Coco Vandeweghe

Weekend Roundup (November, 12th): CoCo Vandeweghe shines as USA reclaims the Fed Cup title

Seventeen years ago, when the United States claimed their 17th Fed Cup at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, you would have to be borderline crazy to wager that it would take almost two decades to bag No.18.

After all, four Grand Slam Champions (Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Lisa Raymond) had just thrashed Spain to capture a second consecutive title, and two young phenomena by the name of Serena and Venus Williams were already in the process of changing the WTA Tour and collecting Majors by the bucket load. However, having tasted victory in 1999, the Williams sisters have sparingly participated in the competition this century and by notably skipping the American’s last three Final appearances (2003, 2009, 2010), they left the job for the likes of Meghann Shaughnessy (2003), Alexa Glatch (2009) or Melanie Oudin (2009/2010).

From this perspective, it’s perhaps not as surprising that the most successful nation in the history of the tournament had to toil for so long to reclaim world domination, the wait for a new generation of female tennis stars finally paying off this season. Shrugging off a broken-down Germany squad (4-0) in Hawai last February, and a weakened Czech Republic (3-2) in Tampa two months later, the Americans were back in the decider and prohibitive favourites ahead of the slew of matches in Minsk’s Čyžoŭka-Arena.

Ultimately, no adverse conditions should make up for the massive disparity between the two sides, with the visitors fielding a top-10 player and a Grand Slam Champion while the modest Belarus countered with two players ranked outside the top 70 and trying to step up, once again, for two-time Australian Open Champion Viktoria Azarenka, a national hero stranded in California, USA, due to an ugly custody battle for her infant son.

Aliaksandra Sasnovich was instrumental to Belarus on their way to a first Fed Cup Final (The Associated Press)

Having operated their fair share of miracles without Azarenka, ousting rivals Russia in Moscow on the 2016 World Group playoffs and shocking the Netherlands (4-1) and Switzerland (3-2) in emotional home ties to reach the Final in their maiden World Group appearance, Belarus’ magic would certainly have to run away at some point, and when an authoritarian CoCo Vandeweghe defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-4, 6-4 in the first rubber, many thought the USA would breeze to victory.

However, Belarus still had a few more rabbits to pluck of their hat and Aryna Sabalenka, their pugnacious 19-year-old, decided to throw caution to the wind against US Open Champion Sloane Stephens in the second match; dozens of winners (31) and plenty more unforced errors (57) later (6-3, 3-6, 6-4), she actually managed to level the score at the end of day 1.

Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka reacts after defeating Sloane Stephens in game 2 of the 2017 Fed Cup Final (Getty Images)

Unimpressed, Vandeweghe bounced Sabalenka (7-6, 6-1) to push the USA to the brink of the title Sunday morning, yet Stephens, winless since her triumph in Flushing Meadows, succumbed again, this time to Sasnovich after an exhilarating 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 classic, the home crowd urging the World No.78 as she erased a 2-5 deficit in the third set.

Belarus extraordinary campaign merited the fifth and decisive rubber, a doubles match that could give Sasnovich and Sabalenka immortality if they were able to complete the greatest team sports achievement in their country’s history; however it wasn’t meant to be.

The conspicuous Vandeweghe and partner Shelby Rogers took the first set by 6-3, and then endured the pressure long enough in the second, coming back from 2-5 to crucially break serve three consecutive times and force the tiebreak. The dreams of a nation, the fairy-tale ending, hanged by a threat and it would evaporate when a wayward forehand from a fatigued Sasnovich collided into the netting, a celebration 17 years in the making erupting in its place after an historic performance from a surging 25-year-old star.

Defeated in 2010, well before evolving into an elite singles and doubles players and two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, CoCo Vandeweghe has come a long way since she was, simply, a promising teenager crestfallen by a loss to Italy in San Diego. Contributing with 8 total points and the maximum of 6 singles victories, an unprecedented feat since the World Group format was tweaked in 2005, Vandeweghe is now a Fed Cup legend, the perfect cherry on the top of her breakthrough WTA season.

