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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

10 takeaways from the Australian Open

Roger Federer

The first major of the 2017 tennis season is in the books, and for many it represented a throwback to the old days.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer met in the men’s finals, while the Williams sisters faced each other in the women’s final.

It was a big tournament for the 30-plus crowd as many veteran greats showed a resurgence, while some of the previous top players in the world are giving reasons for fans to be concerned.

With that in mind, here are 10 takeaways from this year’s Australian Open.

10. Novak Djokovic needs to get his head right

No player disappointed in Melbourne this year more than Novak Djokovic.

The Australian Open is his tournament. He has won it six times and entered 2017 having won it five of the previous six years. That means he was 40-1 at the Australian Open since 2011 entering this year’s tournament. And then he went out and lost to Denis Istomin in the second round of the tournament, marking one of the biggest upsets there of all time.

This defeat has many asking “what’s wrong with Djokovic?”

Keep in mind that Djokovic also lost in the third round at Wimbledon last year to Sam Querrey, which was his worst major finish since 2009. He lost in the first round of the men’s singles event at the Olympics. He lost in the finals of the US Open to Stan Wawrinka. And he lost the world No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray.

Djokovic and coach Boris Becker parted ways at the end of the year, which seemed like a warning sign. Under Becker, Nole enjoyed the most success of his career. He won six of 12 possible majors during which Becker coached him, including holding all four titles at the same time.

After Nole was upset by Istomin, Becker questioned his former pupil’s focus and mentality.

“I didn’t recognize him today, his mentality,” Becker told the New York Times after the loss to Istomin.

“Obviously the second half of last year, there was a different priority,” Becker said. “Novak was the first one to admit that, and I think that was the main reason for me to stop this because I thought my job isn’t that important anymore obviously. Having watched the match today, I felt he tried and he played five sets and four and a half hours, but I didn’t see the intensity, didn’t see the absolute will to win, didn’t see him mentally going crazy.

“He always was very nonchalant about it, and that is not the Novak that I know. I’d rather see him break a racket or pull the shirt or something, for him to get emotional. I thought it was very even keel the whole match through, and that was unusual, and I don’t know what to make of that.”

Does Djokovic still have the burning desire to be the best in the world? Or does he have other priorities now? If it’s the latter, then that will open the door for some new blood to step up.

9. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was one of the coolest stories

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s run at the Australian Open was one of the coolest stories of the tournament.

Lucic-Baroni entered the tournament ranked No. 79 in the world and had mostly made first, second or third-round exits in majors since 2011. But at the Aussie Open, she made it all the way to the semis for her best major finish since 1999!

Yes, once upon a time Lucic-Baroni was an extremely promising youngster, as she reached the semis at Wimbledon at age 17 and was an up-and-coming young player. But the Croatian player faced financial and personal struggles and disappeared from the tour. She said she was abused by her father and vowed to overcome it. She mostly faded away from the tour between 2004-2009, but she started playing again in 2010 and was a regular in the majors from 2011-onward.

Lucic-Baroni went nearly 20 years between semifinal appearances at majors, which is almost unheard of. Making it back was an excellent accomplishment for her.

8. Andy Murray may be worn down from 2016

Andy Murray put together one heck of a 2016 season.

After parting ways with Amelie Mauresmo, Murray began working with Ivan Lendl again and got things back on track. He won Wimbledon, a gold medal at the Olympics in singles, beat Djokovic at the ATP World Tour Finals, and won the Paris Masters to claim the world No. 1 ranking. It took an awful lot of focus, hard work and determination at the end of 2016 to take that top ranking and enjoy all that success, and that takes its toll.

Murray will have to be on top of his game to maintain that ranking, and he did not get off to a good start this year.

After reaching the finals of the Qatar Open and losing to Djokovic, Murray seemed like the favorite to take the Australian especially after Nole lost to Denis Istomin in the second round. But the No. 1 seed went out and was defeated by Mischa Zverev in four sets in the fourth round at Melbourne. Murray double-faulted six times in the match and had a tough time capitalizing on break points as he converted just 5 of 13.

The next major on the calendar is the French Open on clay, a surface where Murray has really improved his game. He reached the semis two years in a row at Roland Garros and then made the finals last year. But with the way Rafa Nadal looked at the Aussie Open, he probably will be the favorite in the French, meaning Murray’s best shot at winning his fourth career major may be trying to repeat at Wimbledon.

7. Denis Istomin is probably a one-hit wonder

Denis Istomin became the answer to a trivia question when he defeated Novak Djokovic in the second round of the tournament, handing the Serbian his worst finish in Melbourne since 2007.

For Istomin, it was just his second win ever over a top-10 player. But unlike when some up-and-comers surprise everyone by knocking off a top player and then go on to have a great career, Istomin isn’t about to take off in his career.

He is 30 years old and didn’t exactly continue his hot play as he lost two rounds later to Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth.

Istomin entered the tournament with one career title, a career-high ranking of No. 33, and a current ranking of No. 117. He’s never been past the fourth round of a major.

