Month: Feb 2017

European Tour of Sports – Estonia

The Basics

 Population: 1.3 M

Area: 45 339 km2

Capital: Tallinn

Summer Olympic Medals: 34 (9 G-9 S-16 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 7 (4 G-2 S-1 B)

Popular Sports and History

The Northernmost of the Baltic countries, Estonia, first secured independence from Russia in 1918 and soon started participating under the blue, black and white flag in sports competitions, with the first Olympic appearance occurring in 1920. Occupied by the Soviet Union at the onset of World War II in 1940, it would take more than five decades until Estonian-born athletes could compete for their independent nation internationally, returning for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. However, 12 years before, Tallinn had actually welcomed the Olympic movement when the sailing competitions of Moscow’s Summer Olympics were held off the city’s coast.

Estonia's delegation in Rio 2016 was the seventh at Summer Olympic Games since the country regained independence.

Estonia’s delegation in Rio 2016 was the seventh at Summer Olympic Games since the country regained independence.

Despite a population of just over one million people, Estonia is usually good for a couple of medals in every Summer Olympic Games, an expression of a country that is able to regularly yield prominent athletes, particularly in individual sports. Nonetheless, if in the early 1900’s, wrestling and weightlifting were the disciplines where Estonians excelled, recently Athletics has carried the mail, especially in technical and combined disciplines.

Estonian discus throwers stepped into the Olympic podium in three consecutive editions from 2004 to 2012, with Gerd Kanter securing gold in Beijing 2008, while javelin thrower Andrus Värnik became a world champion in 2005. Previously, Erki Nool had unlocked the door to success in track and field when he gripped the decathlon Olympic title at Sidney 2000, just the second gold in Summer Olympics for the country after regaining independence.

The first had been captured eight years before by the only woman to become Olympic Champion representing Estonia, track bicycle rider Erika Salumäe, which added the 1992 women’s sprint title to the one she collected in 1988 wearing the colours of the Soviet Union. Salumäe also boasts five medals in World Championships and fifteen World Records on her decorated résumé as the greatest female athlete in the country’s history, and her achievements were certainly influential for the following generations of Estonian cyclists, men who have left their mark on the road. From those deserve mention sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu, a four-time Tour de France stage winner who wore the iconic yellow jersey for six days in the 1999 edition, and current World Tour contestants Tanel Kangert, a five-time GC top-20 finisher in Grand Tours, and Rein Taaramäe, who captured stages in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

Erika Salumäe, former Estonian track cycling Olympic Champion

Erika Salumäe, former Estonian track cycling Olympic Champion

Having underscored the Olympic champions of the last 25 years, it wouldn’t be fair to forget the athletes responsible for the early successes of Estonian sport, which owes 21 of 41 medals to the period between 1920 and 1936. The first ever gold medal was obtained by weightlifter Alfred Neuland in the men’s lightweight class at Antwerp 1920, and the sport accounted for six more medals until World War II erupted, yet it would take a full 80 years until Estonia was again represented in weightlifting as Mart Seim qualified for Rio 2016.

Conversely, Estonian wrestlers were even more successful than weightlifters, conquering a country-best eleven medals and five Olympic titles, with Kristian Palusalu contributing with two in unique fashion, since he became the first and only wrestler in Olympic history to win both the Greco-Roman and freestyle heavyweight events at Berlin 1936. Estonia wouldn’t medal in wrestling again until Heiki Nabi snatched silver at London 2012.

Since those achievements date from another era, Estonia’s finest have taken on different activities in the last decades and the consequence has been the emergence of other sports. In the post-1992 period, rowing has become more popular by the day and it can be traced back to Jüri Jaanson, who became World Champion for the first time in 1990 and went on to cap his illustrious career with silver medals at the 2004 (singles sculls) and 2008 (double sculls) Olympics. Jaanson won in Beijing alongside Tõnu Endrekson, who barely missed out on the podium at London 2012 as part of the same men’s quadruple sculls unit that would ultimately bring home bronze in 2016, the country’s only medal in Rio de Janeiro.

Rowers Jüri Jaanson (front) and Tõnu Endrekson (back) won silver in Beijing 2008 on the men's double sculls

Rowers Jüri Jaanson (front) and Tõnu Endrekson (back) won silver at Beijing 2008 on the men’s double sculls

Judo is another sport that has hit the headlines in Estonia this century and, beside two dozens of laurels hoarded in European and World competitions, stand out three Olympic honours: bronze medals by Aleksei Budõlin in the -81 Kg at Sidney 2000, and Indrek Pertelson in the 100+ Kg at the 2000 and 2004 editions.

Blessed with a long shoreline on the Baltic sea, Estonia has also accumulated credentials in sailing, with special notice reserved for the twin brothers Tõnu Tõniste and Toomas Tõniste, who competed in four consecutive Olympics on the Men’s 470 class and won silver in 1988 (for the URSS) and bronze in 1992.

Meanwhile, fencing seems on the cusp of Olympic glory following a terrific run of success by Estonia’s Épée fencers on the last 20 years. Oksana Jermakova kicked it off by winning the World Championship in 1993 before opting to suit up for Russia in 2000 and 2004 as she claimed Olympic gold, yet she inspired the likes of Irina Embrich, twice European Champion, Julia Beljajeva, 2013 World Champion, and Erika Kirpu, bronze medallist at the 2014 Worlds, a trio that has racked up the honours in team events recently, falling just short (fourth place) of a medal in Rio de Janeiro. On the men’s side, Nikolai Novosjolov was crowned World Champion in 2010 and 2013.

