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50 Parting Thoughts From the 2024 Australian Open

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Cleaning out the notebook and notes app from a cracking 2024 Australian Open. And some of you asked: If you want to receive the mailbag in your email each week, let me know at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com.

Onward …

1. All hail Jannik Sinner, 2024 Australian Open men’s singles champ. “If” became “when” and is currently “now.” For years the salon has talked up Sinner. In the last few months he has put together his elaborate gifts and professionalism. He blazed through five rounds without dropping a set. He stared down Novak Djokovic in the semis (for the third time since Halloween) and then returned to finish the job, rallying to win in five sets over Daniil Medvedev (3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3). Forza!

2. In the match she played before the Australian Open, Aryna Sabalenka lost 6–0, 6–3. She then wins seven matches without dropping a set, defending her title, beating Coco Gauff and Qinwen Zheng—two top-10 players—in the latter two rounds. She’s very much a player of the present. But do note that Sabalenka could retire tomorrow and her spot in the Hall of Fame is secure.

Sabalenka won her second straight Australian Open title with a win over Qinwen Zheng.

Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

3. Zheng could not do what Li Na did a decade ago and represent China as a major champion. But she did herself—and coach Pere Riba—proud, winning six matches and cracking the top 10. Much was made of her not facing a seed until the final. (How much predictive value is there when you win six matches, mostly against sub-50 players?) But Zheng sure passes the eye test. Such movement, such athleticism, such self-possession. Buy your stock now!

4. All hail Medvedev. There are players who deplore chaos. Others thrive amid mayhem. This guy, happily, is the latter. A match ending at 3:40 a.m. A spate of five setters. He finally succumbed against blazing hot Sinner in the final. But in his quirky wild-and-crazy-guy way, he showed an awfully lot of fortitude and soul during this event. Now he can rest.

5. For the first time in six years, Djokovic entered the Australian Open and did not win. Sinner, of course, beat Djokovic in four sets, serving the Serb his first-ever defeat in 20 “Final Four” matches in Australia. The result of the semifinals match was a mild upset; the tenor (and, thus, the scoreline) was a shocker. Djokovic remains No. 1 but the plot has thickened. Was this a one-off, a “bad day at the office”? Or is Father Time limbering up in the bullpen?

6. That whooshing sound you heard was the ATP breathing a sigh of relief as Alexander Zverev was eliminated in the semifinals by Medvedev, sparing men’s tennis more awkwardness. Nothing like a player accused—twice—of domestic violence and facing an adjudicated penalty order in advance of a public trial in May, competing for a title. We devoted plenty of airtime, ink and pixels to Zverev. One point perhaps worth stressing: this is not personal; it’s not a witch hunt (scoundrels’ favorite word); it’s not about “innocent-until-proven guilty.” It’s all about the fact pattern. Not too many other sports —or workplaces—would be business-as-usual when an athlete faced this set of facts.

8. A B-plus tournament for Gauff. She did not become the first woman to win back-to-back majors since Naomi Osaka. But all in all, a fine outing. She beat who she was supposed to beat. She’s had a lot of churn in her camp and it didn’t seem to bother her. She had her chances against Sabalenka. A sting, but not a wound. And she leaves at No.3.

9. Ah, tennis. In Week 1, we celebrate a 16-year-old. Week 2, it’s a 43-year-old. Specifically Rohan Bopanna of India, who teamed up with Australian (and mailbag reader) Matthew Ebden to beat Italy’s Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori 7–6, 7–5 in the men’s doubles final. Two rounds earlier, Bopanna became No. 1 for the first time in his career.

10. In the women’s doubles final, 38-year-old Su-wei Hsieh, the connoisseur’s favorite, teamed with Elise Mertens to take the title with a 6-1, 7-5 victory over Jelena Ostapenko and Lyudmyla (stay out of the) Kichenok of Ukraine. It’s Hsieh’s third major in nine months, each with a different partner.

