Autumn in Australia

Today, Serena Williams made history.

Serena Williams making history is a familiar story in women’s tennis. Such is limitless nature of her achievements – everything she does seems to make or break a record these days. She toes the precipice of history on a constant basis.

It was even more special, this time. Serena Williams this morning won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title – breaking the record of Steffi Graf in the Open Era. Margaret Court’s record of 24 awaits – her next major title will see Serena equal that, the one after that will see her surpass it. History, again, awaits.

That isn’t necessarily what made this one so special, though. Somehow, that momentous achievement seemed slightly overshadowed by the story of the final, or namely, who Serena beat to win this title – her older sister, Venus.

The Williams sisters are legends, not just of this sport, but of all sport. As female athletes, they have paved the way. As black athletes, they have paved the way. Strip that all away – as Nike did in this fantastic advert – however, and you’re left with the simple truth that regardless of these qualifiers, as just athletes, they have paved the way. The level of dominance they have both at times held over their sport is remarkable. The heights of their achievement deserve to be applauded in any context. What they have done for the sport off the court – in terms of equal pay and advocacy – elevates their legacy to above that of just tennis champions.

Given this framing, it should be considered an honour to be able to witness Venus and Serena – at the respective ages of 36 and 35, contesting a Grand Slam final again. 16 years after their first. 20 years after they first burst onto the scene – here they still are, and as sports fans and spectators, we are privileged to have them.

This was Venus’ first Grand Slam final since 2009. Illness, injury, and age has hit her hard, and in recent years she’s been unable to keep the pace with her younger sister. She had a kind draw, but nobody had her pencilled in for the final here. Upsets of other top seeds – like Angelique Kerber, who has now been uprooted as Number 1 courtesy of Serena’s victory here, as well as Garbine Muguruza, and Karolina Pliskova, opened up the draw even further for Venus. But Venus won her matches, and she made it here. It’s a remarkable achievement, given the adversity she has had to face in the latter stages of her career.

Serena was a much heavier favourite for the final, but even then there were doubts. Vulnerabilities have crept into Serena’s game in recent seasons, and she’s no longer the lock she has seemed in recent history. She started the tournament slowly, but stepped it up when she needed to – dismantling the on-fire Johanna Konta in the quarter finals, and since then looking pretty much unstoppable. The old adage remains true – never count Serena out.

Much has been made of the resistance from the older generation this tournament – on the men’s side, early upsets suffered by Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic opened up the draw for Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to meet in tomorrow’s final; another momentous piece of history. The talk of the tournament before play began, nearly two weeks ago, was of the younger generation breaking through. This has come to some fruition in the form of Grigor Dimitrov, who reached his second Grand Slam semi-final, pushing Nadal to an incredible 5 sets on Friday. But Grigor has been a false dawn before, and the renaissance tennis has experienced this fortnight shows there is still some life in the old dogs yet – three out of the four of the semi-finalists in both the men’s and women’s tournament were over the age of 30. Taking place in January, the Australian Open falls mid-winter on UK shores, at the height of summer in Melbourne, but this tournament has had a strongly autumnal feel, bringing what could be the some of the last sunshine days in the careers of so many legends of the sport.

One of those semi-finalists was markedly more unexpected than the rest, in the form of the remarkable story of 79-ranked Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who upset third seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. Lucic-Baroni also upset Karolina Pliskova on her way to her second Grand Slam semi-final, 18 years after her first. She was one of the shockwaves, and fairytales, of the tournament. At the age of 34, Lucic-Baroni has overcome  huge adversity in the form of financial difficulties, and an abusive relationship with her now estranged father . The tennis world was delighted for her, an unfancied veteran enjoying a true career highlight.

The sense of the “unknown” that pervades women’s draws at major tournaments is one of the things I love about the women’s game. It brings a lot of excitement – on the eve of the tournament, many struggled to be confident in their predictions for the fortnight. Certainly, nobody predicted this. Those upsets of Djokovic and Murray in the men’s tournament meant a lot of men’s tennis fans have experienced what is often so familiar to followers of the WTA – wide-open draws, titles with so many contenders. It’s great, isn’t it?

I recognise the irony in describing a tournament won by Serena Williams as unpredictable (and of course, she was the betting favourite). Serena’s form coming into this year was an unknown however, following a truncated end to last season. With names like Kerber, Muguruza, Pliskova and Konta making major moves in 2016, and the start of this year, a victory for Serena was far from a guarantee.

The match itself wasn’t a classic. The first set in particular was littered with breaks of serve, both women seeming to feel the weight of emotion that this match carried. There were highlights, though, glimpses of true class. Serena and Venus’s matches aren’t usually blessed by high quality – playing your sister carries with it a particular pressure. Serena was just about able to bring the quality when she needed it, and prevailed in two sets, 6-4 6-4. A relatively routine-looking score line, but far from routine match.

I blogged before the tournament began about how the Australian Open sets the narrative tone for the season – the stories that emerge from this fortnight are those that we look forward to following throughout the rest of the year. The major storyline now will be whether Serena can win Number 24, and 25. She’s reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, and looks set to rule the sport again. Had she lost early here, and one of the young guns – Muguruza, or Pliskova perhaps – won the title, then the story would be very much changed. One of a fading champion perhaps, uprooted by the young up and comers. Not yet.

