AUSTRALIAN OPEN: WHAT JUST HAPPENED

Ben Goren: The Australian Open has come and gone, which means the 2018 tennis season is officially underway. The two weeks in Melbourne provided lots of stories, from new names, to immortal legends, to dumbass psychos with crazy tweets.

There isn’t one definitional story from this tournament, not really. Certainly there isn’t anything as clean as the 2017 US Open, where American women were the story, or last year’s Australian Open were the resurgent old guard demanded attention.

This open was a hodgepodge. Roger Federer was in fine form, but young guns like Kyle Edmund and Hyeon Chung found there ways to the semifinals as well. Top seeds Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki met in the women’s final, but other high seeds were dropped early and often throughout the tournament.

It was all over the place. So here is a sampling of what stuck out to us.

ROGER FEDERER WILL NEVER DIE.

Ben: Make it RF20.

Greatness in tennis isn’t measured in major titles. There’s a reason why there weren’t a whole lot of people upholding Pete Sampras as the best tennis player of all time before Federer passed him by. It’s amorphous and random and up to your personal biases.

But twenty?

That’s so many slams.

Federer’s 6th Australian Open was far from his most impressive. Taking down Marin Cilic in the final was his most challenging opponent in what was an otherwise tame draw.

But the guy is freaking 36 and it wasn’t all that long ago that we assumed he was done.

There isn’t much more to say about this guy other than “holy shit.”

We’re lucky we get to see this guy play. Who cares if it’s him or Rafa holding the GOAT crown when they’re finished? Today, it’s Roger’s day.

CAROLINE WOZNIACKI COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD

Tristan Jung: Imagine not being a little happy for Caroline Wozniacki. For a while, Caroline Wozniacki was a running joke for tennis fans. She reached No. 1 in the world in a Serena-less field in 2010, but despite winning 27 WTA titles and the year-end championships for the first time last November, her performances in Grand Slam events and failures to perform in the clutch made Wozniacki an unlikely winner. After seemingly peaking in 2011 by staying the entire year as No. 1 in the world, her window seemed over. She tumbled down the rankings and missed time with injury. There were rumors she would retire after the 2016 US Open. Losing in the semifinals there to Angelique Kerber seemed to cement that reality.

In the second round, Wozniacki fell down 5-1, 40-15 to Jana Fett, an unseeded player whom you’ve never heard of. It would’ve been a typical early Wozniacki loss in a major. But she didn’t lose. She saved two match points and won 6 straight games. These games were probably the most important of her entire career. No one would’ve been surprised if Fett had knocked Wozniacki out. With a wide-open field, no Serena (1-10 H2H in her career), and a relatively easy half of the draw in the 2018 Australian Open, Wozniacki had to know all along that this would be arguably the best shot of her career to win a Grand Slam.

She didn’t miss a ball for 30 minutes. Fett crumbled under the relentless defensive pressure.

Wozniacki didn’t drop another set on her way to the final. In that final against Simona Halep, a player who shares a few striking similarities in career path so far, she played more aggressive than ever in the first set, seemingly trying to force her way to a title. It worked in the first set but backfired in the second, allowing Halep back into the match. Halep really looked like she’d win too, going up a break in the final set, but Wozniacki once again decided she just wouldn’t miss after that. The point at 30-30 that set up championship point was vintage Wozniacki.

After Halep had played two marathon matches with amazing counterpunchers (Davis and Kerber), that “complete BS defense” point was one too many. Halep went to the hospital with dehydration after the match, but she has to take heart that she will someday take the final step like Wozniacki did. But for now, it’s Caroline’s show in women’s tennis.

WHAT DOES THE END FOR RAFA NADAL LOOK LIKE?

Ben: We should have known that Federer, the most graceful elite athlete ever, was going to have a graceful exit. If anyone was going to coast through majors at 36, it was going to be him.

But what does the end look like for Rafael Nadal?

