Australian Open Postscript: Where do we stand after one Grand Slam?

Australian Open Postscript: Where do we stand after one Grand Slam?

A look at seven players, and how their performances in Melbourne did and didn’t shift our expectations for the 2020 season.

In all probability, it will be a while before anything of historical significance happens again in tennis in 2020. The tours won’t gather for another all-hands-on-deck dual-gender event until they get to Indian Wells in March, and we won’t learn the results from the next Grand Slam until Roland Garros ends in June.

Which means that the Australian Open, as it always does, will have an outsized effect on how we think about 2020. By the time the season is over, of course, it will be hard to recall anything that happened in Melbourne. (“Did Sofia Kenin really win,” we may find ourselves asking in October. “Was that this year?”) But for the next month, at the very least, it will be all we have to go on.

So where did the Australian Open leave us, and how did it shift our expectations for 2020 from where they were on January 1st? Here’s a look at where seven of the game’s major players stand as they return from their summers Down Under.


Novak Djokovic

 

Djokovic’s Aussie Open win was less about where he stands this season, than where he stands career-wise. Amazingly, after 15 years on tour, he looks as if he’s still in the middle of it. We’ve marveled at Roger Federer’s ability to play into his late 30s, and Rafael Nadal’s ability to overcome his pounding style and his creaky knees. But it’s getting increasingly harder to image a time when Djokovic won’t be at or near the top of the men’s game—will he ever lose a step? He’ll be 33 in May, but he’s still winning Grand Slams the same way he has always won them—imperfectly, dramatically, a little chaotically, and, most important, stubbornly. Djokovic is six years older than Dominic Thiem, but he was the one who came back from two sets to one down to win.

Upshot: This was the first major tournament of a new decade, but Djokovic and the Big 3 didn’t give us any reason to think that, for the time being at least, it’s going to look any different from the last decade.


Sofia Kenin

 

Her mix of comical frustration on court and down-to-earth friendliness off it was a breath of fresh air. As for her immediate future, she’s still something of a mystery. Unlike Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, two other recent breakthrough Slam performers, Kenin doesn’t have the power we normally associate with major winners, and she hadn’t shown that she could win at the highest level before she came to Melbourne. On the plus side, though, Kenin is steadier than Osaka, and so far she seems to be healthier than Andreescu.

It should be fun to watch Kenin, in part because with her, the stakes should be lower than they have been with other recent breakout stars. Unlike Osaka and Andreescu, she’s not representing an entire country virtually by herself—Serena and Coco will still grab the lion’s share of U.S. media attention. And unlike players with bigger games, there shouldn’t be as much pressure on Kenin to repeat her Melbourne miracle. Which means we won’t get too stressed out when she doesn’t suddenly win everything in sight. Right?

Upshot: What does the 21-year-old Kenin’s win say about the current state of the WTA? It was a continuation of the tour’s youth movement, and an expansion of its elite. By now, we should probably stop worrying about the lack of a dominant champion and realize that the more stars and contenders there are in women’s tennis, the better. Kenin is an unlikely one, but a worthy one.


Dominic Thiem


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“I’ll have to trust in the process,” Thiem said. From one perspective, it seems to be working for him, albeit at snail’s pace. In his first major final, at Roland Garros, he lost in straight sets to Nadal. In his second major final, again at Roland Garros, he lost in four sets to Nadal. In his third major final, in Melbourne, he lost in five sets to Djokovic. If and when Thiem makes a fourth final, he’ll have no choice but to win it.

Which would be good for tennis, and for the future of the ATP in particular. Thiem, with his athletic game and unassuming personality, deserves a big fan base. But watching him lose the last two sets on Sunday, I found myself thinking about a couple of similar Grand Slam finals involving Djokovic—specifically, his four-set losses to Stan Wawrinka at the 2015 French Open and 2016 US Open. Would Stan have lost this Aussie Open from a set up to Djokovic, the way Thiem did? I have my doubts. Does that mean Thiem will never be the big-match player that Stan has become over the years? We will see.

Upshot: For now, despite Thiem’s run to the final, and Alexander Zverev’s maiden run to the semis, the Next Gen remains in the same place it was a month ago, and a year ago—a step, and a set, behind the Big 3.


Garbine Muguruza


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It’s satisfying when the best players play well, and especially satisfying when Grand Slam champs and former No. 1s don’t just fade away and leave us to wonder how they ever succeeded in the first place. Muguruza is one of those players, and her trip to the final was a reminder of what a powerfully, almost painfully, intense presence she can be on court. Her semifinal win over Simona Halep was the match of the tournament, and it’s 100-plus-degree ferocity will be hard to top in 2020. Hopefully the momentum Muguruza built in her six wins will outweigh the disappointment she must feel from not winning the seventh.

Upshot: She has won the French Open and Wimbledon, and, with Conchita Martinez back in her corner, she should be a factor in both places in 2020. The WTA’s new guard is still ascending, and still expanding, but the old guard—if you can call the 26-year-old Muguruza old—isn’t ready to cede the stage just yet.


Ash Barty


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“That’s just sport, that’s life,” Barty said with a smile, while holding her infant niece in her lap after her semifinal loss to Kenin. Barty had set points in both sets against Kenin, but lost each of them. Defeats happen, of course, and Barty is an admirably level-headed sportswoman in the great Australian tradition. She kept her perspective, and maintained that she had “a hell of a summer” Down Under. I wonder, though, if the Aussie fans in Rod Laver Arena, who were hoping she might become the first homegrown women’s winner since 1978, would have liked her to have a little less perspective, and to show—as her American opponent did—a little more fire and frustration in the most important moments.

Upshot: Barty leads No. 2 Simona Halep by nearly 2,000 ranking points, but she has lost to players outside the Top 10 at the last three majors. Will defending her title in Paris make Barty feel pressure to live up to her No. 1 status, and take command in a way that she didn’t in Melbourne? I’d like to see it.


Roger Federer


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In another era—the Jimmy Connors’ era, to be specific—his semifinal run at age 38 would have been the stuff of legend, and 24/7 media attention. As it was, Federer’s Australian Open, coming after his US Open, seemed to foreshadow how and why his career will ultimately end. As in New York, where he lost to Grigor Dimitrov, Federer was hobbled by an injury in Melbourne. He nearly lost to Tennys Sandgren, and he could only compete for so long against Djokovic.

Upshot: Federer still loves to play, obviously; he can still do it almost as well as he ever has; and if he’s healthy he’ll contend at Wimbledon. But how long will he want to keep going if injuries become the norm at two-week events, and keep him from giving his best in the biggest matches?


Serena Williams


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Serena used to dominate in Slam finals. Then, in 2016, she started to lose them. But she was still extremely tough to beat in earlier rounds, even when she wasn’t playing well. Despite her struggles, she was still able to bring herself within one match of a 24th major title on four occasions.

At the Australian Open, though, Serena lost the type of match that she was still winning—a three-setter against Qiang Wang in the third round. This time, No. 24 felt considerably farther away, and her next best chance to get it won’t come until Wimbledon in June.

Upshot: Is Serena’s loss to Qiang Wang a sign that early-round matches at majors will become less automatic for her? As of now, we can’t say; she found her range at Wimbledon and the US Open n 2018 and 2019, and maybe she will again in 2020. But with Kenin’s title and Muguruza’s resurgence, there are more players than ever who will feel like they can play with, and possibly beat, Serena at the Slams.