With the Fed Cup handed out to the USA, the 2017 season for the women’s tour is officially over. Hence, attentions will now turn in full for the men, whose ATP Finals started Sunday in London right after the end of its new-fangled appetizer, the Next Generation ATP Finals.

Held in Milan for the first time, this season-ending event for the best singles players that are age 21 and under stood out particularly for the trial of a series of innovative rule changes tested for the first time in a competitive environment. The most interesting solutions included shorter sets (first to four games in each set with tie break at 3-All), no lets, no line judges  – with all calls made by Hawk-eye –  and possibility of on-court coaching and spectator movement during the match, nonetheless it’s still to be seen whether it can really increase the appeal of the game amongst sports fans.

As for the tennis, the tournament was won by Hyeon Chung, the first player from South Korea to lift an ATP Tour trophy since 2003. Victorious in all three group matches, the 21-year-old survived a tough, five set semi-final against Daniil Medvedev, and then defeated another Russian, World No. 35 Andrey Rublev, by 3-4(5) 4-3(2) 4-2 4-2 in the Final contested at the Fiera Milano.

Alpine skiing: Joy for Petra Vlhová and Felix Neureuther in Levi

Situated deep into the Arctic Circle (latitude 67.8°N), the weather in Levi is too chilling in winter for even the staunchest members of the white circus, making it impossible to hold a sporting event in Finland’s largest ski resort later in the season. Therefore, Lapland always kicks off the World Cup proceedings in respect to the most technical of the alpine disciplines, and the brightest slalom racers have gotten used to thriving from the get-go.

In 2016, ski stars Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin triumphed in Levi in the dawn of their winning campaigns, but they would strike out this time. We won’t know for a few months if this is a sign of things to come, but the road to retain their titles is certainly full of dangers and prospective rivals came out guns blazing for the first clash.

The World Cup venue in Levi in Finnish Lapland (Fis-Ski.com)

Shiffrin, the reigning slalom World, Olympic and World Cup Champion, once again showcased her unmatched mastery of the short skies in Levi, breezing to take the lead after the first run on Saturday, yet a sensational second leg by Slovak Petra Vlhová denied her intents of a third career victory in Finland. Racing off the blocks with a 0.21 second-disadvantage, the 22-year-old clocked 54.11s in the second turn for a combined 1:49.98 aggregated time, which Mikaela Shiffrin would miss by a tenth of a second. In Levi, the top duo was on a class of their own, with the third place finisher, Swiss Wendy Holdener, blowing past Frida Hansdotter to claim bronze some 1.25 seconds off the winners pace, nevertheless setting up a podium with the same three ladies of 2016 but in a different configuration.

The up-and-coming Vlhová, third twelve months ago, collected her third career win to push her rivals down a peg, and as consequence ascended to second in the overall classification, 10 pts behind Shiffrin, which is nice and all, but lags in comparison to the honour of naming a reindeer for the first time, the singular dividend granted to World Cup winners in Levi.

Levi Slalom winner Petra Vlhová makes new friends after collecting her prize (SITA/AP)

An amazed Vlhová wouldn’t disclose her choice in the immediate moments after the race, however the men’s victor had no such qualms. Veteran Felix Neureuther recently fathered a girl, and young Matilda will someday meet her namesake since the German skier was offered an unexpected gift in Levi.

Trailing British Dave Ryding after the first run by 0.14 seconds, Neureuther went fast in the second leg but not as much as the 30-year-old, whose advantage grew to more than half a second by the middle of the course. On a harmless left turn, though, Ryding would stumble a bit and miss the next gate, handing out to Neureuther a 13th career victory and the first since February 2016.

Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, the discipline’s 2015-16 crystal globe winner, took runner-up honours on the day while Swedish veteran Mattias Hargin posted the second best time of the second leg to grab an eight career podium and edge Swiss duo Luca Aerni and Daniel Yule, who tied for fourth, just 0.09 seconds away from a maiden podium for either man. As for the six-time overall World Cup Champion Marcel Hirscher, making a surprising appearance less than three months after breaking the left ankle in training, he was fourth at the mid-point of the event before surrendering to lack of form, concluding in 17th.

German Felix Neureuther (C) was flanked on the podium in Levi by Henrik Kristoffersen (R) and Mattias Hargin (L) (Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen via REUTERS )

The FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup returns in two weeks in North American soil. On the 25th-26th, the men will be in Lake Louise (Canada) for the inaugural downhill and Super-G events of the year, while the women tackle two technical events (GS, slalom) south of the border in Killington, Vermont.

Football: Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Croatia and Switzerland punch their tickets to Russia

The final international break of 2017 is also the ultimate opportunity to clinch a place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, making these days a whirlwind for the national teams still in contention. From the nine open spots, five have already been claimed and the rest will be awarded until Wednesday night, so let’s take a look at the latest from World Cup qualifying.

CAF

Nigeria and Egypt, already qualified since October, met their travel companions on the weekend as the African qualifiers reached their climax.

In Group A, Tunisia knew in advance that a point was enough regardless of RD Congo’s result against Guinea, and Les Aigles de Carthage fulfilled their duties, securing a nervous goalless draw at home against neighbours Libya to return to the world stage 12 years after the last appearance.

Fellow North African side Morocco is also heading to Russia after locking down Group C with a famous victory in Abidjan. Still to concede a goal entering the last game, the Lions of the Atlas stunned the Ivory Coast in the first half when Nabil Dirar and defender Medhi Benatia scored on a five-minute blitz, and then milked the clock to guarantee a result that served their intents. Morocco will make its first World Cup appearance since France 1998, while the Ivorians miss out after three consecutive tournaments.

Filling out CAF’s five team representation, Senegal will return to the World Cup after their only previous appearance ended in the quarter-finals in 2002. Back in South Africa to play a rematch of the encounter that had been annulled by allegations of match fixing, Senegal proved stronger than the Bafana Bafana this time and took the vital three points courtesy of an own goal and a marker from striker Diafra Sakho. With the victory, they amassed 11 pts, five more than Cape Verde and Burkina Faso with a round to go.

UEFA

Four playoff series were in order to complete UEFA’s 14-team contingent, and half are already consummated.

Northern Ireland – Switzerland, 0-1 on aggregate

On what was probably Northern Ireland’s most important match in 30 years, the hosts played second fiddle to a disciplined Switzerland team that dominated the ball in Belfast and deserved more than a victory tainted by a ludicrous refereeing mistake. Xherdan Shaqiri, Haris Seferovic and Granit Xhaka wasted good opportunities, but the visitors would eventually get their breakthrough in the 58th minute, the Romanian Ovidiu Hategan somehow detecting a deliberate handball from midfielder Corry Evans after a shot from Shaqiri, and left back Ricardo Rodriguez coolly converting the penalty on the game winner.

Absent from the World Cup since 1986, Northern Ireland lacked the artifice to threaten the Swiss goal and they went into the second leg, in Basel, with the daunting task of rescuing the tie away from home. A gutsy effort in the water-drenched pitch of the St. Jakob-Park kept Michael O’Neill’s men in the fray until the final moments, but when Rodriguez cleared a ball on the goal line in injury time, their dream was over. Switzerland will be in Russia for a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance.

Croatia – Greece, 4-1 on aggregate

Deprived of defensemen Vasilis Torosidis and Kostas Manolas, Greece wilted under the pressure of a talented Croatian team to all but seal their fate after the first leg in Zagreb (4-1).

