Serena, Pliskova, Djokovic make compelling statements in Aussie tune-ups

The brand new decade bought off to a rousing begin with one thing new from the boys — the ATP Cup — and one thing acquainted, if not in current instances, from the WTA: Serena Williams hoisting a singles trophy. The win in Auckland was Williams’ the primary in three years.

Additionally acquainted: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic slugging it out in a high-stakes shootout, this time within the inaugural ATP Cup remaining, with Djokovic main Serbia to a hard-fought — and hard-sought — win. These occasions arrange three of the storylines for the upcoming Australian Open. Let’s take a better have a look at them and others:


Can Serena lock down her 24th Grand Slam singles title?

Auckland could also be only a decrease “worldwide” grade WTA occasion. And the participant Williams beat within the remaining, Buffalo’s personal Jessica Pegula, is ranked simply No. 84. However this can be simply what Williams wanted at first of a brand new 12 months to set herself up for a remaining problem to Margaret Court docket’s report.

Williams, 38, is clinging to the ultimate spot within the WTA top-10 rankings (she’ll be seeded outdoors the highest eight for the primary main). Her aura of invincibility has pale. Daring youthful gamers relish the prospect to create headlines by defeating an icon. Worst of all, the magic that Williams as soon as conjured in Grand Slam finals has gone lacking. She gained 21 of the primary 25 main finals she performed. She’s 1-7 in her most up-to-date.


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However the “Blissful Slam” has usually been Williams’s blissful place. She’s mounted superb resurgences in Melbourne, crafted career-shaping moments, gained extra usually on these laborious courts than wherever else aside from Wimbledon (seven titles at every). She does tremendous with out the hype of New York, the stress of Wimbledon, or the clay Rubik’s Dice of Paris. Williams misplaced heartbreakers the final two instances she performed in Oz, together with final 12 months’s quarterfinal collapse towards Karolina Pliskova. Williams led 5-1, 40-30 within the third set when she rolled an ankle. She by no means gained one other recreation.

After Auckland, Williams has another reason to really feel assured. In a second of trustworthy self-reflection she informed reporters there: “I actually felt like I used to be shut [to the record] however I did not actually present up in these [recent] matches. I’ve to determine a greater option to compete in these. It was robust for me.”

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Novak Djokovic helps Serbia raise the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney, defeating Rafael Nadal in singles alongside the way in which.

Is the ATP Cup an excessive amount of of an excellent factor?

A pure competitor to the restructured Davis Cup, the ATP Cup is also the flagship males’s tuneup for the Australian Open. Within the latter division, it has already made a huge impact. Within the remaining on Sunday in Sydney, Djokovic logged a vital — maybe prophetic — straight-sets win over No. 1 Nadal to spearhead Serbia’s win.

The victory prolonged Djokovic’s hard-court profitable streak over Nadal to 9 matches and a surreal 19 consecutive units. It additionally helped put the painful second half of 2019 additional again in Djokovic’s rearview mirror. The best way Nadal aced Djokovic out of the year-end No. 1 rating for 2019 was not solely spectacular, it was surprising and doubtlessly legacy-shaping for each males. In profitable the US Open, Nadal moved to inside one Grand Slam of Roger Federer’s report 20 main titles, leaving Djokovic trailing with 16.

Not for lengthy, maybe. Djokovic’s report in Melbourne is outstanding: 68-Eight with seven titles. He is had a handful of career-defining moments in Rod Laver Enviornment. At 32, he is nonetheless the youngest of the three males vying for the Grand Slam singles title report. He wants a win within the coming weeks if he hopes to push for the report. Nadal is absolutely conscious of the stakes.

The Spanish star has had some horrible luck at Australian Opens prior to now, profitable simply as soon as in 5 finals. He is been knocked out by harm. He is misplaced excruciatingly shut, record-setting matches. He is been ambushed by good friend and foe alike. This 12 months, although, he is wholesome, and he is coming in with loads of prep work. Nadal performed six singles (Four-2) and two doubles matches (2-Zero) in ATP Cup.

Due to the group ethos, the ATP Cup featured lengthy days and sometimes nights for all group members. The three-match ties have been exhausting, particularly for these, together with Nadal and Djokovic, who performed doubles in addition to best-of-three set singles. The ultimate end result was sullied for some by Nadal’s resolution to forgo the decisive doubles after his singles loss to Djokovic. Nadal cited fatigue as the explanation.

The complaints about ATP Cup echoed virtually verbatim these leveled on the revamped Davis Cup that was performed simply six weeks earlier. Mockingly, Nadal led Spain to a win at residence in Madrid in that competitors. Having skilled each occasions, Nadal sees neither the necessity nor the room for each.

“I believe is a superb competitors, however on the identical time I am unable to change my thoughts that two World Cups [within two months] shouldn’t be actual,” he informed reporters after the ultimate in Sydney. “So shouldn’t be attainable. We have to discover a option to repair it, and we have to discover a option to make an enormous cope with ITF and ATP to create an enormous World Staff Cup competitors, not two World Cups in a single month.”

Djokovic seems to have the benefit going into the primary main of the 12 months, however Grand Slam occasions, the place matches are best-of-five performed each different day with none of the group occasion bells and whistles, are a distinct proposition that these group occasions. Do not rely out Nadal simply but.

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Rafael says having “two world cups” inside a month of one another causes “confusion for spectators.”

Make approach for the following era

The tennis narrative for some years now (particularly within the ATP) has predicted a “altering of the guard.” The theme gave rise to the #NextGenATP marketing campaign, and it additionally put a highlight on rising WTA stars like Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Belinda Bencic and others. Who was going to step as much as lower down — and maybe take the place — of a tennis big?

