The first major of the tennis season followed a familiar, reassuring course for the duration of the men’s tournament. Novak Djokovic has cemented himself as the man to take tennis to a completely new level and he will now be looking to eclipse more legends with his trophy haul, and possibly even propel himself to the very top of the Roll of Honour. The women’s draw looked a foregone conclusion from the minute Serena Williams eased past Camila Giorgi on Day 1. However, there was a sting in the tail right at the very end. A top class Australian Open, albeit not one of the greatest.
Our world number one now stands on the precipice of legendary status in my humble opinion. There will not be many who won’t want him to break his Roland Garros duck in June and at this stage, you’d have to be a crazy fan of the other top players to suggest he is incapable of completing the calendar Grand Slam in 2016. If he were dominant last year, quite what are we to make of him this January? He simply steamrolled Roger Federer in the semi-finals, losing only one game in the first two sets. That’s Roger Federer, the great Roger Federer, who is still surely the second best player in the world. You have the feeling that Federer is sticking around in the hope that somebody else takes Nole out of the equation because the Serb has any number Federer wishes to throw at him right now. Djokovic followed up that impressive performance by simply outgunning and outlasting the world number two as he has done so many times in the last few years. Murray tried to be much more aggressive than in the past, a change in tactics he had hinted at leading into the final. To say it didn’t work is an understatement; the Serb never for a second looked like even losing a set never mind the match. He started rapidly again, losing only one game in the first set; this is an interesting development in Djokovic’s game – in the past he was always slow to start in the big matches and his durability would be the important factor in his victories whereas now he isn’t even giving his major rivals a foothold in matches. ‘Catch me if you can’ appears to be the message to his foes at the moment. Having gone level with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver on 11 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic now stands a serious shot at matching Roger Federer’s record haul of 17; he may have 14 by September.
The women’s champ will only now be drying off after coming good on a pre-tournament promise to ‘do a Courier’ and jump into the Yarra River if she claimed the title. Angelique Kerber was the cherry on a very satisfying cake of breakout performances in the women’s tournament. I hadn’t even given the German a thought as a potential winner until she reached the semi-final stage, but anyone who hits Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams off the court, ensuring that her oft-criticised bottle held firm in the process, deserves every plaudit coming her way. Having saved match points in her opening round victory over Misaki Doi, she got stronger with each passing round and looks a real force going forward. She is now the world number two and one would hope that she copes well with the added pressure that the ranking and being a Grand Slam champion will bring. For someone who had not been past the quarter-final stage of a major since 2012 (with much of that time spent as a fixture in the Top 10), this was an astronomical leap into the winners’ circle. Kerber looks fitter than ever and her attacking game can be a real threat in the future if her new-found mettle stands the test of time. It was a refreshing change to see somebody stand toe to toe with a fully-fit Serena and slug it out fair and square. There is no doubt that Serena remains the dominant force in the women’s game and she will go onto win more majors but this was a huge shot in the arm for the WTA.
There were other stand-out break-out performances this past fortnight, along with feel-good tales. Shuai Zhang is the only place to start – the Chinese invited her parents to watch her for the first time ever, feeling that the time had come to retire after losing all of her 14 Grand Slam matches to date. She knocked out former French Open finalist Simona Halep on the way to reaching the quarter-finals; an incredible achievement. Let’s hope she is rethinking that retirement plan. Johanna Konta reinforced her position as British number one and is likely to stay there for a long time if she continues her hard-hitting, big-serving, newly mentally-strong form. Having witnessed Konta crumble many times in the past, she is another who has taken her game to an all-new level by simply getting herself right between the ears, her semi-final berth fine reward for her endeavours at Melbourne Park. How far mental strength can take you in this sport. Milos Raonic is the other stand-out performer for me this fortnight with a second Slam semi-final now under his belt. He will be one to watch as a potential challenger to Djokovic at both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows this summer.
So, there has been a promising start to the tennis narrative in 2016; there is much to look forward to going forward. The main storyline will centre on Novak Djokovic’s quest to win all four majors in one year but there is hope yet that Serena Williams is not simply an immovable object at Grand Slam level. Let’s hope that tennis makes the headlines for all the right reasons as we progress through the year.