014 U.S Open finalist Kei Nishikori took the first set from Djokovic before the Serbian beat him for the 17th time in a row 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. In the round of 16, the young American wildcard Jack Brooksby came out with deep intensity and Djokovic was unsettled, but the 34-year-old found his range in the second set and never lost it, winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Now in the quarterfinals Djokovic was pitted against the No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini. The flamboyant Italian had lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and again in the final at Wimbledon. Now Djokovic prevailed for the third time in a row against the big server 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

So the stage was set for Djokovic to play No. 4 seed Sascha Zverev, who was on a rampage. Zverev had won 16 matches in a row heading into his appointment with Djokovic, taking the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo and then winning the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati. In Tokyo, Zverev rallied from a set and a break down at 6-1, 3-2 but swept eight games in a row and ten of the last eleven to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-1.

But in New York, Djokovic played his best match of the tournament, turning the tables on the German. Djokovic rallied ferociously again to gain a pulsating five set triumph over Zverev 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in three hours and 34 minutes. In the fifth set of that scintillating encounter under the lights, Djokovic collected 24 of 30 points to open up a 5-0 lead. Although Zverev pridefully won the next two games, Djokovic finished it off with a third service break of the set in the eighth game.

Many of us expected Djokovic to repeat his Australian Open final round win over Medvedev in New York. No one was taking Medvedev lightly or assuming he would not put up the toughest possible fight. But Djokovic’s big match prowess and his vast experience on the premier stages was paramount in the minds of many experts. This was, after all, his 31st Major final, a record number he shares with Federer. Moreover, Djokovic has grown immeasurably across the years as a player who knows how to bring out his best on the biggest occasions.

He had won 12 of his previous 14 finals at the Grand Slam events heading into this U.S. Open.  Djokovic’s record was once 6-7 in the middle of 2014, but he then won 14 of 17 to put him at 20-10 in his career leading up to Flushing Meadows. That success rate made him the favorite at the Open to win a record 21st Major crown as well as realizing the most demanding goal of his career—a Grand Slam sweep of all four majors.

But it was apparent from the outset of his duel with the 25-year-old Russian that Djokovic was nowhere near the level he needed to be physically, mentally or emotionally. The first ominous sign was in the opening game of the match. Djokovic led 40-15 but he was coaxed into four consecutive errors and thus lost his serve immediately. Medvedev was clearly buoyed by that beginning, holding his serve at 15 for 2-0 with two aces. Djokovic then fell into a 15-40 hole by making his eighth unforced error of the young match. Although he won four points in a row and finished off that third game with two aces, Djokovic had not commenced this contest with the standard he needed to meet the moment.

Medvedev required only 47 seconds to hold for 3-1 by virtue of two aces, a service winner and a forehand winner. In his next three service games, Medvedev conceded only two points. Djokovic was not reading that serve at all and was slow to react whenever he did. Medvedev captured that set confidently, 6-4.

It was early in the second set that Djokovic found some openings that might have altered the course of the match had he exploited them. He reached 0-40 on the Medvedev serve but steered a forehand retrieve of a drop shot and was passed down the line off the forehand by the Russian. Medvedev released an ace for 30-40 and then Djokovic botched a backhand slice, sending that shot into the net. He was infuriated. Medvedev held on crucially for 1-1 with an ace followed by a service winner.

Djokovic saved a break point on his way to a 2-1 lead and then had two more break points in the fourth game, but Medvedev produced a low forehand drop volley that drew an errant forehand pass from the Serbian, and then saved the second break point with a backhand down the line deep into the corner that Djokovic could not answer. Medvedev made it to 2-2, broke Djokovic in the fifth game as the top seed put only one of six first serves in play, and then the Russian conceded only two points in his last three service games to wrap up the set 6-4.

Djokovic was clearly despondent. He was not simply below par as he would say later; he was way off his game in every respect. Medvedev rolled to 4-0 in the third and soon moved to 5-1. The capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was filled with Djokovic fans cheering him on vociferously, but they had little to shout about for most of the proceedings. Djokovic held on in the seventh game. Medvedev had a match point at 5-2 but served a double fault at 120 MPH into the net as the crowd callously applauded his mistake. He then served another double fault and Djokovic went on to break. When Djokovic held easily in the ninth game, the crowd’s applause for a man they had seldom supported was astonishing and much appreciated by the world’s best tennis player.

Djokovic shed tears into his towel at the changeover. Medvedev then served for the match a second time and released another double fault at 40-15. No one knew it then, but the Russian was fighting cramps, a fact he hid awfully well from his opponent and the audience. At 40-30 his first serve was good enough to force Djokovic to miss the return, and so Medvedev averted a potential crisis to defeat his rival for the fourth time in nine career clashes 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Medvedev had handled the occasion remarkably well and had tuned out the crowd with great discipline. For Djokovic the situation must have been both maddening and saddening. To have an audience so fervently behind him at one of the Majors is something he has rarely if ever experienced. But he struggled inordinately to find anything even resembling his best tennis. He approached the net 47 times in the three sets and won 31 of those points. He played serve-and-volley surprisingly well, taking advantage of Medvedev’s court positioning so far behind the baseline for his returns.

But Djokovic had neither the patience, the physicality or the inclination to stay back and grind with Medvedev the way he always has done. His legs were too weary, and his mind was cluttered. In the end he played into Medvedev’s hands. The Russian is among the most astute players in the sport to read the map of a match and adjust his strategy. Medvedevs’ shot selection, variation of speed and pace, and capacity to make Djokovic uncomfortable were first rate. Medvedev knew full well he was not playing the essential Djokovic, but he was performing in front of an antagonistic crowd and trying to pull off a first Major title. Those were not easy circumstances but Medvedev was able to deal with it ably. Medvedev did everything that was asked of him and more. He was thoroughly professional.

