Simona Halep

The Notebook: 2018 Australian Open

Every Grand Slam forges its own history. Its unique heroes and villains, those who capture the imagination of fans or revolt against the audience, players who relish the spotlight or shrink under it, figures who find redemption and break longstanding ducks and those who leave before we even notice they were there. In the early weeks of every new tennis season and frequently under the brutal heat and humidity of the Aussie summer, tribulations are magnified, storylines get blown of proportion and many take the final outcomes as if it sets up what’s to come on the ensuing 10 months of action.

The most recent fortnight of the Australian Open was no exception to this, although its distinctive feel is expressed on its two singles’ Champions: tasting the same sweet flavour of victory, exuding a similar range of emotions yet incarnating two contrasting outlines: the puerile joy of the first time and the touching breakdown of someone who keeps redefining personal success. Nonetheless, while the emotional portraits of Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer will forever depict the 2018 edition, there were secondary characters aplenty in this sporting tale which engendered something we wish to carry forward. And since those memories eventually evaporate, nothing better than transposing them to words so that we can preserve what they elicit against the backdrop of the unceasing passage of time and whatever the future reserves.

Consequently, about those tribulations, narratives and, above all, the characters, here is the 2018 Australian Open notebook.

 

1 – America (not) First. All in all, despite Serena Williams’ lengthy absence, 2017 was a surprisingly excellent year for American tennis. A Fed Cup title, female representatives in every Major final, the rebirth of Venus, stepping-stone seasons for CoCo Vandeweghe and Sloane Stephens, a strong run for Madison Keys at the US Open and a resurgence in the men’s side, with Jack Sock shining at the Paris’ Masters and Sam Querrey’s semi-final at Wimbledon. Impressive diversity in scope and scale, felicitations all around, and then… the 2018 Australian Open happened, particularly that abhorrent day one which exposed the vulnerabilities of America’s preeminent players.

A sick CoCo Vandeweghe was one of the early casualties in Melbourne (Andy Brownbill)

Mired in a head-scratching, eight-game losing-streak post-US Open, Sloane Stephens can’t seem to figure out how to handle the expectations of being a Grand Slam Champion and the hyper-motivated opposition that follows. The 2017 AO finalist, Venus Williams, always takes time to shake off the rust of the holidays and primed for an early upset, the cocktail of a streaking Belinda Bencic and suffocating heat proved too much. Corroborating her hit-or-miss nature at the Slams (three first round exits in her last six majors), a flu-affected CoCo Vandeweghe lost her marbles against Timea Babos and was dumped out unceremoniously. Lifeless after a short offseason, Jack Sock completed a disastrous Australian swing by bowing out after one match in his first Major appearance as a top-ten player. Nestled inside the top-20 but getting up there in age, John Isner (World No. 16) and Sam Querrey (No 13) were also directed to the exits quite early. That left Madison Keys and that Tennys-Sandbag-that-shall-not-be-mentioned to save the honour and, for different reasons, they didn’t exactly ace the task.

 

2 – In an era of tennis history where teenage phenomenons are increasingly rare since players take more time to reach the physical and mental standards required to compete at the very top levels of the tour, the sight of a 15-year-old in the third round provoked an adrenaline rush. An already precocious Australian Junior Champion in 2017, Marta Kostyuk got an invitation for the woman’s qualifying in 2018 and she crushed forehands over players more than a decade older for six matches until her run in Melbourne Park was finally halted by compatriot Elina Svitolina.

The youngest player since Martina Hingis in 1996 to reach the third round of the Australian Open or qualify to the main draw of any major since 2005, the Ukrainian charmed with cheeky remarks, fascinated for the crisp ball striking abilities and “easy power” generated by her developing body, and impressed for the way she handled the occasion and the big stage. Tutored by Roger Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, and blessed with equal doses of ambition and thirst for self-improvement, Kostyuk looks ready to trail the long road to the top, ditching the junior tournaments to waddle in the lower ranks until free access to WTA Tour events is possible, which won’t happen until she turns 18. That’s obviously a long time from now, but over the next twelve months we should get a better idea of the answer to the question on everyone’s mind. Was this the start of something really, really special?

Marta Kostuyk, a 15-year-old from Ukraine, was the sensation of the first week (Getty Images)

3 – The recently announced return to the 16-seed format at the majors in 2019 promises to be a hot topic of discussion throughout the season, however the first signs at the Australian Open favoured the side campaigning against the idea. Even if everyone knows that, in the men’s tour in particular, the first week of the Slams tend to be rather predictable, It’s still difficult to champion the need for more randomness and upsets when almost half of the 64 protected names in the single’s draws fell within the first two rounds, and 10 of the top 16 ranked ladies headed home before the arrival of the middle weekend. More importantly, though, compelling matches were the norm, not the exception, with the searing heat adding just another layer of uncertainty to intriguing clashes such as Kvitova – Petkovic, Tsonga – Shapovalov or Del Potro – Kachanov, who seeped drama for hours.

