When Matteo Berrettini chased down a dismal Andy Murray drop shot on match point only to dump an even-more-dismal backhand into the middle of the net, the anticipated Australian Open first-rounder became one of those matches that was certain to devastate one player, regardless of who won. Berrettini had put in the hard yards to come back from two sets down and claw all the way to match point in the fifth, Murray had been two points away from the win in the fourth set. But when Berrettini missed that backhand, he put his heart on the line — after a biffed putaway like that, if you don’t win, the miss may haunt you forever.
I cheered for both players at various points during the match. Murray fan extraordinaire (and Popcorn Tennis contributor) Claire Stanley was also at the match, in a different section, and I wanted a Murray win for her and the other cohosts of the Murray Musings podcast, Scott Barclay and Peter Childs. I’ve never been a Murray fan — his on-court demeanor used to annoy me, and though I admired what he achieved in the thick of the Big Three era, my awe never quite morphed into affection. As I’ve gotten to know Peter, Scott, and Claire, though, I’ve found myself rooting for Murray at times. Their unadulterated love for him is just infectious. Claire and Scott attended Murray’s third-round loss to John Isner at Wimbledon last year (Scott wrote a beautiful piece about it), and with that knowledge I cheered for Murray through the TV screen. I felt hollow when he lost.
But when Murray surpassed all reasonable expectations in this match and won the first two sets quite comfortably, I wanted Berrettini — newfound Netflix star, former Australian Open semifinalist — to at least get his teeth into the contest. While Berrettini eventually did, Murray made it a hell of a challenge. The three-time major champion was razor-sharp tactically, constantly peppering his opponent’s suspect backhand and yanking him wide on the forehand, denying him rhythm on his stronger wing. Time and again, Berrettini went for the improbable running forehand winner and missed. When he turned to the slice defense, Murray was almost always able to retain control of the rally.
Berrettini’s typically awesome forehand was often woeful in the first two sets. I initially thought it was odd how many neutral forehands he was blowing, but then I realized Murray had just forced Berrettini to hit so many forehands on the run that he had lost his rhythm on the rally shot. Early in the third set, Murray had a break point, and it genuinely looked like he might win 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, an astonishing scoreline given the caliber of his opponent.
Then Berrettini pushed back, launching a sustained assault of big serves that lasted deep into the fifth set. It felt borderline unfair how well he was serving at times; Murray was openly frustrated after several of his aces, not because he felt he should have done a better job reading the serve, but because Berrettini was producing the aces so damn readily. I’d say the comeback was awe-inspiring, especially the face-melting fourth-set tiebreak, but I wasn’t really surprised. Berrettini is, after all, the man who beat Carlos Alcaraz in a five-setter at the Australian Open last year. (How long it takes before someone else can beat Alcaraz in five sets, truly, is anyone’s guess.) His serve and forehand are imperious. His topspin backhand sucks, but his slice is good enough to mostly paper over that weakness — he hit some slices down the line today that were positively devilish. He’s a hell of an opponent.
In Break Point, though, the new Netflix docuseries on tennis, Berrettini says his biggest asset is not his serve or his forehand but his mentality. He might be right. He is a special kind of fighter. If you go back and watch the match points of arguably the two biggest matches of his life — the loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2021 Wimbledon final and the loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2022 Australian Open semis — you can actually see his body sag after he nets his backhand (yep, that happened on both match points). It’s not in fatigue, it’s in dismay that he lost. Here’s the thing, though: He wasn’t close to winning either match. In each, he was down two sets to one and down 5-3 in the fourth set to a legendary rival. Especially against Djokovic and Nadal, I’d expect a player to already be processing a loss at that point — the odds of a comeback are essentially nil. But Berrettini reacted like the match points had been his own, not his opponents’. He maintained belief that he could win until literally the last second.
After losing match point to Murray in almost comically tragic fashion — a sliced forehand return from the Scot caught the net tape and fell over to Berrettini’s side — Berrettini simply stood stock-still for a moment, like he couldn’t believe what the universe had just done to him. I couldn’t either, and though I started cheering maniacally for Murray on instinct alone in the fifth set and didn’t stop until after the match, I was gutted for Berrettini.
Rooting for a tennis player, any of them, is an inevitably painful road. Such is the nature of the sport that, sooner or later, they will suffer an excruciating loss. Your favorite player will probably get their day in the sun too, but there’s a lot of agony on the road to glory. Even fans of Novak Djokovic — probably the player with the fewest heartbreaking losses out there — have their demons. There were the missed overheads in the 2008 Olympic semifinal and the 2013 Roland-Garros semifinal, the close losses to Stan Wawrinka at majors. When you live and die with your player, you’ll end up dying a few times, no matter who they are. Claire even wrote, wonderfully, about one such death at the start of 2022.
What impresses me the most about tennis fandom is that most aficionados seem to be incredibly loyal despite the pain. They stick with their favorite players through and through. Jethro Broughton, another friend (and another Popcorn Tennis contributor) also roots for players in a way that’s so affectionate it rubs off on me. His favorite players are Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Diego Schwartzman, and Sebastian Baez, which means Jethro has had a miserable time as of late — Nadal hasn’t won consecutive matches since Wimbledon, Thiem is still miles away from his 2020 form, Schwartzman is in a rut, and Baez is on a horrendous losing streak.