11. This event reinforced the reality that we are in a new … reality. The Serena Williams and Big Three era is past. The era of all-time players reliably reaching the semis and finals is past. We are regressing to a statistical mean where 128 players—closer in talent than ever—will serve up more combinations and permutations than ever. “Upsets” needs to be redefined. Results like a Wimbledon champion losing in the first round will not seem so aberrant. Adjust expectations accordingly.

12. Do we need to talk about Iga Świątek? The top seed in the women’s draw is a generational player, who arrived on a 16-match win streak. She won two tough matches (willing her way past an admirable Danielle Collins, down a third-set break) and then lost to No. 50 Linda Nosková. In keeping with the previous paragraph, we need to recalibrate, re-wire and realize that Serena-style expectations are not realistic. By the same token … Świątek has not only lost in four of her previous five majors but has done so before the semis. Three of her four major titles are at Roland Garros (a higher ratio than Rafael Nadal). And for a top player, there is so much talk of nerves, pressure and discomfort. Lovely player. Lovely person. At some level, she is a victim of the standard she has set. But there are cracks in the facade, especially at majors.

13. Similarly, a strange event for Carlos Alcaraz. In Melbourne without a warmup (see below), or coach Juan Carlos Ferrero (DNP-knee surgery), Alcaraz was generally electric for four rounds. He then looked utterly bereft in the quarterfinals, falling to Zverev and doing so without much of a game plan. He’s 20. He could retire tomorrow and be a Hall of Famer. He is flagrantly talented. But he hasn’t been to a final since Cincinnati (causation or correlation?) and seems a bit dented right now.

14. You want more Su-wei? Sold! She came in having won six Grand Slam titles in women’s doubles but none in mixed doubles. No more. She reamed with Jan Zieliński of Poland to outlast No. 2 seeds Desirae Krawczyk of the United States and Neal Skupski of Great Britain 6–7(5), 6–4, [11–9] in the final.

15. In the juniors, top seed Renata Jamrichova of Slovakia—about time the Slovak region served up a decent player—took the girls’ title. (That was a joke by the way.) Rei Sakamoto, a 16-year-old Japanese player, won it for the boys. For all results, Colette Lewis, as ever, has your back.

16. Sometimes prospects develop late or sneak up on tennis. Other times they arrive with advance fanfare. Two words: Hannah Klugman.

17. Cruel sport, this tennis. Playing into the guts of a major for the third time in eight months, Elina Svitolina was helpless against back spasms and had to pull out of her fourth-round match against Nosková. Had she won that, three Ukrainians (Dayana Yastremska and the winsome Marta Kostyuk) would have made the quarters. The Ukraine storyline has faded, Peng Shuai-style. But do note: It was only two years ago that the country was barbarously invaded and the situation is very much fluid.

18. Storyline to follow: Olympic eligibility. If there are other eligible players from your country, you cannot get a wild card. (Crassly: are there four players in, roughly, the top 50?). Note that there are four-plus American women in the mix, likely precluding Venus Williams from representing the U.S. yet again. And the same, potentially, for Spanish men … which would mean—short of some last-minute rule changes—Nadal playing in Paris 2024 is not a given. And what happens to the Czech Republic women’s doubles team? Do Barbora Krejčíková and Kateřina Siniaková defend their gold medal despite splitting up week-to-week?

19. The top Americans—Taylor Fritz and Gauff—did themselves proud. The other Americans had a rougher go of it. Some were upset. Some failed to show. Tommy Paul (defending semifinal points) had match points in the third-round match, hit two wayward forehands and lost 6–0 in the third set.

20. An underrated story line (documentary subject?) is the continued growth of wheelchair tennis. Great story, BBC.

21. Who remembers the proposed SuperTour? (We are taking the liberty of branding it with no space.) Discussions continued in Australia. When he wasn’t running, you know, the actual event, Craig Tiley was trying to whip votes from top players in private pitch meetings. The offer: “You’ll play 14 events: the four majors plus nine Masters Series plus a Saudi event in February. You’ll make way more money than you do now. And if the ATP or WTA sues, the deep-pocketed Saudis will cover legal fees and bleed them dry.” As always, the devil resides in the details. Will the players have equity in the SuperTour, as they do with the ATP and WTA? Will all 14 events play nice with each other? Will, say, Wimbledon be willing to open their books? Are there not non-competes for the current ATP 1000 events? What happens when Dubai or Doha—loyal tour members for decades—hear about this? Lots of hurdles left … .

