Some Australian Open post-mortem….
The dreaded ICYMI, but here’s the top 50 column from Australia.
Great coverage of the Australian Open. As the latest tennis rankings show, we have a fascinating "lost generation" narrative in tennis. In the top 10 today among men, every player is aged 25 and under except for Djokovic and Nadal, who are over a decade older at ages 35 and 36, respectively. In the top 20, they are the only players older than 27, representing a gap of at least 8 years. Would you attribute this to Djokovic and Nadal, like Federer before his retirement, being outliers, or was there something about this "lost generation”: of players that fell short at the very top—players like del Potro, Cilic and Thiem being sidelined by injury or other personal challenges?
Check this out: No man currently under 35 years old (and it will be 36 come May) has ever won the Australian Open, the French Open or Wimbledon. Think about that for a moment.
Credit where it’s due: a lot of this owes to the surpassing excellence of the Big Three. Whether you're going by statistics or just by the eye-test, it was clear that these three players are extraordinary practitioners of men’s tennis, the three best ever far as we’re concerned. They have mental skills and survival instincts worthy of champions. They benefit from the best-of-five format.
The question: to what degree do we also hold the “lost generations” complicit in the Big Three's success. To what extent do we leaven the success of the Big Three with the disappointment of the others? (Sidebar: how much does the accumulated disappointment compound? Tsitsipas had lost to Djokovic nine straight times heading into Sunday’s final. How does that not manifest during the match?) Essentially you have a dynamic that self-perpetuates. The Big Three beat the competition, which only emboldens them and sows doubt among the others.
On Tennis Channel and on si.com we speculated how many more majors Djokovic can win. I believe Lindsay said 26. I would go even higher. Much of this owes to his excellence and professionalism and ambition and physical fitness. But part of this stems from the absence of alternatives. Nadal made it clear he was tailoring his game to take down Federer. Djokovic made it clear he was coming for Nadal and Federer. Who has stepped up to challenge Djokovic? No one. In the AO final, he beat the No.3 player in straights sets. Two rounds earlier, the No. 5 seed in Australia (Rublev) was struggling to win games. Alcaraz is a potential obstacle, (see below) but hasn’t played in months. Djokovic has lost one match in his last seven events. He is closer to 40 than 30. He’s awesome. But where’s the challenger who stands up says, “I want to punch this guy in the nose?”
Is Djokovic's draw the biggest cupcake in Grand Slam history, a serendipitous propitiation for last year's deportation, or both?
James Stuchell, Savannah, Georgia
Someone else wrote something similar. I’m surprised by this reaction. He played the fifth seed in the quarters and the third seed in the finals!
a) Note that Sabalenka won the title without playing a top ten opponent. (Rybakina is now No. 10 and would have been a top ten player for months but for her deprived Wimbledon points.)
b) If Djokovic’s draw was easy it’s most likely because Alcaraz was a non-starter and Nadal was injured.
c) You can only play the opponent you’re presented with.
d) For all of tennis’ ills and built-in advantages that favor stars, rigged draws ain’t among them.
As an avid tennis follower, my “unsolicited” notes, post AO ‘23:
Men’s tennis has become just plain boring. Nobody worthy enough to beat Djokovic. Quel dommage! On the contrary, women’s tennis is super super exciting!! I think Tsitsipas can add his name to the “best player not to win a GS" list. Lacks the game and the mentality to win one!!
Whether it’s Graf or Serena and Djokovic, the problem with dominance is that, in some corners, it becomes boring and predictable. The problem with parity is that, in some corners, a sport becomes hard to follow because there are no anchors and bankable stars.
The solution: come up with a sport where there is a men’s tour and there is women’s tour. Encourage fans to follow both. Play tournaments—as many as possible—with both genders competing. Odds are good that “the state of play” on these will be different. So, the fans who want towering champions are sated. The fans who want unpredictability are satisfied, too. If only such a sport existed...
Theory: the Big 3's dominance over the past 20 years has also had the effect of lengthening careers across the ATP on account of their prize winnings oligopoly. When you look at the disproportionate amount of the prize pool the three have claimed these past two decades, it stands to reason that everyone else has been eating a relatively smaller piece of the pie that whole time...which means everyone else has needed to play extra years to get to some desired level of lifetime earnings that (adjusted for inflation, of course) more players in the previous generation might've hit earlier in their careers after a few big wins. All the health, training, players modeling longer careers for other players, etc., you mention obviously enables it...but I have to think there's a protracted financial "need" element to this, too?
Thanks as always!
Mike M., Atlanta, GA
Devil’s advocacy: Thanks largely to the Big Three, prize money across the board has increased fairly dramatically. And the Big Three—Djokovic in particular—has been noble about making sure gains are not merely evenly distributed but help lower-ranked players. So while, yes, the Big Three has been cashing the seven-figure checks at the end of the tournament, their presence has, proverbially, lifted all boats. And the guy ranked No. 10, No. 50 and No. 100 is better off than he was a decade ago.
Consider me in the camp of tennis fans that really enjoy Break Point. Do you know if it has been renewed? Given it took almost a year between filming and release, I was curious if Netflix crews are at the Australian Open.