The early mistake by goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis allowed Luka Modric to open the score from the penalty spot, shortly after Nikola Kalinic augmented the advantage for the hosts, and not even Sokratis Papastathopoulos header to pull one back inspired the 2004 European Champions to a rally. Their slim hopes were engulfed by the strikes of Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric, putting the tie squarely in Croatia’s corner, and with a comfortable three-goal advantage, Zlatko Dalic’s squad entered the Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis at ease. Croatia easily managed the game in Athens, held the 0-0 and booked a trip to Russia, barely bothered by an insipid Greece that couldn’t direct a shot on goal, at home, for 87 minutes.

Since their first World Cup qualification as an independent nation (France 1998), Croatia only missed out in 2010.

Sweden – Italy, 1-0 (2nd leg on Monday)

The only former World Champion yet to book a place in Russia, Italy will have to improve dramatically from their performance in Stockholm to avoid a first absence from the World Cup final tournament since 1958.

At the Friends Arena last Friday, the Azzurri were outplayed by a plucky Swedish side aspiring to end a 12-year World Cup drought, and Jakob Johansson’s drive, deflected on the way to goal by Daniele de Rossi, was simply the materialization of it. Without the suspended Marco Verrati, Italy will have to turn around the tie at the San Siro on Monday, or Gianluigi Buffon’s 175th international cap may well be his last.

 

Denmark – Republic of Ireland, 0-0 (2nd leg on Tuesday)

The visitors from the Republic of Ireland flew to Copenhagen determined to keep the deadlock for as long as possible, and they completed their mission with success, dragging Denmark to a dreadful game of football.

Neither team looked particularly capable of engineering a goal throughout the 90 minutes at the Parken, but they’ll need to do it in Dublin, on Tuesday, if they want to avoid taking their chances on a penalty shootout. Were they to succeed and go through, Denmark would return to the World Cup after last showing up in South Africa, while Ireland’s last appearance dates back to 2002.

Inter Confederation playoffs

Honduras 0-0 Australia. New Zealand 0-0 Peru. Four teams, two matches, 0 goals.

Fans in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Wellington, New Zealand, left the stadiums frustrated by the lack of offensive entrepreneurship as their teams’ chances of going to Russia took a dip. Conversely, a home win is all that separates Australia and Peru from the objective, but you shouldn’t be surprised if things go down to the wire in the return legs to come.

Australia and Honduras drew 0-0 in the first leg of their 2018 World Cup playoff (Reuters)

On Wednesday, Sidney will stop to discover whether the Socceroos will qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup or Honduras will make it three in a row and, a few hours later, the spotlight will shift to Lima, where the 32nd and last spot will be snatched, either by the hosts, who haven’t qualified since 1982, or the visiting Kiwis, last seen dawdling in South Africa seven years ago.

Moment of the weekend

Dave Ryding was a man on his way to history until disaster knocked him down with the same weight of a glacial blow from freezing Artic wind.

On his second slalom run in the slope of Levi (Finland), with the finish line in sight, a small skid off a turn was all it took to wreck Ryding’s perfect exhibition. The theatrical nature of slalom racing was in full display as he tumbled, and Great Britain’s wait for a maiden victory on the Alpine skiing World Cup continues.

 

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The Notebook: 2017 Roland Garros (Women’s singles)

The pre-tournament buzz in Roland Garros focused entirely on the wholly unpredictable nature of the women’s event, and two weeks later, pundits couldn’t have been more on point. The clay Major surely could have used the star power of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, but the wide-open tournament ultimately didn’t disappoint in terms of drama, intensity, gamesmanship and self-combusting, captivating narratives until its epilogue with the coronation of a stunning, first time Grand Slam Champion.

Hence, time to dust off the notebook and run through the characters and storylines that dominated the fortnight in the terre batue of Paris.

