2017: When the Australian Open Peaked

By Owais Majid

The Australian Open has produced many dramatic moments over the years. The 2017 edition arguably produced more than any other. Certainly in my lifetime, there are no Grand Slams I remember that have produced as many astonishing storylines as this one.

The narratives around each of the Big Four (recall it most definitely was a Big Four at this point, with Andy Murray ranked #1 in the world) were of quite a contrast to one another. Novak Djokovic and Murray were seen as the clear favourites for the tournament. On the other hand, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were just coming back after a substantial period of time away from the game so there was some uncertainty about how they would fare. Indeed, some even speculated that this could be the beginning of a farewell tour for the two older members of the crew. What unfolded over the following two weeks will probably live long in the memory of any who were lucky enough to witness it. 

Djokovic had recently held all four slams simultaneously, and despite suffering a minor slump at the latter end of 2016, was still considered among the top two contenders for the title alongside the man who had become his most prominent rival over the two year prior to this tournament in Murray. After navigating a potential banana skin against Fernando Verdasco with little trouble in the first round, Djokovic’s next assignment was to face Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin. Naturally, there was little talk about this match as it was assumed by all that Djokovic would advance, probably in three pretty comfortable sets. What ensued was beyond the imagination of anyone who had seen either of these two play tennis. The former world number one looked out of sorts as he lost the first set, however he soon levelled up at a set all before taking a two sets to one lead. At this point, it appeared that normal service would resume and Djokovic would come through this minor blip. Istomin had other ideas. He came back to take the next two sets and knock Djokovic out in one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam event history. As we later came to know, this was the beginning of a prolonged slump for Djokovic who was a shadow of himself for the next 18 months or so. Though it was understandable that he would suffer a motivational dip after his seismic feats in 2015 and 2016, his loss to Istomin sent shockwaves through the sporting world. 

With his biggest obstacle eliminated and Federer and Nadal having question marks surrounding them, it seemed that it was written in the stars that Murray would finally get his hands on the trophy that had eluded him so painstakingly so many times, having been the Australian Open runner-up five times in seven years. Murray was coming off a year in which he had finally broken through to become the world number one. After winning Wimbledon for the second time, he went on a brilliant run at the back end of that year, culminating in a victory over Djokovic at the ATP finals where he took the top spot from the Serb. For one of the first times, Murray was the favourite for a slam. He started with a straight sets victory before dealing with a very young, pre-“bweeh” Andre Rublev before coming through the third round with little difficulty. In the last 16, he faced Misha Zverev, the man who was largely unknown aside from being the elder brother of a very exciting prospect. It’s fair to say we knew more about him after the match. The elder Zverev produced a throwback performance as he serve and volleyed his way to a 4 set victory in which he very much bamboozled Murray causing yet another enormous shock. Similarly to Djokovic’s defeat, Murray’s can be viewed through a different prism with the benefit of hindsight. That run at the end of 2016 took a lot out of him and he has never truly recovered. That defeat was the beginning of a long time out for the Brit. 

And so four became two, and the only members of the Big Four that remained standing were the men around whom there had been the most uncertainty. If you’d said that we’d lose 50% of the heralded quartet by the start of the second week, most would have scoffed at the idea that it would be Murray and Djokovic bowing out. Federer’s and Nadal’s fortunes in the opening two rounds mirrored each other in many ways. Both came through without a huge amount of trouble while simultaneously not playing scintillating tennis.

It was in their respective third round contests that they really grabbed the headlines, albeit for different reasons. Federer was first up on Friday. He had the night session slot against Tomáš Berdych who many predicted would get the better of Federer. As if to prove a point, Federer put on a clinical display as he brushed the Czech number one aside in resounding fashion. It was at this point that people dared to talk about Federer actually being a factor in the latter stages.

Nadal’s match on the Saturday was met with a lot of anticipation. He was playing a then nineteen-year-old Alexander Zverev. There was significant hype around the German who had been touted for a number of years by many within tennis as being a future world number one and major winner. With Nadal coming off a long layoff, it was thought that Zverev could burst onto the tennis scene by taking out the man who at the time had won fourteen grand slams. The pair went on to contest a thrilling five-setter which Nadal, as he so often does in these matches, clinched through sheer will but it felt for many that we had seen a man in Zverev who would be at the top of the sport for years to come.

Nadal then beat Gael Monfils in comfortable fashion whereas Federer had his toughest test as he beat Kei Nishikori in 5. Their quarterfinal matches followed suit. Nadal emerged victorious against Milos Raonic, who was the highest ranked player left in the draw. Federer beat the aforementioned Misha Zverev with similar ease.

