By Emily Salley
Landing back-to-back grand slams, Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka showcased their dominance in Australia, hinting at what’s in store for tennis in 2019.
One of tennis’ biggest headlines came just before the Australian open began as Britain’s Andy Murray admitted, in an emotional press conference, that his first-round match against Roberto Bautista Agut could be his last. The Scotsman, who said he would love to retire after Wimbledon, has been suffering from a long-standing hip injury which caused him to miss most of the 2018 season.
World No. 23, Bautista defeated Murray in a hard-fought battle lasting four hours and nine minutes. Despite a fightback from Murray in the third and fourth sets, the Spaniard prevailed to win 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(4), 6-2.
Lots of other big names lost out on making it through the earlier rounds. The biggest shock perhaps came with Federer’s exit from the Open in the Round of 16, to Greece’s Tsitsipas. The twenty-year-old was the youngest male singles competitor but his glory run was ended when he was defeated convincingly by Nadal in the semis. Novak Djokovic cruised through the opening rounds, sweeping the likes of Nishikori and Tsonga aside to move into the final, having only lost two sets along the way.
Meanwhile in the women’s singles, number one seed Simona Halep lost in the fourth round to Serena Williams, who after an even match, was knocked out of the quarters by Karolina Pliskova. Osaka was the one to end Pliskova’s run, beating her in three sets, only to make it to the final where she faced another one of Czech’s top players.
This was Petra Kvitová’s return to a grand slam final for the first time in five years after a knife attack in December 2016 at her home in the Czech Republic threatened to put an end to her tennis career. The two-time Wimbledon champion suffered injuries to her left hand which left her side-lined for six months.
However, the Czech’s comeback story is still in the making as a dramatic final saw Osaka win 7-6 (7-2), 5-7, 6-4. Winning the first set 7-6, Osaka remained on top in the second to reach a 5-3 lead but failed to materialise on this, throwing away three championship points as Kvitova broke the Japanese’s serve to win the second set.
Winning three consecutive games in the final set, Osaka should have had the championship in the bag but a resilient Kvitova stood in her way, almost breaking back at 3-3. However, Osaka held firm to secure the victory, triumphing in the final set 6-4.
This time last year Osaka was relatively unknown within the tennis public sphere, yet to win a WTA title and 72nd in the world rankings. After winning the US Open in September 2018, in one of tennis’ most controversial finals when Serena Williams was met with ridicule and criticism for her angry outburst at umpire Carlos Ramos.
Osaka went on to win the Open in straight sets but unfortunately her athleticism was overshadowed by the storm of controversy triggered by Williams. Adding the Australian Open crown to her list of achievements, the Japanese is now No. 1, the first Asian player to top the rankings and only the fifth women to win back-to-back grand slam championships; Jennifer Capriati was the last to do so on 2001.
Fast forward to the next day as Melbourne Park hosted a clash between two of male tennis’ most familiar faces. Novak Djokovic, current world No. 1 and seven-time Australian Open champion, pitted against Rafael Nadal, number 2 seed with seventeen grand slam titles to his name.
The Spaniard, 32, has been unlucky when it comes to Australian Open finals, winning just one from five with his only victory against Federer in 2009. Nadal failed to reverse this as Djokovic, 31, showcased his superiority by claiming the title in three straight sets, winning 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Hitting eight aces and making only nine unforced errors compared to Nadal’s 28, Djokovic produced a clinical display.
Winning 40 out of 50 first serves, he defeated Nadal in a short two hours and four minutes, making it the Serb’s biggest margin victory in a grand slam final. The former champion was not short of praise for Djokovic, saying “The way he played was unbelievable”.
The Serbian is now only two grand slam titles behind Nadal, with his sights set on passing Roger Federer’s tally of 20 majors as Djokovic claimed it was a motivating factor and that he wanted to improve his game so he could “have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record.”
Like Naomi Osaka, the transformation of Djokovic from January 2018 is remarkable. Knocked out of last season’s Australian Open by unseeded Chung Hyeon in the last 16 and facing elbow surgery, it is a testament of how driven Djokovic was to make a comeback to topflight tennis. The 31-year-old’s successful Australian Open campaign ensured back-to-back grand slam wins after he defeated world No.3, Juan del Potro, in September’s US Open.
Whilst the Australian Open might have been the final curtain for one of Britain’s best ever sportsmen, it also reassured us of Djokovic’s dominance in the World No. 1 position. Also, Japan’s rising star Osaka proved she was more than a one hit wonder. A new force to be reckoned with in female tennis.