Estonia's Women's Épée team is one of the strongest in the World

Estonia’s Women’s Épée team is one of the strongest in the World

Tennis is also popular in Estonia but lacks the same level of success experienced by the sports referenced above, even if Kaia Kanepi rose to a career-best World No.15 position in 2012, collected four WTA Tour singles’ trophies and reached five Grand Slam Quarter-finals, all singular achievements in Estonian tennis history.

As stated, individual sports dominate attentions in terms of international accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean that Europe’s premium pastime is shunned. Football is still one of the most popular sports in the country even though the national team’s only international appearance was in the distant 1924 Olympic Games. Estonia has never qualified for the World Cup or European Championships, neither on the men or women side, and they’ve never been particularly close, except for a playoff defeat with the Republic of Ireland before the Euro 2012. Former goalkeeper Mart Poom, who played more than a decade in England and accumulated 120 senior caps, is widely regarded as the best Estonian footballer of all-time.

Former Arsenal FC goalkeeper Mart Poom is regarded as one of Estonia's finest footballers

Former Arsenal FC goalkeeper Mart Poom is regarded as one of Estonia’s finest footballers

The Estonian football league, the Meistriliiga, is a fringe competition in the context of the continent, and is historically dominated by Tallinn’s clubs. FC Flora Tallinn, founded in the lead up to the independence, has won a record 10 League titles while FC Levadia Tallinn has 9 Championships and a record 8 Estonian Cups. Nõmme Kalju FC (2012) and FC Infonet Tallinn (2016) have broken the duopoly recently, but face the challenge of avoiding the fate of the other three clubs that became Estonian Champions and later went extinct. On the women’s game, Pärnu Jalgpalliklubi dominates, having gathered 12 League titles, including the last seven.

Despite the proximity with basketball-mad Lithuania, Estonia is far from a powerhouse in the hoops trade, having qualified for the Eurobasket on just three occasions since the independence (1993, 2001 and 2015). Before the annexation, they participated in the 1936 Olympics and finished fifth twice in the European tournament (1937, 1939).

Estonian Power Forward Martin Müürsepp played for NBA's Dallas Mavericks in 1997-98.

Estonian Power Forward Martin Müürsepp played for NBA’s Dallas Mavericks in 1997-98.

Titt Sokk, the current national team coach, is considered the best ever Estonian basketball player as he conquered gold at the Olympics in 1988 marshalling the URSS squad, but Martin Müürsepp holds the distinction of being the only to play in the NBA, representing the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks from 1996 to 1998.

The Estonian national volleyball team won the European League in 2016 to substantiate a rise that was apparent with the first three qualifications to the European Championships (2009, 2011 and 2015), while the national floorball team has competed in 6 out of 11 World Championships, coming out 7th in 2010. Other team sports widely played in Europe such as handball, futsal or ice hockey, hold no preponderance in Estonia.

Finally, last but not least, an imperative remark for winter sports, especially cross-country skiing, which holds long traditions in Estonia as it contributed with all seven medals conquered at the Winter Olympic Games. Andrus Veerpalu won gold in the 15 km classical event in two consecutive Olympic Games (2002, 2006) and added silver in the 50km at Salt Lake City 2002, while Kristina Šmigun-Vähi clinched the Olympic titles in the 15 km pursuit and 10 km classic races at Torino 2006, and returned after giving birth to take silver in the 10 km freestyle at Vancouver 2010. Furthermore, Jaak Mae was third in the same 15 km classical contest of Salt Lake City, whereas Veerpalu and Šmigun-Vähi combined for a total of eight World Championships medals from 1999 to 2009, a period of tremendous success for Estonian skiing.

Nowadays, despite lacking the star power of yesteryear, Estonia still sends an average of 20 athletes to the Winter Olympics, spanning landmark sports such as Alpine skiing, biathlon, figure skating or ski jumping.

Star Athletes

Gerd Kanter (Athletics)

A three-time Estonian Sportsman of the Year (2007, 2008 and 2011), Gerd Kanter is one of the leading discus throwers of the last decade by virtue of an incredible sequence of top-level results in major competitions. After missing the final in his first Olympic appearance at Athens 2004, the Tallinn-native experienced a breakthrough 2005 season, launching for the first time past the 70m and securing silver at the World Championships. It was the first of five consecutive podium appearances at the Worlds, including a title at Osaka 2007 that set the stage for his Olympic title in Beijing 2008, the pinnacle of a period of uncontested dominance in the discipline.

The Estonian delivered the season-best mark in every year from 2006 to 2010, always throwing over 71m and peaking with the 73.38 m obtained in 2006 in Helsingborg – the third best attempt of all-time -, yet he was toppled by Robert Harting in the 2009 World Championships and the German would prove a thorn on his side for the next years.