The Australian Open upped its prize money pool to a tournament-record 86.5 million Australian dollars. 

Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

22. Everyone—Tennis Channel included—got their mileage out of the “mom tracker.” Eight entered, five of them (Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, Osaka and Svitolina) were once top-five players. Two (Azarenka and Svitolina) got to Week 2. All credit to the players. Credit, too, to the WTA for providing such a hospitable maternity leave policy.

23. After falling to Sinner, Andrey Rublev is now 0–10 once reaching a major quarterfinal. Do you know who else has lost 10 major quarterfinals? Djokovic. (He has also won 48.) Rublev is a fine player and strong presence. But does he have a ceiling against which he cannot stop bumping?

24. Mirra Andreeva, then 15, lost in the Australian Open girls final in 2023. In 2024, she reached the second week of a major for the third time and will, almost surely, be seeded at the next major. And another teenager, Świątek-slayer Nosková will likely be seeded higher still.

25. Tennis, like all sports, is figuring out its relationship with gambling … sports wagering is legal in Australia. But both the bettor and the subject of the bet must be 18. So one could not wager on Andreeva.

26. We can concede that wild cards are a necessary evil. They fly in the face of fundamental fairness, but tournaments need a mechanism, a back door for getting (marketable and sentimentally worthy) players like Wozniacki into the draw. Fine. But the reciprocal wild cards are a joke. Two French and American players automatically get into majors over more worthy players—Wimbledon admirably declines this sham—and get the $80,000 first-round checks, because of this backroom deal worthy of mob bosses. This is so cynical and unnecessary and such a glimpse into the oligopoly of the majors … and then Arthur Cazaux—the 20-year-old, tatted-up leap-before-you-look shotmaker with one prior win on tour—thrills to reach the fourth round.

27. Note the comeback of Amanda Anisimova who looked fully recognizable with her aggressive, clean ball striking as she reached Round 2. And happily unfamiliar with her persistent smiling. Makes you wonder if other players struggling with the demands of the job and possible burnout—the admirable but clearly in-need-of-a-jolt Jessica Pegula, to pick a name—see players like Anisimova and find solace that you can take off months, refresh, rewire and return to winning.

28. Five players who didn’t escape Week 1 but impressed nonetheless: Lukáš Klein, the qualifier had 80 winners, and won more games, in a five-set loss to Zverev. Dino Prižmić, who took a set off Djokovic in Round 1. Max Purcell, the serve-and-volley dervish who should have beaten Casper Rudd in Round 2. Qualifier Maria Timofeeva who took out Wozniacki and then backed it up against Bia Haddad Maia. The hard-serving Alycia Parks—now working with Sascha Bajin we’re told—offered little against Gauff but looked terrific in the previous two rounds including a takedown of Leylah Fernandez.

29. Given his mode of being, his fondness for attention, his candor and his preference for the team over the vulnerability of playing as an individual, Nick Kyrgios is better suited for tennis commentating than tennis playing. Like Damn Yankees or Big, this almost resembles the premise for a screenplay. The Zoltar fortune-telling machine says, “Good news and bad news, young Nick. I am going to make you a professional athlete. But it’s going to be in a sport that doesn’t appeal to you and runs counter to your constitution.”

30. More than a week later, many of us remain gutted by the loss of Mike Dickson, the longtime British journalist who died unexpectedly during the tournament. One way to honor his memory: read his work. Here’s his latest book, a meditation, yes, on Emma Raducanu but also the thermodynamics of sudden stardom.

31. Rough go of it for the local wild cards. Nine were given automatic entry. Zero won their first match.

32. Emma Navarro’s career management is quite interesting. She has been racking up points at smaller events, winning matches and gaining experience. She came to Melbourne as a seeded player and will likely be seeded again in Paris. Is she a concierge-level player? Perhaps not yet. But she’s young, ascending and her approach to allocating and accumulating points is something other players might want to study.