  • Schedule makers have a way of sensing how to kick off their tournament with a bang and in Paris, once again, we were presented with a crash-and-burn special from a contender in the first hours of action. Not that anyone was expecting anything grandiose from World No.1 Angelique Kerber, who had yet to beat a top-20 opponent in 2017 and accumulated first round exits in the tune-up events, yet getting dispatched without as much as a speck of a fight isn’t the attitude expected from a player of her status. Handed out a tough first assignment in Ekaterina Makarova, a former top-10 player who relishes the big stages, the German failed the test emphatically as she struggled to find her footing, her spirit and her shots in the red clay to become the first women’s top seed to lose in the 1st round of Roland Garros in the Open Era. At the mercy of mathematics and the performance of her closest rivals, Kerber eventually retained her spot but for how long?

Angelique Kerber’s campaign in Roland Garros ended in Day 1 of the 2017 edition

  • Kerber was the main scalp of the early days, but the list of underachieving players that couldn’t validate the established hierarchies encompasses a few more relevant actors. For instance, another woman struggling to re-enact the stellar exhibitions of 2016, Dominika Cibulkova (6th seed), vanquished in round two by Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who went from lucky loser to trailblazer in a matter of days by becoming the first Arab woman to qualify for the third round of a Grand Slam. Johanna Konta (7) cruised through the first set against Taiwanese Su-Wei Hsieh and seemed well on her way to a first career win in Paris only to collapse to the World No. 116. Australian Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe (19) dissolved at the hands of another player ranked outside the top-100, Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova, the fans she rubbed the wrong way rejoiced and her coach was dismissed. Fellow American Madison Keys (12) stamped an important victory as she gaits on the comeback trail, but then run out of batteries against a qualifier. Agnieszka Radwanska (9) did what she usually does at the Slams: bag a couple of wins, bow out meekly and unceremoniously when adversity, in the form of home favourite Alizé Cornet, stood on her way to greater things.

 

  • Emanating an entirely different vibe while saying goodbye to Paris was Czech Petra Kvitova (15), the heart-warming story of the first week. A surprise participant just six months after the home assault that could have terminated her tennis career, the two-time Wimbledon Champion welcomed back delighted tennis fans with a beaming smile and showed the worst is in the past as her stabbed hand and tendons withstood the challenge. Fighting rust and lacking match fitness, Kvitova defeated Julia Boserup in round one as her dominant left ripped 31 winners, and later succumbed to Bethanie Mattek-Sands after two hard-fought tie-breaks. Nevertheless, the most important had already been accomplished and the 27-year-old is almost ready to resume contender status in Major tournaments, maybe as soon as Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova aknowledges the crowd after her first round victory in Paris

  • Svetlana Kuznetsova (8) is a tough nut to crack as her level fluctuates wildly during the season, especially in the latter part of her career, yet a decent clay-court season and a game relying on smarts and an exquisite variety of spins and slices promised to serve her well as she navigated a draw that lacked a alfa dog. The Russian was my pick for the title, hopefully energized by a golden chance to add another Roland Garros title on the backend of her career, but the 31-year-old never looked comfortable, much less dominant as she saw off Christina McHale in two long sets and then narrowly squeaked by Oceane Dodin and Shuai Zhang in the following rounds. Her campaign would end with a dispiriting effort against Caroline Wozniacki, where she rattled off the unforced errors (41 to 26 winners) and botched successive attempts to nudge the Dane into uncomfortable situations with her serve or net play. All in all, it was certainly a huge opportunity that went to waste.

 

  • Defending Champion Garbiñe Muguruza (4) faced an uphill battle to retain her crown from day one as the pressure of having to hold on to a boatload of points conspired with a mined path ahead, yet the first signs were reassuring towards dispelling notions of fragility. The Spaniard bounced back from an early setback to knock off Anett Kontaveit and closed out straight set wins over former Champion Francesca Schiavone and 2016 QF Yulia Putintseva to reach round four unscathed, however the temperature was about to rise exponentially. Next up was preeminent French hope Kiki Mladenovic to materialize one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament and, unfortunately, Muguruza shrank under the weight of expectations and the antics of the hostile crowd, squandering an erratic serving performance by her opponent to fizzle out in three sets. Intermittent since transforming into a Grand Slam Champion, maybe the cordial 23-year-old can recapture her best tennis now that the memories of Roland Garros are in the rear-view.

