It is a dream weekend for tennis fans. Ten years ago, a women’s Grand Slam Final between Serena and Venus Williams and a matching men’s final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would have been the norm. Except for Serena who is still defying Father Time and logic, the other three all-time greats are well past their prime. Before this Australian Open, I would have never imagined or dreamed the Finals matchups we got. Venus suffered an auto-immune disease that threatened her career a few years back. She battled back to relevancy but she had still not reached a Grand Slam Final since the 2009 Wimbledon. Venus’s bracket broke her way in the tournament. Simona Halep was upset in the first round. On the other side of her half of the bracket, Coco Vandeweghe provided assists by upsetting Eugenie Bouchard, last year’s French Open Champion Garbiñe Muguruza, and defending Australian Open champion and No. 1 Angelique Kerber. Regardless, at 36, it is truly incredible that Venus returned to a Finals 7.5 years after her last, which is a record in between Grand Slam Finals. Moreover, she fell down a set to Coco in the semi-finals and had to rally in an emotional comeback to advance to the Finals. Of course, it is even more unbelievable that she made it to face her younger sister, who is going for 23 career Major titles to break a tie with Stefi Graf for the Open Era record. For the sisters, it was their historic 9th meeting in a Grand Slam Final. Serena owned a 6-2 advantage heading into the Australian Final. The story of the Williams sisters is inspiring. One sister, Venus, is an all-time Great who would have won many titles if it were not for her sister. The younger sister, Serena, is even better and the greatest player of all-time. It is another amazing chapter in their story but it is a fairy tale that continues.
In regards to Federer and Nadal, their rivalry is arguably the greatest in tennis history. Federer has dominated the sport like no other and holds many of the records (e.g. 17 career Grand Slam victories, No. 1 ranked player for 302 weeks, etc.). Nevertheless, Nadal has thwarted him throughout his run. He is 23-11 against Federer. Like Serena against Venus, he was 6-2 in Grand Slam Finals against his great rival heading into the Australian Open Final. Of course, Nadal is the King of Clay. Not surprisingly, a lot of his domination of Federer is on clay courts. However, he has also held the edge on him on the hardcourts too. In their primes, Nadal just had a noticeable style advantage that also turned into a mental one after Federer was totally annihilated by Nadal on clay. Coming into the tournament, I did not expect either player to be anywhere near the Finals. Without a doubt, Federer has aged incredibly gracefully. Despite his advanced age, he has played brilliantly. If it were not for Novak Djokovic who is another all-time great who has been in his prime the last 3 years, Federer would have probably added another 2-3 Majors to his count. Nevertheless, Federer suffered significant injuries last year. He had not played a tournament since last year’s Wimbledon. After the injury at Wimbledon, I had fears it was his true end and he would not be relevant anymore. For this reason, I had no expectations for Federer for the Australian Open. I did not expect him to make it past the early rounds. I am completely shocked that he cruised through those rounds then won in 5 sets in the Quarterfinals and Semifinals against tough opponents, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka.
In my euphoria following Federer’s success in the tournament, Nadal was honestly an afterthought. Even in his prime, he had trouble staying healthy with his max effort game. His skills seemed to fall off the Earth in the last two years. Even in the French Open he owns, he could not make it past the Quarterfinals. He exited much earlier in the other Majors. As such, I assumed he was done as a real contender. Nevertheless, his will and determination was on full display in the tournament as he gutted out five set wins in the fourth round and Semifinals to get to the Finals. Obviously, luck had a lot to do with another epic showdown between the two older tennis greats. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were upset early before either of those two top players faced Federer or Nadal. For Federer and Nadal, the 2017 Australian Open was a historic 9th time they faced each other in a Major Final. In 2011, we were rewarded to an 8th Finals matchup in the French Open which many assumed was the bonus and final Grand Slam Finals between the two. We got one more bonus and I expect this time to be the last.