Discus Thrower Gerd Kanter performs a victory lap after clinching the Olympic title in 2008

Discus Thrower Gerd Kanter performs a victory lap after clinching the Olympic title in 2008

Kanter was pipped in the 2011 and 2013 Worlds, plus the 2012 and 2014 European Championships, but still managed to medal, as happened in the 2012 Olympics (bronze), collecting an outstanding 10 podium appearances in major competitions from 2005 to 2014, to which should be added the 2012 and 2013 IAAF Diamond League triumphs. At age 37, he’s now on the downswing, having placed 4th at the 2015 World Championships and 5th, behind teammate Martin Kupper, at the 2016 Olympics, but his spot on Estonia’s pantheon of sporting legends has long ago been assured.

Julia Beljajeva (Fencing)

Disentangling the members of Estonia’s decorated Épée women’s national team is not easy, but Beljajeva gets the nod here because she’s got a shiny reward that her teammates lack.

Estonia's World Champion Épée fencer Julia Beljajeva

Estonia’s World Champion Épée fencer Julia Beljajeva

Born in the nation’s second city, Tartu, Beljajeva was a talented youth fencer whose first senior major result came as part of the bronze medal team at the 2012 European Championships.

However, the following year she exploded to prominence after enjoying a series of upsets in the individual competition of the 2013 World Championships, ultimately meriting the title. Ranked 69th on the FIE rankings, Beljajeva surprisingly ousted World No.1 Ana Maria Brânză by 15-14 in the QF and then edged past the World No.5 and No.4, also by the minimum margin, to take gold.

It was a stunning result that propelled her up the hierarchy, but she’s failed to follow suit since then. In 2014, her title defence was halted by teammate Erika Kirpu, who went on to claim bronze, and later Beljajeva missed the 2015 World Championships and was dumped out in the first round at the 2016 Olympics by eventual Champion Emese Szász, of Hungary, the woman she defeated at the 2013 Worlds SF.

In the meantime, the right-handed fencer has continued to be an integral part of the Estonian Team, which captured the title at the 2013 and 2016 European Championships and snagged silver at the 2015 Euros and 2014 World Championships, but the 24-year-old will need more to demonstrate that day in Budapest wasn’t just a fluke.

Heiki Nabi (Greco-Roman Wrestling)

The man responsible for rekindling Estonia’s proud wrestling history hails from Hiiumaa, an island off the country’s west coast and far from a hotbed of sport champions.

Nonetheless, the sturdy Nabi didn’t take long to prove his worth, and at the precocious age of 21 he unexpectedly emerged victorious from his debut appearance in the Greco-Roman 96 Kg competition of the 2006 World Championships, becoming the first amateur wrestling World Champion from Estonia. Given his youth, the nation expected more triumphs to follow but Nabi’s results meandered as his body developed further, eventually forcing a change of category in 2010 towards the heaviest Greco-Roman weight class, the 120 Kg (tinkered for 130Kg in 2014) .

The new challenge fuelled Heiki Nabi to new heights and he ended up as the runner up at the 2012 Olympics, winning his country’s first wrestling medal since 1936 by bowing out only to Cuba’s Mijaín López, the man who has reigned supreme in the weight class for the last decade.

Wrestler Heiki Nabi with the silver medal conquered at the 2012 Olympic Games

Wrestler Heiki Nabi with the silver medal conquered at the 2012 Olympic Games

Nabi was deservedly named Estonia’s Sportsman of the year in 2012, and later took advantage of López’s absence at the 2013 World Championships to collect a second World title, even if it came late due to Iranian Amir Aliakbari’s disqualification for doping. For good measure, he claimed bronze one year later after succumbing to López in the QF, but couldn’t do the same in the Rio Olympic Games as the Cuban wrestler once again cut short his progress.

Mijaín López is now 34, so Nabi has three years on him. Maybe he can use that to capture more hardware, padding his résumé before retiring as one of Estonia’s greats.

Other Athletes: Tanel Kangert, Rein Taaramäe  (Cycling); Margus Hunt (American Football); Ragnar Klavan (Football); Nikolai Novosjolov, Erika Kirpu (Fencing); Mait Patrail (Handball); Kaia Kanepi (Tennis); Rasmus Mägi, Martin Kupper, Ksenija Balta (Athletics); Mart Seim (Weightlifting); Tõnu Endrekson (Rowing); Epp Mäe (Wrestling, freestyle)


As a small country with a football league that attracts sparse attendances, Estonia’s stadiums are, on a whole, modest, battered and outdated, with the particular exemption of the Lilleküla Stadium – designated A. Le Coq Arena for sponsorship reasons -, the biggest football-only stadium in the country.

Opened in 2001, the national stadium seats 9,692 people but can be expanded by a few more hundreds in special occasions, be it international games of Estonia’s National Team or European matches of its regular club tenant, FC Flora Tallinn. Comprised of four separate stands (three covered) that form a rectangular-shaped venue and with a distinctive yellow cladding on the exterior, it is located between train lines in the Lilleküla district, on the South of Tallin, and part of a wider complex that also includes a 500-seat Miniarena for reserve and youth matches and a few training grounds.

A panorama of the A. Le Coq Arena, Estonia's National Stadium

A panorama of the A. Le Coq Arena, Estonia’s National Stadium

The stadium’s inaugural match was a sold-out World Cup qualifier versus the Netherlands and up to 25,000 can flock to the venue for concerts, yet the most significant event is still to come when Tallinn hosts the 2018 UEFA Super Cup.

