As the first major of every season, taking place just two weeks into the new year, we always come into the Australian Open a little bit blind, without the kind of data points that might let us know what to expect. But after two weeks in Melbourne, we have considerably more insight about what the coming season has in store.
Here are nine takeaways from the 2018 Aussie Open:
Roger Federer is eternal
There isn’t all that much to be gleaned from a tournament favorite winning the tournament he was favored to win, but it’s hard not to marvel at Federer’s continued reliability. Apart from him, the men’s draw was a mess. No other top-five seed made the semifinals, and only one other previous Slam champ (Marin Cilic) completed a quarterfinal match.
Federer won his third major in the past 12 months, and for the second time in that span made the finals without dropping a set. He didn’t complete the unblemished run, as he did at Wimbledon last year, but fighting past a far better and healthier Cilic in five sets this time around, was no less impressive. It would’ve been nice to see how he fared against stiffer competition in the lead-up to the final, but given how spry and healthy he looked throughout, and how positive his frame of mind appears to be, there’s little reason to think he’s due for a comedown any time soon.
Don’t take Federer’s consistent excellence for granted.
Caroline Wozniacki did the damn thing
For Wozniacki, this tournament was the culmination of a remarkable resurgence, which began in earnest some 16 months ago (after she’d slipped to No. 74 in the world) but was really six years in the making.
She survived match points and a 1-5 third-set deficit in the second round, rolled to the final, outlasted Simona Halep in a character-defining battle to win that elusive first Slam. She’s about to be back at No. 1 for the 68th week of her career, and the first since this very week in January of 2012. Given all the flak she took for being Slamless during her first go-around at the top of the rankings, and how long it took her to get back, this one has to feel extra sweet. Her bona fides are unimpeachable this time, but with the monkey finally off her back, one imagines she’ll be greedy for more.
Halep’s going to do the damn thing sometime soon
She lost her last match, but Halep had arguably the most impressive and eye-opening performance of anyone at this tournament.
From the physical resilience she showed (on top of playing through ankle and foot injuries, she wound up in the hospital needing an IV drip for “severe dehydration” after the final), to the opponents she beat, to the way she beat them, to how she fought to the brink of collapse in the final (and nearly pulled out a win even as it was clear her tank was bone dry), to how she carried herself throughout, Halep made it known that she’s a worthy No. 1, even if she no longer owns that title. Don’t expect her to remain Slamless for long.
Ghosts of Djokovic past and future
There’s this unattributed maxim I’ve seen bouncing around recently, maybe you’ve heard it. When we’re depressed, the saying goes, we’re living in the past. When we’re anxious, we’re living in the future. When we’re at peace, we’re living in the present.
It’s a simplistic take, to be sure, but I found myself thinking about it while watching Novak Djokovic’s straight-sets loss to Hyeon Chung – the first time this decade Djokovic has lost in straights at a hardcourt major – in the fourth round. From the opening ball, Djokovic had this strangely absent, detached, almost vacuous air that invited you to project any number of emotions onto him.
Was he feeling depressed living in the past, as he watched this swaggering, speedy, uber-flexible 21-year-old play so much like he did at his peak? Was he anxiously thinking about the future, imagining Chung and his generation busting through the gate and overthrowing the longstanding ruling party? Or was he calmly living in the present, at peace with his place in the world and blithely accepting of whatever successes and failures might lie ahead? It was evident during the match that Djokovic is nowhere near 100 percent physically, but it was hard to gauge where he’s at mentally.
Angie Kerber is extremely back
Let’s just forget that whole 2017 thing happened.
With her torrid Australian summer, Kerber picked up right where she left off in 2016, looking every bit like the two-time Slam champ who finished the year ranked No. 1. Building on her impressive title run in Sydney, she surged to the semis in Mebourne – utterly dismantling Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys along the way – and there fought valiantly and often played brilliantly in an epic against Halep. On top of the results themselves, encouraging signs abounded, most notably the renewed frequency, opportunism, and efficacy with which Kerber has been redirecting the ball up the line.
It’s not entirely clear what went wrong for her last season, when she didn’t beat a top-30 opponent until September and failed to win a single title. What is clear is that she’s put it behind her, and that 2017 was far more of an aberration than 2016 was.
