As we enter the month of February, I think the entire tennis world is still digesting all that has unfolded at Melbourne Park over the last fortnight. Having originally started on a turbulent route with the whole Djokovic debacle, the Australian Open swiftly stabilized exceeding millions of people’s expectations...and boy, it was fun to witness.
I would go as far to say this Australian Open was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Having been in attendance almost every day, despite some questionable crowd behaviour at times, the grounds were immaculate and the atmosphere in the stands was simply electric. Not to mention Melbourne putting on a show with an abundance of balmy nights, coinciding with late-night tennis battles, much to the delight of tennis nuts like myself.
Whilst, I feel I can almost write a book on all the highlights, I’ve done my best to condense it down to 5 key takeaways.
5. Party in the USA
A real takeaway from the AO last month was how fantastic the women from the USA performed. A combination of big upsets and deep tournament progression evidently justified their dominance, which I really didn’t see coming.
Amanda Anisimova impressively taking out 2021 champion Naomi Osaka in the third round was a big step taken for her career, whilst Jessica Pegula reaching the Quarterfinals by knocking out 5th seed (and my pre-tournament tip) Maria Sakkari was also very exciting for American Tennis.
Semi-Finalist Madison Keys showed the tennis world that she’s more than capable, going deep into a slam again, reaching her first Semi-Final of a slam in almost 4 years (Roland Garros, 2018). But the most admirable result was Danielle Collins’ run to the final. Despite reaching the Semifinals at the AO back in 2019, Collins had only reached the second week of a slam on one other occasion (Quarterfinals, Roland Garros, 2020).
Seeded at 27th and despite coming up against just two seeded players en route to the final (Mertens, 19 & Swiatek, 7), Collin’s style impressed me the most – that heavy-hitting offence filled with big, booming groundstrokes. This attacking game ultimately gave her a commanding 5-1 lead against Barty in the second set of the final, so it did trouble the world number 1.
Funnily enough, Anisimova, Pegula, Keys and Collin’s all lost to Ash Barty, we’ll speak about Ash soon but I think it’s important to note that there are currently 13 women from the USA in the top 100. This just goes to show that even in a Serena and Venus-less world, Women’s US tennis is in a great position, and the AO really proved that.
4. Doubles’ Time To Shine?
Generally speaking, doubles tennis isn’t the most-watched category on the tennis tour, let alone at Grand Slams, but wow did we all get to witness how entertaining it can actually be!
Waltzing into the AO main draw as a Wildcard pair, good mates Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis (Special K’s) completely lit up the doubles court during the AO, making them a ‘must- watch’ and a rather compelling talking point.
It was clear the pair had played doubles together growing up as they share such great chemistry on the court. Much to the crowd's pleasure, it looked like they were having lots of fun out there, and that was reflected in the tennis they produced. The pair drew a massive crowd, which got bigger and rowdier with each round they progressed. The atmosphere at their matches described by many as a 'zoo'. Screaming, shouting, antics – it was really fun (besides the whole Suuuu thing, that was annoying).
The Special K’s third-round clash was played in 35-degree heat, yet still resulted in a jam-packed 5,000 seat Kia Arena. I missed out on a seat in the shade, resulting in me burning in the sun, but so did thousands of others, and we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way as we didn’t want to miss the ‘show’. The Special K’s were remarkable and I’m thrilled they won the title. But, if I’m looking at the bigger picture, it’s singles players on the doubles court. Rafael Nadal and Jaume Munar during the Melbourne Summer Set 250 drew a mammoth crowd out on court 13.
Maybe Grand Slams should save some spots for singles players who lose in Round 1 of a slam, ‘Last minute Entry Wildcards’?. That way we could potentially see more high profile players participate in doubles. Who knows...but what the Special K’s did this AO was amazing. They clearly drew people to watch and attend doubles, and that was significant for the game, which typically doesn’t draw a huge audience. Kudos to them on winning a doubles Grand Slam title – a huge achievement and may we see more gripping doubles action from them and top singles players in the future.
3. No Stars, No Worries
Given a host of well-known stars were not playing the AO, a clear takeaway for me was that at the end of the day, tennis wins. Yes, tennis had been marketed by specific champions but this AO was a great example of how the stars don’t run the show.
Remarkably, this grand slam was played without tennis champions and slam winners being, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena & Venus Williams, Dominic Thiem, Juan Martin Del Potro, Stan Wawrinka and the list goes on. That’s a total of 75 grand slams!! But, that seemingly didn’t deter spectators from both going to the AO and watching it.
I know it was Barty, but according to the statistics retrieved by the AO, Ash Barty’s Australian Open victory gained was largest rating women’s final in AO history, peaking at 4.261m viewers. And despite being capped at 50% for the majority of the tournament, with increases towards the end, a total of 346,468 fans attended Australian Open in 2022.
