The past two weeks Down Under have been thrilling, shocking, and fun. There have been taut five-setters on the men’s side and three-setters on the women’s. There have been shocking upsets of top seeds in the early rounds in both draws, and with those inconceivable results have come new and exciting matchups and fresh faces in the second week of matchplay. Yet, in spite of the upsets of favorites like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, and Agnieszka Radwanska and exceptional play from the likes of young stars such as Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin, Milos Raonic, Alex Zverev, Coco Vandeweghe, Johanna Konta, and Garbiñe Muguruza, we arrive at the finals of the men’s and women’s tournaments with a few familiar faces.
For many years now, the women’s tour has been largely unpredictable. Serena Williams has been, as usual, a dominant force, often contesting matches late in tournaments, but her 2016 season saw a dip in play as she lost her number one ranking to German lefthander Angelique Kerber. Outside of the younger Williams sister and Kerber, tournaments have been wide open with seeded stars dropping out early and relative unknowns making deep runs. It’s spectacular to watch and makes for great drama. The tournaments feel less like they’re played according to scripts and more up in the air. Any woman can win.
If this is what’s in store for the future of the men’s game, I am excited. Although I crave a player to fill the void that will be left by Roger upon his retirement, the alternative of having a wide-open field with a varied collection of combatants in the latter rounds is enticing.
But for the time being, the future must wait yet again. Tonight will be episode 28 of tennis’ version of Sister, Sister. (Serena leads Venus 16-11 in their head-to-head matchups.) Venus goes for her eighth career major but first ever Australian Open title at the age of 36. On the other side of the net, younger sister Serena – at age 35 – continues her quest for 25 majors. A win would give her 23, pushing her past Steffi Graf and into sole possession of second place (one behind Margaret Court’s 24). This family affair will be a treat, and I look forward to seeing competitive spirit give way to genuine happiness at the conclusion, as the Williams’ sisters are each other’s biggest fans.
A day later, the tennis world will get to once more experience Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal compete for a major title. Both players are far removed from their peaks, and many wondered if this matchup would ever happen again at such a late stage of a major tournament. Yet both carefully navigated through the draw, each winning six matches and playing two five-set contests against quality opponents en route to the final. Regardless of who ultimately lifts the trophy late Sunday night (or early Sunday morning here in the States), it should go down as one of the most significant matches in tennis history, according to American tennis great Andy Roddick, and this writer is in agreement. Federer could achieve 18 majors, a number that would be very difficult to match by those in pursuit. Nadal could get to 15, passing Pete Sampras for second all-time and putting significant pressure on Federer’s current tally of 17.
To say that I am anxious would be an understatement. It is no secret that the kryptonite to Federer’s Superman has always been the lefty from Mallorca. Nadal holds a 23-11 head-to-head record against the Swiss, and fears that he will further distance that gap have already consumed me.
To begin the tournament, I would not have been so anxious for Federer to face off against Nadal. Since his last major victory at the 2014 French Open, Nadal has not been the same ferocious player that once seemed so unbeatable. His battles with injuries and his own mental fortitude have cast the 30-year-old Nadal as the aging superstar – far more than Federer who is five years his senior. That Nadal is one that I would be content seeing Federer meet on the court. With each win Down Under, however, Nadal appears stronger physically and mentally; he has once again the look of the champion that would not allow himself to concede a point, let alone a match, to any foe. Some would argue – and fairly so – that Federer has been a revelation this tournament, but for me, the 2007 Wimbledon final (Federer’s last victory over Nadal at a major) seems so very far away.
With that history lesson covered, it has been a joy to watch Federer knock off one one opponent after another, including three top-ten players, so soon after returning from the first lengthy injury setback of his career. In each of his six wins, he has not merely shown glimpses of his former self; he has played magnificent tennis. In the end, if he is to reach Number 18 this tournament, it seems fitting that he should have to go through his old, on-court nemesis, even if my blood pressure rises a bit in the process.
In a recent text exchange with a fellow Federer fan following Nadal’s win over Dimitrov in the semifinal, my friend shared the following sentiment with me, and I think it rings true: “Yep, now it’s just pain and stress. For [Federer] fans, watching requires a bit of masochism. It’s all about enduring hardship.”
He continued: “The dream, for which we’ve so long waited, is Roger somehow finally solving the Rafa deep, loopy [forehand] riddle and just beasting through with his [backhand].”
And it would be so sweet.
Serena-Venus. Roger-Rafa. A combined 50 majors between them. Enjoy.
Cover photo by Richard Fisher via Flickr