 

4 – Garbiñe Muguruza is turning into a mystifying player, equally capable of waltzing through the field or pack her things and leave big tournaments hastily if something doesn’t go according to plan. After retiring in Brisbane (tight injury), the Spaniard was nowhere near her best, nonetheless we’ve seen time and time again that Champions build their form during the fortnight, and the Spaniard simply ought to overcome an unconventional, yet clearly overmatched opponent like World No. 88 Su-Wei Hsieh, a player whose singular brand of tennis had delivered exactly one top-20 victory in a decade and a half.

Possessing the explosive strokes to dictate points from the get-go and chase her second round opponent out of the court, Muguruza was incapable of using them to her advantage and wilted in the heat to depart meekly after two sets, wasting a great opportunity to reclaim the World No.1 she surrendered last fall.

 

5 – Watching Denis Shapovalov is a rollercoaster. It’s both fun and disheartening, it’s exciting and hectic most of the time, sluggish when he simply can’t help himself. It’s always entertaining though, as the kid oozes energy, both good and bad, boasts the swagger of the predestined and the swashbuckling shot making of supreme talents. With his patented backward cap, cartoonish backhand, high-octane tennis and outsized personality, El Shapo is impossible to miss or ignore. You can either love or hate him, but if you like tennis, you’ll be glued to the television and this bustling teenager, waiting for the next highlight-reel shot or dreadful mistake born out of impatience.

Canadian Denis Shapovalov hits the ball during his second round encounter (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Up 5-2 in the fifth set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Canadian teen didn’t choke as much as he lost his cool, judgement and vigour when his legs faltered. No matter how gifted, any 18-year-old is prone to bouts of inconsistency and sudden energy draining, yet the young Canadian will learn from this disappointment against the same man he defeated for his first Major breakthrough (US Open 2017) and who has seen too much to fall for the same mistakes twice. By the way, remember that unfortunate incident with an umpire in Davis Cup competition a mere twelve months ago. It feels ages in the past, doesn’t it?

 

6 – It must have felt like a dream for Jana Fett, the materialization of her childhood visions of grandiosity. She was finally competing in her maiden Grand Slam draw, playing in a major stadium and against a decorated opponent, the World No.2. And then the image got brighter and more vivid. With nothing to lose, she relishes the opportunity and aims for the lines. The ball kisses the white paint, the off-balance shots clip the net and skip past the opponent. She steers bold returns past her rival. Fett gets into a groove and good things continue to happen: there’s a set for you and then one for her. It’s going the distance. Look, a break. And another. You see her racket flying, smashed in frustration. And OMG, you’re serving for the match at 5-1 and you can almost taste the biggest win of your career. And then you battle the nerves to get to the cusp. One…no, TWO Match Points. Go for the killer ace…almost, just wide. Put the ball back in play and, oh no, your opponent survives. Once, twice…after all, they say she has multiple lives.

The murmurs in the crowd augment. You retreat, the tension finally engulfing your body and you hope, no, pray, actually, beg her to finish it for you. No chance, she clearly knows better than that. But it’s still 5-2. You sit down and dwell on what happened. And then it stops clicking. You spray ball after ball. 5-3. Wake up! Keep it in play, Jana! 5-4. Why doesn’t she miss a shot? 5-5. Blink. 5-7. Game. Set. Match. Fett. Wozniacki. Did that really happen?

 

7 – 4-6, 6-4… 15-13! Multiple sets jammed into a gripping decider that showcased the guts and tenacity of the World No.1, but also casted the floodgates on her undersized opponent, an unheralded American that packs way more punch than her figure lets on. Unfortunate that the feet failed her just as the finish line emerged on the horizon, the fast-moving Lauren Davis was still a revelation, a masterful example that a strong lower-body and beefy legs, not unlike catapult-like arms, can assist in generating tremendous power and winners galore.

American Lauren Davis falls during her epic third round match against Simona Halep (Paul Crock / Getty Images)

Matching Simona Halep roar by roar, sprint by sprint and groundstroke by groundstroke – particularly backhands – for almost 4 hours, one of the smallest players in the WTA Tour capitulated by her serve, but stockpiled confidence for the future, where the second week of a Grand Slam is an inevitability.