A match of that magnitude wouldn’t have been awarded to Estonia without the erection of the A. Le Coq Arena, since the former national ground was the Kadriorg Stadium, which dates back to 1926. The relic has a 5,000-people capacity and is equipped to receive athletics competitions, something not contemplated in the Lilleküla Stadium’s project. Located on the edge of a major park east of Tallinn’s center, it suffered comprehensive renovations in 2001 to fulfil international regulations and accommodate the football matches of FC Levadia Tallinn.

Meanwhile, Kalev Tallinn plays in the Kalevi Keskstaadion, opened in 1956 and restored in 2004, which can welcome around 12,000 despite missing individual seats. Nevertheless, that capacity makes it the biggest sports venue in the country.

The rest of Estonia’s football stadiums fail to provide seating for more than 3,000 people, but there’s another outdoor venue that can, the Tehvandi Ski Stadium, located in Estonia’s “Winter Sports Capital”, the South-eastern city of Otepää. In the Tehvandi Sport Center, also composed of several skiing trails, a ski jumping hill and a biathlon shooting range, is annually held a cross-country skiing World Cup event, the only in the Baltic region.

The Tehvandi Sport Center, in Otepää, hosts anually a stage of the FIS Cross-Country skiing World Cup

The Tehvandi Sport Center, in Otepää, hosts anually a stage of the FIS Cross-Country skiing World Cup

In terms of indoor sports venues, the largest arena in Estonia is the Saku Suurhall, also named for a local sponsor. Built in 2011 on the outskirts of Tallinn, it can take 10,000 for concerts and around 7200 for basketball matches, namely of BC Kalev/Cramo, the reigning Estonian Champions. The 2010 European Figure Skating Championships were held in the Saku Suurhall, but the venue is mostly booked for conferences and concerts, with some sports competitions now diverted for Tallinn’s new multi-purpose indoor arena complex, the Tondiraba Ice Hall.

Inaugurated in 2014, the facility located in the district of Lasnamäe includes two practice rinks, a curling rink and a main Arena with a capacity for 7700 spectators, which can be used for figure skating, ice hockey, short track, volleyball, handball or gymnastics and to host international competitions and concerts. Tallinn’s basketball, ice hockey and volleyball teams call the venue home, as do the national basketball and ice hockey teams.

Outside of the capital, the biggest indoor arena is the Rakvere Spordihall, in the Northern town of Rakvere. Opened in 2004 with a capacity for 2400, the regular tenants are the city’s basketball and volleyball teams.

Yearly Events

As became evident, Estonia is far from a can’t-miss destination for top-notch sports competition, but if you’re still looking to catch some action, be advised that the national football league runs between March and the end of November, while the basketball and volleyball leagues follow the usual winter schedule.

However, you’ll be better served attending one of the multiple races and outdoor events that take advantage of the country’s stunning natural beauty. Some of them are listed below, as part of Estonia’s main yearly sporting events:

Otepää FIS World Cup event, Cross-country skiing

Otepää, February

Tartu Ski Marathon, long-distance cross-country skiing

Tartu County and Valga County, February

Võhandu Marathon, Rowing

Võru – Võõpsu, April

The Võhandu Marathon, when hundreds of canoes course down 100km of Võhandu river in one day

The Võhandu Marathon, when hundreds of canoes course down 100km of Võhandu river in one day

SUMMER CUP – International Youth Football Festival, Football

Pärnu, June

2017 World Orienteering Championships, Orienteering

Tartu, July (2017)

Rally Estonia, Motorsports rally racing

Tartu – Otepää, July

Tallinn Marathon, Athletics

Tallinn, September

Tartu Rattamaraton (Tartu Cycling Marathon), Mountain bike cycling

Otepää – Uderna küla, September

Épée World Cup “Glaive de Tallinn”, Fencing

Tallinn, October

Those Melbourne Days: 2017 Australian Open review

The 2017 Australian Open will go down in history as one of the most memorable Grand Slams of the last dozen of years after a fortnight stock full of stunning beat downs, dramatic upsets and storylines aplenty that culminated in a pair of singles’ finals that had the traditionalists licking their chops in anticipation.

Instead of the usual moniker as the “Happy Slam”, this year’s Aussie Open was broadly baptized the “Throwback Slam” for the spellbinding display of the old guard, which stole the show to add new chapters to rivalries that seemed irredeemably part of the past. However, before the sentimental affairs between Serena and Venus or Rafa and Roger were set up, a multitude of ball-striking action resonated around Melbourne Park under the scorching Australian summer, with the conversation focusing on the inordinate quickness of the hard courts, a major factor for an event that would be dominated by the more aggressive contenders.  No surprise then that, in the end, the trophies rested on the hands of two legends which collected uncountable laurels imposing their offensive mastery on the opposition and are, arguably, the greatest the sport has ever seen.

Yet, while the ripples of their record-setting feats will probably reverberate for a long time, much more transpired throughout the tournament as many favourites were forced to leave the scene way earlier than expected, leaving enormous gaps on the draws for the brave to fill. Therefore, beyond the victors and finalists, surprise contestants arose, prospects finally took a step forward, heavyweights were vanquished and contenders crashed out, a medley that warrants a closer look after the first major landmark of the 2017 season has passed. It’s thus time to recap the first major of the year.