Injuries are piling up. He had to withdraw against Marin Cilic and will now miss close to a month. Rafa, being Rafa, still wants to play a full slate in the spring, including playing in Acapulco, an event he has no real reason to play in. It makes you half expect that the last years of Nadal’s career are going to be spent in permanent transit to and from the trainer’s table.

Nadal’s competitiveness has always bordered on psychosis, but at some point, someone has to make him slow down. Federer has shown what a schedule should look like for someone in the twilight of their career.

Nadal might not be wired to make that kind of business decision.

NIKE TENNIS GEAR RECLAIMS ITS CROWN

Ben: The US Open gear from Nike was not good. It was, in fact, bad.

But goodness gracious, they knocked Melbourne right out of the damn park.

Let’s start with Roger.

That’s clean. Oh, and the shoes are better.

That’s the number of Australian Open trophies Federer has claimed and the Melbourne train station. Your fave could never.

Then there are the other looks.

The diagonal sash look favored by Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, and Kyle Edmund? Really strong.

Grigor Dimitrov wins as best dressed. Dimitrov may have been a bit of a disappointment, bowing out to Kyle Edmund in the quarters, but he looked good doing it, and that’s what counts.

MATCHES OF THE TOURNAMENT

Ben: Lots of good options here for the men. The final went five sets. Kyrgios-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was super fun. Mackenzie McDonald nearly took out Grigor Dimitrov before Dimitrov took the fifth set 8-6 after dropping the fourth 0-6. Rublev almost gave away a first round match against David Ferrer after winning the first two sets. Tennys Sandgren outlasted Dominic Thiem in five, Chung ended up dismantling Sascha Zverev in a 6-0 fifth set, and Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils played a match on the surface of the sun.

For me, though, it’s got to be Edmund against Kyle Anderson in the first round. Edmund is not known for his mental fortitude, but he fought back 11th seed Anderson after losing the first set and finding himself down two sets to one. Anderson broke first in the deciding set, but a poorly timed double fault handed Edmund the break back and the Brit wouldn’t look back, making it all the way to the semifinals.

Tristan: The women had three all-timers that could make any top 10 end-of-year lists. Let’s run through them:

Simona Halep def. Lauren Davis 4-6, 6-4, 15-13

In one of the most grueling women’s tennis matches of all time, Halep managed a triple match point save and defeated Lauren Davis in a three-hour, 45 minute marathon. The level of tennis may not have been the greatest, but Halep’s ability to shake off Davis was seriously impressive. Halep had one of the most ridiculous tournaments in modern history. In the first match against Destanee Aiava, she rolled her ankle and looked completely done. Then she beat Bouchard. Then she won this match. Straight sets wins over Osaka and Pliskova. And then…

Simona Halep def. Angelique Kerber 6-3, 4-6, 9-7

I think this was one of the greatest tennis matches of all time.

The level of tennis displayed in this match was incredible. Both players have a tendency to be dismissed as over-defensive, but there was little of that in this match. Halep’s opening 5-0 salvo was the most aggressive tennis of her entire career, probably. Kerber’s repeated comebacks in the second set displayed her supernatural shotmaking ability that knocked out Serena in the 2016 Australian Open final. And then the third set…that was a completely absurd level of tennis. The games between 5-3 and 6-6 in the third set were the most dramatic of the entire tournament, and possibly the entire season. Halep broke rather easily to go up 5-3, but failed to serve out the match. Then Kerber saved two match points down 4-5. Halep stunningly lost serve again and fell behind 40-15. She saved two match points on Kerber’s serve and then forced a break point to make it 6-6.

I’m still confused about this point. If you look at the replay (at around the 13-minute mark), you see Halep play a series of aggressive forehands before setting up an overhead to win the point. Kerber has given up completely. She knows she’s just choked away a huge opportunity. She’s walking like a wounded soldier a meter behind the baseline. All Halep had to do on this overhead was hit the ball anywhere Kerber was not, and she would’ve won the point.