 

8 – Many believed Maria Sharapova would soar up the WTA ladder as soon as she got the green light to return from her suspension, but six months of ups and downs in 2017 proved the game as evolved and it would take the Russian some time to get back into a groove.

That being said, it’s a bit troubling that she’s still looking rusty and out of it on so many instances, unable to string victories, losing to players she shouldn’t, concocting dominant sets that are immediately followed up with error-filled sequences, and failing to assert her mental strength in prominent matchups. Such as the blockbuster third rounder against Angelique Kerber, the type of match Sharapova used to elevate for. Conversely, in Melbourne, she barely bothered the German and left through the back door. Maybe, it’s time to realize that a return to the top ten in the near future is unlikely.

 

9 – It’s always embarrassing when the fourth seed has a meltdown and gets baggeled with the game on the line, but the real problem for Alex Zverev is that this was not a solitary instance. His startling lack of responses, physically, mentally and tactically, to the challenges posed by long marathons are well documented – he’s yet to win a best-of-five match against a top-50 player on his career – and without breaking that ordeal, there’s no way he’s going to get where he wants and where he should be, the latter stages of the Grand Slams.

The racket paid for the struggles of Alex Zverev in Melbourne (AAP: Julian Smith)

At age 20, time is obviously on the younger Zverev’s side, but he’s got to keep filling his body and find a way to strengthen his splintering legs, so that no one walks over him like Hyeong Chung did in Melbourne.

 

10 – Ashleigh Barty, Australia’s leading female player, lasted just three rounds in Melbourne but the way she managed to rally back from a set down and harness the firepower of Aryna Sabalenka and Camila Giorgi was eye-popping. Blessed with nifty hands, the 21-year-old is able to redirect pace with the best, craft angles, chose the best option at most times and play a combination of spins and slices that bodes well for her chances at future editions of her home Slam.

Eventually outlasted by a better-rounded powerhouse in the form of Japanese youngster Naomi Osaka, the newly-minted top-twenty player is one to keep a really close eye in 2018 since her fast rise up the rankings in the last twelve months may not be completed just yet.

 

11 – There are lingering reservations about Nick Kyrgios’ dedication to the craft and his mental fortitude under pressure, but if Melbourne wasn’t the place for his second career Grand Slam quarter-final, this time it wasn’t due to self-sabotage or energy channelled the wrong way. Fresh of a title in Brisbane, Kyrgios was unusually chilled through 4 matches at the Australian Open, composed in a whole lot of occasions, and brilliant when his unassailable serve and thunderous forehand were firing on all cylinders.

Nick Kyrgios serves during his first round match at the 2018 Australian Open (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Ultimately, this mix would resulted in a statement win over Tsonga in a round three showpiece at Rod Laver Arena, and contribute decisively to one of the matches of the tournament on the men’s side: his adieu after four comprehensive sets against World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov where Kyrgios gave it all but couldn’t overcome three tiebreaks that went the other way. Gracious in defeat as much as in victory, this tournament was a major step forward for the outrageously talented Aussie, destined for greatness shall he desire such thing.

 

12 – With six WTA titles amassed since the beginning of 2017, Elina Svitolina has been the most consistent tour player in Serena’s absence, however the World No. 4, the betting favourite ahead of the Open, took off from Melbourne still searching for a maiden semi-final at one of the tent pole events of the game.

A solid all-around player, the Ukrainian won four matches for a career-best run at the tournament, yet three of them came against qualifiers, and she failed to impress or look comfortable on court before disintegrating against Elise Mertens. Overwhelmed by the speed of the Belgian’s strokes on the fast court of the Rod Laver Arena, Svitolina’s movement flagged and her belief sunk as the games piled up on the other side of the net and the sun rose in the sky. In the end, she mustered just three total games in two sets against an unseeded rival, and displayed a disconcerting inertia on court reminiscent of the quarter-final’s third set at Roland Garros last May. Precocious as it may sound, these might be the initial stages of some light Grand Slam dread.

 

13 – Unveiling an abbreviated service motion after his six-month lay-off, Novak Djokovic was supposedly close to healthy entering the tournament, but game action would betray that notion. The shoulder-to-wrist sleeve on his right arm was a feature throughout, and despite hitting high-levels of performance at times, the Serb never looked loose on his new skin, the groundstrokes lacking punch, the first delivery faltering recurrently and his trademark stamina and agility a work in progress.

Easing past Donald Young, a weakened Gael Monfils, and Spaniard Albert Ramos-Viñolas, Djokovic encountered a mirror image of his younger self in the fourth round, the elastic Hyeon Chung, and couldn’t find the solution to a riddle the six-time Australian Open Champion posed so many times to his rivals. Yielding after just three sets, he will now re-evaluate the state of his elbow and if surgery is the only option, another long leave may be in the cards for a man who is quietly closing on two years without a Grand Slam title.