Garbiñe Muguruza wasn’t able to glimpse the finish line this time at Roland Garros

  • Players who came out of nowhere to stretch their campaigns into the second week of the French Open: Veronica Cepede Royg and Petra Martic. The 24-year-old Royg made history for Paraguay by reaching the fourth round and her path was far from a cakewalk, ousting former finalist Lucie Safarova and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (16) – one of the most consistent WTA Tour performers in 2017 – before labouring to push Karolina Plískova to the brink, leading 4-3 in the third before the Czech took over. Meanwhile, the Croatian Martic chained six consecutives triumphs in Paris (including the qualifying), took down 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova, and was frightfully close to shocking Elina Svitolina in round four, leading 5-2, 0-30 in the third until the Ukrainian whipped into a frenzy to nab 20 of the next 24 pts.

 

  • France is still looking for someone to succeed Mary Pierce, the 2000 women’s winner, on the Roland Garros panel of singles Champions, but the 2017 edition left everyone convinced that the ladies are due to break the drought sooner than the men. Caroline Garcia (28) finally took a step forward, trudging into the latter stages of a Slam for the first time at the expenses of countrywoman Alizé Cornet, but just couldn’t muster enough to overcome the stout Plískova in the QFs despite fervent support from the home fans.

 

  • Meanwhile, Kiki Mladenovic (14) endured epic third-set escapades in rounds one (Jennifer Brady) and three (Shelby Rogers), and seemed destined to reach the stars buoyed by a singular ability to embrace and channel the energy from outside until her dream was crushed in the last eight. Her impressive blend of athleticism and shot-making was, at times, exhilarating but lacked baseline consistency to deal with the resourcefulness and variety present in Tímea Bacsinszcky’s display during their bumpy QF encounter. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old Mladenovic will be back next year and probably in an even better condition to challenge for the trophy.

The rapport established between Kiki Mladenovic and the French public wasn’t enough to get her over the hump

  • Elina Svitolina (5) arrived in Paris on the heels of a WTA Tour best 31 wins and four titles in 2017, boasting a wealth of confidence after triumphing in Rome and carrying previous history at Roland Garros she could tap on (2010 Junior title and breakthrough QF appearance in 2015). What she lacked, though, was the experience of being a Grand Slam favourite and the pressure that comes with it. In the first week, the top female players can manage to slip through it but as soon as the schedule dwindles and the limelight shifts and intensifies, mental cracks get amplified and even an unheralded opponent like Petra Martic can augment into a tricky obstacle. In the fourth round, Svitolina was able to patch the fissures just in time and she did it so delicately that for much of the QF blockbuster versus Simona Halep her forehand looked unstoppable, her serve unsolvable and her resolve unbreakable. However, up 5-1 in the second, she relieved the stiches just a bit while daydreaming of a maiden SF appearance and her opponent took the chance to see if there was something else to get out of the match. It wasn’t long before momentum switched for good, the lead evaporated, Svitolina panicked like a novice and balls started to weight tenfold on her racket. One bicycle wheel later, she was off on a devastating ride home.

 

  • Karolina Plískova (2) may be a fish out of water in clay, flopping around the court awkwardly and gasping for air after having to play one, two, three more shots than she’s used to, but the Czech is also a top player with weapons few others possess and she knows that. Consequently, even if her stupendous first serve bites much less, her second serve gets blunted and her flat strokes dulled bouncing on the crushed brick, Plískova realizes the smaller margins of error shouldn’t change her approach or gameplan. In Paris, the 25-year-old stuck to her guns to advance through five rounds with little fanfare and under different degrees of duress, and found herself unexpectedly just one win away from assuming the World No. 1. On the other side of the net lined up a player, Halep, of similar calibre and ambition but considerably more suited for the grind to come than a lanky, machine-like ball striker. And the Romanian won in three sets, naturally, to take the spot in the final and refer Plískova to the grass practice courts, where things will look significantly different and enticing prospects await the Czech.

