Indisputably, the 2017 Australian Open was the major that surpassed all others. Over the course of the fortnight in Melbourne, suspenseful five-set matches abounded in the men’s draw, while the women more than held up their end of the bargain with intriguing showdowns from beginning to end. In that remarkable tournament, the finishing acts were precisely what the fans wanted to see. Roger Federer claimed his first major in more than four-and-a-half years with a stunning fifth-set comeback over Rafael Nadal. Serena Williams toppled her sister Venus to move past Steffi Graf into second place on the all-time women’s list with 23 Grand Slam singles titles. It was a hard-court festival of the highest order.
But the 2018 Australian Open was also a spectacle to behold. The women’s event was perhaps more enticing than any major they have had for an awfully long time, arguably the best from start to finish in 10 to 15 years. The men’s tournament didn’t quite measure up to the women’s when examined in totality, but it was, nonetheless, magnificent.
Here are my lasting impressions of the first Grand Slam tournament of the new season.
WHY FEDERER WON HIS 20TH MAJOR
Not since 2008 at the U.S. Open had Roger Federer successfully defended a Grand Slam tournament title. And yet, the 36-year-old was the clear favorite all along to take his second Australian Open in a row and his sixth altogether. Moreover, his draw was something lifted out of a dream. The Swiss marched into the final without the loss of a set. He was never seriously tested until the final against Marin Cilic. Before he confronted Cilic, Federer enjoyed one of the least stressful Grand Slam events of his illustrious career. He could hardly have asked for more.
Cilic gave him a skirmish to remember, and perhaps after such a smooth journey into final, Federer was caught off guard by what was thrown at him. The 29-year-old Croatian was way out of sorts as Federer took the first set with sweeping self-assurance. Cilic found his range in the second set before an immaculate serving display from Federer gave the No. 2 seed the third. He released seven aces in five service games, and conceded only seven points. When Federer got the early break in the fourth and even had a break point for 3-0, he seemed certain to pull away inexorably and gain the victory.
That was not the case. From 1-3 in the fourth set, a highly charged Cilic was firing from all cylinders and blasting Federer off the court. He made it to a fifth set, and had a couple of break points to keep the momentum and garner a second Grand Slam title. The 2014 U.S. Open champion had a good look at a second serve on one of those break-point chances, but netted a forehand return. Federer’s composure helped him to escape. Cilic served abysmally in the second game, squandered a game point, and was broken. His spirit evaporated in the process. After holding once for 1-3, he won only one more game. Victory went to the better player, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Federer has now elevated his record in major finals to 20-10. He lifted his numbers to 4-4 in five-set Grand Slam tournament finals. He is tied with Novak Djokovic and Roy Emerson for the most men’s titles at the Australian Championships/Open. He has set the table for another banner year. Expect him to bypass Roland Garros again. Look for this man to secure a ninth Wimbledon title, and have no doubts that Roger Federer will go deep into the U.S. Open draw. He is simply not playing like a fellow who will turn 37 in about six months. His youthful exuberance as a competitor is the chief reason why he is still in the forefront of the game.
HOW WOZNIACKI MADE A MUCH-DESERVED BREAKTHROUGH
Now in her twelfth year of competition at the world’s premier events, Wozniacki at last secured one of the major prizes. In her 43rd appearance on one of those stages, Wozniacki celebrated a triumph she will recollect happily for the rest of her life. She was precariously stationed at 1-5 and double match point down in the third set against Croatian Jana Fett, but swept six games in a row to win that second-round contest.
She was seldom trouble after that, going on to win one of the most entertaining women’s finals of the past decade. Wozniacki was a masterful chess player on a tennis court as she overcame Simona Halep 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-4 in a battle lasting more than three hours. She should have won the first set sooner after leading 5-2, but played an excellent tiebreaker. After losing the second set, Wozniacki led 3-1 in the third, only to drop three games in a row. But she had her ailing knee taped by the trainer, and rallied valiantly to take three games in a row with stupendous defense, sheer resolve and a large heart.
Wozniacki reached her first major final back in 2009 at the U.S. Open, and was halted by the speed and athleticism of Kim Clijsters. Five years later on the same court, Serena Williams overwhelmed the Danish stylist in the final. Many of us felt that might be her last chance. She concluded two years in a row (2010 and 2011) as the top-ranked woman in the world of women’s tennis, but her status was questioned by authorities who believed she needed a Grand Slam singles title on her resume. Now, at 27, wilier and more confident, more diversified as a competitor and less prone to doubts in tense situations, she has silenced her skeptics.
