The Australian Open is the tennis season’s opening chapter; over the course of its two weeks, we’re introduced to many of the story lines that we’ll be following for the next 10 months.
Sometimes the tournament heralds a momentous shift, like Angelique Kerber’s sudden rise to No. 1 in 2016, or the return to Grand Slam glory of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in 2017. Other times the stories from Down Under fizzle out before year’s end: Caroline Wozniacki has failed to follow up on her title run last year, while the two surprise Next Gen semifinalists from 12 months ago, Kyle Edmund and Hyeon Chung, have faded back into injury-plagued obscurity.
The last two weeks in Melbourne produced more than their share of tantalizing narratives for 2019. Which will have legs, and which will be just blips on the game’s radar screen? Here are five to follow in the months ahead.
Naomi vs. Serena
The understudy has taken over, at least temporarily, for the star. With two straight Slam titles, Osaka, whose life has basically been modeled after Serena’s, has become the face of the women’s game for the moment. You’ve heard of Slam-less No. 1s; this time we have a Slam-full No. 1. Osaka is also the rare player who can match serves and ground strokes with Williams. So how will Serena, who lost a puzzling quarterfinal to Karolina Pliskova from 5-1 up in the third, react to this new challenge from her young superfan? She’s been stuck at 23 majors for a while now; could the prospect of knocking Osaka off her new perch give her the extra motivation she needs to get to 24?
The Goat race comes to Paris
Roger Federer’s fourth-round exit was bad news for the Australian Open, but good news for the French. After bowing out early, Federer announced that he’ll play the clay season, and Roland Garros, for the first time since 2015. Just as enticing for fans, though, will be the prospect of another showdown between Djokovic and Nadal. The stakes will be higher than ever: The Big 3 are now within five majors of each other, and a final between Rafa, who has 17 Slams, and Novak, who has 15, could have long-lasting implications in that race. Is this the year that Nadal isn’t the favorite in Paris? After watching Djokovic this weekend, would you bet against him, anywhere?
Does the ATP have a new heir apparent?
The images couldn’t have been more starkly opposed. At around the same time that 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas was soaking up the applause after upsetting Federer, 21-year-old Alexander Zverev was smashing his racquet collection to smithereens during yet another dispiriting Grand Slam defeat, this time to Milos Raonic. While Tsitsipas’s run would come to an abrupt end at the hands of Nadal, the Greek was the talk of the tournament, and for good reason. The way he beat Federer—with a nuanced attacking game that resembled the Swiss’—felt like both a throwback and a leap into the future. As I wrote above, two other Next Genners, Chung and Edmund, have so far failed to follow up on their own breakout semifinal runs Down Under in 2018. I’m guessing Tsitsipas won’t suffer the same fate in 2019.
Has U.S. tennis turned a corner?
Danielle Collins, Frances Tiafoe, Reilly Opelka, Amanda Anisimova, Taylor Fritz: All of these Americans showed us more in Melbourne than they had before, and together they gave fans an outline for how the future of the U.S. game might play out. We’ve been speculating about the next U.S. generation, especially on the men’s side, for a few years now; in Australia we saw tangible evidence that they have what it takes to survive at the game’s highest levels. From Collins’s fierce fighting spirit, to Tiafoe’s electrifying athleticism, to Anisimova’s calm, cool target-shooting, to Opelka’s ace machinery, they also did it in entertaining and suitably diverse style.
They both fell to the steely zen stylings of Osaka, but Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova reached the final and semis, respectively, for good reasons. These former Fed Cup teammates are playing some of the best tennis of their careers. For those of us who love to watch their ball-striking skills when they’re on, and are frustrated when they go off, this is heartening news. As Osaka has shown over the last year, there’s nothing like seeing an erratic but exciting talent transformed into a consistently exciting talent. Together, a slimmed-down Kvitova and a more fired-up Pliskova would make 2019 more fun for all fans.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:
WTA St. Petersburg: Starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 5 a.m. ET, catch live coverage of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy featuring Australian Open finalist Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova.
WTA Hua Hin: Top seed Garbine Muguruza headlines the field from Hua Hin. Watch every match of the Thailand Open, starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 3 a.m. ET.