Karolina Plískova’s serve got her out of trouble multiple times at Roland Garros

  • For a 13-year veteran with undeniable talent, Timea Bacsinszky’s résumé is sparse in honours, counting just four singles titles and few deep runs at landmark tournaments. However, there’s no rebuffing that she’s found a home on the terre batue of Roland Garros and the results speak for themselves as the Swiss reached the last eight in Paris for the third consecutive season with a crafty combination of versatility on the forehand, deceiving power, especially off the backhand, ability to slice and dice at will, and a distinctive propensity for well-disguised drop shots. Despite that, Bacsinszky (30) was overlooked at the start of the tournament only to dismantle her first three opponents, rout Venus Williams in the last two sets in round four and squash the French faithful with a composed, methodical takedown of Kiki Mladenovic in the QF. After that triumph, the 28-year-old surely fantasised with hoisting the trophy two years after losing to Serena Williams in the SF, but she too struggled to tame Ostapenko when the Latvian found another gear in the third set of their semi-final affair.

Swiss Timea Bacsinszky in action at the Court Philippe Chartier

  • Simona Halep (3) was the closest figure cutting unanimous favouritism entering Roland Garros but a rolled ankle in the days leading up to her debut tempered expectations and, oddly, the Romanian seemed to benefit from it. She usually begins the Slams in a tentative way and that would only ramp up with the extra attention, however the Constanta-native racked up routine victories throughout the first week and destroyed clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in round four with an immaculate exhibition of top-notch counterattacking tennis to confirm her title bid. Halep was ready to avenge her loss to Svitolina in the Final at Rome, but for close to an hour she was engulfed by her rival’s masterclass in controlled aggression. Until, of course, the moment Svitolina’s level slipped and Halep unexpectedly found a handle on the game, her tactical nous slowly chopping down the 1-5 disadvantage in the second and staving off a match point before prevailing in the tie break. The third set would prove nothing more than a formality with her opponent heart-broken, and the Romanian started gearing up for the next commitment, a clash with World No.2 Karolina Plískova, another player whose balls she would have to hunt down relentlessly.

 

  • The semi-final between the two most decorated competitors left in the field was a fascinating two-hour battle of attrition between players with contrasting styles. While Pliskova tried to blast the points open as early as possible by pouncing on the rising balls and targeting the lines, Halep looked to return everything, force her opponent back by going long and high and surprise by redirecting the ball while transitioning from defence to offense quickly. None got her way decisively as every set was decided by an extra break but, in the end, the Romanian just had more options to draw the line and prevailed to repeat her Final appearance of 2014. Yet, this time it wasn’t Maria Sharapova standing on the other side and Halep wasn’t the wide-eyed debutant. She would face an unseeded youngster with nothing to lose and unwavering belief in her own game.

Simona Halep celebrates after ousting Elina Svitolina in the Quarter-Finals

  • Five months ago, in the heat of Melbourne, a 19-year-old Latvian girl was on the verge of ousting the World No.5 and stride into uncharted territory, the second week of a Grand Slam. Up 5-2 in the final set, Jelena Ostapenko got “tight”, in her own words, and Karolina Plískova moved on instead. A few weeks later, in Charleston, the same teenager wasted a brilliant run to her first clay final with a mistake-laden performance against another promising youngster, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, whose measured, nifty style disrupted Ostapenko’s rhythm so much that defeat came in the brunt of a 6-3, 6-1 scoreline in just over one hour. Watching the trophy presentation, I couldn’t help to think Kasatkina’s surgical efficiency would yield a breakthrough performance soon while the Latvian’s go-for broke rush would need time to deliver a standout result, much less in the slowest of surfaces. Fast forward less than two months and that impatient, streaky, volatile adolescent is a Grand Slam Champion, a National hero and the newest star of the WTA Tour.

