The History Slam – Reflections on The Australian Open 2017

After much talk of the (relatively) new and developing players being the ones to challenge in Melbourne, this year’s Australian Open instead became a tale of the old guard triumphing against the odds.

The play on the hard court of Australia is done for another year, but not without some significant surprises. The run of play was completely disrupted. The rule book was, perhaps for one Grand Slam only, torn up. Logic was overruled.

Novak Djokovic, hoping to return to former glories after a disappointing second half of 2016, continued his poor recent form at major championships with a second-round exit to Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan. Andy Murray, the World Number One, after breezing through the first three rounds, was dispatched in the fourth by Mischa Zverev, brother of burgeoning talent Alexander Zverev (and ten years his senior to boot).

Whilst Murray departed, however, Dan Evans found greater success here than he has done in any Grand Slam previously, and so can take heart for the future. He took such scalps as Marin Cilic and Bernard Tomic en route to the fourth round, where he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets. He was described by Tomic as ‘playing top 10 tennis’, and so has something to build on from here. It is certainly good to see another British hopeful starting to fulfill his potential.

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There was greater cause for celebration with the older members of the draw. After six months out with injury, Roger Federer did not much like his chances of going that far. Especially given that he had Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka standing in his way, among others, he was surprised to make it through to the final. Similarly, Rafael Nadal had had an injury-mired 2016, and so his resurgence in this tournament has been equally unbelievable. He also had to overcome strong players, including Milos Raonic and a spirited Grigor Dimitrov (who reached a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time) to reach the final.

Federer and Nadal had not been in a Grand Slam final together since 2009 – strangely, at the Australian Open. Federer had not won a Slam since his famous triumph over Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2012. Nadal had not been victorious since the 2014 French Open, but will now fancy his chances there when it rolls around in May given his run of form. Given all of that, today’s Men’s Singles Final was described as the match-up from heaven. Earlier this week, former player Andy Roddick hailed the prospect of Federer and Nadal facing off as perhaps ‘the biggest match ever in Australian Open history — and maybe grand slam history.’

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And there was no doubt that it was the people’s final. There are few players with the popularity of Federer, and few sporting rivalries as compelling as that of Federer versus Nadal. It lived up to the billing as well, with both players showcasing an astonishing range of shots and incredible athleticism in a furious, back-and-forth match. Eight years since their last Slam final together, it was a reminder of just how entertaining it is to watch them both. The match was a fitting testament to the pair of them, should this prove to be their respective final years on the tour (as Federer may have hinted at post-victory). It was in many ways a shame that there had to be a winner, but it was the Swiss who prevailed in five nailbiting sets. He now holds 18 Grand Slam titles, and further extends his lead over Nadal and Pete Sampras on 14.

Meanwhile, in the women’s draw, 2016 winner Angelique Kerber also left the tournament in the fourth round after being defeated by American Coco Vandeweghe. Agnieszka Radwanska, who can usually be relied upon to go into the second week of a Slam, departed in round two. However, Johanna Konta continued to impress with a run to the quarter-finals, where she (perhaps unsurprisingly) met her match in Serena Williams. She can, though, take immense pride in the fact that she beat such names as former World Number One Caroline Wozniacki, and World top 30 player Ekaterina Makarova on the way there. There is more to come from the Briton – it’s just a matter of when, and whether her compatriots Heather Watson and Laura Robson can begin to go further alongside her.

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Another big surprise was that, as per the men’s draw, longtime player Venus Williams, who has been relatively sidelined through injury the past few years, did not appear to have gotten the memo about the new players having all the fun. She blasted through the draw, winning every match prior to her semi-final in straight sets. Coco Vandeweghe proved a sterner test, but Williams overcame her in three sets to set up a final with her sister Serena. Sadly, however, the contest in this case was slightly more straightforward. Despite exchanging breaks of serve in the first set, it was Serena who went on to win her seventh Australian Open title (and 23rd Grand Slam overall, taking her past Steffi Graf’s Open Era record) in straight sets. Venus, despite this, still seemed to take some comfort in having reached the final of a major tournament for the first time since 2009.

From both sides, and in wholly unexpected ways, this Australian Open was one for the history books. At 35, Federer is the oldest male Grand Slam winner since Ken Rosewall (who was 37) at 1972’s Australian Open. The record for the most Slam titles in the Open Era was broken in Williams’ case and extended in Federer’s. This Slam was also notable for both players in the men’s and women’s finals being aged 30 or over.

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What has transpired Down Under will of course also have an impact on the ATP World rankings, which will be updated on Monday morning. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who were the World Numbers 17 and 9 respectively as of today, will move up to 10 and 6 tomorrow, while Serena Williams will regain the Number One spot from Angelique Kerber.

With the French Open coming next, could further history beckon for the old guard, or will the new come crashing back? We will begin to find out at the end of May when Roland Garros opens up the clay courts, but in the meantime we can reflect on the fact that tennis is a funny, often scarcely believable, fascinating old sport. How much longer the golden age will continue is, you might say, still up in the air.

Alex Nicholson

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