Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 September 2020

Novak Djokovic boringly good, welcome back Garbine Muguruza: Australian Open talking points

We pick out the main takeaways from the latest Grand Slam Down Under

Novak Djokovic with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup one day after winning the Australian Open in Melbourne. AFP
Novak Djokovic with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup one day after winning the Australian Open in Melbourne. AFP

Boring, predictable Djokovic

To paraphrase a quote from former England footballer Gary Lineker: "Tennis is a simple game. Two players hit a ball and at the end Novak Djokovic wins."

Lineker was famously referring to the predictable and efficient success of the Germany football team, but his remarks are tailor made for Djokovic's exploits at the Australian Open.

Eight finals have brought a record-extending eight titles and a return to world No 1 for the Serbian superstar.

Even after a thrilling final contest that saw the 32-year-old pushed to the limit by Austria's Dominic Thiem, in the end the winner was predictable.

Djokovic's dominance in Australia – he has won seven of the past 10 titles at Melbourne Park – is all becoming rather boring, in the kindest way possible.

He exerts an understated brand of brilliance that struggles to capture the tennis public and the ease with which he is accumulating these trophies is starting to take the spark out of the men's tournament in Melbourne. The 17-time Grand Slam champion is simply far too good.

Austria's Dominic Thiem has now lost three Grand Slam finals. EPA
Austria's Dominic Thiem's defeat to Novak Djokovic means he has now lost three Grand Slam finals. EPA

Just a matter of Thiem

A third Grand Slam final for Austria's Thiem, a third silver medal. He certainly doesn't make it easy for himself: twice a runner-up to Rafael Nadal at the French Open, once to Djokovic in Australia – the two greatest ever players of their respective tournaments. “I’m always facing the kings of the Grand Slams in finals," Thiem said ahead of playing Djokovic.

Long considered a world-class clay-court player but only competent on hard courts, Thiem has elevated his game in recent years and produced breakthrough success away from the red dirt, most notably at Indian Wells last year.

His record against the big guns stands up, having beaten Djokovic in four of their past six meetings and Nadal in two of the last three, while his record against Federer is comprehensive, beating the Swiss in five of their seven contests.

Thiem is right there, on the cusp of his first Grand Slam title. It is surely only a matter of time before he gets his hands on a major trophy, even with the Big Three still around.

Nick Kyrgios has raised thousands of dollars for victims of the bushfires that ravaged Australia. AFP
Nick Kyrgios has raised thousands of dollars for victims of the bushfires that ravaged Australia. AFP

Kyrgios the unlikely hero

It is often said that leaders can only be judged by how they lead in times of crisis. Australia was certainly in crisis when the tennis rolled into town as bushfires tore through the country, killing approximately 180 people, more than a billion animals and causing untold damage to property and landscape.

Kyrgios has his critics in Australia for his temperamental behaviour on and off the tennis court, but when the nation needed a hero, he stepped up. The 24-year-old started the Aces for Bushfire Relief initiative, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and inspired huge fundraising efforts from around the tennis world.

He also played some jaw-dropping tennis, giving local fans plenty to cheer on his journey to the fourth round, where he narrowly lost out to Nadal. Kyrgios deservedly won plenty of new admirers.

Sofia Kenin's rise in the tennis world had largely gone unnoticed before her victory in Australia. AFP
Sofia Kenin's rise in the tennis world had largely gone unnoticed before her victory in Australia. AFP

Kenin out of nowhere?

While Djokovic has turned the men's tournament into a procession, the women's event continues to dish out plenty of unpredictability. In the past eight years, there has only been one repeat winner (Serena Williams) and eight different finalists.

So there shouldn't be too much surprise when a young, bright talent like Sofia Kenin breaks through to clinch the title. Yet, while there has been much attention on fellow youngsters Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, Kenin has gone largely under the radar, despite being a consistent presence in the business end of tournaments since midway through last season – a season in which she won three titles.

Kenin may have appeared to have come out of nowhere, but she has been trending towards a major breakthrough like this for months.

Garbine Muguruza reached the Australian Open final despite entering the tournament unseeded. Reuters
Garbine Muguruza reached the Australian Open final despite entering the tournament unseeded. Reuters

Welcome back, Muguruza

It has been a tough year or so for Garbine Muguruza. The Spaniard, 26, was not so long ago expected to carry the WTA torch into a post-Williams era and become the leading star of women's tennis. However, after two Grand Slam titles and a surge to world No 1, it all started to unravel to the point where she entered the Australian Open unseeded and under very little scrutiny.

Over the two weeks, though, Muguruza recaptured her best form to eliminate a succession of highly-seeded players, including fourth seed Simona Halep in the semi-finals. She may have fallen just short in the final, but this should be the springboard for a return to the upper echelons of the women's game.

Five-time Grand Slam champion and former world No1 Maria Sharapova is now ranked 365 in the world. AP
Five-time Grand Slam champion and former world No1 Maria Sharapova is now ranked 365 in the world. AP

Ominous times for old guard

Muguruza may have successfully returned herself to contention, but at 26-years-old she always had time on her side. The same cannot be said for a host of players who at the Australian Open offered signs that perhaps might consider their futures.

Chief among them is Maria Sharapova. The five-time major winner was soundly beaten in the first round as she continues to find a way back to fitness amid an ongoing shoulder injury. She has made it clear that she still has the fight to compete for titles, but whether she has the game and fitness to do so could prove another matter.

Venus Williams, meanwhile, looks a shadow of her former self on the court and at 39-years-old and ranked No 66 in the world, there would be few surprises if the seven-time major winner hangs up her racket sooner rather than later.

As for her sister Serena? It was a disappointing third round exit for the history-chasing American but with a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam in her sights, expect her to feature heavily as the season wears on.

Updated: February 3, 2020 05:43 PM

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