Speaking with former WTA player turned Tennis Commentator (ESPN & Tennis Channel) Pam Shriver the other day on a Live Twitter Space, this exact topic was brought up and I’d love to share Pam’s take on it. After praising the Australian Open this year, claiming it’s been one of the best in recent memory, Pam mentioned that the tennis had been impressive regardless of the stars missing. She mentioned that in general if she were to go to a local park and notice the score being 5-5, she'd watch it. Because any tennis fan will still appreciate good tennis regardless of who’s playing. And I think this occurred during the AO.
Therefore, for mine, people will always have a love for the game of tennis, not only the ones that are playing. Tennis shouldn’t market players as much, market the events more and uniqueness each event holds. As we move out of this golden Roger, Rafa, Novak era, let’s try celebrate each event more, because at the end of the day, as fan’s we’re celebrating and supporting the sport.
2. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Ash, Ash, Ash!
Australians have gone through quite a lot in the past two years with the whole Covid crisis - times have been challenging to say the least. But Ashleigh Barty’s whole Australian Summer definitely would have put huge smiles on the faces of Aussies across the nation.
44 long years without an Australian Open hometown hero had finally come to an end thanks to Barty. But for me, it was the way she did it that was most impressive - consistent and brutally dominant, something we have not seen in Australian tennis in what feels like an eternity and something we have not seen in women’s tennis since Serena Williams was at the top of her game.
Let me go through the numbers quickly, in January Ash won both the Adelaide International & the Australian Open (two titles). Combining the tournaments, Ash won 22/23 sets she played (Losing a set to Coco Gauff on January 5).
Throughout the AO, Ash only dropped more than 4 games in a set once (Tiebreaker to Collins in the final). Ash won 14 straight sets at the AO and was only broken 3 times throughout the tournament (two of which came in the second set in the final).
Barty’s game style had her competition completely guessing. She was able to quickly nullify any half chances that her opposition had and they just had no answers to tackle that low backhand slice of hers, absolutely none. Barty’s movement was like watching poetry in motion, gliding across the court effortlessly, turning defence into offensive in the blink of an eye, it was special to watch. Especially, when she did face a challenge being down 1-5, watching her problem solve, adjust tactics and ultimately chip away at that deficit was glorious.
The Aussie’s performances throughout January proved to me (and most of the tennis world), that Ash is way ahead of the pack. The gap between her and world number two is enormous. The sheer dominance and consistency is something the women’s game rarely sees, so this could easily be the start of an utterly dominant era for Ash and her team. Could she win all four this year? I couldn’t see why not.
Commenting on her win at Melbourne Park a humble Ash Barty explained that “To be able to have this part [AO title] of my dream achieved is amazing, and I think I have to really understand that this came from the processes that we put in with the team and the people that are around me, because without them I wouldn’t be half the person that I am.”
1. Rafael Nadal, the greatest, no?
The greatest takeaway over the AO most definitely is Rafael Nadal.
The 35-year-old Spaniard hoisted up a record-breaking 21st grand slam title and second AO title after phenomenally coming back from two sets to love down to defeat the highest-ranked player in the draw - Daniil Medvedev.
Much like Barty, Rafa also captured a lead-up tournament title, winning the Melbourne Summer Set, which I’m sure gave Rafa a nice injection of confidence before the AO. Not many people including Nadal would’ve given himself a realistic shot at winning the slam in Melbourne, but wow, that was something spectacular.
As painful It is to say coming from a die-hard Federer fan, Rafael Nadal is technically the greatest male Tennis player of all time, but hey, he deserves it...for now. And well, the man is so humble too, how can anybody dislike him?
What made the win even more remarkable were the challenges and adversity Rafa overcame in the last few months. Recovering from a nasty season-ending foot injury, in conjunction with contracting Covid in December, the Spaniard was still able to produce some of his best tennis.
The final really encapsulated the type of athlete Rafael Nadal is. He was down two sets to love, 2-3, 0-40 with very few answers. Medvedev to his credit was dominating and 99% of players would lose that match. But Rafa displayed his vintage fighting bull spirit and clawed his way back point by point, getting stronger as the match went on.
When asked what changed in his post-match press conference, a relieved Rafa shrugged his shoulders and uttered “sport is unpredictable...I was repeating to myself I lost a lot of times here having chances. I just wanted to keep believing in the end and give myself a chance, and that’s what I did – just keep believing on finding a solution.”
The last time Rafa came back from two sets down was 15 years ago (Wimbledon, 2007 against Mikhail Youzhny) and it was fitting that the greatest warrior the game has seen did so to claim title no. 21.
When responding to a question about being the greatest male player of all time, a gracious Nadal dismissed the claim, responding; “For me, it’s amazing to achieve another grand slam of this moment of my career. It means a lot to me...and I feel honoured and lucky to achieve one more very special thing in my tennis career. I don’t care much if I’m the one or the best in the history. For me, it’s about enjoying nights like tonight [winning second AO] – that means everything for me.”
Incredibly humble and well deserved – Congratulations Rafa!