The importance of Australian Open — and tennis
Australian Open, the Grand Slam of Asia Pacific, was not a favourite destination for leading players for some time. It was played on grass till 1987 and was later moved to artificial hard surfaces such as Rebound Ace and Plexicushion. Till the 1980s, several top players skipped the tournament due to its timing and logistical hardships. Even now, there’s a demand to push the event to February to allow tennis players a decent off season hiatus to recover from injuries. But in the television era, such demands from players get less priority. There’s an increased focus on a calendar or career grand slam and these events are mandatory for top players. Hence Aus Open fits well into the tennis calendar and Australia is a destination for top players unlike in the early 1970s and 1980s.
Weather in Melbourne could go really crazy and this has had an impact on several players. There have been several instances of players succumbing to heat and there’s a heat rule in place for the event. Widely regarded as a tournament which is physically demanding, this year’s open has been a surprise to many enthusiasts who have been following tennis for a long time. When the semifinal line up was drawn, one couldn’t ignore the age of the semifinalists. Williams Sisters and the Rafa Roger duo have been dominating the tennis arena for a long time. Between them they have accounted for 60 grand slam titles. It would hardly be a surprise if they are found in the last four stages of a slam, but leading to the 2017 Aus Open things looked very different for these athletes.
Venus had a mixed year in 2016, she was inconsistent, failed to win matches against good players and was suffering from other health issues. Serena with a Steffi record in sight choked in matches which she normally wins, failed to convert opportunities and played as if she forgot how to win. Rafa, who had a very ordinary 2016, missed a few tournaments and failed to win anything significant. He found it tough going against players in the Top 20 and there was talk about his retirement when he failed in the Quarters of the French Open which he had won nine times. Roger, who has never had a surgery before underwent one and missed the rest of the season after his Wimbledon semifinal loss and fell to a ranking of 17. A quick look at the draw, no one expected these players to make it to the last four, let alone the finals. And in the finals these two veteran players offered a feast of tennis.
It is interesting to note that certain aspects of tennis which were told to have lost its relevance is making some sort of a come back into grand slam tennis. Single handed backhand in men’s game is one such endangered art. But this year’s men’s semifinalists had three of them who probably holds the best single handed backhand in the game. Wawrinka’s ferocious backhand is lethal, and Djokovic will vouch for that. Dmitrov who has a game very similar to Federer also owns a backhand which is as elegant as the one the Swiss possesses.
Federer has more variety to it that he employs the slice with variety. Given the racquets and the power of double handed backhand, the manner in which the game evolved, the domination the double handers such as Murray, Djokovic and Nadal had in the game, experts had almost written an obituary to this shot. But with three out of four semifinalists playing a single handed backhand successfully against a range of baseliners could enable the revival of one of the most elegant shots in men’s tennis.
Women going out
Early retirement by many promising teenage players was a common thing in tennis. Women’s tennis was prone to early and injury-triggered retirements; men’s tour also had its share of early retirements but it was more prominent in the women’s circuit. Some players just rose to the top 10 by playing a lot of tournaments in one year, amassing a lot of prize money and then faded away unable to maintain their level of match fitness. Even players such as Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters retired and later came back to play for another couple of years. Players such as Ana Ivanovich, who promised a lot as a teenager, faded away after winning a slam and rising to world No.1.
Every year women’s tennis produced a few stars and lost some of them to injuries. In the middle of all these retirements, the career of Williams Sisters stood steady. They both have been through injuries and health issues, still their Grand Slam performances have been terrific. Even in doubles, the sisters proved tough contenders. It is a fitting tribute to their longevity that at 35 and 36, the sisters are playing a Slam Final in Melbourne with Serena on the verge of history. The sisters have revolutionised women’s tennis and truly belongs to the pantheon of greats in tennis history. Whether it is Serena’s 23rd or Venus’s first Aus Open triumph, it adds another chapter to the illustrious career of these sisters.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are considered the top contenders in the Greatest of All Time discussion in tennis. With his recent wins Djokovic is also making a strong claim for the same. All these players have won Career Slams and each have made one slam their own. Roger is at home when it comes to Wimbledon, Rafa is the undisputed king of Rolland Garros and with a record 6 titles Djokovic own the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. Tennis during the first two decades of 21st century has been a physically demanding game. Both Rafa and Novak maximised the possibilities of endurance to counter the sheer brilliance of Roger.
They have been largely successful at countering the Swiss anchoring on their endurance and perseverance aided with a well disciplined game. Roger used to hit unparalleled levels in tennis and Rafa and Novak waited for the maestro to become human, which invariably he did in the course of a match, and then pounced on his errors to make their mark. Given the physical demands of the game, it was more or less a consensus that Rafa and Roger may not be playing another slam finals. Interestingly, it is Roger vs Rafa and tennis fans would be delighted to see this final lineup.
Both of them weathered up and coming talents, big servers, hard hitting baseliners and their own self doubts on how long their career would last. While pundits predicted a longer career for Roger with a slim chance of another slam success, after the French Open exit last year a Rafa comeback in a Hard court slam was largely unexpected. Roger, after his surgery and 6 month layoff and a ranking of 17 which forced him to play Berdych in the third round wasn’t expected to go to the second week itself. He had to play Kei Nishikori, the no.5 who was in a rich vein of form coming into the open. These two champions made it against all odds, beating their more fancied opponents and setup a repeat of arguably one of the toughest rivalries in men’s tennis. Rafa leads the head to head by a big margin and this record is perhaps the only bloat in an otherwise excellent career record of Roger Federer. It could be 15th for Rafa taking him past Pete Sampras or 18th for Roger talking further ahead of rest of the pack. For the ardent tennis lovers, it’s more of a nostalgia moment.
A win for the keeps
And the weekend ended with an 18th Slam for Federer and 23rd one for Serena. While Serena was considered the favourite and her win was expected, Federer’s win was against all odds. Federer was playing an opponent who has beaten him 23 times which included a 6 match winning streak for Nadal against him. His last win in a Slam against Nadal came almost a decade ago. The way Nadal was playing and the way outplayed Dmitrov to reach the finals, all were clear indications of the Spaniards form. With the match going into 5th and Federer a break down, almost everyone wrote off the Swiss. But the Swiss turned it around in dramatic fashion hitting winners off his backhand and playing an aggressive brand of tennis at a level which only he could do on a tennis court. Tennis lovers are truly lucky to witness a period in tennis which has 4 active players who accounts for more than 60 slams. For the new generation in tennis, the question remains as to how to win Slams by putting it past these legends. The Zverevs, Thiems and Raonics have a lot of work to do.