The chances that any of the three (Venus Williams, Roger Federer, or Rafael Nadal) reaching the Finals was slim. For all three of them to make it, I would have said it was impossible before we actually saw it.
Serena Williams Defeats Venus Williams 6-4, 6-4 to Capture Australian Open and 23rd Grand Slam
It was a strange beginning to the Finals for the sisters. Both women are the two greatest female servers of all-time. As a result, it was atypical that they broke each other twice to start the match. For Serena, she was clearly feeling pressure and needed to calm her nerves. It was obvious when she uncharacteristically double faulted three times on her second service game. In addition, it clearly frustrated her when she slipped on a point then smashed and broke her racket. Nevertheless, she settled down and Venus never really had a chance afterwards. Give her credit for battling to the end but Serena is clearly the better player, especially at his point in their careers. Serena has the better serve and court coverage. She knows all of Venus’s tricks. Venus really needed to serve great and hope Serena was a little off her game. Of course, Venus did not have a great service day. Once Serena settled down in the match, she killed Venus’s second serves and it was inevitably Serena’s championship in a straight 6-4, 6-4 victory. For Serena, she was as dominant as ever as she captured the Grand Slam without dropping a set. In addition to the Finals, I also watched Serena’s match against Johanna Konta in the Quarterfinals. Konta had been playing great tennis going into the match. Watching the match, Konta played well and competitively. Nevertheless, the final score had Serena winning 6-2, 6-3. Accordingly, Serena is starting the year with a reminder to her sport that she is still the best player in the world. With Angelique Kerber also losing early in the tournament, Serena also regains the number 1 ranking.
Watching the post-game interviews, Venus’s graciousness and humility is inspiring and serves as an example to everyone. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for Venus to watch her younger sister surpass her during their careers. Early in their careers, Serena blocked Venus in Grand Slam Finals. Most notably, Venus lost in four straight Finals in the first Serena Slam. After this Australian Open, Venus is 2-7 in Grand Slam Finals against Serena. If she did not face Serena in those Finals, she might have won 4-5 more to put her career count at 11-12. Although Venus is still tied for 12th with 7, she would have been tied with Billie Jean King at 12 if she had 5 more or the 8th woman to have double digit Grand Slams even if she only won 3 more. Historically, Venus is still an all-time great but would have been in another level of all-time great without her own sister in her way. It would be very natural if Venus was jealous. If she was at any point in her career, she has not shown it. She has always been very supportive of her younger sister. As competitive and fiery as Serena is [for me, Venus is obviously extremely competitive too but Serena is at another level which is proven by her Grand Slam wins], I am not sure she could handle it as well as Venus even though she loves sister. Obviously, Venus would have loved to win her first Australian Open. It would have been natural if she showed some signs of disappointment. Nevertheless, she was totally positive and upbeat about just making the Finals. In addition, she was genuinely proud of her sister’s victory. She even noted that Serena’s wins have always felt like her wins. With Venus, you can truly believe every word of it. Not surprisingly, Serena showed Venus the same love in her victory speech.
Again, Serena’s victory gives her 23 Grand Slams. It breaks her tie with Stefi Graf for most Majors in the Open Era. During the victory celebrations, it was noted that Margaret Court was in attendance and Serena only trails her Grand Slam total of 24. Of course, Serena is already considered the greatest female tennis player ever after passing Graf. Some commentators are making the case that she is the best tennis player, male or female. Some others are saying best female athlete ever in any sport. With Serena’s unparalleled competitiveness, she definitely has sights on number 24 and 25 to leave no doubt she is the greatest ever. On the other hand, she also joked in post-game interviews with the Australian Open coverage team that it is annoying that nothing seems ever enough for her career. During the interview, Chrissie Evert noted her keen observation that she noticed Serena raised her eyebrow when it was mentioned that Margaret Court was in the stands and that she only trails Court’s 24 Grand Slams. At the end of the interview, there was an amazing moment when a special fan sent Serena a present. It was a box with two Nike tennis shows with the number 23 on them. The first pair of shoes was the black and red colors of the team the famous fan played for and the second pair was Serena’s favorite color pink. The fan that sent the present was incredibly the greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan, who also fittingly wore number 23. Serena read an amazing letter of respect and admiration from the greatest competitor ever.