Novak Djokovic (R) congratulates Hyeon Chung (L) on his fourth round victory (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

14 – Seemingly as quirky inside as off the court, everything in Su-Wei Hsieh’s game is unorthodox: her fragile physique, the way she moves around, how she, more than hit, sometimes batts the ball over the net like she was “swatting away a fly”. Plus the absurd placements she can explore from any position, the angles she finds, the unpredictability and ability to disguise what’s coming next – which completely fritted away Garbiñe Muguruza’s resolve – the variety of spins, amorties and slices that make up for a confounding match if you’re not ready to run around and, more importantly, to dictate from the onset.

Reaching her second AO fourth round at age 32 after tricking the Wimbledon Champion and out-smarting another pace-averse maven, Agnieszka Radwanska, the Taiwanese veteran came pretty close from derailing the Angie Kerber-hype train until her own wheels fell off in the last moments of the second set. Soon after, her surprising run was over, but the name left engraved on the minds of those who had just made contact with the throw-back style of this doubles specialist.

 

15 – Looking like an irrepressible force through four matches, including a 6-3, 6-2 dismantling of eight-seed Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys’ damning no-show in her quarter-final versus Angelique Kerber made for one of the major let-downs of the fortnight. A terrific server with a massive forehand to boot, the American had already compiled just three games in a disastrous first Grand Slam Final at the US Open, and duplicated the lacklustre performance in Melbourne when things started to get out of hand.

Obliged to force the note in order to penetrate Kerber’s exceptional defence, Keys quickly plunged into a tailspin, collecting only 4 of 23 first set points and accumulating unforced errors (25 in 15 games) as her opponent eased to a 51-minute drubbing no one expected. Especially not the flabbergasted Keys, who’s still to fully unlock her ominous ceiling.

 

16 – By stringing a 14-match winning streak to kick off the new season, Angelique Kerber put to bed a puzzling 2017 and resurged in Australia, perhaps, as an even better version of her multi Grand Slam, career-defining form of 2016. At least, that’s what her consummate tear down of Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys resembled, with the German surrendering a total of 7 matches in what were supposed to be two big tests to her revival.

Angelique Kerber serves in the shadows of the Rod Laver Arena (Michael Dodge/Getty Images AsiaPac)

With her head cleared after a coaching change and regained trust on the serve, Kerber relied more than ever on the fundamentals of her previous success: the ability to block one more ball than the opposition and the willingness to run for hours, a gutsy approach to pressure situations, and that patented down-the-line forehand that can be devastating when she takes time away by connecting on the rising ball. Against Simona Halep in a nail-biting semi-final, all the best features of her counterpunching style were clicking and that’s why she came within one point of winning an outstanding battle of wills, eventually succumbing 9-7 in the third set. Kerber picked the wrong side of the coin on that occasion, but that won’t happen a lot if she sustains this form through 2018. Welcome back, Angie.

 

17 – When Andy Murray announced his decision to skip the Australian Open, no one predicted a British gentlemen would reach the latter stages, but it only took a couple of surprises to dig a massive hole in the draw a dark horse could sneak through. The 22-year-old Kyle Edmund helped his cause by upsetting US Open finalist Kevin Anderson (11th seed) in a five-set thriller in round one, others took care of susceptible seeds like Jack Sock (8) and Lucas Pouille (18), and the soft-spoken 23-year-old trudged ahead, beating three players ranked outside the top-60 to set up a clash with Grigor Dimitrov (3) in his maiden quarter-final.

Kyle Edmund drills a backhand during his semi-final match in Melbourne (Getty Images)

At that stage, merely good was not good enough, but the familiarity between the two competitors indicated this might be a winnable match for Edmund if he just managed to summon his A-Game, and he sure did. The much-improved serve responded in critical situations, his booming forehand hit the marks for most of the match, and Edmund secured a famous victory against the ATP Finals winner. Unfortunately for him, Marin Cilic conquered a forehand battle two days later to dispatch the young Brit home, but few think that’s the last we’ve heard of him.

 

18 – Ranked No. 127 in January 2017, Elise Mertens didn’t participate in the Australian Open last year since she missed the qualifying to attend (and win) Hobart yet, if you were paying any attention to the 2017 WTA season, you noticed her meteoric rise and the rave reviews to her burgeoning attacking game. Equally adept at ripping from the baseline or further up the court, the Belgian who describes her game as a mixture of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters negotiated some difficult early encounters in Melbourne, and stole the spotlight in the quarter-finals, demolishing fourth seed Elina Svitolina to become the unseeded intruder in the final four.

