Serena Williams has some unfinished business. And there’s good chance she’d get the job done in a fortnight. Having surpassed Steffi Graf’s record of 22 grand slam titles three years ago after having won the Australian Open (AO), she is one title-win shy of tying with Margaret Smith Court’s record of 24 grand slams victories; the most any women has ever won.
Ever since she returned after taking time off for maternity, Serena played seven grand slam titles and finished runners-up in four of them. “Serena looks hungry. She was under pressure at the Wimbledon (her favourite surface) and the US Open (home country grand slam) and clay is her least favourite surface. At Melbourne, she faces least pressure, so she’d be tough to beat here,” said former No. 1 women’s tennis player and ESPN tennis analyst Chris Evert. Both Evert and former men’s top-ranked player and fellow ESPN tennis analyst, John McEnroe, were on a conference call with the media last week, previewing the AO and discussing issues in the sport.
Fire on and off-court
This year, however, the AO has been under a cloud, literally. The smoke from the horrific bushfires in Australia has caused incessant coughing and health issues to some players in the qualifying rounds as well as during practice sessions. With tournament organisers having ruled out the chance of cancelling or postponing the event, some quarters are nudging for the AO to go indoors. Already, the AO has its three largest courts fitted with retractable roofs that close during rains and extreme heat. These will be used, the organisers have said, in the “unlikely case of extreme smoke conditions.”
But an indoors grand slam looks some distance away, although McEnroe favours the idea. “It (an indoors grand slam) would be a tremendous addition to the sport,” said McEnroe on the call. How about a ‘best-of-3 sets’ to help the players in case the smoke gets too much? “I don’t see that happening. The grand slams, three of the four, have already introduced tie-breaks in the final set; I can’t figure out why the French Open hasn’t still done it. So that has shortened the matches a bit. But the top men’s players, I don’t think they would like the idea of best-of-3 sets; a best-of-5 set scenario decreases the chances of something bad happening to them,” said McEnroe.
The men’s leg
That brings us to the men’s circuit. Ranked number 1, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic starts as the favourite to lift his eight AO title. But Spain’s Rafael Nadal, ranked number 2 in the world, is pushing hard to becoming the only player to win each of the four grand slam titles at least twice. And, Switzerland’s Roger Federer who is ranked number three, and has won six AO titles, is not too far behind either. “Novak is looking better to me than anyone else right now,” Evert said.
In 2019, Djokovic and Nadal won two Slams each. Both have played each other 55 times – Djokovic has won 29 matches and Nadal, 26. But Djokovic has ruled hard-courts. He has beaten Nadal in their last seven outdoor hard-court meetings, dating back to the 2013 China Open.
Let’s not forget Federer, 38; he leads the race of grand slam titles with his stack of 20. “I'm sure if he could win one more; he'd be thrilled. How much longer can he play, at almost 38-and-a-half? This year, maybe possibly one more year? So I'm assuming he's thinking his best chance is at Wimbledon, but he's won Australia two or three times in the last four years, so it's not like he's not comfortable down there,” said McEnroe. The fact that he is well-rested (Djokovic and Nadal have already played a week of gruelling tennis this year so far), said McEnroe, helps his cause. Of course, if Nadal wins the AO 2020, he will equal Federer’s tally of 20 Slam wins. But with 16 Slam titles already, Djokovic is hot on their heels.
The question is: can the challengers outside the top-three finally make a dent at this year’s AO? So far, they have demonstrated promise, but little else. Ranked No. 4, Daniil Medvedev of Russia has won seven titles in the past two years. Yet, his sole appearance in a final of a grand slam was in last year’s US Open, where he lost to Nadal. Austrian Dominic Thiem, ranked No. five, won eight titles in the past two years. Of course, his best showing has been qualifying for just two slams’ finals. Stefanos Tsitsipas, ranked no. six in the world, has won four titles and finished runners-up in five tournaments in the past two years. But apart from his sole semi-final appearance at last year’s Australian Open, his grand slam performance has been mediocre. And despite five titles in the past two years, Alexander Zverev (who also won the juniors event at AO in 2014) hasn’t gone beyond the quarter-finals in a grand slam event. “The top 3 guys just know how to get it done; they’re more versatile,” said McEnroe. Evert added that Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have done this for so long, their tolerance is much better than the younger players.”
AO (overall 108th
edition of the Australian Championships) gets underway Monday, 20 January. You can catch all the action on SONY SIX, SONY SIX HD, SONY TEN 2 and SONY TEN 2 HD channels from January 20, 2019 from 5:30 am (IST) onwards.