Caroline Wozniacki has moved back to No. 1 in the world, right where she belongs.
CHUNG IS FOR REAL
Although order was restored in the end when Federer was victorious at the Australian Open, what made the tournament particularly appealing was the emergence of two surprise semifinalists. One was Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund, who displayed grit and gumption all tournament long. He upended No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov before losing to Cilic.
And yet, while Edmund’s presence in the penultimate round was an uplifting development, the rise of South Korea’s Hyeon Chung was even more significant. He is only 21. He ended the 2017 season on a high note by winning the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, the elite event for the best 21-and-under players in the world. That victory in Italy, coupled with his top-notch play all through 2017, gave Chung’s boosters good reason to be encouraged about what he might do this year.
What he did in Melbourne surpassed everyone’s expectations. This captivating 21-year-old carved out a pair of outstanding triumphs on his way to the semifinals, cutting down No. 4 seed Sascha Zverev at the cost of only five points in the fifth set, and ousting six-time champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic was clearly compromised by his lingering elbow problems, but the fact remains that Chung was phenomenal in ousting him, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-6 (3). The Serbian kept coming back fiercely at Chung in every set, climbing from 0-4 into the first set tiebreaker, rallying from 1-4 in the second set and recovering from 1-3 in the third set. But Chung held his nerve each time.
In many ways, Chung beat Djokovic at his own game, defending the corners spectacularly, keeping points alive with his speed, elasticity and uncanny anticipation. He had to retire at 6-1, 5-2 down against Federer as blisters severely impeded his mobility. But Chung has moved to No. 29 in the world. It is entirely possible that he will finish the year in the Top 10.
KERBER IS BACK
When Angelique Kerber found another gear in her game two years ago, she took her tennis to a level neither she nor her many admirers could have imagined. The left-handed German was a major force, capturing the Australian and US Opens, reaching the final at Wimbledon, and finishing that stellar season fittingly at No. 1 in the world. Her 2017 season, however, paled in comparison. Kerber was clearly uncomfortable living in the land of the elite. She seemed almost imprisoned by her success. It was as if she had this nagging inner belief that she did not belong anywhere near the top.
Now, however, Kerber seems to have left her psychic wounds well behind her. She opened her 2018 campaign with a much-needed tournament triumph in Sydney, and was first rate at the Australian. In the third round, she crushed 2008 victor Maria Sharapova. She then came through a bewildering showdown with Su-Wei Hsieh. Hsieh confounded Kerber with a casually brilliant performance. It was as if she was playing a Sunday afternoon club match with no one watching. Hsieh was incredibly carefree in her approach, at least outwardly so. Kerber was three points from defeat before rallying to win 4-6, 7-5 6-2.
After fighting her way out of that dark corner, Kerber destroyed Madison Keys to set up a semifinal appointment against the top-seeded Halep. Their confrontation was the best women’s match of the fortnight. Kerber trailed 3-5 in the third set, saved two match points at 4-5, and eventually served for the match at 6-5. She went to 40-15 with two match points of her own, but Halep refused to buckle. The Romanian was a courageous 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 winner.
Kerber had bowed out in style. It was a bruising setback, but the fact remains that she is back in the thick of things. The view here is that she has recovered her pride and restored her self-conviction. Kerber has reminded herself of the extraordinary player she is. She has a genuine chance to return to the top of the ladder again.
THE WOUNDED WARRIORS
From Federer to Wozniacki, Kerber to Chung, Halep to Cilic, the Australian Open was a dandy of a tournament for a cluster of leading players. It was a riveting fortnight across the board.
But if there was a cloud hanging over the event, it was the issues surrounding so many players who are dealing with injuries. Andy Murray—a fixture in Melbourne who has been in the finals five times—withdrew and had hip surgery. He won’t be back until some time around Wimbledon. Djokovic did well to win three matches, but his tournament ended on a sour note as he confronted the possibility of surgery or other measures to solve his ongoing elbow problems. Rafael Nadal had to retire at 2-0 down in the fifth set against Cilic in the quarterfinals with a right leg injury. His departure in that manner was alarming.
Meanwhile, a multitude of other players continue to struggle with ailments, including Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. The hope here is that all of the leading players are healthier across the rest of 2018. If that is the case, the upcoming majors just might be as compelling as the Australian Open surely was.