33. ICYMI, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are not happy about the prospect of the WTA holding its crown jewel event in Saudi Arabia. I wrestle with this: Why does it fall on the women—and so often, why does it fall on the marginalized—to take the moral stance? Cristiano Ronaldo, LIV golfers and Nadal can all cash in. But the women can’t? We don’t demand that they call out human rights abuses or the criminalization of homosexuality, but women’s tennis players must? At the same time, the WTA has made activism, female empowerment and social justice a cornerstone of its branding. As perhaps it should. But how does the same tour that espouses inclusion and equality and “strong is beautiful,” credibly plant its signature event in a country where women don’t enjoy full freedom of movement?

I don’t have much to add to Nadal’s announcement that he is now an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation. I know that to many inside and outside the sport, it’s a disappointment, a suggestion that he was bought off by an authoritarian regime that is using athletes with prestige and reputation to launder a national image and rebrand itself. The flip side: The Nadal I know is principled and doesn’t reach decisions lightly. Neither a point for or against, but when I visited The Kingdom last year I did notice that there was a franchise of Tatel—the restaurant Nadal and Ronaldo endorse—opening in Riyadh. Which suggests he entered this recent relationship eyes wide open.

34. A year ago, Alex Michelsen was winning a challenger in Edmond, Okla. Which put him on the fringes of the top 500. Having won two rounds in Melbourne, he is now arrowing toward the top 50. And he doesn’t turn 20 until the U.S. Open.

35. I once wrote this story about an Adderall situation that convulsed the University of Georgia tennis program. A half-decade later, Adderall is still an open secret in tennis. Whether there’s a material advantage to taking this drug—which counters hyperactivity disorder—or whether it’s just a psychological advantage, Adderall has found favor with so many players from juniors to pros. Does tennis have the stomach to confront this and all the exemptions? Yes, health records deserve maximum privacy. Yes, players who genuinely suffer from a condition should be able to return to a baseline level. But this is clearly a huge loophole being exploited by countless players seeking an advantage.

36. The arc of the tennis career is long. Unprecedentedly so. Which has benefitted college tennis. Yet another event where the alumni club made its mark. Four NCAA champions were in the main draw. The tournament director is a former coach at Illinois. John Isner made a strong Tennis Channel debut. And how about Nuno Borges, former Mississippi State Bulldog, taking out Grigor Dimitrov to reach Week 2?

37. Upset of the tournament? A vote here for the blazing re-emergence of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. This is a radical strategy shift, and it should be greeted as good news. The more the former champions are engaged and in the public eye—provided that’s what they want—the better. “Grafassi” are playing pickleball. They are ordering Uber Eats. They are playing with Simona Halep in Hungary. They are going to USTA meetings, I hear. A marked departure from the low profile they’ve kept as of late.

38. These Aussie Open media folks do so much so well. Few complaints about the app. Only a few glitches overall. One suggestion comes from reader R. Fernando:

Might you know someone at the Australian Open who can tell the “Extended Highlights” creators to stop using spoiler thumbnails (like the one below)? The truth is that for most matches that are only somewhat interesting, the extended highlights are a great length to get the best moments without spending too much time.

A screenshot of one of the Australian Open’s “Extended Highlights.”

39. Your periodic reminder that exchange rates figure prominently in this global sport. The Australian dollar is worth 66 U.S. cents. Which means the much-ballyhooed $120,000 first-round prize money was actually less than the $81,500 the U.S. Open offered last fall.

40. More question than rant. But what do we do about Patrick Mouratoglou? Here is a prominent figure in tennis who, while he doesn’t seem to be coaching much these days, puts on a well-paying exhibition, runs an academy and provides commentary. He also was coaching a top player when she was popped for a banned substance and—honorably, if belatedly—assumed responsibility. Imagine this fact pattern in another sport. A track coach whose runner tested positive. A college football strength coach whose players failed drug tests. In those sports, there would be consequences both formal and cultural; a necessary period of image rehab. I’m not saying cancel the guy. But it’s a little strange that for all the private whispering, there’s been no public institutional stance. And at a minimum, the WTA would do well to update this page.

