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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 February 2021

Australian Open lessons: Novak Djokovic's drive for Grand Slam record, Naomi Osaka and Co poised for epic battles

Reem Abulleil looks back at an eventful tournament and what we have learned going forward

An eventful Australian Open wrapped up on Sunday with Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka walking away as champions for the ninth and second time, respectively, from Melbourne Park.

Here’s what we learned from the fortnight Down Under.

Djokovic determined more than ever to secure Slam record

After his US Open disqualification last September and his hefty defeat to Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros final a few weeks later, Djokovic reignited the race for Grand Slam supremacy by capturing an 18th major, which puts him two behind joint-record holders Nadal and Roger Federer.

The Serb has been very upfront about his desire to secure two records: the most weeks as world No 1, which he refers to as ‘the historic No 1’, and the men’s all-time mark of most singles major won.

Djokovic will surpass Federer’s record tally of 310 weeks at the top of the sport in two weeks’ time, and says he will now redirect all of his energy to catching up with his Swiss and Spanish rivals on the grand slam leaderboard.

The 33-year-old seems to thrive on the pressure that chase represents and is willing to do whatever it takes to add more majors to his trophy cabinet, which was evident in Melbourne this past fortnight.

Djokovic chose to play with an abdominal muscle tear sustained during his third round against Taylor Fritz and managed to hit his best form against Daniil Medvedev in the final. Once again he has shown he can be a mental beast in the toughest moments, and that his determination to be viewed as the greatest has no bounds.

“Roger and Rafa inspire me. I think as long as they go, I'll go,” he said after the final. “I think in a way it's like a race, who plays tennis more and who wins more.

"It's a competition between us in all areas. But I think that's the very reason why we are who we are, because we do drive each other, we motivate each other, we push each other to the limit.”

He added: “Most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies.”

Epic battles in store for women’s tour

With Osaka surfing a 21-match winning streak and picking up a fourth major, Ashleigh Barty clinching a title in her first tournament back after a 12-month absence, Iga Swiatek showing great form on the back of her maiden slam success at Roland Garros, Serena Williams playing her best tennis since returning from maternity leave, Bianca Andreescu back in the mix, and the likes of Jennifer Brady, Aryna Sabalenka, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep all starting the year in top shape, the WTA tour looks set to deliver an exciting season, should the schedule hold up.

Most of the aforementioned names are headed to the Middle East next week for a star-studded double-header in Doha and Dubai.

Uncertainty looms as tennis looks to proceed during the pandemic

Djokovic deemed the Australian summer swing a “success” during his victory speech on Sunday but the lengths Tennis Australia had to go to to pull it off cannot be ignored.

Tournament director and Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley says a $78 million loss is expected as a result of running the event, which isn’t surprising. Tennis Australia paid for chartered flights to bring the players to Melbourne, covered the quarantine costs of all the players and awarded first-round losers A$100,000 in prize money.

Add to that the extra expenses of the Covid-testing for players and their teams, and the decrease in revenue from ticket sales and you realise how big of a hit the tournament has taken. The Australian Open was also staged with a great deal of resentment from the Melbournian public as a backdrop.

Circumstances will differ from one location to another as the tennis circuit proceeds with the 2021 calendar but Djokovic and other players have said that if mandatory quarantines became a regular occurrence on tour, many will refuse to play because of the risk it presents on their bodies.

Both tours are hopeful of holding a full schedule but whether the players will turn up for all the tournaments remains unknown. Australian players, for example, might need to go the whole season without flying home, which is a huge ask, especially considering they’d be hopping from one bubble to another.

Gulf remains between Big Three and Next Gen

Medvedev described the ‘Big Three’ as “tennis cyborgs” after he was handed a crushing defeated by Djokovic in Sunday’s final. The Russian, who hit a new cWhat weareer-high world No 3 on Monday, was one of the eight players who contested the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan at the end of 2017.

Of all those to have taken part in that event in its three-year existence, Medvedev has come closest to winning a major, making two finals but falling short to Nadal in US Open 2019 and Djokovic in Melbourne on Sunday.

While Dominic Thiem’s US Open title run broke the ‘Big Three’s’ streak at the Slams, it seems it was only a momentary lapse as Djokovic sent out a reminder Down Under that a big gulf still exists between the tour’s devastating trio and the chasing pack.

“I think just Roger, Rafa and myself have managed to always play our best tennis at Slams. We have the experience of knowing what to do, how we can win matches in best-of-five on different surfaces. I think that's made it more challenging for guys that are in the next generation,” Djokovic explained.

“Dominic has contested several grand slam finals before he actually got a trophy, got a win. How long is going to take for maybe Zverev or [Stefanos] Tsitsipas or Medvedev to do the same? I don't know. But they seem awfully close.”

That last sentence seems somewhat generous!

Published: February 23, 2021 07:47 AM

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