Against Wozniacki, some rookie nerves early on, and the inability to keep her offensive instincts in check and wait for the right opportunities to lace a winner conspired for her demise; although not before she came back from a break down to force the second set tiebreak and give just another display of the arsenal that may guide her to the top ten before long.

Belgian Elise Mertens went further at the Australian Open than ever before (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

19 – A shy, bespectacled Korean ranked No. 58 in the World isn’t anyone’s image of a giant-killer, but Hyeon Chung, the reigning Next Gen Finals Champion, was on a lot of radars well before his sensational back-to-back victories over Alex Zverev and Novak Djokovic. Fast and athletic, the 21-year-old boasts the type of wiping-shield defence that vaulted the career of his Serbian idol, and as you watch him do splits on the baseline, extend his arms to crucially keep the ball in play, and complete passing shots from compromising positions, you can’t help to marvel at the glaring similarities.

That uncanny ability to flip from defence to offense in a hurry is a feature of today’s tennis stars (think Novak, Rafa and Andy) and therefore the Korean looks poise to continue his upward mobility on the rankings, but let’s not anoint him as a future Grand Slam winner just yet. Fellow youngsters like Zverev and Kyrgios bear more options to get there, and while no contemporary beat Chung to a first semi-final appearance, he was still blistered by Roger Federer on the spot.

 

20 – For the second time in eight months, Simona Halep lost a Grand Slam Final against a lower-ranked opponent; however you would be hard pressed to find a World No. 1 that concluded a tournament without the trophy on her hands yet so much to appreciate from the two weeks of action. For instance, for the Romanian, this event was perhaps the last obstacle she had to transverse before completely embracing her status as a dominant figure in the WTA Tour and a player ready to withstand and thrive in every circumstance. At least, that what we hope she is taking from the experience, from all those hours fighting with a sprained ankle, a sore right foot, headaches, cramps and the like, with her body stretched to the limit but buoyed by inspiring bravery and self-belief.

Simona Halep fires a forehand during the women’s singles Australian Open Final (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The common thread between the three best matches of the entire fortnight (the historical 3rd round vs Lauren Davis, SF and Final), Halep saved five match points between the first two encounters at moments when her mind and legs clamoured for rest, and she managed it by stepping inside the court, shorting the points and displaying an aggression, especially on her forehand, unlike anything we’ve seen from her before. Amassing 90 total winners against Angie Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki is something akin to Jelena Ostapenko or Madison Keys, and a true game-changer for the Romanian, representing the roadmap to become a favourite in every major even when the likes of Serena, Vika Azarenka and Maria Sharapova fully resettle.

One of the best athletes around, Halep sadly capitulated for a third consecutive Grand Slam Final in the last couple of games of the deciding set, her demise accelerated by a second serve that ceased to exist when her batteries finally ran dry after more than 14 hours of competitive tennis. Even if she deserved something other than the runner-up silver plate for her herculean effort, this was an epic performance through and through.

 

21 – With four of the Big five of men’s tennis impaired, it’s just natural that whoever manages to reach a Grand Slam Final is slightly overlooked, yet Marin Cilic, a Grand Slam Champion in his own right, deserves all the respect in the world, not just for his campaign in Melbourne but for a career that is still in the upswing as he nears the thirties. Once merely renowned for his massive serve and the free points he got from it, Cilic evolved into an all-around threat when he started to jump behind the delivery, his heavy groundstrokes a distress to any opponent and his deft touch at the net a nice complement. Moreover, the 29-year-old wouldn’t be able to trade blows with Rafa Nadal for five sets if he couldn’t move surprisingly well for a towering man.

Marin Cilic stretches to return a ball during his semi-final match (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Cruising through the first week, the Cilic we saw in Australia wasn’t the in-the-zone version that romped to the US Open title in 2014, but it was enough to outlast Nadal in the QF when everyone counted on the contrary, and to push Roger Federer the distance in the Final. Ultimately, his chances rested in all those break opportunities in the beginning of the fifth set that the Swiss managed to fend off before kicking into overdrive, still Cilic will get some consolation from his new career-high mark of World No.3, and the bolstered notion that only Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy and Stan can boast better resumes in this golden era of tennis than Marin, the gentle giant of Medjugorje.