 

  • Most tennis aficionados have known about Ostapenko since 2015, and the danger she could present in any given day to any opponent was well documented. A ferocious ball-striker that hits as fast, as clean and as hard as anyone in women’s tennis, her draw placement at Roland Garros, on the section of an hobbling Angelique Kerber, opened leeway for a breakthrough campaign should Ostapenko manage to adapt to the fluctuating weather conditions and how those could affect her timings. Incidentally, the Latvian would drop her first set at the tournament, but progressed to round two by rallying over the next two, and she would follow that framework to a tee several times during her magical campaign, toppling former finalist Sam Stosur and her heavy top spin in round four, and eventually putting the field on notice by draining a barrage of winners on the Tour’s foremost defender, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.

Jelena Ostapenko prepares to zip another forehand during a match at the 2017 French Open

  • Her semi-final opponent, Timea Bacsinszky, in many ways bears a resemblance to Daria Kasatkina’s game, and it was fitting that Ostapenko used the semi-final to showcase the improvements that a short stint under the direction of clay-court specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues provided to complement her bread-and-butter all-out aggression. While at her best planted on the baseline smacking the ball, Ostapenko’s quicker movement and body adjustments sustained her disposition to step inside the court, deal with Bacsinszky’s changes of speed and finish at the net, as well as an effort to dictate at a lower cadence and deliver safer, brushed strokes not necessarily aimed for the lines at all times. It would work as she edged past the Swiss to secure a spot in the 2017 Women’s singles Final.

 

  • It would have been understandable if the 20-year-old took a few minutes to settle into the ambiance of the biggest match of her career, but Ostapenko came out blazing, broke at love in the first game and kept swinging freely throughout, unfazed by the pressure, the nerves, the weight of the occasion, the evolution of the score, the futile attempts of her rival to force her into a corner. Lashing onto every ball headed her way, she kept following her own brand of high-risk/high-reward tennis, gunning relentlessly for winners from everywhere and in any shape or form: ripping cross court or down the line, on the run or returning a serve, forehand or backhand, all while dismissing negative thoughts and self-doubt with a growl or a sardonic smile towards her box regardless of how many errors she would queue at times. It was a firebrand festival of power, obstinacy and competitive adrenaline that many times resorted into a one-person recital, with Halep shoved into the sidelines, “a spectator” on what was also her show, unable to say her own lines, to impact the game using her superb defensive skills as the ball blew past her, sometimes drifting wide or long, sometimes landing between the white lines.

Jelena Ostapenko serves against the backdrop of a packed stadium in Paris

  • In the pivotal moments, a set and 3-0 down in the second, and later trailing 3-1 in the third, Ostapenko actually cranked up the intensity, tried to hit even earlier, even harder, to further take the destiny out of the Romanian’s hands and eradicate any chances she could conjure an alternative course of action. Maybe by instigating fewer cross-court exchanges that vacated the corridors, looking to force her rival to hit from a central location, or perhaps experiment with slices, drop shots and even moon balls to halt the Latvian’s furious pace.

 

  • On the back of 54 winners and equal number of unforced errors, the Riga-native eventually guaranteed an opportunity to wrap up the match, and she didn’t hesitate to launch another backhand missile on the return, directing the ball down the line one final time and raising her arms for the first time, in an incredibly restrained reaction from a 20-year-old who had just won her maiden professional title at a Grand Slam, something not seen in two decades. The same premature composure displayed on court would reverberate as she acknowledged the crowd and filled her media obligations, poised, collected and discoursing with no hesitations as if she hadn’t just become Latvia’s first Grand Slam winner, the youngest Major Champion in a decade and the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933. Just another remarkable image to bookend a bizarre yet fascinating tournament.

Jelena Ostapenko holds the first rophy of her professional career, Roland Garros’ Coupe Suzanne Lenglen

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.

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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.”