Five things we learned from AO 2017

What’s old is new again, and that 2017 was truly an Open for the ages.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, F, Rod Laver Arena, 29 January 2017.
Photo by: Theo Karanikos/Tennis Australia

1. 35 is the new 25
Perhaps not, but this fortnight will force us to review the idea that once a player has a 3 before their age, their best days are over and they’re in the twilight of their career. What it also shows is the value of taking a break. Players who compete in Grand Slam tournaments have, of necessity, devoted their life to tennis and known little else since their age was still well in single digits. So it’s hardly surprising if after several years as a professional they get tired. Roger Federer said his break from tennis was a result of him getting bored with having “practice, treatment, practice, treatment, match, treatment, practice, treatment”, so taking a six-month hiatus to let all his injuries and niggles heal and rediscover the fun in tennis was a crucial part of his unexpected fifth title here. We may well find players continuing their careers well into their 30s as a result of this AO, especially if the idea of sabbaticals catches on.

2. The middle generation may get by-passed
With the Big Four of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray (and arguably Stan Wawrinka too) having dominated tennis for so many years, much attention has been focused on which generation of players will succeed them at the top of men’s tennis. The next generation has been led by 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic, and his contemporaries Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. But Dimitrov’s semifinal aside, the results at this year’s AO suggest that generation might get by-passed. Raonic struggled to make much impression on Nadal in the quarterfinals, and Nishikori and Cilic lost early. By contrast, the leader of the following generation, Sascha Zverev, made great strides in taking Nadal to a four-hour five-setter in the third round, and Dominic Thiem and David Goffin also had good tournaments. With the Big Four likely to be around for a while, it may be some time before we know who the next generation of men’s tennis really is.

3. There’s a vacancy in women’s tennis
Much as the Williams sisters emphasised what brilliant players they are, even at a youthful 36 and 35 they won’t be around for that much longer. Yet there seems to be no-one emerging to assume Serena’s mantle. Coco Vandeweghe was the player whose stock rose most at this AO, but much depends on how she follows up on the WTA tour from her semifinal. Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza reached the quarterfinals without ever looking a potential champion, and Belinda Bencic had the misfortune to draw Serena Williams in the first round. With Petra Kvitova off the tour, Angelique Kerber with a lot of ranking points to defend in the next few months, and Simona Halep still struggling for consistency, everything looks teed up for two former Australian Open champions to seize the limelight when they return to action in the next few weeks: Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.

4. The name to look out for
We always look to every Grand Slam tournament for a player who might have staked their claim to greatness in the future. At a tournament when all finalists and most semifinalists were in their 30s, perhaps the most notable new name was the 14-year-old Ukrainian who won the girls’ singles. Marta Kostyuk is not only one of the youngest junior champions, but she’s very confident and eloquent despite still fragile English. And she’s in the same stable as Ivan Ljubicic who coached Federer to the men’s title so, even allowing for the pitfalls of putting too much pressure on young shoulders, she’s definitely one to note.

5. It can’t always be like this!
Australian Open 2017 was an outstanding fortnight, the best tournament at least since the centenary AO in 2005 which was blessed with half-a-dozen outstanding matches and Aussies into the latter stages. We always want a couple of stories in the opening week without losing too many big names – we lost Djokovic and Murray in week one, after which the preposterous idea of a Federer-Nadal final began to be whispered. Not only did that happen, but both men got there thanks to two exhilarating five-setters each, and then delivered a five-set final that ended on a successful challenge. The all-Williams women’s final, and a Melburnian winning the men’s doubles, made it into a memorable Australian Open, and real film script stuff. We just need to remember that it can’t be like this every year – next year almost certainly won’t be quite as good, but that still leaves masses of room for it to be great. Roll on AO2018!

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