While the WTA computer does not yet reflect this fact, clear world #1s exist on both the ATP and WTA Tours. Novak Djokovic moved to 9-0 in Australian Open championship matches and grabbed major #18! Novak won his semifinal and final rounds in straight sets after facing tough challenges in rounds 2, 3, 4, and 5. Coffee is for closers, and Novak Djokovic closed. Naomi Osaka faced two match points versus Garbine Muguruza, who has won 2 majors and been runner-up at 2 majors herself. Osaka survived that challenge and never looked back. There are times in tennis when the keys to the castle change hands. Osaka defeating Serena Williams in straight sets gave me the impression that excellence rather than age have led a worthy successor to Serena’s crown. With 4-major titles in under 36 months, Naomi Osaka is on a path to post some gaudy career numbers.
Martina Navratilova lamented that Serena wants #24 too badly and it is hurting her level of play. I don’t think this was the case in Melbourne. Serena avenged a Wimbledon loss by controlling play against Simona Halep. She also fought through a slugfest by using defense and offense to emerge with a hard fought 3-set win. Naomi Osaka is a stopper for Serena (at least on hard courts). Serena can still win a 24th major, and if/when she gets to 24, 25+ is certainly possible too. She likely needs someone else to beat Osaka. Jim Courier won the 1993 Australian Open title after Stefan Edberg took out Pete Sampras for the 2nd time in as many majors. It is not hopeless. Serena just does not match up terribly well with Osaka because Osaka, like Serena, can turn defense into offense. I have good confidence that Serena will reach 24, but if she doesn’t, it has been pointed out by me and others that Steffi Graf’s 22 Open Era majors was considered to be THE mark to reach. Why that changed is a topic for another day, but it is a good topic to explore. Serena has 23. 23>22.
Rafael Nadal and his Woes in Oz
Australia’s punishing heat and the typically high bounces led me to think Rafa would win more Australian Open titles than US Open titles. History has proven this to not be the case. Rafa did win the 2009 Australian Open for his first hard court major title. It was not until 2010 that Rafa claimed his first of 4 US Open titles. Even his 2009 title came with a five set slugfest versus Fernadno Verdasco in the semifinal round and a 5 set championship tilt with Roger Federer. Nothing has come easy for Rafa in Australia. He has run into zoning players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Fernando Gonzalez. Andy Murry and David Ferrer have given Rafa’s body and injuries time to worsen. Stan Warinka saw oporunity and grabbed it versus a less than 100% Rafa in 2014. Roger Federer reversed a one-sided record in Melbourne to claim the 2017 Australian Open final over Rafa in 5 sets. Novak Djokovic broke Rafa’s heart in 2012 and demolished him in 2019 two other championship matches. Rafa is 1-4 in Australian Open finals. He may win a 2nd title Down Under, but Tsitsipas rallying from 2 sets down along with Thiem’s win over Rafa in 2020 show me that Rafa is vulnerable in Melbourne in ways he is not in New York.
Why? Maybe the slower surface allows people to break Rafa a little more often than in NY. Maybe his opponents’ tend to have great fitness early in the season that has been knocked backwards by August and September. I think Rafa will need some luck to grab a 2nd Australian Open.
Daniil Medvedev reached his 2nd major final. Stefanos Tsitsipas reached his second consecutive major semifinal. Dominic Thiem has his 2020 US Open title and 2 Roland Garros runner-up finishes. Milos Raonic reached a Wimbledon final way back in 2016. Sacsha Zverev has a US Open runner-up finish and a lot of “what ifs.” Still, the generation of players roughly 5-years younger than Sampras and Agassi, the Yevgeny Kafelnikov’s of the world, look downright dominating when compared to these NxtGen(s). Pretty soon guys in their 30s will be considered whipper snappers.
No player has done more for the status of her or his career since tennis resumed late last summer. Jennifer Brady won an event in Lexington, reached the US Open semifinal round before falling to Osaka in 3 tight sets, and then reached the Australian Open final losing again to Naomi Osaka. She is going to be a factor on hard courts for the next few years, and grass and clay could be the sites of other strong efforts by Brady as well.
Naomi Osaka is now 4-0 in major finals. Novak Djokovic is now 9-0 in Australian Open finals. History is being forged before our eyes. That has been the case for many years on both tours. As fans we should enjoy these truly great champions because sometimes great comes in degrees. We’ve been getting a steady diet of the highest degrees of greatness since 1999. Steffi Graf won major #22 while Andre Agassi completed the first male career grand slam in years. Shortly after that Pete Sampras tied Roy Emmerson’s record 12 majors for a male player. The last 2+ decades have shown us periods of undeniable genius and incredible longevity from so many players. Djokovic and Osaka are key players in a story that is still being written.