Five things we learned from the Australian Open, the coronavirus-delayed first Grand Slam of the year:
– Days of line judges are numbered –
The smooth introduction of electronic line judging at the Australian Open, to reduce the number of people on court during the coronavirus pandemic, proved a hit and could be here to stay.
Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams were among those to give their seal of approval to cameras set up along each line that automatically announced their decisions in real time, with a recorded human voice calling “out”, “fault” and “foot fault”.
“I think it’s for the best… I think it’s not too much that can be wrong,” said Williams, while Djokovic added: “I don’t see a reason why we need the line umpires, to be honest, if we have technology like this.”
Not everyone was on board, with American Frances Tiafoe complaining calls weren’t always accurate. “I hate it. I cannot stand it,” he said.
Others, including Milos Raonic, expressed concern about depriving line judges of gaining big-match experience, which could impact grassroots tennis.
– Quarantine’s not always hard –
The Australian Open proved unique with all players forced into 14 days quarantine on arrival in Australia.
Most were permitted to train outside for five-hour blocks each day in bio-secure bubbles — except 72 players who were on charter flights where eight people tested positive for Covid-19.
They were locked in their rooms for the entire fortnight and some, including former champions Angelique Kerber and Victoria Azarenka, suffered early exits.
Spain’s Paula Badosa was among the loudest to complain, while Roberto Bautista Agut said it was like prison “with wifi”.
But it wasn’t all bad. Jennifer Brady chose to adopt a positive mindset — and she reached her first Grand Slam final as a result.
“I mean, there’s way worse things going on in the world than me being stuck in a hotel room for 14 days,” she said.
– Time to move over, Serena –
Serena Williams’s four-year bid to win a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title has a big problem — Naomi Osaka.
The lovable Japanese is not only increasingly dominating tennis, but has taken over from Williams as the most highly paid and most recognisable female athlete on the planet.
Osaka again showed her growing ability to raise her game at crucial moments, saving fourth-round match points against Garbine Muguruza.
Her polite demeanour belies a ruthlessness as demonstrated in the final, when she ripped past Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-3 for her second Australian Open crown.
Williams has reached four of the last 10 major finals, but none since the 2019 US Open and with the American great turning 40 in August, her chances to equal Margaret Court’s record are slipping away.
Young talent runs deep in women’s tennis with major winners Ashleigh Barty (aged 24), Iga Swiatek (19) and Bianca Andreescu (20) all itching for more Slam glory and old hands Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza not going away.
And then there’s Osaka, 23, who is on a 21-match unbeaten streak, the longest by anyone not called Serena for nine years.
Time to move over, there’s a new queen in town.
– Fairytales do happen –
Aslan Karatsev had tried and failed on nine previous occasions to qualify for a Grand Slam.
The 27-year-old has been a journeyman on the second-tier ATP Challenger circuit and a couple of tournaments wins last year elevated him to 114 in the world.
His long Australian Open campaign started in Doha on January 11 when he beat American Brandon Nakashima in the first round of qualifying and ended in semi-final defeat to Novak Djokovic on February 18.
In between, he underwent two weeks of quarantine and then scored an ATP Cup win as part of the Russian team alongside Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev who called Karatsev “our secret weapon”.
He stunned eighth-seeded Diego Schwartzman in the third round and became the first man in Open era history to reach the semi-finals of a major on a main draw debut.
His reward was the biggest payday of his life, $660,000, and a new ranking of 42nd.
He will not have to qualify for Grand Slams again for the foreseeable future.
Fairytales do happen.
– Tiley’s a tireless tournament boss –
Australian Open chief Craig Tiley has revealed what a “logistical behemoth” it had been to hold the tournament in a pandemic — and how little sleep he had for weeks.
“There were long days, long nights. For me there were a few all-nighters. One back-to-back,” he wrote in a column in the Melbourne Herald Sun.
“Just days out from the Slam, things truly looked grim,” he said.
“It was probably the first time we really thought we might not make it.
“We got news that a quarantine worker tested positive and that we would have to completely shut down the site and mobilise the entire playing field to immediately get tested.”
The tests were all negative but as the tournament began to roll, the entire state went into lockdown.
Still, they carried on, without fans for five days.
“We’d all worked so hard, come so far. We were just not going to let this thing beat us,” he said.
Lessons learned will be passed on to Olympics organisers, he said, for an event on a massively different scale.
While there were 494 tennis players from 62 nations in Melbourne, there will be in excess of 10,000 athletes from more than 150 countries converging on Tokyo in July.
Despite all the issues, the complaints, criticisms, heartaches and uncertainties, would Tiley do it again?
“Yes, a thousand times yes. We wanted to show the world what we could do.”
Over to you, Tokyo.