For Serena, she shows no signs of slowing down. However, it would be foolish to take her success for granted. With 10 Grand Slams after the age of 30, she has already far exceeded what was thought possible. Sports is a young person’s game. Especially in an individual sport where she does not have the benefit of teammates, it is unbelievable that she has had so much success after 30 in tennis. Most elite tennis players are done as the best player in the sport at 29. Accordingly, Serena is a total anomaly. Of course, everything about her career is atypical because she is the greatest of all-time. Nevertheless, Father Time is undefeated. As much as I would love for her to dominate forever, even her skills will regress eventually. I have no idea when it will be and have no reason to ever doubt Serena again. Regardless, cherish every thrill she has left to give us.
Future Stars Watch list
Obviously, it is still very much Serena’s tennis world and everyone else is just living in it for the moment. Nevertheless, there are plenty of talented, young female stars on the rise. Coco Vandeweghe had the breakout of the tournament. Her upsets of Eugenie Bouchard, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Angelique Kerber were unbelievable. At 25, she is too old to be a phenom. She also does not have the power a lot of the young stars have. Nevertheless, she can definitely be a factor going forward and at least be in the mix for a Grand Slam. For my money, I still believe Murguruza has the best chance to be the star of the future. She has already won a Grand Slam by beating Serena in the French Open last year. In addition to Coco, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys are the future of United States women’s tennis. Stephens and Keys have the talent to be the biggest factors going forward. Of course, realizing potential is much more difficult than having potential. Bouchrad is a good example of it. She showed great promise after reaching the Wimbledon Finals. Since losing it, she has not shown much improvement in her game and not come close to another Major Final.
Roger Federer Overcomes Greatest Rival Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in 5 Set Thriller to Win Australian Open, 18th Career Grand Slam
When Nadal was forced into a 5th set in the Semi-Finals against Grigor Dimitrov, I rooted for Dimitrov for a second before realizing how special another Federer/ Nadal Finals would be. As a Federer fan, I have been rooting hard for him to add his 18th career Grand Slam. Obviously, I know that Nadal has completely dominated the matchup. As such, it would definitely be a much more difficult final against Nadal than Dimitrov. Nevertheless, the beauty of sports is the pressure and drama of a great rivalry. For this reason, Federer and Nadal [for probably the last time] in a Major Final is the story I wanted, win or lose for Federer. It is the only time I have ever woken up at 3:30 in the morning to watch a sporting event.
The matches between the two men have been the best of all time (2007 Wimbledon, 2008 Wimbledon, and 2009 Australian Open). Of course, both players are well past their prime. Accordingly, the quality of the 2017 Australian was not as high as their matches were a decade ago. Nevertheless, the two men treated us to another epic 5 set match. The first set was clean. Nadal showed a little fatigue from his marathon semifinal. Federer came out strong and got the break in the middle of the set he needed to win the first set. In the second set, Nadal came on strong as he got 2 quick breaks to go up 2 games to 0. However, Federer helped him way too much with a plethora of unforced forehand errors. He got a break back to keep it close but Nadal took the second set. Nevertheless, Federer found his forehand by the end of the second set. After he saved serve in the first game with three aces, he rolled in the third set with ridiculously great forehands and backhands to crush Nadal 6-1. The 4th set saw more of the same errors Federer had in his second set as Nadal took it 6-3.