When it was over, Djokovic was very gracious and unwilling to drown himself in a sea of self pity. He lauded Medvedev and refused to make any excuses for his sixth defeat in nine U.S. Open finals against five different opponents.

There will never be another opportunity like this for Djokovic. He admirably put himself three sets away from the first men’s Grand Slam in 52 years. That can hardly be portrayed as a failure. Losing in New York will only make Djokovic more motivated for 2021 and the pursuit of a 21st Major title in Melbourne that would enable him to stand alone at the top of the list for most men’s majors and separate him from his co-leaders Federer and Nadal. He will turn 35 in May but Djokovic remains very young for his age. To be sure, he looked much older against Medvedev, but that was circumstantial. He has a lot of winning left to do.

As for Medvedev, this triumph at the U.S. Open should lead to many more landmark victories. Over the next seven years, he should be good for at least five or six more majors, and perhaps a larger number than that. The key to where he ends up will depend to a large extent on his adaptability. Medvedev has proven irrefutably that he is a prodigious hardcourt player and that will put him in good stead at both Melbourne and New York year after year. But can he demonstrate a larger self-belief on grass and clay courts?

To be sure, he did well this year with his quarterfinal appearances at Roland Garros. But he will need to prove that he can do more damage than that on the red clay of Paris and the lawns at the All England Club. Had he finished off Hurkacz this year in London, Medvedev would have almost surely made the final and played Djokovic there. Had he managed to overcome Tsitsipas in Paris, he might have gone to the final there.

The view here is that Medvedev will make inroads on the other surfaces and be a threat everywhere in the years ahead. The 2021 U.S. Open was a launching pad for a competitor with a wide range of goals and deep determination. He will often be going to other lofty destinations in 2021 and beyond.

Continue Reading

Comments

Laver Back In the Conversation For Greatest Player?

Daniil Medvedev thwarted Djokovic’s Calendar Year Grand Slam ambitions and is ready to take over as the best in the game.

Avatar

Published

on

Who’s the greatest player ever?

 

How about Rod Laver, the owner of two Calendar Grand Slams?

Or what about Rafa Nadal, the owner of 21 major singles titles (including Olympic Gold)?

Or what about 20-20-20-Laver?

HOW DOES 20-20-20-LAVER SOUND?

Since Novak Djokovic failed in his bid to win a Calendar Grand Slam on Sunday, I nominate the last of the three possibilities. 20-20-20-Laver sounds like a winner.

For Djokovic just to enter the conversation was a major achievement, and that was spurred by the Serbian’s bid for a Calendar Grand Slam.

Daniil Medvedev ended that conversation on Sunday, at least for now, with his straight-set 4-4-4 dismantling of Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.

DISAPPOINTING YEAR FOR NOVAK

As 2021 turned out, it was a really disappointing year for Djokovic, even though he won the year’s first three Grand Slam events. Most players would be out celebrating if they won three Grand Slams in one year.

The loss to Alexander Zverev in the Tokyo Olympics ended Novak’s Golden Grand Slam. And then Medvedev took care of the Calendar Grand Slam talk and the possibility of Djokovic breaking a 20-20-20 deadlock with Nadal and Roger Federer.

So, what’s next? I doubt that Novak is planning to skip the Australian Open in January. Even that one won’t be easy for Djokovic as a result of what has happened in late summer.

NO PICNIC DOWN UNDER FOR NOVAK

Djokovic has practically owned the Australian Open with nine titles in Melbourne, and eight of the last 11. But Medvedev and Zverev will be major obstacles for Djokovic in Melbourne, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The Australian Open isn’t likely to be a picnic for Novak, even if Federer and Nadal skip the trip. If so, Federer and Nadal will be leaving the Australian Open in capable hands.

Things should start heating up by the quarterfinals Down Under.

By the way, Djokovic is 34 years old. That’s about the age Nadal started having trouble winning Grand Slams.

A DOMINANT VICTORY FOR THE RUSSIAN

Medvedev beat Djokovic at just about everything he tried on Sunday. Djokovic was never in the game on serving competition or powerful forehands.

Those areas belonged to the 25-year-old Russian.

And movement? On this day, Medvedev had a picnic. The 6-6 first-time Grand Slam winner was everywhere with his amazing quickness. Djokovic couldn’t put a dent in his baseline defense.

Medvedev even out-did Djokovic in the Serbian’s usually solid drop shot department, pinning  even more disappointment on Novak.

Novak even caused a ball girl to change directions during the match as he swung his racket near the surface in  frustration after losing a point. Later, he punished his racket by smashing it into the court and destroying it.

MEDVEDEV’S SERVE MADE THE DIFFERENCE

The key to the relatively easy win for Medvedev was his serve. He was a perfect 15-for-15 on first-serve points in the opening set.

Medvedev obviously had little trouble with his serve until he was ready to end the match. With Medvedev owning a match point at 5-2 in the third set, the crowd tried to help Djokovic. Only then when the crowd got into the act of trying to break Medvedev’s attention did he double-fault twice in a row before netting a forehand to give Djokovic the game.

But in the final game of the match, Medvedev was ready for the crowd attack, although he double-faulted another match point away before ending the match with a big serve out wide for a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Djokovic managed only to hit the bottom of the net with his backhand return.

And suddenly, the tall Russian looks like the best player in the game.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending