Thoughts On The 2018 Australian Open

Words on Federer, Wozniacki, Cilic, Halep, Chung, Mertens and more

Roger Federer holding the Australian Open trophy after 2018 final
Roger Federer is the first male to reach 20 grand slam singles titles |Lloyd

By Stephen Higgins | 30 January 2018

Olivier Delaitre was once world no.2 in doubles and played seven times for France between 1994 and 2000.

In 1999, in the second round of Australian Open qualifying, Delaitre lost to Doug Flach of the United States. This was a shame for the 31-year-old as he had beaten the greatest men’s player of all time in his opener.

Almost two decades ago, 17-year-old Roger Federer played his first grand slam match against Delaitre in Melbourne and lost 4-6 4-6. The following year saw a marked improvement for the Swiss - a third round showing.

Since 2000, Federer has been solid in Australia, at least matching that third round showing every season.

The fact that he has made the last four or better on 14 occasions since is a bit selfish though.

The six titles on top of that could well be described as gluttony.

And the most ridiculous part? It’s not even his most productive slam.

I have enormous respect for Caroline Wozniacki’s achievement.

How frustrating must it have been as an overlooked world no.1? She consistently collected titles and victories but us tennis pundits asked ‘what about the emails?’.

Well she shut us up and I’m genuinely pleased for her.

Even before this final, against a fellow slamless no.1, I thought she’d lose. When Halep overcame dehydration in the third set and hurled a barrage of shots at the tiring Dane, I thought she’d lose. It’s a good thing I don’t bet, particularly against this resolute warrior.

Enjoy your achievement Caroline, you’ve certainly earned it.

There was a point in the fourth set of the final where Marin Cilic was bullying Federer on each point. The Croatian broke the 36-year-old’s serve for the first time in the match, and then did it again just to prove a point.

At that moment, you had little faith in the great Swiss during rallies as Cilic bludgeoned every ball, forehand and backhand. And then suddenly things shifted.

When Cilic battered the ball around Rod Laver Arena I wondered why he hadn’t five or ten of these titles in his cabinet. Then, when his level dropped off and Federer sauntered to victory, I realised why he still only has one. It seems that nobody, apart from Stan Wawrinka, can sustain that almost reckless aggression on a tennis court.

There’s no shame in that for Cilic though as he scared the life out of the great Swiss. How many people can say that they outplayed Roger Federer, even for a couple of sets?

Poor Simona Halep. She could not have given it any more.

The 26-year-old played an uber aggressive style on a quick court, successfully worked her opponent from side-to-side and it still wasn’t enough. That’s how good an athlete Wozniacki is.

I hope that the setback won’t be too damaging to the Romanian in the long run. She has a great coach and wider team and is doing all the right things to win majors.

Like Andy Murray before that US Open breakthrough, it just hasn’t happened quite yet. Or at least that’s how she should think of it…

It’s a shame that Rafael Nadal called a halt to his last eight contest, only his second retirement in 264 grand slam matches.

Thankfully, the Majorcan should be back in time for Acapulco at the end of February. Upon exiting, Nadal criticised the amount of tournaments that players are expected to play on the tour.

“Somebody who is running the tour should think a little bit about what’s going on. Too many people getting injured” said the 16-time major-winner.

The length of the playing calendar is an issue that has long been discussed by the players but we seem to be on the cusp of an ultimatum. I fear that if the governing bodies do not reduce the number of tournaments in the near future, players will just stop entering them.

Like last year, I can foresee many of the men skipping events in 2018 purely to rest or because they are focussed on a later tournament.

Down the line, I plan to write in more detail about the calendar and possible changes. For now though, I’ll say that I think that the calendar should be reduced to give a block of two months at least for players and fans to recuperate. That will mean that some high-profile tournaments get the boot.

Are the authorities prepared to meet the challenge before players decide it for them?

I’d wager that most tennis fans enjoyed last year’s US Open women’s final as Sloane Stephens defeated her friend Madison Keys in style. That excitement has dimmed in the intervening period as neither finalist has kicked on.

Keys crashed out in a blaze of errors to Angelique Kerber in the last eight while Stephens could not make it past the first round, finishing second best to Shuai Zhang in three sets.

Incredibly, Stephens has lost 8 straight matches since Flushing Meadows while Keys has had a mixed time of it with early losses in Wuhan and Brisbane balanced by Melbourne.

Let’s hope that these exciting talents can rediscover their mojos in the spring.

There appears to be constant criticism of the new guard in men’s tennis, in particular their collective failure to uproot the top guys and take a major by storm.

Well, this narrative took a blow in Melbourne. Kyle Edmund and Hyeon Chung showed the skills and belief necessary to disrupt the establishment.

The Brit defeated two stalwarts in Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov while Chung outhit Novak Djokovic, backhand-to-backhand. These guys deserve major credit for their unfussy progress. The only flash they display comes between the lines.

There were great matches throughout the fortnight, particularly in the women’s draw. My personal favourites were Hsieh v Kerber, Halep v Kerber and Mertens v Svitolina. (I didn’t catch all of Halep-Davis but the highlights looked great).

While I think that Nick Kyrgios gave a good account of himself in that tight four set loss to Dimitrov in the fourth round, it was a disappointing tournament for Sascha Zverev and Dominic Thiem.

The German 4th seed could not overcome the restless Chung while the Austrian was disposed of by Twitter’s favourite son, Tennys Sandgren.

It will be interesting to see if they can regroup ahead of Indian Wells and Miami.

It was wonderful to see Elise Mertens’s drive to the semis, especially her fearlessness in approaching the net.

So often, the Belgian would setup the point with aggressive backhands and move into the forecourt to finish. I don’t understand why more players do not add these skills to their repertoire.

There are a number of players who are very solid from the back but get drawn into lengthy rallies on slow courts. Why not mix it up a little and follow that destructive groundstroke to the net? It worked for Mertens.

Tomas Berdych has spent over 12 years in the sport’s top 20, claimed 13 titles and earnt over $28 million in prize-money. Yet, I feel sorry for him. How must it feel to be better than 99% of your peers but consistently shy of those guys.

The 32-year-old was beaten in the quarters by Federer, his 19th loss to the Swiss in 25 matches. He also has a losing record against Andy Murray (6-11), Rafael Nadal (4-19) and Novak Djokovic (3-25).

With so many defeats on his ledger, you wonder if he thinks twice about getting out of bed on the days he has to face these foes.

I tend to write profiles of promising players when they reach 18-20. Marta Kostyuk just made the third round of the Australian Open at 15!

The Ukrainian was the junior Australian Open champion in 2017 and finished the year ranked no.2. Kostyuk grabbed her first Futures title last May and is already in the world’s top 250 after Melbourne.

How good will she be this time next year?