Credit Istomin for doing what only one person had been able to do against Djokovic in the last seven years — beat him at the Australian Open — but that will probably be the peak of his career.

6. CoCo Vandeweghe takes a huge step forward

CoCo Vandeweghe made a lot of noise when she reached the quarters at Wimbledon in 2015, but then she simply did not play well after that. She lost in the second round at the US Open and French Open, and in the first at the Australian and US Open in 2016. Her best major finish after that showing was a fourth-round exit at Wimbledon in 2015.

But by reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open this year, Vandeweghe put together her best major finish ever.

The 25-year-old beat last year’s French Open winner Garbine Muguruza, No. 1 seed Angelique Kerber in straight sets, Roberta Vinci in the first round, and Genie Bouchard in the third round. She knocked off some very tough players. She also showed a lot of dominance on her serve, winning 78 percent of points on her first serve against Kerber, 88 percent against Muguruza, and 85 percent against Bouchard.

Vandeweghe could be headed for a top-10 world ranking if she keeps it up.

5. Grigor Dimitrov may finally be ready to live up to the hype

Billed as “Baby Fed” for years, much has been expected from Grigor Dimitrov.

The 25-year-old Bulgarian appeared to be on track to emerge as one of the top contenders in the men’s game when he reached the quarters and semis of the Australian and Wimbledon, respectively, in 2014. But then he took a step back last season before duplicating his best major finish ever by reaching the semis in the Australian this year.

Dimitrov had somewhat of an easy path to the semis thanks to the upset loss of Novak Djokovic, but credit him for taking advantage of his draw.

Dimitrov won in Brisbane to open the season — his first title since 2014 — and reached the semis at the Australian Open. He may be ready to keep it rolling through 2017.

4. Venus Williams has overcome Sjogrens Syndrome

Sjogrens Syndrome, an autoimmune disease with which Williams had been diagnosed in 2011, appeared to get the best of Venus.

Prior to the diagnosis, she regularly reached the quarters of majors or better. Afterwards, she went a full four years without making it past the fourth round at a major. Then last year she reached the finals at Wimbledon, marking her best run at a major since 2010. And now she reached the finals of the Australian Open.

Seeded 13th, Venus Williams took advantage of a favorable path following losses by Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and defeated a younger CoCo Vandeweghe in the semis in comeback fashion before seeing her run end to her sister in the finals.

Between Venus at 36 reaching the finals and Federer at 35 winning the tournament, this Australian Open really was one for the veterans.

3. Rafael Nadal is not to be forgotten

Much like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal entered the Australian with a grand slam drought. He hasn’t won a major since 2014, and he hadn’t gotten past the quarters of a major since winning the French in 2014. But that all changed at the Australian Open, where he reached the finals but lost to Federer.

On his way to the finals, Nadal beat Grigor Dimitrov in five sets, Milos Raonic in straight sets, Gael Monfils in four, and Alexander Zverev in five. He had to go the distance a few times, and he beat some tough players.

Nadal’s ranking will start to move up, and though the 30-year-old has endured a couple of rough years, 2017 may be looking up for him. He will likely enter the French Open as the favorite to win it, with Djokovic, Wawrinka and Murray as his likely biggest threats at Roland Garros.

The Spaniard, who appears recovered from his wrist injury, will probably end the year with 15 career majors and his 10th French Open title, which is incredible.

2. Serena Williams continues to dominate the women’s game

Even at 35, Serena Williams is showing no signs of slowing down.

She won the Australian Open for the seventh time in her career, giving her 23 majors. That breaks a tie with Steffi Graf and puts Margaret Court’s record of 24 majors in her sights. If she can win the French for the fourth time — or more likely Wimbledon for an eighth time — she’ll be there and there will be no doubt about who is the best women’s player of all time.

And think about how dominant Serena was during her run in Melbourne.

She won the tournament without even dropping a set. She beat sister Venus 6-4, 6-4 in the finals, she rolled Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 6-2, 6-1 in the semis, and about the closest match she had in terms of score was a 7-5, 6-4 win over Barbora Strycova in the fourth round.

1. Roger Federer is still amazing and cemented his legacy

There were many — myself included — who thought Roger Federer would never win another major.

Until pulling down the Australian Open on Sunday, he hadn’t won a major since 2012. The game belonged to Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and it appeared as if even countryman Stan Wawrinka had passed up Fed. Yet the man never quit, continued to reach the semis in majors, and now he’s won No. 18. And he did it by beating longtime rival Rafael Nadal.

Let’s put Federer’s victory in proper perspective, too.

Federer endured knee and back injuries last season which knocked him out for six months. He came back from that and was seeded just 17th in the tournament because he missed so much time last season. He had an exceptionally difficult draw, which included facing Tomas Berdych in the third round, Kei Nishikori in the fourth, Mischa Zverev — who had just beaten Andy Murray — in the quarters, Wawrinka in the semis, and Nadal in the finals.

Federer ran the gauntlet and EARNED this major. No. 18 might just be his sweetest. And though he probably has no desire to retire any time too soon, winning this last one is probably the cherry on top of a sweet career and gives him more peace of mind when he does depart the game.

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