As their semifinals approached, the mania surrounding the pair was as high as it had ever been in their careers. Fans of both had been resigned to the idea that their days of being forces in the sport were numbered. Yet here we were, with the pair a match away from meeting in the final of a grand slam again.

Federer was up against his compatriot Stan Wawrinka, who it was thought could bring Federer’s fairytale return to an end. After losing the first two sets, Wawrinka came back to level up at 2 sets all. Federer then went off court for a few minutes (ring any bells?) after which he bounced back to take the fifth and seal his place in the final. 

There would have been a certain irony if the man once nicknamed Baby Fed denied us a Federer-Nadal final, and boy did he come close. Dimitrov played one of his best-ever matches as he pushed Nadal to five sets full of the highest quality. He had two break points to serve for the match. He played about as well as he could for as long as he could, yet Nadal, despite his layoff, despite his ailing body, did not wilt. Not for the lack of trying, Dimitrov could not make him go away. To this day, that match remains one of the best I have ever witnessed. It felt like Dimitrov had finally arrived. Even though he lost out, that match caused his stock to rise possibly more than any other before or since.  

I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say that the final was one of the most anticipated sporting events in history, certainly the most anticipated tennis match. Aside from the fact that it was a superhuman effort for either to have come this far after what they had been through, many saw this as a potential sliding doors moment in the grand slam race. Federer was leading the race 17-14 going into this match. It was generally assumed that if he won, that would probably see his lead become unassailable for either Nadal or Djokovic.

Often these matches don’t live up to expectation and end up being a damp squib, but this tournament was different. It had delivered time and time again and it had one last epic for us all to savour. The two put blood, sweat and tears into five grueling, history-making sets. What made this match so special, apart from the obvious narrative, was the fact that both men brought their best tennis in the final set. Nadal went a break up and he seemed to have the momentum, but Federer, despite not having beaten Nadal in a major since 2007 and trailing the head-to-head 11-23, found another gear and did what he never had before, beating his great rival with his backhand. Federer launched eight winners off that wing in the final set. Through no fault of Nadal’s, the match was snatched from him and Federer, against the odds, emerged victorious. 

It was a year for throwback finals. While Federer and Nadal were doing their thing on the men’s side, Serena and Venus Williams were developing their own story, culminating in them stepping on to the Rod Laver Arena to contest what would go on to be a historic final.

Naturally, Serena went into the tournament as one of the favourites for the title. Her most notable victory came when she defeated Johanna Konta, who at the time was one of the players seen as the biggest threat to her. There was little separating the pair in the way of odds going into that match but Williams put on a clinic to win in straight sets. She navigated the rest of the tournament with the utmost ease, not dropping a single set on her way to the encounter with her sister. 

Venus’s defining moment was a thrilling victory over her fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe. Many had tipped Vandeweghe to go all the way and win the title, such was the level she had been operating at prior to this tournament. After losing the first set, Venus dug deep and came back to win, thus becoming the oldest ever player to become a grand slam finalist. In many ways, this victory was Venus’s final given who she would be facing next.  

Though the showpiece itself wasn’t particularly thrilling as Serena won in two relatively straightforward sets, the occasion was about far more than a tennis match. This slam event win was Serena’s 23rd, a feat that is even more astonishing now that we know she was pregnant at the time. Little did we know then, that that could be her last major victory but five years on, it appears increasingly as if that victory over her sister may well be her last in the final of a major. 

Of the numerous stories this tournament provided us with, none were as heartwarming as that of the reemergence of Marjana Lucic-Baroni. She hadn’t gone past the third round of the Australian open since 1998, she became the youngest person ever to defend a title aged just 16. She then reached the semifinals of Wimbledon the following year and was seen as one of the leading members of her generation. However, a multitude of personal problems meant that she had rarely been a factor on the tennis scene ever since. Nineteen years after that initial success, she reached the semifinals of the 2017 Australian Open, beating 6th seed Aga Radwanska along the way. Over the course of the fortnight, she won the hearts of the public more than perhaps anybody else. Her obvious joy at being back at the top of the game coupled with her fearless tennis she was showcasing was arguably the story of the tournament.  

The 2017 Australian Open is one that will truly live long in the memory of many a tennis fan and will take some beating for sheer number of incredible storylines. If the 2022 addition is half as good as what was witnessed five years ago, we’ll be in for a treat.

Federer acknowledges Nadal during the trophy ceremony: “I would have been happy to lose, too, to be honest.” Still: Australian Open YouTube channel
Serena to Venus: “every time you won this week, I felt like I gotta win too.” Still: Australian Open YouTube channel

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