The Big 3 remain big
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer continued to maintain a significant distance between themselves and just about all of their rivals. Djokovic was sharp all of January, happy to have added Goran Ivanisevic to his team, while becoming the first man in the Open era—and only the second ever—to win a Slam singles title in three different decades. Per usual, Nadal competed until the very last drop, only barely taken out by the incredibly physical Dominic Thiem. As for Federer, consider this comment he made after losing to Djokovic in the semis here: “Considering, you know, my illness, I'm sort of happy with the result here.” Federer said that in 2008. Perhaps his greatest asset of all is the ability to recover and endure.
An overlooked payoff of the longstanding dominance of the Big 3 is how they have raised the bar. To make it into the upper echelon requires an exceptional array of skills–fitness, mental toughness, shotmaking. Last year in Melbourne, the newcomer to the final four was Stefanos Tsitsipas. A few months ago in New York, Daniil Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini each made major statements. And now, Thiem, long a contender on clay, has upped his game, overtly crediting the Big 3 for his improvements.
To the server go the spoils
In an era when the vast majority of male players return serve superbly, the pendulum has swung to the serve as a differentiator. Djokovic added more speed. Alexander Zverev rediscovered his delivery. Federer continued to rely on it in a major way. Given the razor-thin margins between victory and defeat in this era of unsurpassed physicality, the ability to earn one, two or even more free points a game can make a major difference.
American men remain outgunned
They work hard. They fight hard. But to compare the skill sets of American men versus their counterparts is sobering. It would be fascinating to closely study how American men build their playing styles–that is, as youngsters, long before they hit the USTA Player Development radar screen. Is American tennis fueled by group lessons on hard courts, wherein the young man who hits forehands the hardest goes to the head of the line? What role do parents–keen for those short-term results in junior tournaments–play in the construction of these narrow playing styles? Do American instructors teach a wide range of shots and strategies? Either way, even an effort such as Tennys Sandgren’s impressive run to the quarterfinals was more outlier than business as usual.
Diversity yes, dominance no
Sofia Kenin’s title run made her the fifth woman in the last five Slams to win a major. Clearly, no one since Serena Williams has been able to consistently take charge of women’s tennis. So what? This is a rich time for women’s tennis. From Kenin to Bianca Andreescu, Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka, as well as such perennials as Simona Halep, the top levels of the WTA feature a wide range of playing styles and personalities. If dominance is elusive, diversity is engaging.
Height isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Kenin and Andreescu stand under five feet, seven inches tall. Barty is five-five, Halep an inch taller. Each of these four current Grand Slam champions belies the recent notion that taller is better. As the year unfolds, it will be interesting to see both how these four continue to contend at the majors and how such taller players as Osaka, Williams and Madison Keys assert themselves.
Fathers & daughters comprise the American tennis dream
Often when I look into a player box at a major, I close my eyes and picture row upon row of public courts in Florida, populated with earnest fathers and enthusiastic daughters who were willing to walk on to a court at dawn with their bucket of used balls and hit one ball after another in pursuit of a dream they had no idea would pan out. Alex and Sofia Kenin. Corey and Coco Gauff. Leonard Francois and his two daughters, Mari and Naomi Osaka. If the likes of Richard Williams—and many more, going back more than 100 years to Suzanne Lenglen—provided the initial inspiration, the dedication of these families is a major thread in the history of player development.
Sweet Caroline ends it with class
There were moments in Caroline Wozniacki’s career when her ranking plummeted. For a long time, it appeared she would go down in history as an infamous number one–the ones that reach the pinnacle but never win a major. But in the end, the Wozniacki balance sheet tallied nicely. Fitting indeed that the woman nicknamed Sunshine would at last earn a major at The Happy Slam. Naturally, this year’s Australian Open was where she chose to end her career, appropriately enough with a dramatic comeback win and an even more compelling final match loss. Through it all, she remained classy, gracious and thoughtful–her career over at the age of 29. Of course, as another well-liked player, Kim Clijsters showed, you can always come back. For now, though, we wish this kindly Dane well in writing her next chapter.