Women’s singles 1st week: Heading back on the first flight home

Bestowed with the privilege of opening the proceedings on the Rod Laver Arena in the inaugural day, Simona Halep quickly jumped aboard a plane home after just 75 minutes on court in what amounted to an inexcusable second consecutive first round exodus for the Romanian. The fourth seed fell in straight sets to Shelby Rogers, a quarter-finalist in Roland Garros last season but nothing more than a borderline top-50 player, and a slew of questions followed her on the way out. She may have been hampered by a wobbled left knee due to resurgent bout of tendinitis, which obviously undercuts her main strengths, superior court coverage and speed, but her patented fighting spirit wasn’t there. Halep huffed and puffed unable to harness her rival’s superior power or shove Rogers into uncomfortable positions, barely making a dent on the return (0/1 in break points) or making adjustments by rushing to the net, where she was perfect on five attempts. It was dispiriting to watch from a player that should be making the second week in her sleep after reaching the last eight in 2014 and 2015.

Simona Halep spent his short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn't last long in Melbourne

Simona Halep spent her short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn’t last long in Melbourne

Meanwhile, third seed Agnieszka Radwańska, a semi-finalist in 2016, also exited the scene prematurely. Fresh off a final appearance in Sidney, “Aga” was still able to scrape past Tsvetana Pironkova on the first round but her progress came to a screeching halt courtesy of Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, whose firepower, to the tune of 33 winners to 8, incinerated the Pole’s delicate wings. The Croatian veteran would author one of the feel good stories of the tournament (we’ll get to it), in contrast with Shelby Rogers, who quietly bowed out in round 2, yet both women further proved the frailty of some of the names ensconced near the top of the WTA rankings.

Speaking of that…Angelique Kerber, the World No.1, was the epitome of shakiness throughout his first Major campaign as the top seed and defending champion. The German, who pulled through on so many instances last year due to a newfound self-belief, looked nervous on her debut against Lesia Tsurenko, and later took advantage of a few precocious jitters by compatriot Carina Witthöft to right a ship that was tumbling on round two, yet her grit couldn’t avoid a pasting from the impressive Coco Vandeweghe.

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

With her serve faltering badly and her strokes misfiring, Kerber was bullied off the court by the big-hitting (sensing a theme here?) American, who bagged 30 winners and four breaks to send the German packing in round four. An outcome that would eventually put an end to the 29-year-old’s brief reign while she was still adjusting to the new condition. Such is life when you share the tennis panorama with Serena Williams.

Men’s singles 1st week: Foreshocks

While favourites were plummeting like bowling pins in the women’s draw, the men’s side was equally susceptible to spectacular knockdowns, even from the more unexpected sources. And while it wasn’t exactly the case of the two top 15 seeds that said goodbye on the third day, both deserve a mention.

Former US Open Champion Marin Čilić confirmed the worst fears of his fans by crumbling to British Dan Evans in round two with the ghosts of his debacle at the Davis Cup final still lingering. In four sets, the Croat smashed 69 unforced errors and proved inept to deal with the talented Evans, a rising player on the ATP Tour that hits sliced backhands in abundance and made headlines in Melbourne for his non-descript clothing plucked off a retail shop after being dropped by his sponsor. Evans, who came a point away from seeing off Stan Wawrinka in New York last year, then defeated Bernard Tomic in round three to the dismay of the home crowd, which had already lost their biggest calling card on the men’s event.

In fact, Nick Kyrgios, the flamboyant Aussie of Greek roots, was tipped for a good showing in Melbourne as an explosive fourth-round matchup with Stan Wawrinka beckoned, yet he fell at the second hurdle. After cruising on his first match with a superb display of his tremendous offensive arsenal and athleticism, the 21-year-old wrapped up a two-set lead against Italian Andreas Seppi only to allow his rival to rally back and avenge the result of 2015, when Kyrgios overcame a two-set deficit to prevail 8-6 in the fifth-set on this same event.

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

On a late classic at the Hisense Arena, the Aussie grew increasingly frustrated as the tide turned, throwing his usual tantrums, berating the umpire and smashing rackets while the unassuming Seppi kept plowing, taking advantage of his chances (5 of 10 on break points over the last three sets) and tempting fortune, as he did when he saved a match point with a bold forehand winner.  Kyrgios’ reaction after the loss, acknowledging a less than ideal offseason – he banged his knee playing too “much” basketball – and the need to hire a coach was a welcomed sight, but he needs to start turning those good intentions into action quickly as to not to miss the train.

Giants gone missing

In any case, Kyrgios’ fallout was a short lived story in Melbourne since less than 24 hours later a cataclysmic toppling rocked the tennis world. Six-Time Australian Open winner and defending Champion Novak Djokovic was ousted by World No. 117 Denis Istomin and everyone stood agape trying to process what had happened in almost five hours of mesmerizing action.

When the Serbian uncharacteristically let the first set slip away in the tiebreak despite possessing set points, and later conceded a break in the second, a glimpse of the shock was in view, but Djokovic was able to turn the page and romp to take the lead after the third set as his opponent looked increasingly tired. By this time, few expected a reversal of fortunes but Istomin strikingly resurfaced to claim a break early in the fourth set, and then rode the performance of a lifetime to clinch the biggest victory of his career in five sets.

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

How did he do it? The Uzbek, who had to win a qualification tournament just to clinch the Asia Pacific wildcard and enter the event, blasted sensational shot after sensational shot past the vaunted defensive wall of the Serbian, served at his best under pressure and won the majority of the important points, especially in the tiebreaks on the first and fourth set. An incredible coup to pull off for a man who fought cramps and foot complaints for much of the last two sets, and was still able to slug it out from the baseline with Djokovic.