41. I offered some thoughts on Break Point last week. And don’t have much to add. If you want to devote a segment to Zverev and then neglect to mention—much less condemn—his multiple domestic violence allegations and his committing the most violent act on a tennis court in recent memory … that’s a choice. When you then position him as the hero to Medvedev’s cheating villain, you have gone from “unforced error” to “tank.” Not just a whiff but an outright bad-faith effort. (And how does the ATP sign off on this?)

42. If the Tennis SuperTour comes to be—and there was a remarkable lack of chatter on this topic—­the ATP 250 and 500 events will be rendered something akin to dive bars. That is, fun places where the hard cores can seek refuge and hang out. But not as a serious enterprise with growth potential.

43. As it stands, it’s rough times for the ATP events that precede majors. There’s a growing consensus that tennis’ four biggest events should start early and wrap around three weekends. And Alcaraz, Medvedev and Sinner all showed you can skip tune-ups and arrive in form. Parents of teens know that sometimes you let your kids sleep in, and they have bedhead and feel sluggish all day. Other times, they feel refreshed. This was the latter.

Sinner became only the second Italian to win a men’s singles Grand Slam tournament..  

Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

44. Who else is old enough to remember … line judges? (Wild—and instructive—how no one even discusses this shift. Outrage, it fades fast.)

45. Theft crimes are up! You can pay first-round prize money of $120,000 (Aussie). You can provide meal vouchers. You can provide travel vouchers. Cold plunges, smoothie bars and massages. And none of it will prevent players from towel larceny. I saw one player lose a match and then casually jog to the other side of the court to swipe his towel and place it surreptitiously in his bag. And then there’s Daria Kasatkina getting busted on surveillance cam.

46. Trivia: Which of the four majors charges the highest rate for licensing footage to outside media companies? Answer: the Australian Open, at $10,000 per minute!

47. This is seriously cringe, as the kids say, and I hope it comes across as objective advice and not unseemly self-promotion. From the snazzy Tennis Channel studios in L.A., I did a two-hour daily pregame show with Lindsay Davenport, Navratilova and Jim Courier (on-site in Oz), hosted by Steve Weissman. The shows did not lead into live match coverage. Sometimes they aired opposite NFL playoff games. And all the while, I kept thinking, “Man, if I were a hardcore fan, this would be great content for me.” No-holds-barred debate and discussion. Deep dives. Insight. Gossip. Interviews. Features. Inside tennis jokes. Good chemistry. I would even listen in audio form. I strongly encourage fans to find these shows and tune in at future majors.

48. The view here is that pickleball is complementary to tennis, not competition to tennis, and should be treated as such. Both empirically and anecdotally, it’s not going anywhere. Except up. There’s a pickleball facility on the Santa Monica Promenade. Emma Watson is bringing a pickleball coach to her film sets. Drew Brees plays multiple times a day. Tennis would do well to embrace this new segment. It should be perceived as a blessing. You have a new demographic getting familiar with the thrill of a well-executed point, the ambivalence of a let-court winner, the sadistic joy of pulling off an angled drop shot and the effectiveness of a slice that stays low. Would these millions not enjoy and appreciate tennis?

49. Tennis gonna tennis … Davis Cup commandeers the calendar next weekend. The USTA and U.S. Davis Cup captain, Bob Bryan, announced that Fritz, Sebastian Korda, Christopher Eubanks, Austin Krajicek and Rajeev Ram will represent the U.S. in its 2024 Davis Cup qualifying tie with Ukraine. Given Korda’s spot on the team, it’s fitting that the matches will be played at SEB Arena in Vilnius, Lithuania.

50. Thanks for all your notes about the precarious state of Sports Illustrated. I have to be somewhat careful here, but with any luck, we’ll do another wrap-up column from Roland Garros.

HAVE A GOOD WEEK, EVERYONE!





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