It’s feast or famine for Madison Keys
Speaking of the beatdown Kerber laid on Keys, that result had as much to do with the young American’s no-show as it did Kerber’s prowess.
We know at this point what Keys is capable of. She’s got power for days, is a fluid mover, serves as well as anyone on tour, and can dominate from the back of the court. But this was the second Slam in a row in which she followed up one of her finest performances with one of her worst. At the US Open, she eviscerated CoCo Vandewehge in the semis, only to take an equally sound thumping from Sloane Stephens in the final. At the Aussie, she marched to the quarters without losing a set – capped by a dominant showing against world No. 8 Caroline Garcia in the fourth round – before being humbled by Kerber, 6-1, 6-2.
That Kerber and Stephens are two of the game’s best defenders is no coincidence, and the pattern is cause for some concern. On a good day, Keys can blast any fool off the court, but she doesn’t have enough variety in her game to work a viable Plan B when she struggles to hit through her opponent. Raw firepower can still win you a Slam on the right week, but unless and until she adds some subtler weapons to her arsenal, Keys’ game is going to be boom or bust.
Nick Kyrgios, turning a corner?
Kyrgios backed up his Brisbane title with a run to the second week that included an impressive victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and an equally impressive effort in a loss to Grigor Dimitrov. His game showed signs of meaningful growth – with a more sustainable mix of risk and prudence – and his body seemed to hold up just fine. With the odd exception, he showed more emotional restraint, too.
If this past month turns out to be another red herring rather than a sign of things to come, well, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve fallen victim to wishful thinking where Kyrgios’ on-court progress is concerned. But based on what Kyrgios and those close to him have said, this isn’t an accident. It really does sound like he’s more focused and more committed than he’s been in years past.
Time will tell, of course. He’ll almost certainly hit a rough patch at some point this season, and how he responds, if and when that happens, will ultimately tell us more about his growth than this recent run of strong form has. For now, though, there are enough positive indicators to suggest more week-to-week consistency should be in store for Kyrgios in 2018.
You don’t need power to dictate points
Power is still the currency of the modern game, but it was nice to be reminded that there is more than one way to assert control over tennis match. In taking down Garbine Muguruza and Agnieszka Radwanska, and pushing Kerber to the brink, Hsieh Su-Wei did so at this tournament in ways I’d never really seen or imagined possible before.
With drop shots and wacky slices and flat, airy, two-handed strokes from both wings that she seemed to place wherever she wanted, Hsieh ran her opponents ragged. She hit 98 combined winners against Muguruza, Radwanska, and Kerber – fine movers, all – and they were some of the most casual, deliberate winners you will ever see. Just watch some of the highlights from her fourth-rounder against Kerber, which was maybe the most purely enjoyable match of the tournament.
It made it that much better when Hsieh admitted she hadn’t gone into the match with any sort of plan, but was just trying to play “my Su-Wei style,” i.e. making it up as she went along.
The best reveal: She said her coach watched film of Kerber on the morning of the match, but she forgot to ask him about it.
Sascha Zverev still hasn’t solved the 5-set formula
Young Zverev has long been near-universally acknowledged as the future of the game, but last season he staked his claim to its present, as well. He tied for the tour lead in titles, notched victories over Djokovic and Federer in Masters finals, and finished the year ranked fourth in the world, all at the tender age of 20. But the Slams remained an Achilles heel for Zverev, who failed to advance past the fourth round at any of them.
That trend continued at the Aussie, where, for the second straight time at a major, he lost in the first week to a less heralded, less accomplished NextGen peer. It was Chung who bounced him in Melbourne (after Borna Coric got him at the US Open), and while the loss itself was softened in light of Chung’s subsequent trouncing of Djokovic and run to the semis, getting bageled in a desultory fifth set wasn’t a great look for Zverev, who’s still never beaten a top-50 opponent at a major.
Because of his twiggy frame, many people have surmised that Zverev struggles in the best-of-five format because he hasn’t yet developed the physicality for it. But he was adamant after his latest loss that the issue is with his mind, not his body.
“Definitely not physical,” he said. “I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in a Grand Slam. It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here. I’m still young, so I got time. I definitely have some figuring out to do for myself.”
(Photo Courtesy: Getty Images)