However, for all of Denis Istomin’s unquestionable excellence on the evening, the World No.2 couldn’t take the wheel when he had to. Djokovic fed Istomin’s rhythm for too long, let him dictate too much, couldn’t muster the controlled aggression on his own shots, and failed to find the angles he’s used to in order to stretch his foe, explore his deficit of mobility and force off-balance strokes. Still, despite all that, he usually finds a way to escape from the brink of defeat. This time, he didn’t and his goal of a record-breaking 7th Australian Open went in fumes.

It was Djokovic’s earliest defeat in Majors since Wimbledon 2008 and a third consecutive Major below expectations after looking untouchable just 8 months ago. It may not be panic time for the Serb, yet the term “crisis” is now unavoidable as he closes on his 30th anniversary and may not be able to rely on his physical prowess for much longer. Is this just a bad phase he will snap out off to restitute his domination? Has the hunger for more just left him for good? Is he already slowing down? The plot thickens. Stay tuned.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Djokovic’s farewell was still on everyone’s thoughts when another heavyweight was upended three days later, none other than World No.1 Andy Murray, who similarly to Angie Kerber was making his debut as the top seed at a Grand Slam draw. The 29-year-old, a runner up in Melbourne on five occasions, breezed past his first three opponents in straight sets, and was already envisioning a coronation following his main rival’s departure when he was tricked by the unorthodox style of 29-year-old Mischa Zverev.

A serve-and-volley specialist, the German understood he had to stick to his guns to have a chance and followed his strategy to a tee. He managed to rattle the favourite with a combination of clutch holds of serve, incessant net approaches (65/118 at the net) and copious amounts of sliced backhands, disrupted Murray’s rhythm and limited the rallies from the baseline, a staple of the Scot’s game, sealing a famous win that made his young brother jealous. Who would have wagered Alex wouldn’t be the first Zverev on the QF of a Major?

Sir Andy was the last of the leading knights to be overrun before the tournament evolved to the second week, where the clashes of the remaining titans were looming and a new batch was sent packing.

Women’s singles 2nd week: The contenders who missed out

In the women’s side, the quarter-finals proved to be the final stop for a couple of high-flying players that were picked by many as the two biggest threats to Serena Williams in Melbourne. For many pundits, World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was the player to watch and those predictions looked on point as she overwhelmed her first two opponents while dropping just four total games, yet the Czech barely survived in the third round against up-and-coming Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, who served to close the match twice in the third round before getting “so tight” with an eminent triumph in sight.

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching frequently on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

A convincing win over the last Aussie still alive in Melbourne, Daria Gavrilova, promised to put her back on the rails, but in the quarter-finals Plíšková was bested by the stirring Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, who beat her to the punch on her own game. The best server in the WTA Tour got broken seven times, amassed less aces than her rival and was out-powered, losing the winner count 42 to 23. Still, she was in position to edge through, up 3-2 in the third set, until the Croatian reeled off 12 of 13 points contested after a medical timeout to close out the match and end the 24-year-old’s dreams of a maiden Grand Slam title.

A feat that Johanna Konta also had circled as she skidded through a loaded part of the draw at Melbourne Park. Feisty Belgium veteran Kirsten Flipkens and Japan’s Naomi Osaka, one of the prominent youngsters in the WTA Tour, were her first victims, yet most fans only took notice of the Brit’s tremendous form when she crushed Caroline Wozniacki in round three, as the tenacious Dane, a deft defensive player, looked helpless trying to deter a boatload of winners blowing past her left and right. Konta’s next opponent, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova, was dumped out unceremoniously in just over an hour, setting up a meeting with Serena in the last eight.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

The 25-year-old was oozing confidence, having yet to concede a set in the tournament and been broken just twice as her serve and both groundstrokes got showered with plaudits, however she was about to experience the toughest task in women’s tennis for the first time and it showed. Konta’s serve faltered, producing more double faults than aces, Serena’s return netted four breaks, the errors doubled the winners (22 to 11) and, in the end, an anticipated meeting had turned into yet another routine victory for the American. Nevertheless, the Brit’s splendid improvements turned a lot of heads Down Under, on the land of her birth, and if she can maintain the level displayed, the top-five can be a reality in no time.

Unexpected Final Four contestants

With Konta and Plíšková falling short of expectations, the semi-finals pitted the Williams’s sisters against surprising opponents, and for seniority reasons we’ll start with the older challenger.

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni's campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Throughout this article, we’ve already underlined how Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s power game clicked against top-level adversaries, yet her success had the ancillary benefit of bringing back to the forefront her incredible life story. The 34-year-old was once a tennis prodigy, winning her last match in Melbourne back in 1998 and reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1999, but, while still underaged, she was forced to flee Croatia to escape an abusive father. It wasn’t long before her fledgling career went down the drain and financial troubles derailed successive attempts to come back to the Tour for a few years.