 

22 – 811 WTA matches, 12.5 years, 43 Grand Slam appearances, 27 WTA titles, 67 weeks as World No.1, countless questions about a distinguished, yet “slamless” career, so much blood, sweat and tears until that magical moment when Caroline Wozniacki could caress her Daphne. As in the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, the Australian Open woman’s single’s trophy, the prize the many millions she has accumulated wouldn’t buy, and the corollary of the Dane’s career.

Jubilation for Caroline Wozniacki at the end of her third career Grand Slam Final (Andy Brownbill/The Associated Press)

Appointed as one of the favourites following her WTA Finals victory at the end of 2017, Wozniacki’s campaign was close, so so close from ending in its infancy, but a mix of poise, experience and luck got her over the hump in round two, and she proceeded to make the best of her time playing with “house money”, breezing to the Final with reckless abandon, new-found aggressiveness and that steely determination of someone who feels her time was arriving less than 18 months since the day she found her name lost on the depths of the Top 100. And she was right about it, because this was the best Caroline we’ve ever seen, the Caroline who can claim cheap points with her serve, who’s not afraid to let it rip looking for winners, who dictates points while still being able to retrieve every ball, play wondrous defence and limit her unforced errors under heavy pressure, especially on the backhand (6 in the final, only 40 from over 1000 points contested through the tournament).

In the Final, after almost three hours of awe-inspiring tennis, the arm-wrestle concluded with a netted backhand off Simona Halep’s racket, and Wozniacki was free to let the emotions flow, let go off all the frustrations, call herself a Grand Slam Champion – the first hailing from the Kingdom of Denmark -, the World No.1, a record six years after she last relinquished the post, and a great of tennis history. Even if, at the time, she could barely think of anythink but Daphne.

 

23 – On the 50th anniversary of the Open Era, men’s tennis got to meet its first 20-times Grand Slam Champion. That’s 10% of the sport’s biggest tournaments claimed by the same individual, the incomparable Roger Federer, the only man who could string sequences of seven best-of-five victories at age 36 like it’s a walk in the park. It very much isn’t, as the tears rolling down his eyes testify, but, regardless of the fact that every other contender in the field surrendered to an upset or injury, the achievement is, most definitely, a testament to Federer’s staying power, his unfettered dedication to the game and a superior intellect, which detected where his weak spots lied during some lean years and adapted, tweaked, improved until he could add glorious new chapters to the “fairytale”.

Roger Federer kisses his sixth Australian Open trophy (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

Unencumbered for six rounds, Roger Federer suffered with Cilic’s ball weight during the Final, especially when the point lengthened, but his refined offensive game and ever-gracious movement prevailed in the vast majority of the points played: short (76% were concluded after 4 shots or less) and usually dictated by Federer’s serve (24-16 in aces) or quick, offensive bursts following the Croat’s second delivery. In short, another example of the blueprint behind Federer’s resurgence, which has earned the Swiss three of the last five majors and now a record-equalling sixth Australian Open. Simply magnificient.

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Weekend Roundup (October, 8th): Simona Halep’s special day

In sports, just like in life, you’re seldom granted second chances to realize your ultimate dreams. A third or fourth opportunity to hop on the train headed to your divine destination? Forget about it.

Nonetheless, if Simona Halep should thank a whirlwind 2017 WTA Tour season for affording multiple occasions to stand a single triumph from “becoming” the best tennis player in the world, such an achievement can’t, in any way, be called fortuitous.

In fact, it is the deserved recognition for three years of top-notch tennis from the longest active member on the WTA Top-10, the reward for the regular appearances in the latter stages of tournaments this season (11 quarter-finals and 7 semi-finals in the last 13 events she contested), the deserved compensation for the hard work and difficult decisions undertaken to convert into one of the fittest players in the Tour and, above all, the triumph of resilience and determination to overcome successive setbacks as she edged ever closer to her lifelong goal.

The 26-year-old, who pursued the World No.1 incessantly through 2017, could feel it within touching distance in three previous instances this year only to languish when it went away. First, in Paris, when Jelena Ostapenko recovered from a set and a break down to snatch Roland Garros and crush the Romanian’s thoughts in double fashion. Later succumbing in three sets to Johanna Konta on the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, when all she needed to do was capture the second set tie break. Finally, in Cincinnati, when Halep was annihilated by Garbiñe Muguruza in the Final, opening a door the Spaniard walked into after the US Open.

Hopes dashed in heart-breaking fashion over and over again until last Saturday, at the Premier Mandatory of Beijing, the Romanian’s tortuous odyssey coming to its happy end, to a certain extent culminating her steady rise since a breakthrough 2013 season. Poetically, Halep faced the same Ostapenko that had delivered the first and most scathing blow, and she fought  through the nerves to expunge all the demons in a convincing 6-2, 6-4 triumph which showcased the assets that brought her here: consistency, superior speed and agility, the ability to turn defence into offense in a blink, the understated aggressiveness.