How the younger generation will respond to this twist in the tale remains to be seen. Muguruza is defending her title at the French Open this spring, and a lot of tennis is to be played before then. And what of Kerber? She was disappointing here, seemingly crumbling under the pressure of her ranking, and of being the defending champion. Will she be able to back up her career year, or will she slip back into her former self – a consistent top 10 player, capable of good victories and title runs, but at Grand Slams, a semi-finalist at best.

More big headlines will come. Maria Sharapova will return to the game in April following her doping ban, shortly after her 30th birthday. Regardless of the impact she has in draws, such is her stardom and the controversy associated with her suspension, her return will make waves.

As a re-introduction to the world of women’s tennis, the 2017 Australian Open has been superb – blending old and new, and rippling in intrigue. The rest of the 2017 season awaits. A lot of tentative conclusions can be gleaned from the action and drama we have seen play out this past fortnight, but the most concrete of those is the reminder of the game’s unpredictability, and capacity to spring surprises, just when you thought you had it all figured out.

That unpredictability, along with the fascination attached to watching someone pursue – and obtain – greatness, as Serena has done today – these are what draw us again and again back to the sport. It’s what has drawn me back after my absence from the fold, and it is what has truly grabbed me once again. Given what we’ve witnessed at this year’s Australian Open, I doubt tennis will be loosening its grip on me any time soon.


Feast after famine

Six days of the Australian Open have passed. The tournament began on Monday, with 256 players entered into the two singles draws proper – and that’s not to mention the doubles players. The fourth round awaits – and the 128 men and 128 women have been whittled down to 16 a piece. You could call it, quite literally, a decimation.

Such is the exponential nature of a tennis tournament – especially a grand slam. The first round is packed with what seems like an overwhelming amount of tennis, and before you know it the draws have been whittled down to what is considered the business end of the tournament – the second week.

A lot of tennis has been played, and a lot of stories have been told. The first week of a grand slam is hectic – it’s easy to forget the sheer extent of what happens. Already, we’ve seen Simona Halep lose in the first round, and Agnieszka Radwanska fall early too. Nick Kyrgios lamely folded against Andreas Seppi – to the disappointment of his home slam fans, and the general dismay of the tennis world. Dan Evans – the plucky Brit who used to have all of the talent and none of the work ethic – applied himself to upset Marin Cilic, and has backed it up with a career-best fourth round at a grand slam. Roger Federer has returned – and was absolutely vintage in his crushing third round victory over Tomas Berdych. Rafael Nadal is back amongst it too – initially with less fanfare than his long-time rival, until an explosive fourth round encounter against rising star Alexander Zverev, Rafa coming through in a battling five sets.

I am primarily a women’s tennis fan – I blogged on the eve of the tournament on how taking a break from following the game has left me feeling unsure of the state of the women’s game. It’s quickly transpired that that is true of those most well-versed and up to date on the happenings of the WTA Tour. Halep and Radwanska exited early on, young guns Muguruza and Pliskova have endured, albeit with some challenges, and the two favourites in Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber are heading up their halves of the draw with little incident, but neither particularly impressing – although Serena certainly edges Kerber. Nobody has really taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck, and set the tone. Truthfully, although I already feel much more familiar with the undulations of the game, I can’t say I’m any closer to calling who wins this tournament. This tournament, and the WTA in general, really does seem like anyone’s game right now – ripe for somebody to make it their own.

The most seismic story of all thus far in the tournament comes not out of the women’s draw, but the men’s, with Dennis Istomin’s quite astounding upset of Novak Djokovic on Wednesday. Multiple narratives unfold from that one match: what seems another checkpoint on a troubling downward trajectory for Djokovic, Andy Murray looking a sure bet for the Number 1 ranking through to Wimbledon at least, and being an overwhelming favourite to win his first Australian Open, not to mention Istomin himself – who graced Rod Laver Arena with the best match he’s ever played in his career, having won a wildcard to the main draw.

That’s what is emergent from just one match. So far, in six days, 224 tennis matches have been played, and most of them haven’t been contested by these familiar top 20 names, but by players who fly under the radar of the general tennis consciousness. This is the nature of tennis. Matches which to those players are of as much significance as Djokovic’s early loss will be to him, but go entirely unnoticed by most tennis fans. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni received acclaim for her upset of the third seed Radwanska in the second round, but have many really appreciated the significance of the veteran’s run to the fourth round? She first played at the Australian Open in 1998, and has only once previously won a match here. This tournament for her is a career highlight, but not many will know about it.

By the end of the second week, these stories and narratives of the early rounds will have faded even further from our memories. Will we remember Jennifer Brady in years to come? The 21 year old American is playing in her first grand slam here, and upset Elena Vesnina to reach the round of 16.

To be fair to ourselves – this is an awful lot of tennis to digest, especially when you’ve fallen out of the loop as I have. At the same time, it’s almost like a crash course – I feel at the end of this first week absolutely full to the brim with new knowledge and insight. The novelty of the countless narratives grand slams bring with them can’t help but fill you with excitement for the season to come – and that’s one of the brilliant things about the Australian Open. Being the first major tournament of the year, and so early on in the tennis calendar, it sets the year ahead up so tantalisingly, and comes after just enough of a break over the off-season to make you hungry for tennis again.

As appetisers go, you’re left feeling pretty full. And with 16 players left in each draw, there’s a long way to go before the main course.