Her return to a major stage happened at Wimbledon 2010 and four years later she upset second-seed Simona Halep at the US Open 2014, yet few could have predicted a run like this from the World No.79, who failed to contain her emotions in the on-court interview after beating Plíšková to reach the second semi-final of her career, 18 years after the first. Serena Williams would then dispatch the Croat in just 50 minutes, but that’s just a footnote on her fairy-tale.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, a novel tradition of the women’s singles event was continued as a fresh face secured a place in the semi-finals for the 15th consecutive Grand Slam. The lucky girl was American Coco Vandeweghe, whose breakout tournament encompassed much more than the scalp of Angelique Kerber. The 25-year-old swept aside 15th seed Roberta Vinci in the first round and then outmuscled Eugenie Bouchard in the third round on a match that exemplified her best qualities. Down a break on the decider, she let the arm loose to exert pressure and crawled back into contention riding her booming serve, eventually prevailing due to superior mental resiliency. The same cocktail got her out of trouble against the fizzling World No.1, with Vandeweghe lambasting on Kerber’s short balls, and on her “first-strike” battle with Roland Garros Champion Garbiñe Muguruza, another player that succumbed to her aggressive groundstrokes on the way to a humiliating 0-6 partial on the second set.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

Still, amid this succession of victories, Vandeweghe looked always cool and unimpressed with herself, shrugging off the pressure of the big points and showcasing unusual self-confidence for someone of her status, as if the conscience of her tremendous athleticism and power was a guarantee that success was just a matter of time.

In the semi-finals, Venus Williams’ long limbs softened the blow of Vandeweghe’s kicked serve and the veteran edged forward with a delivery that posed different challenges to Coco’s return, with the Californian  failing to catch up to the score in the third after surrendering an early break. Nonetheless, the tournament accounted for Vandeweghe’s ability to become an impact player on the WTA Tour in the near future, especially on faster surfaces, such as the grass of Wimbledon.

Defying time, Part I

After a season that promised a change of the guard on the women’s tour, the final of the first Major of the season would be a return to the past, with the Williams’ sisters facing off once again at a Grand Slam final, almost 8 years after the last encounter (Wimbledon 2009).

It was the 28th meeting of the most celebrated sibling rivalry in the history of tennis and probably the perfect finale, as two woman inextricably bounded eyed each other on opposites sides a staggering 19 years after the first time, a period where they first helped change the perceptions of tennis fans, later reshaped the matrix of the female game with their ground-breaking style, and finally rewrote the record books.

Moreover, while it was strange Serena held the opportunity to leap past Steffi Graf on the singles’ Grand Slam titles count against her older sister, the match provided a singular chance to honour the remarkable career of Venus Williams, whose endearing joviality was in full display in Melbourne as she reached a Grand Slam final for the first time in 7 years. After every win, she flashed a beaming smile, danced like she had just been blessed for tasting victory one more time, and followed it up with the whimsical words of a person enjoying life. Battling a debilitating disease for the last while, the 36-year-old could have stuffed her racket anytime knowing her HoF-worthy accomplishments were established long ago, yet she kept persevering despite never knowing in what conditions she would show up on court.

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

In Australia, even with a full day of recovery between games, her limitations were supposed to ruin any ideas of getting back to the end stages of two-week tournaments if not for the fast surface playing to her advantage and a draw that broke her way, with Venus squaring off against only one seed (Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, QF) en route to encounter her sister.

Still, while Venus deserves full credit for sticking to her habits and strengths, standing on the baseline to swing hard at the rising ball, smashing it flat and deep on the other side, it was inevitable the lights would shine brightest on her sister as they have for so long. Serena has always been just a tad better on the serve and off the ground, hitting harder and with more accuracy, and especially displaying a meaner competitive drive, and that edge was once again the difference at the Rod Laver Arena after a tense start, as she roared louder in key instances, flushing aces when it mattered and exposing the less reliable second serve of her partner.

The conquest padded Serena Williams’ trophy case with a 23rd Grand Slam trophy, just one off Margaret Court’s all-time tally, but also re-established her indomitable aura, which pulsates much more due to her ability to roll through a Major at age 35 without dropping a set than for wrestling back the World No.1. Furthermore, the American has now collected Majors standing 18 years apart, a singular case of longevity, and hasn’t failed to reach the last four in three years. It’s fair to say that while the others are playing hide-and-seek, Serena just shows up, flattens the field, sets new rules and collects the spoils. When will it stop?

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Men’s singles 2nd week: Setting up the inevitable

With the voices of the past floating around Melbourne Park, the cracks in the men’s draw resulting from the removal of the top two favourites seemed primed to supply another nostalgia-inducing final, one that had been on the back of the mind of tennis fans around the world from the beginning but necessitated a tremendous amount of swivelling to coalesce.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were, by virtue of their absence late last year, just the 9th and 17th seeds, respectively, and naturally multiple top players stand in their way to a repeat of the five-set thriller of 2009. However, after the landscape cleared at the end of the first week, they presumptuously jumped to the front as only one other player left had a Slam in his curriculum (Stan Wawrinka) and none could boast a decent head-to-head record against either the Swiss or the Spaniard.

Thus, it wasn’t long before the takedown of the remaining seeds started. Roger Federer decimated 10th seed Tomáš Berdych in the third round before seeing off Kei Nishikori, 5th in the hierarchy, in five sets as the Japanese executed the usual physical breakdown late. Crucial would prove the next step, as the 35-year-old was able to escape a brutal QF with Murray and instead bustled past Mischa Zverev to set up an all-Swiss SF against Stan Wawrinka, a five-set battle that would tilt to the most experienced  contender.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men's singles final.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men’s singles final.