Reunited after the 2017 Roland Garros singles final, Jelena Ostapenko was the first to congratulate Simon Halep on her achievement (Getty Images)

In the grand scheme of things, it may have been just a semi-final of a late season tournament, but this match meant the World to Halep, the first Romanian to reach the pinnacle of the female tennis rankings, the 25th woman to hold the top position since 1975, and the third to do it for the first time this year, after Muguruza and Czech Karolína Plíšková. It was indeed her special day, even if that elusive Grand Slam title still looms large on the career arch she will follow from here on.

Somehow lost in the shuffle of Halep’s milestone was the reality that a Final still had to be played in Beijing the next day, and another woman also craved her share of the spotlight. Fresh of a title in Wuhan the previous weekend, Caroline Garcia scampered to the Chinese capital and proceeded to reel in victory after victory to reach a second consecutive Final, eventually toppling the impending No.1 in a tight decider (6-4, 7-6(3)) to lift her first Premier Mandatory title.

An upset that capped a stunning fortnight and improbable eleven-match winning streak for the soaring 23-year-old, vaulted into the Top-10 (No.9) for the first time, and now firmly enmeshed in the race to Singapore, where the WTA Finals will be contested later this month.

Caroline Garcia compiled an unprecendented Wuhan/Beijing double (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, as a new No.1 emerged on the women’s tour, the ATP’s top dog was strengthening his grip in same venue. The week may have started with a scare for Rafael Nadal, who fended off two match points from Lucas Pouille in round one of the ATP 500 of Beijing, but he quickly got acclimated to the Asian humidity and blossomed into his dominant self for the rest of the event, demolishing 8th seed Nick Kyrgios by 6-2, 6-1 in the Final to collect his 6th title of the year and 75th of his career.

Concurrently, in Tokyo, David Goffin confirmed his push for a spot on the ATP Tour Finals by securing a second straight title following the triumph in Shenzhen the previous week. The Belgian defeated France’s Adrian Mannarino in the Final in two sets (6–3, 7–5) to pick up an ATP 500 for the first time, and denied his 29-year-old rival of a maiden tournament victory on the highest professional circuit.

Cycling: Vincenzo Nibali reigns at Il Lombardia for a second time

Contested against the spectacular background of Lake Como, the “race of the falling leaves” is the last landmark of the cycling season, the final Monument Classic of the year and a gruelling finish to the autumnal series of Italian one-day classics. Almost 250km long, featuring plenty of steep uphill sections and treacherous, swerving descents, it favours the riders that can sustain their form until the latter stages of the season, are well versed on the terrain in hand and have the technical skills to operate the bike in challenging conditions.

In resume, it is perfect for Vincenzo Nibali, the pugnacious Italian star that is not only one of the greatest climbers in the World, but also a great terrific time-trial list and exceptional descender. Victorious at Il Lombardia in 2015 and unable to defend his title last year after an unfortunate crash at the 2016 Olympics, the Shark of Messina was the prohibitive favourite heading into the 111th edition of the famous event, and he made his presence felt when it mattered.

Home favourite Vincenzo Nibali captured his second win at the Giro di Lombardia (Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com)

With less than 20km to go, as the action picked up on the penultimate climb (Civiglio) of the race, Nibali sniffed the danger when Thibault Pinot (FDJ) went on attack for a third time and he lunged across to join the French before the hill’s crest. From there, the Bahrain Merida leader furiously hurried downhill, skimming the bends to distance Pinot and opening a gap that only widened in the final ascent to San Fermo della Battagli and short run-in to the finish line in the city of Como.

With authority, the 32-year-old sealed the 69th triumph for the home nation in the history of the event – but only the second in the last 9 years – while, further back, Pinot’s forces faded with Nibali out of the sight and he was absorbed by a small chasing group from which compatriot Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) free wheeled in the final kms to take second on the day, 28 seconds off the winner and 10 ahead of Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), who won the skirmish for third.

Italian and French riders split the top seven at the Giro di Lombardia, and when attentions shifted to France for the prestigious Paris-Tours the following day, the hosts wanted to get their neighbours back. It wouldn’t happen since the in-form Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step) once again displayed his mettle, pushing the pace on an elevation inside the last 10km to break away from the pack alongside Danish youngster Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb), and then imposing his will in the final sprint with a small boost from teammate Nikki Terpstra, the only man who had managed to bridge across.

