Australian Open 2021: Novak and Naomi divide and conquer

After all of the quarantine controversies, the uproar over the mismanagement of both ATP and WTA tours and amidst the boos from the ‘opinionated’ home crowd – we had another succesfull major in the middle of a pandemic.

Yes, we missed those crowds for a large chunk of the fortnight and yes we lost a lot of players early on and were denied some promising match-ups due to injury, but overall it was a great fortnight yet again Down Under. Personally, with so much change in my own life and as lockdown continues, I was happy just to experience some semblance of my winter sporting happy place; watching the world’s best play in soaring temperatures with the reliable Eurosport crew guiding me through as the snow falls here in Blighty.

Such is the nature of today’s athletes, and the comparative similarity between surfaces in today’s game, that already pundits are asking just when not if Osaka can conquer the clay and the grass. A tiny part of me yearned for when these specialist surfaces still demanded a different approach to triumph. But anyway.

But my own meaningless waffle aside, what did we see in 2021’s first major? We saw the current Queen of hardcourts Naomi Osaka cement herself as The One to Beat on this surface, producing a Serena-esque on-court-confidence and assuredness, mixed with a consistent mix of power and accuracy that looks to be too good for the rest of the field. Not least Serena herself who had looked so impressive still at 39, but who had no answer to her Japanese opponent come the Semis. Wimbledon could well be Williams’ last chance to get to 24 majors, time is most definitely running out.

Elsewhere, the women’s tournament produced the obligatory surprise packages – on paper at least – as the likes of Karolina Muchova, Jessica Pegula and of course finalist Jennifer Brady occupied the latter half of proceedings. None of them truly household names thus far, despite their seeding, but hardly complete unknown’s either. Muchova’s victim roster was impressive – including a shell-shocked Ash Barty – whilst Brady and Pegula – and their all-court hitting – further hint at a great period of American tennis post-Serena. Defending champ Sofia Kenin – one of many who struggled this fortnight – has some fellow flagbearers now in this new age.

Like Osaka, with Novak we are of course looking at the current dominant force on tour. Yes controversy is never far away from the Serb, and he will still remember that Parisian mauling at the hands of Rafa late last year, but this is a man statistically becoming the true GOAT of the men’s game. One can argue all day (and I added my opinion believe me) about whether Federer or even Nadal are from the previous generation and therefore superior, or about Djokovic’s questionable gamesmanship and constant feigning injury, but the record books are now telling a very compelling tale.

I have said before that – his natural volleying aside – the Serb plays tennis like an advanced AI with all of the shots in the textbook. A final-level boss of a videogame who never makes mistakes and has the best stats, or if you prefer another geeky analogy; Djokovic plays like he has downloaded the ‘mastery of tennis’ file from The Matrix and just has an answer for every problem. Does he hit with the artistry and flair of Federer? Does he have the raw power and spin of Nadal? He does not, but he has proven not to need these superpowers, instead satisfied to simply hit every shot well and cancel out any obvious weaknesses in his game.

That overly-simplistic analysis of Djoko’s game aside, he had too much for young Medvedev in the final. The Russian – despite having tasted a major championship match before – looked fatigued and overawed here. Whereas Jennifer Brady succombed ultimately to the occasion, letting the unlucky nature of a few points completely disrupt her game, Medvedev was simply discouraged by his opponent’s utter lack of attackable weakness. Plus – as with Djokovic himself in the Wimbledon final of 2013 – Medvedev was tired from his efforts in the previous rounds. The same too can be said of the wonderful Tsitsipas who so memorably wrestled the great Nadal out of the tournament, and also Thiem, who had no answer whatsoever to Dimitrov after a special five-setter with Kyrgios. The Australian sadly seems destined to play the part of a first-week headline grabber before his inevitable exit at the hands of a genuine title-challenger.

In Karatsev we had a spellbinding run from a qualifier, but I fancy little else this season. We had the aforementioned good runs by Dimitrov and once again Zverev. But Thiem-aside, we are still waiting for some true challengers from the next-gen to consistently make their mark.

All the above waffle and bunk aside, I am just glad to have tennis back and hope to commit to what should resemble a normal-ish season once again.

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