Usually I close a Grand Slam by handing out grades to the players, and other lead actors in the drama. This time I’m going to go a different route and talk about the drama itself—or at least my favorite moments in it.
Tennis tournaments, major or not, don’t often seem necessary, but this Australian Open did. Back in the U.S., each broadcast was a needed light at the end of a long night’s tunnel. It was a two-week movie with an ending that, while it might not have pleased every fan, was a happy one for the sport.
But happiness wasn’t the only emotion on display in Melbourne; a tournament is so much more than its finals. Everyone will have their favorite moments; here are my Top 8.
Brady Braves Her Way
For me, the tournament started with a surprise: watching 21-year-old, 116th-ranked Jennifer Brady of the U.S. stage a long, patient comeback from a set down to win her last qualifying match and reach the main draw. I’d seen very little of Brady in the past, but was immediately impressed with how calm and assured she was; whether she was behind or ahead in the score, she kept her head down (and her visor perfectly askew) and went about her business in the same no-nonsense way. And that’s what she did in the main draw as well. Brady saved four match points to beat Heather Watson, and eventually stunned everyone by reaching the fourth round. U.S. fans have a new player to watch. Better yet, they have a new competitor to watch.
Andreas the Giant Killer
Whether he’s in a match with a flamboyant opponent, or playing doubles with his colorful Davis Cup doubles partner, Fabio Fognini, Andreas Seppi makes for a good straight man. He’s quiet, he’s reserved, he’s gentlemanly and he plays meat-and-potatoes baseline tennis. But as he showed in his five-set, second-round win over Nick Kyrgios, he can play that tennis well. By saving a match point with an all-or-nothing forehand winner, the straight man became a star for a night. With Seppi’s help, the Kyrgios saga felt like old news by the end of the fortnight. When the match was over, Seppi bent double in celebration, finally letting everyone know how much it meant to him.
Big Brother Plays Best
The courts in Melbourne have gradually picked up speed since 2013, but looking at the men’s side, it’s still hard to know how much they’ve changed. Yes, Roger Federer, who likes fast courts, won his first major in five years; but Rafael Nadal, who doesn’t, reached his first major final in three. The biggest, and best, reason to support a quicker surface was the sudden rise of Mischa Zverev. The 29-year-old German lefty’s win over world No. 1 Andy Murray was a magic show disguised as a tennis match. He did things no one thought possible anymore. He served and volleyed; he chipped and charged; he won points with stretch volleys, drop volleys and half-volley pickups from his shoe tops. Instead of hammering the ball on every shot, he mixed paces and spins into a patient and intriguingly varied whole. He showed that, contrary to popular belief, there’s still more than one way to win a tennis match. Hopefully, some talented young player somewhere liked what he saw.
Judging from my Twitter timeline, not every tennis fan loved CoCo Vandeweghe’s “How ya like me now?” looks to her player box during her run to the semis. The Californian’s unfiltered, free-speaking style may not be a traditionalist’s cup of tea, but her swaggering, free-swinging game was a breath of fresh air in Melbourne. From her Samprasian service motion to her easy forehand power, the 25-year-old Vandeweghe looked like an athlete finally finding out what she was capable of doing, and who she was capable of destroying (i.e., Angelique Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza). The highlight was the way she closed out Eugenie Bouchard in a close first-week match: by belting a no-fear backhand down the line for a no-doubt-about-it winner. Is that a shot, and a game, she can reproduce on a regular basis? This is one traditionalist fan who hopes so.
The camera in the tunnel can be cruel: This is where we see losing players trudge morosely toward the locker room. But in Grigor Dimitrov’s case on Friday, we saw something different. Despite losing a five-hour heartbreaker to Nadal in the semifinals, he flashed a smile at the first person he saw: the usher in the hallway. Dimitrov had just finished the best big tournament of his career with one of his finest performances. Playing with more patience, solidity and smarts than ever, the 25-year-old was a thrill to watch this month. Men’s tennis should be happy that two legends made the final in Melbourne, but it will be even better news if Dimitrov has finally turned a corner.
Tennis is known as a staid old sport, but don’t tell that to the 34-year-old Croatian. Having watched her win big matches before, I had a feeling we were in for a memorable celebration when she reached match point against Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals. Lucic-Baroni didn’t disappoint: She bowed down and put her head in her hands, and then got up and, after holding back tears, told the audience that reaching the semis had made all of the struggles of this century worth it. Lucic-Baroni had last played a Grand Slam semi in 1998, when she was 16; now, after enduring much, she was back at 34. Unfortunately, she had to turn around and play Serena the next day, and had little left. That’s not the first time a women’s semifinalist has had that happen. The Australian Open is seen as a player-friendly Slam, but its scheduling can seem craven and unfair: Is there really no way for the tournament to give both sets of women’s semifinalists a day off, and both of the men’s finalists the same amount of rest?
“You’re amazing,” Serena Williams whispered to her sister, Venus, when they embraced after playing the women’s final. In most cases, you’d expect these words to flow from loser to winner, but with the Williams sisters there isn’t much difference. Before their final, Venus and Serena both said there would be no losers, and this time the words were believable. Neither woman is fully herself when she’s forced to compete against her sister. You could see it in the way Venus struggled to go for her shots (that’s never a problem against anyone else), and Serena struggled to let out her emotions and release the tension (that’s also never a problem against anyone else). And when the ordeal was over, you could see how happy they were to be back on the same side of the net. Venus told Serena, “your wins are my wins,” and Serena told Venus that she wouldn’t have won one Slam, let alone 23, without her example and inspiration. Venus inspired Serena to be better than her, and then to be better than everyone else. Thankfully this first family—of tennis—can stay in office as long as it likes.
Calling It a Draw
Federer-Nadal XXXV earned its Roman numerals. It was, in my estimation, the fourth best of their 35 matches: a little better than their five-set 2009 Australian Open final, which it resembled for certain stretches, but not quite as good as their five-set 2007 Wimbledon final, which was resembled in the way it ended. In the fifth set of this one, Federer was able to break out of a long-term negative dynamic by finally using his one-handed backhand to stand up to Rafa’s topspin. Rafa, on the other hand, succumbed to his own long-term negative dynamic: He played well enough to make a comeback and well enough to take a lead, but not well enough to hold that lead. Still, the good news for tennis is that these two popular players have allayed any doubts about their future viability. Nadal reached his first Slam final in three years, while Federer won his first major in five. Since 2012, the question I’ve been asked more often than any other is, “Can Federer win another Slam?” Now that he’s done it at 35, no one needs to ask that question ever again. For as long as he’s on tour, the answer will always be yes.
The 2017 Aussie final reversed the result of the 2009 final, and so did the trophy ceremony. Eight years ago, it was Nadal who consoled Federer; this year it was Federer who returned the favor. “I would have been happy to accept a draw with Rafa,” Federer said, in an echo of the Williams sisters from the previous night. Federer and Nadal kicked off the Big Four era together a decade ago, but for years their fans have been divided. On this night, when they met more as friends than rivals, it felt like the old Big Four wars—between players and fans—were behind us, at least for a moment. We could use that moment to celebrate them together.
As Rafa, Roger, Venus, Serena, Mirjana, Mischa, Andreas and others showed us in Melbourne, sometimes getting older really can be a beautiful thing to watch.