Sport What made the 2021 Australian Open a slam like no other
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What made the 2021 Australian Open a slam like no other

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After a bellowing Novak Djokovic celebrated his extraordinary ninth Australian Open singles title and Naomi Osaka reflected more quietly on her fourth major success, the gates swung shut on the last of the masked patrons to have witnessed a unique tennis fortnight.

Total COVID-restricted crowd: 130,374. Last year, pre-pandemic, a record 812,174.

So, from near or far, what did we see?

The champions who won

Former great Mats Wilander believes Osaka is capable of finishing her career with at least 10 to 12 majors, and the fact the 23-year-old has won her first four finals is an Open-era achievement shared with only Roger Federer and Monica Seles.

Unlike during her previous major win, at the 2020 US Open, there was no broader social message embedded this time, but Osaka remains an engaging, inspiring, admirable young woman who is also succeeding in making a difference beyond tennis.

Within it, Serena Williams’ heir apparent is the best player in the world right now, no matter what the COVID-constipated ranking system may say.

Her next challenge is to translate hardcourt success to clay and grass. Not if, but when.

Novak Djokovic enjoys one of his winners against Daniil Medvedev on Sunday night. Photo: AP

Ah, Novak. Always the default position when it comes to pre-tournament predictions, and almost always the guy with his lips on the trophy two weeks later.

So it was again, despite some injury dramas – some would say theatrics – along the way, that he has now confirmed to be a muscle tear.

A “rollercoaster” Djokovic called these past weeks, and naturally he peaked at the right time, during what he admitted was, for various reasons, an emotionally taxing visit. Incredible tennis player. Easy to admire. Harder to love. Impossible to think it will end here, with slam No.18.

And a couple who didn’t

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Serena Williams just played in her 20th Australian Open. Could it be her last? Photo: Getty

Serena Williams made an eye-catching fashion entrance in a curious Flo-Jo-inspired one-legged catsuit, but it was in the history books that she wanted to make her real statement.

At the site of the most recent of her 23 major titles, while pregnant with daughter Olympia, she had the chance to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record, but lasted just 75 minutes on RLA and eight questions in the media room before abruptly fleeing in tears, and leaving all of us in there stunned. So off she went. For good, one suspects.

Opportunities are dwindling for the 39-year-old, even if the woman who beat her in the 2011 US Open final doesn’t think that will change anything.

“I think she’s the greatest player anyway,” said mixed doubles finalist Sam Stosur of Williams. “I think many players would already think that and argue that fact regardless, whether she gets this 24th title or not.”

Rafael Nadal also had a significant number in his sights – 21 – as a tiebreaker in his friendly duel with Roger Federer on the all-time slam winners list (which may be immaterial, given Djokovic’s hot breath in pursuit of them both).

The loss was just the second time in Rafael Nadal’s 19-year grand slam career that he’d lost a match after being two sets up. Photo: Getty

But if Nadal ends up without multiple Australian titles, for injury and other reasons, his perspective when asked whether he felt unlucky even drew Twitter praise (“Quality”) from Nick Kyrgios.

“No. No, no, no. That’s sport. Sometimes things go well; other times the things goes worse. Unfortunately for me in this tournament I had more injuries than in the others. Then matches that you lose like today against one of the best players of the world is something that happens … Everyone have what deserves. Tennis isn’t a sport that is fair. I have what I deserved in my career, and over here in Australia I had chances, but I was not able to convert it. That’s all.”

Bye bye?

A double Williams departure seems inevitable, with Venus having gallantly fought through painful ankle and knee injuries to ensure the 40-year-old could finish her second-round match against Sara Errani, despite the inevitability of the result. Classy.

Sam Stosur, too, logged a singles win, against a player (Aussie wildcard Destanee Aiava) almost half her age, and made the mixed decider with Matt Ebden.

Still loves tennis. Few work harder.

Sam Stosur will play out the year before deciding if she will continue. Photo: AAP

So will the 36-year-old mum to baby Evie know when it’s time to go? Even at this tournament, Stosur admits her days have oscillated between ‘‘Oh, geez, do I want to do that again?’’ and “Yeah, absolutely I want to do it again”.

She plans to see out 2021, at least. Deserves to go on her own terms, as – with Lleyton Hewitt and Barty – one of just three Australian grand slam singles champions in the past 20 years.

Um, who?

Aslan Karatsev, for starters. Age: 27. Ranking: 114th. Qualifier. Seed-crusher. Grand slam semi-finalist on debut.

Djokovic had never seen him play until the Open started, and he wouldn’t have been the only one. Departed with $850,000 and a career-high slot of No.42 after just 19 Tour-level matches, having given hope to late bloomers everywhere, and reminded occasional tennis fans how good players ranked around 100th in the world actually are.

Think the 100th best AFL or NRL player. In the top five in their team, on average. Elite.

World No.245 Francesca Jones overcame incredible challenges to make it to the Australian Open. Photo: Getty

Francesca Jones did not make it past the first round, or even win a set, but what an achievement to even get that far.

A rare genetic condition means that Jones, you may recall, was born without two fingers and three toes, and was told by doctors as a child that she would never become a tennis pro.

Really? Having qualified for her first major, the 20-year-old Brit won $100,000 and many new admirers. Tick.

Magnificent seven

Dylan Alcott is one of Australian sport’s most ubiquitous personalities, and he admits he had a little “sook” when his Quad wheelchair singles final was shunted onto Margaret Court Arena instead of prime time on Nine, as the Rafael Nadal-Stefanos Tsitsipas marathon wore on.

But he got over himself, realised it didn’t matter where or when but what he achieved, and duly added a seventh AO singles title to the doubles already won.

Dylan Alcott poses with the championship trophy after winning his Quad Wheelchair singles final against Sam Schroder. Photo: Getty

Never, for a second, underestimate his trailblazing impact on athletes with disabilities, to the point where he now talks of “what we’ve done here at the Australian Open, I feel like I’m on par with Stefanos and Rafa and Serena. Like, the way that I’m treated, I feel like a tennis player, not a wheelchair tennis player”.

At 29, and with so much media/business/charity work still to do, Alcott knows the end is near.

“At the moment I’ve still got the passion to play tennis. We’ll see what happens. You know, one John Farnham style, “this is my last day-o,” might be cool. And then come back and back. No, I’m just kidding.” Or not.

More, please

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Nick Kyrgios let his thoughts be known throughout his first-round win. Photo: Getty

Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis brought a little rock-star insouciance to the doubles court, and some compelling watchability to the singles draw before losing in the second and third rounds respectively.

Kmart-wearing Kokkinakis reminded us of what he can do when not on the operating or physio’s table, winning a round and pushing Tsitsipas to five sets.

Kyrgios showed heart in saving match points in the second round and, while unable to sustain his incandescent level after taking a two-sets-to-love lead against Dominic Thiem, it took all of the world No.3’s brilliance to reel him in. Kyrgios is still a long way from winning a slam, but won a few points in his stoush with Djokovic, which rolls on and on.

Hsieh Su-Wei. Who needs sponsors? A bag full of freshly-strung racquets? To practise when you’re “not feeling it?”. At 35, the doubles No.1 became the oldest first-time singles quarter-finalist in a major, and while her unorthodox game failed to blunt Osaka’s relentless power, any tournament is a more entertaining place with Su-Wei going deep.

Iga Swiatek. French Open champion at 19. Quarter-finalist here. More to come.

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Ash Barty was knocked out in the quarter-finals, but she is still only 24. Photo: Getty

Ash Barty. Ouch. That one hurt. But the Queenslander is still only 24, had missed a full year of tennis, and has shown that she knows how to win a major. A belated return to the scene of her French Open triumph and then another crack at her precious Wimbledon are next.

Stefanos Tsitsipas. The charismatic Greek star “flew like a bird”, as he poetically described becoming just the second player to beat the great warrior Nadal from a two-sets-to-love down in a major. Backing it up two days later was another matter and he had his wings clipped by Daniil Medvedev, the new world No.3, whose 20-match winning streak ended with a stinker in the final against Djokovic.

The COVID factor

At the women’s final presentation ceremony, Tennis Australia chair Jayne Hrdlicka acknowledged to the world the “countless hours, months and months with many people getting next to no sleep, with the drive to do one thing, and that is to bring a bit of hope to the world; that we’re on our way back to normal, and live sport and fans in the stands should be the way of the future”.

Was it all worth it? Financially, no, with the loss ballooning above $100 million, and the snap five-day lockdown estimated to have cost $20 million in lost ticket sales and revenue alone.

But the hugely ambitious venture finished without a COVID calamity, and with half-crowds back in the stands.

There were fewer fans than usual at the women’s final on Saturday night.

The third slam staged since the pandemic struck was the first to require players enter hotel quarantine, rather than just enter biosecure bubbles, and women’s finalist Jen Brady was the poster girl for the 72 in hard lockdown.

There were whinges and complaints, but the tournament did what had to be done.

Yet if there has been an odder non-tennis moment in AO history than when the third round between Djokovic and Taylor Fritz was halted and fans ordered out at 11.30pm ahead of the impending Friday night curfew, then perhaps only the 1995 flood would qualify.

The fact that the event went ahead at all is a bit similar to Djokovic himself. Like, or don’t, acknowledge that it was quite the feat they both just managed to complete.

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