Naturally, the Finals went to a 5th set in a Federer/ Nadal Final. It did not look good for Federer when his serve was broken in the first game. Having witnessed Nadal’s domination of Federer over the years, I was dreading a Nadal steamroll in the fifth set. Nevertheless, Federer fought back. Nadal might have finally felt the effects of his long 5 setter in the semifinals. He had trouble with his service game throughout the 5th set. Although Federer threatened to break Nadal back for 2 games, he missed on his break opportunities. In the third consecutive Nadal service game Federer tried to break, Nadal continued to save break points. With each missed break opportunity, I was afraid that the mental strain of not beating Nadal in the past would only grow and Nadal’s victory was inevitable. As he whiffed on break point after break point, I begun to think about the impacts on his legacy of losing again to Nadal. My thoughts were that Federer would still be the most accomplished tennis player but I would totally concede that Nadal was the better player to anyone who wanted to make that argument. After the match, Federer even admitted that doubt crept into his mind at that point as he thought it would not be his day. For this reason, I give Federer total credit for making great shot after great shot, under immense pressure, before he broke Nadal. The psychological hurdle of losing so much to Nadal in the past cannot be overstated. After the break to get back on serve, the momentum and feel for the 5th set completely changed. Federer’s confidence grew while Nadal’s doubt crept in. Federer quickly held serve before an epic game at 4-3. Nadal is an all-time great competitor. He kept on fighting off points and breaks. Nevertheless, I saw absolute determination from Federer as he made great shot after great shot in that game to finally break Nadal. Serving for the championship, Nadal still fought and jumped up 30-0 in the game then had two break opportunities up 40-15. The end was a bit odd and anticlimactic. When Federer had his first championship point, Federer needed to challenge on a double fault to overturn an out call. Winning the challenge and getting a first serve again, he challenged on an out call on a potential ace but it was out. On his winning forehand on the second championship point, it just nicked the line but we had to wait for confirmation as Nadal obviously challenged the call. We waited for almost 5 years to see Federer win his 18th Grand Slam so a few more seconds seemed fitting. Federer’s latest Major triumph has an eerie parallel to Pete Sampras’s 14th and final Grand Slam win. Like Sampras in the 2002 U.S. Open, Federer entered the tournament as the 17th seed. While Sampras played his longtime rival Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open Final, Federer faced his nemesis Nadal in the Australian Open.
For Federer, it is arguably the greatest win in his career. It seemed like a pipe dream because he had not played since Wimbledon last year. Moreover, a lot more was at stake than just the 2017 Australian Open. With a win against Nadal in this Final, Federer has a more solid claim as the greatest tennis player of all-time. With a loss, Nadal has a compelling claim with 15 Majors and counting as well as the dominant record against Federer. Of course, Nadal is still has a lopsided head to head record against Federer even after the loss in the Australian Open. It will still be the argument against Federer being the greatest player ever. However, Federer’s win and coming back in the 5th set against Nadal goes a long way to make his case. He is the most prolific winner in the history of the sport with 4 more Grand Slams than Nadal and Pete Sampras, more than double the weeks as number 1 than Nadal, and the most Quarterfinals, Semifinals, and Finals appearances in Grand Slams. In addition, the consistency and longevity of his career adds to his resume. By winning an 18th Grand Slam at the advanced age of 35, it adds to his legend. Of course, Federer and Nadal are still playing and can still change the story. In addition, Novak Djokovic still lurks in the background too. For now, Federer has the strongest case.
Novak Djokovic’s Early Exit
After Djokovic captured the French Open, he earned the last missing piece of his tennis resume. It is not surprising that he has hit a mental wall. It may be difficult for him to get motivated after achieving everything he needed to achieve. He suffered an early exit at Wimbledon, was upset by Stan Wawrinka in the U.S. Open Final after winning the first set, then exited the Australian Open early. Of course, age is now an issue too. No tennis player, except for Serena Williams, has dominated the sport after 29. Djokovic has now passed that invisible wall. He can definitely still win more Majors but I have my doubts on whether he can continue the pace he has been on in recent years. It should be interesting to see whether he has the drive to chase down Nadal and Federer for Grand Slams and make his own claim as the greatest player ever.