Anyway, you need to watch the video, but Halep lost the ball in the air and was forced to freakin’ lob a practice ball back at Kerber. The German, clearly surprised she even had to hit another shot, put no pace on the ball back, setting up another crushing Halep forehand into the corner. While it’s possible to think that Halep, at 5-foot-6, simply misjudged the smash, I like to think Halep was trying to wear down Kerber even more. At this point, Kerber looked more exhausted than Halep, (which didn’t make much sense given that Halep had played a 15-13 match and rolled her ankle in the previous work) and I like to think Simona knew she had Kerber on a string and intentionally made her hit two more shots and chase down another ball.

Halep would save another game from 0-30 and go on to win 9-7. Kerber was completely dead by the end.

Angelique Kerber def. Su-Wei Hsieh 4-6, 7-5, 6-2

One of the reasons Kerber might’ve been so tired was this grueling, emotional battle she had with Hsieh Su-Wei in the fourth round. The third set of this match was pretty bad, but for two sets, this was the most entertaining match of the tournament. For one, Su-Wei hits slice overheads whenever she can. She basically can do anything with the ball and has two forehands, which is insane to watch. Seriously, it’s just good tennis.

BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

Tristan: Hyeon Chung, my main man. He’s only 21 and he’s in a Grand Slam semifinal with wins over Zverev and Djokovic. Despite the disappointing loss in the semifinals to Federer, he has to be the breakout star. The match he played against Novak is the greatest moment in Korean tennis history so far. My bespectacled Korean “hyung” (if you’ll pardon the pun) has to be the breakout star, even if his game is a bit dull at times.

Ben: Chung is the right answer. He’ll win a slam before he’s done and this is his big introduction to the world.

But I want to give some love to Kyle Edmund.

I think this is going to be the best slam performance of his career. He’ll be a top 20 guy and he’ll win some titles, but he hit 100% of his ability in this tournament. That serve-forehand combo was large and, boy, was it working. Good for him. Let’s see how he builds on it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

Ben: I’ve already written about disappointment incarnate, Grigor Dimitrov, so I’ll table that for now.

The Americans did not have fun this week.

Jack Sock, John Isner, Venus Williams, Coco Vandeweghe, and Sloane Stephens all bit the dust in the first round. While Sandgren’s run and Lauren Davis’s epic against Halep make the tournament not a complete loss, but on balance, this tournament was a giant middle finger to everyone who said that American tennis was back after Flushing Meadows and Paris.

Tristan: Goerges’ early loss was disappointing for me personally. Same goes for Johanna Konta, who lost in straight sets to a goddamn lucky loser, which is just so so bad. Maria Sharapova’s horrendous performance against Kerber should also be up there.

Dominic Thiem losing to Tennys Sandgren was completely inexcusable and further cements my position that he is a top 60 player at best on hard courts. Juan Martin Del Potro was also fairly disappointing. If he had gotten to play Federer in the final, just hypothetically, he would’ve won with Federer playing so badly. The solution is to get better draws and don’t lose to Tomas Berdych in three sets. David Goffin losing to Benneteau was also incredibly disappointing and actually bad.

WE NEED MORE BETHANIE MATTEK-SANDS

Ben: Mattek-Sands was only in the announcing booth in Melbourne because of a horrific injury, and I hope she makes a full recovery and continues to wreck people on the doubles circuit.

Selfishly, I hope she is on the announcing crew for every tennis tournament from now until the sun dies.

Mattek-Sands stepped in and immediately became ESPN’s best talent. She obviously has a unique advantage thanks to basically being an active WTA player, and a heck of a player at that. She’s got all the insider knowledge you could ever want and she sees the game extremely well.

But more than that, she is super duper polished and super fun to listen to.

Give Mattek-Sands the top job at the worldwide leader the second she hangs up her racket.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The next big, BIG tournament is at Indian Wells in early March, where Roger Federer is defending his title.

The WTA, which is an unfathomable grind, has two Premier tournaments in St. Petersburg and Doha coming up and a Premier 5 event in Dubai at the end of February.

Denis Shapovalov will play next during the first round of the Davis Cup in the first week of February.

This is still a ShapoBlog.

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