That query has grow to be much less fascinating than the one the younger gamers of both tour are asking one another each day: “Whaddaya bought?”

Subsequent Gen standouts Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas aren’t engaged in rivalries with Federer or Djokovic. They’re feuding and pulling out all of the stops towards one another, or different Subsequent Gen grads — staples like Daniil Medvedev or Denis Shapovalov. Osaka, Bianca Andreescu (who will miss the Australian Open with a young knee), Aryna Sabalenka and others do not seem as fired up about taking out a Williams, Simona Halep or Angelique Kerber as in asserting their dominion over one another. What good will it do to beat veteran champions if you cannot throttle your friends?

“In some unspecified time in the future it is like this: The large names go away, life goes on,” Medvedev informed ESPN.com in an interview lengthy earlier than his magical summer time of 2019. “That is pure. Now there may be quite a lot of motion beneath the highest. We youthful guys have been all good, however you can’t say at 14 who will probably be actually good. It is being determined now, so now we have to maintain combating one another to show one thing.”

The competitors on the WTA stage guarantees to be significantly fierce. There have been 14 ladies 21 or underneath within the high 100 at first of this 12 months. Three of them have been already Grand Slam champions (Andreescu) or semifinalists (Marketa Vondrousova, Amanda Anisimova). Do not count on the older luminaries to go quietly into the evening, however search for the children to deliver the noise in Melbourne.

Can Ashleigh Barty overcome the house Slam jinx?

Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt performed an Australian Open singles remaining however misplaced it. Samantha Stosur, the previous US Open champ and final greatest Aussie hope, was crushed within the first spherical in Melbourne seven instances in 17 begins. She by no means even bought previous the fourth spherical. Mark Philippoussis, Wendy Turnbull, Pat Money, Pat Rafter … all of them performed in Grand Slam singles finals at different majors however by no means at residence after Chris O’Neil turned the final Aussie to say the title in Melbourne. She did that in 1978.

Barty’s mixed expertise and temperament appear suited to the duty. Her palette of strokes, so artfully employed on the clay when she gained the French Open, might paint an equally fairly image on the medium-speed blue laborious courts of Melbourne. Fast and artful, Barty dealt with the massive energy of Pliskova with out dropping set on an identical laborious courtroom within the remaining of her breakout event final 12 months, the Miami Open.

Ranked No. 16 at first of final 12 months, Barty ripped by a succession of opponents at her residence main, then eked out a three-set win over former champ Maria Sharapova earlier than she misplaced within the quarterfinals to explosive No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova. Establishing a profitable custom at a event counts for lots. Barty is off to an excellent begin with a 6-2 report since her return from a head-clearing hiatus early in her profession.

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Karolina Pliskova secures her third Brisbane Worldwide title with a 6-Four, Four-6, 7-5 win over Madison Keys.

Unfinished enterprise for Pliskova

Typically you marvel how No. 2-ranked Pliskova, the Czech Republic’s 6-foot-1 energy server, has managed to not win a Grand Slam title. She’s been ranked No. 1, crushed each Serena and Venus Williams in the identical Grand Slam event and performed a serious remaining. Historical past suggests she ought to include the warning label: “Contents could dissolve underneath stress.” And he or she’s already 27 years outdated.

However wait. Whereas simply eight males and 10 ladies within the Open period gained their first main titles at age 26 or later, eight of these ladies did it pretty just lately, between 2010 and 2018 (Halep was the final to perform it). With just a few exceptions, Pliskova performed robust if not all the time profitable tennis final 12 months. On the 2019 Australian Open, she recovered from match level all the way down to defeat Serena Williams and performed an high-quality remaining towards Osaka.

Final week, Pliskova had the composure to outhit and outlast Osaka and Keys in back-to-back three-set matches to win the title in Brisbane. She’ll be a particular menace in Melbourne.

Federer strolling a razor’s edge

Whereas Nadal and Djokovic have been flexing their muscle groups in an ATP Cup conflict, Serena and Ash and Naomi have been tuning up their video games, Federer was responding to local weather activists, together with Greta Thunberg, who referred to as out the Swiss star on social media for his industrial relationship with Credit score Suisse, a financial institution that invests closely in fossil fuel-related industries.

Federer, who’s in Melbourne making ready for the Australian Open, launched an announcement this weekend in response.

“I take the impacts and menace of local weather change very critically, significantly as my household and I arrive in Australia amidst devastation from the bushfires,” stated Federer’s assertion, despatched to Reuters.

“As the daddy of 4 younger youngsters and a fervent supporter of common schooling, I’ve quite a lot of respect and admiration for the youth local weather motion, and I’m grateful to younger local weather activists for pushing us all to look at our behaviours and act on revolutionary options.

“We owe it to them and ourselves to pay attention. I respect reminders of my duty as a personal particular person, as an athlete and as an entrepreneur, and I am dedicated to utilizing this privileged place to dialogue on necessary points with my sponsors.”

On Wednesday, Federer will probably be one of many headliners, together with Williams and Nadal, for the Rally for Reduction charity occasion at Rod Laver Enviornment, with proceeds going to bushfire aid efforts.

Federer appears to be getting higher preparation for a job in public workplace than an look within the second week of a Grand Slam occasion. He launched his superb late-career surge with a win on the Australian Open in 2017, however he is been so far as the finals in simply one in every of his previous six majors.

Whereas he is presumably wholesome and match, he hasn’t performed an official match since early November. Federer extols the virtues of main a well-balanced life and escaping from the jail of occupation, however in a sport based mostly on repetition and familiarity with the psychological stress of competitors he is leaving himself little or no margin for error.