Meanwhile, Rafa Nadal prevailed in five against German wunderkind Sascha Zverev in a game where his body proved ready to withstand the rigours of Grand Slam action, and the boost of confidence was in full display as he dominated 6th seed Gaël Monfils in the fourth round. Most saw the QF showdown with Milos Raonic, the highest ranked player left, as the final exam to Nadal’s condition and the Spaniard passed with flying colours, defeating the lanky Canadian in three sets after his opponent withered by wasting six set points in the second. Finally, in probably the best match of this year’s Australian Open, Nadal faced the rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov, who had grasped with both hands the opportunity afforded by Djokovic’s early demise. During five gruelling hours, the Bulgarian exchanged pleasantries from the baseline with Nadal, whipping his backhand like never before, amassing more winners and points from long rallies, but eventually falling due to the Spaniard’s nerve and timely prowess at the net (25/29).

Defying time, Part II

It was clear both men faced a daunting task to reach the decisive match, but Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were able to persevere and the 35th chapter of one of the greatest (and most affable) sports rivalries of our days was arranged against the odds and conventional wisdom, providing an extra opportunity to appreciate the contrast of styles that for so long split the tennis world in two. The classical, elegant one-handed backhand against the thunderous, high-bouncing forehand. The nimble feet-movement versus the shuddering stride. Brute force opposing God-given flair. In so many previous occasions, Nadal relentlessly beat down Federer into submission, but under the brisk conditions in Australia things could prove different and the Swiss Master soon understood what he had to do to make it happen.

After so much time off, Federer believed he was playing with house money and that freedom from outcome was expressed on a much more attacking mindset, as he looked to aggressively take the ball as early as possible – especially on his backhand – and go big instead of holding back, slice it down and wait to be cornered.

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men's final

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men’s final

The success rate of the strategy fluctuated throughout the encounter and, likewise, the effectiveness of both contestants ebbed and flowed, with Federer coming out guns blazing to take the first set and later scorching through the third, while Nadal took advantage of a stuttering Swiss to bag the second before holding court on a fourth decided by a single break. When the fifth set rolled on, Nadal drew first blood to complement his momentum but, surprisingly, Federer didn’t fold – like it had happened regularly in other confronts – and upped the pressure at the net and from the baseline, jumping all over the short balls that Nadal was leaving consistently. For the audacity, he was eventually rewarded by hoarding five consecutive games to seal the Championship, the elusive 18th Grand Slam of the Swiss’ unparalleled career and certainly one of the sweetest and most unexpected.

For Nadal, who hadn’t been to a Grand Slam Final in 30 months, this is a loss that will sting for a while, at least until he lands in Paris to try to recapture his crown at Roland Garros. After bouncing back from yet another surgery, and having already disavowed those who claimed he was in steep decline, the 30-year-old couldn’t have asked for a better situation: he stared at a man he defeated in 9 of 11 Grand Slam confrontations and 6 of 8 Major finals, was up a break in the final set and held the mental edge. Still, he let it slip away as the fatigue of the semi-final sank in, his shot timings fell by the wayside, his balls started retreating back on the court and his rival sniffed weakness before wrestling control of the match for good. Nevertheless, Nadal is back healthy, performing at an elite level, his favourite season is on the horizon and the defending Roland Garros Champion is mired in a personal crossroads. The stars are aligning for the Spaniard’s goal of ending his Major drought, which is approaching 3 years.

Rafael Nadal's gutsy performance wasn't enough to break Federer on the night

Rafael Nadal’s gutsy performance wasn’t enough to break Federer that night

Meanwhile, Federer’s five year Slam-less spell was ripped apart in a rather unbelievable fashion, as the Swiss fended off four top 10 players on the same big tournament for the first time and became the oldest player to gather a Major trophy in 45 years. As it stands, the time off in the second part of 2016 proved a blessing in disguise as the Swiss arrived in Melbourne springy and fresh, needing just two rounds to attune his condition to the intensity of a Grand Slam. From then onwards, he quickly showcased his prototypical gliding hop, the venomous, multi-faceted serve of his best days, the sweeping strokes that backed his rise in the early 2000’s, and the killer instinct that consolidated his legacy and had vanished in recent years.

Furthermore, to cement his credentials as the best of all-time, Federer needed to score a meaningful victory over his arch nemesis before retiring, concealing the memories of so many instances where he capitulated for lack of answers, and it’s just perfect that it included a furious late rally that completely flip-flopped the screenplay we grew expected to wait. With, admittedly, few else to accomplish, Federer can now focus on being a pain-in-the-ass for his foes and #19 may just tumble to his lap.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would't live to see.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would’t live to see.


A career-defining match bookended the 2017 Australian Open, and it’s fair to say it fell in line with what can only be described as an all-around majestic tournament, a promotion of the best attributes of sports competition: riveting levels of sports excellence, cliff-hanging drama, concurrent jubilation and despair, the rise, fall, revival and collapse of heroes.

Venus Williams described it best after her emotional semi-final triumph and I’ll leave you with her words:

“What I will say about sport, I think why people love sport so much, is because you see everything in a line. In that moment there is no do-over, there’s no retake, there is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real-time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it. You can’t. It’s either you do it or you don’t.

People relate to the champion. They also relate to the person also who didn’t win because we all have those moments in our life.”