Matteo Trentin edged Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) on his final race for Quick-Step Floors (Getty Images)

By securing a seventh victory in just over two months, Trentin bid a perfect adieu to Quick-Step after six and a half seasons with the Belgium outfit. The Italian will represent Orica-Scott when the peloton returns to the European roads next season.

Football: Taking the temperature at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers

No domestic leagues action this weekend, so we’ll instead dive into the final stretch of the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. One Confederation at a time, which teams have already punched their ticket and who’s still in play?

CONCACAF

Costa Rica joined Mexico in the group of qualified nations after a last-gasp goal by Kendall Waston secured a dramatic draw against Honduras on Saturday, and the United States are in the driver’s seat for the last spot after a commanding 4-0 win over Panama.

Due to their superior goal difference, a draw in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday should be enough for the Americans to clinch third place, while Honduras and Panama will fight for fourth and the corresponding playoff wild card to face the Asian representative. Panama currently holds the tie breaker by a five-goal margin, and therefore any triumph over Costa Rica may do the trick.

AFC

Regulars Iran, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia are already gearing up for Russia, and that prominent list is only missing Australia, pipped on goal-difference by the Saudis on the group stage.

The Socceroos can still make it for a fourth straight time, but they’ll need to finish off Syria in Sidney on Tuesday before tackling a final playoff round with the fourth place team from the CONCACAF.  Meanwhile, the Syrians are eyeing an astonishing debut appearance in the midst of a raging Civil War that forced their home leg (1-1) to be held in Malaysia.

Syria and Australia will meet again in Sidney on Tuesday to decide who advances to the final playoff round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers (AP Photo/ Vincent Thian)

CONMEBOL

With Brazil having already booked their trip a few months ago and Uruguay virtually qualified by virtue of a +10 goal difference, the South American 18-game marathon will meet its explosive finale on Tuesday, four days after a sensational round of games scrambled the standings even more.

Five teams (Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay) are currently separated by two points and there’s only a pair of direct slots up for grabs plus a wild card for a final playoff with New Zealand in November. Strap down, this is going down to the wire.

CAF

The first two African nations to arrange their trip to Russia were Nigeria, who bagged group B after edging 2012 African Champions Zambia, and Egypt, who secured qualification for the first time in 28 years with an injury time winner from the penalty spot against Congo on Sunday.

In group A, Tunisia and DR Congo are still in the race, with the Tunisians only requiring a draw from the reception to Libya next month to return to the World stage for the first time since 2006, while in Group C it’s down to Ivory Coast and Morocco, who will square off in November with the Ivorians ahead in the table and holding home advantage. Conversely, Group D is a mess, with all four teams alive after the decision to repeat the polemic South Africa-Senegal, whose original outcome was invalidated for allegations of match manipulation.

UEFA

In the first round of the final group-stage double-header, powerhouses Germany, Spain and England joined Belgium and hosts Russia on the list of qualified teams, with Poland securing their spot on Sunday following a nervy victory over Montenegro.

With four groups yet to settle, there are a lot of moving parts to take into account regarding the remaining group winners and the eight teams that will advance to the playoffs, but it’s safe to say France (Group A), Serbia (Group D) and Iceland (Group I) should qualify when they host weak opposition (Belarus, Georgia and Kosovo, respectively) on the closing match day.

After a spectacular 3-0 win in Turkey, Iceland is on course to reach a first World Cup tournament (STR / AP)

That leaves a trio of games to track feverishly on Monday and Tuesday. Wales and the Republic of Ireland (Group D) clash in Cardiff and Ukraine meets Croatia (Group I) in Kiev in pair of encounters where draws could sentence both sides, while the Lisbon battle between Portugal and Group B immaculate leaders Switzerland sees the European Champions in need of a win to leapfrog their rivals.

Moreover, welcoming Gibraltar to Athens, Greece (Group H) is three points away from pairing with Northern Ireland (Group C), Italy (Group G) and Denmark (Group E) in November’s two-legged playoffs, while only a disaster – an inconceivable seven goal defeat – in Amsterdam would stop Sweden (group A) from doing the same. Finally, with their schedule complete, Slovakia, the Group F runners-up, can’t do much more than crunch numbers and wait as others determine whether they did enough to reach the playoffs.

Moment of the weekend

“El Mundial! El Mundial! El Mundial!”

It’s probably the dream of every live sports announcer. Nailing the call of an everlasting moment for the history of their nation.

The 95th minute equalizer by Kendall Waston, which secured Costa Rica’s fifth appearance at the FIFA World Cup, certainly fits the description, sending into raptures every one of the 35,175 spectators blessed to celebrate inside the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, and most of the other 4.9 million that populate this Central American country.

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.”