My moles tell me that Netflix is considering a second season—and there may even be some preliminary CYA shooting going on—but hasn’t greenlit anything yet. I suspect the series would have gotten more buzz if the featured players had performed better in Australia. (Or performed at all.) Full disclosure: I am playing in this sports doc space a bit and am (finally) grasping the potential and challenges. Food for thought:
a) Scale is key. The economics on a hardcore tennis doc don’t make sense. At least not right now. So a series geared to a wider audience is the way to go. Even if you were annoyed when the scoring system was explained or Djokovic’s deportation was barely referenced.
b) Story is key. Better to have someone or something outrageous than a star uttering platitudes.
c) There are players other than Netflix. If a second season is not approved, that doesn’t preclude someone else doing a similar series for another streamer.
d) If I am the ATP and WTA, I am thinking about deficit funding this regardless. Storylines emerge. The market for sports content isn’t going away. And the IP will have value down the road.
Answer your own question! Would Elena Rybakina have made the Hall of Fame if she had won the Australian Open (which she nearly did)!
Answer the question! I guess I have two answers. Do I think that winning would make her Hall of Fame worthy? No. Her ranking is a distortion; but two majors and not much else is awfully thin. On the other hand….two majors is one more than Michael Stich and Michael Chang and…you get the point. If precedent is our guide, it’s at least a conversation.
The good news: this is hypothetical. Rybakina has plenty of time to pad her resume. I suspect in the end, she will be worthy. Here’s another for you we were discussing at Tennis Channel: does Katerina Siniakova, she of the seven doubles majors (and comparably little singles success) get in?
Is Djokovic the favorite at all four majors this year?
Sam P., San Clemente
It’s still January. A lot can—and will—happen. But in full health? At full commitment? With the challengers mounting such little challenge? The X factor is Nadal’s health and recovery. If Nadal comes back and plays decently on clay in April and May, the guy who’s won 14 times is the favorite at Roland Garros. But outside of that? I would take Djokovic over the field at the three remaining majors, yes.
Have we all completely forgotten Carlos Alcaraz who as of—checks notes—last September we were all penciling in for multiple majors and saying who is going to stop this guy? Carlitos and Rune and Father Time will keep Novak from 30.
Who? I suppose this could be framed as a source of strength, not weakness. But, man, is tennis an out-of-sight-out-of-mind proposition. I was writing that this was the first Major since the 90s with Federer and Serena (43 majors between them) officially retired….and, over the two weeks, their names scarcely surfaced. Same for Alcaraz, winner of the previous major, revelation of 2022, future of the sport….who pulled up injured.
What are you hearing about the Wimbledon ban on Russian and Belarusian players? Will it extend to 2023?
Here’s hoping wiser heads prevail. Here’s what I know: a) Wimbledon was pressured by the Boris Johnson administration. There no longer is a Boris Johnson administration. (Sidebar: was this because of genuine ideology and reports like this? Or was it simply because Johnson caught heat for “Londongrad” accommodating so many corrupt oligarchs, and needed to scramble to appear tough on Russia?) b) Wimbledon recognizes how bad the optics were and how, reprehensible as Russia might be, how ineffective a means of protest this was. c) The tours realize how problematic the withholding of ranking points was. Sure, it was a response to a unilateral act by the AELTC. But the tours—specifically many players—paid the price. The idea that Rybakina was a Wimbledon champ who was ranked (and seeded at majors) outside the top 20 was a bad look for all.
Could it be that a light schedule in 2022 is the elixir of youth Djokovic “needed” to extend his career?
I floated this on the social media and—surprise—was told how moronic this was. But I like Yves‘ thinking. Djokovic is, of course, a surpassing (of both wings) tennis player. But I think you can make a case that, in a perverse way, he benefits from his time off. Like Serena (and Federer) paring their schedule for the majors in order to preserve freshness, Djokovic probably bought himself restorative mental and physical periods with the gaps in his schedule last season.
I swear to you I'm not a snob or a purist or at all fashion conscious. But I thought men's doubles teams Hijikata/Kubler and Nys/Zielinski looked flat out slovenly on the court in the final.
Do I need a reality check or do they?
P.S. Thank you networks, for your coverage of all the doubles.
Alistair W., Toronto
Um…..Mirka and Roger were at a fashion show last week. These guys were on court trying to win a damn title in a sweaty, competitive sport. Which they did! (I’d add: these guys are wild cards, struggling to make a go of it. Not like Nike’s fashion consigliere is given them a pre-match makeover.)
I’m sure you’re sick of us criticizing ESPN’s coverage. But they’re actually listing the outcome of the women’s final on “the crawl” while they’re showing the replay of the women’s final! (I’m sure very few watched it live at 4a.) Does ESPN even understand how sports work? That they’re no fun if you know the outcome?
Now you guys are just piling on….
• Fan favorite and world No. 17 Frances Tiafoe will be playing for a fifth time at River Oaks Country Club in the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, the tournament announced today. The ATP Tour event runs April 1-9. “We are thrilled to welcome Frances back to River Oaks. Our fans love watching him and he loves playing here,” said Tournament Director Bronwyn Greer. “His energy is contagious and he is one of the stars on the ATP Tour.”
• Emma Raducanu, the 2021 US Open champion, will be among the players participating in the inaugural ATX Open. She joins Danielle Collins, Sloane Stephens and Peyton Stearns in committing to play the Hologic WTA Tour 250 tournament February 27-March 5 at Westwood Country Club.
• Two California college student-athletes from Ukraine—Anastasiia Slivina, a senior on the University of Southern California (USC) women’s rowing team, and Yuliia Zhytelna, a sophomore tennis player for California State University Northridge (CSUN)—have been selected as the January recipients of the CalHOPE Courage Award. The monthly CalHOPE Courage Award honors student-athletes at California colleges and universities who have overcome the stress, anxiety, and mental trauma associated with personal hardships and adversity.