But none of that stopped Jethro from putting his heart in the hands of his favorites in the first round of the Australian Open. I asked him to message me throughout Schwartzman’s match today so I could get a sense of how he processed the Argentine’s successes and failures. Here are some of his texts, printed with his permission:
“God I actually feel sick with nerves for Dominic [Thiem] and Diego”
“Omg [Schwartzman] just hit an absolutely insane backhand winner at the smallest of angles”
“I’m fucking stressing”
“Fucking EMBARRASSING…5-0 and 6-3 [ahead] in the tiebreak and [Schwartzman] loses [the set]”
“Had an easy put away forehand on set point and missed it”
At the end of the second set
“I’ve calmed down”
“He’s done it [five crying emojis]”
“I’m so fucking relieved”
“I could CRY”
This was over the course of a few hours. And remember, this was a first-round match. Being a tennis fan is a fucking rollercoaster of emotions. Unlike other sports, your favorite player can suffer a devastating loss every week, and Roger Federer fans who experienced the 2019 Wimbledon final can tell you that there’s really no limit to how shattering a loss can be. And yet, fans solider on, because the highs are euphoric. The manic experience mirrors that of the players’ in some ways; during episode three of Break Point, Paula Badosa discusses both her tennis-induced depression and the drug-like addictive nature of the sport. After Schwartzman sealed his win in four sets, Jethro told me that he wasn’t going to celebrate in our group chat until after Murray-Berrettini ended, because he knew people were losing their minds over the match. Tennis fans get each other.
It’s tennis’s duality that makes it unlike any other sport I’ve seen. The scoring system can be an angelic hand to one player at the same moment it squeezes the life out of the other player’s heart. Murray’s elation was Berrettini’s misery today; the Venn diagram is a circle. There were moments when Murray looked the likely tragic hero, Berrettini the gritty victor, but while tennis keeps you in suspense (does it ever keep you in suspense), it also makes absolute judgments. By winning the match, Murray now has a wonderful night to look back on for the rest of his life. For Berrettini, though? He fought extremely well and played three excellent sets after losing the first two. But the structure of the tour renders that irrelevant. The cold facts: Berrettini was the 13th seed and a 2022 semifinalist at the Australian Open. Losing in the first round this year is a massive underperformance that will see him lose a bunch of ranking points. The fact that he almost pulled off a miracle comeback doesn’t change the fact that he’s about to fall out of the top 20. Though Berrettini can and should be proud of his effort tonight, let’s be honest, he isn’t going to find solace in how hard he tried. This kind of resilience, impressive as it was, is nothing he didn’t already know he was capable of.
Despite Murray’s eventual win, my most viscerally emotional stretch during the match — and I think what will be my strongest enduring memory from the evening — was early in the fifth set when I came to grips with the possibility that Murray could actually lose. I didn’t want to imagine how sad it would make my friends after all their hopes and belief in Murray, and especially after he had built a two-set lead. I was messaging Claire throughout the match, and in the fifth set I had no idea what to say to make the match less stressful. There was a good chance Berrettini would complete the comeback, and if he did, it would be devastating to Murray and his fans.
I spent the deciding set in full Murraynator mode, yelling for the Scot after virtually every point he won. It’s as vocally as I’ve ever cheered for a player, and again, I have no deep personal wells of affection for Murray. I just noticed I had a desperate desire for him to win early in the fifth set. I don’t think you choose these things. A few games into the fateful stanza, I recognized Claire sitting a few sections over, having not known where she was sitting previously.
“Claire I see where you are now,” I texted in a group chat.
“Oh you can see the crying girl with the Scotland flag,” she responded. “That’s good.”
I fell down the stairs on my first day in Melbourne, on my very first trip out of the hostel. I had dropped off my bag a few hours before my check-in, then, brimming with a glorious sense of possibility, went down the stairs to explore the city a bit and my feet immediately went out from under me. I was sliding down the stairs on my butt before I could even process that I had lost my footing. Though the most severe injury was to my ego, hardly a good omen for my time in Australia.
Jessica Pegula doesn’t have room to slip, at least not in her first few matches at the Australian Open. She has found herself in a place where she’s so good that it shouldn’t be difficult for her to win opening-round matches, but she’s also so good that she has to win opening-round matches to live up to expectations. Forget about the first round, actually — given her great 2022 and her recent destruction of world number one and title favorite Iga Świątek 6-2, 6-2 at the United Cup, is anything less than a title at the Australian Open is going to sit well with Pegula? Just imagine the pressure she must feel early, say, before the quarterfinals. (She’s yet to make a major semi.) If she plays well and beats a few lower-ranked players comfortably, great, fine, it’s what she’s supposed to do, now let’s see if she can replicate that electric defeat of Świątek. If not? She’s wasted a fantastic vein of form by not performing her best at one of the biggest tournaments in the world.
I wrote about this dynamic when Świątek was powering her way to the Roland-Garros title last year. She had it even tougher — after becoming a runaway world number one and winning five big tournaments in succession, all the expectations were that she would win a sixth. If she didn’t, despite a winning streak of over 30 matches, all those titles would go out the window in the eyes of many, since she didn’t win the major. Really, all a favorite has to gain in an early round is entrée to the next round, where the stakes are slightly higher. A top player usually doesn’t need the prize money, nor do they need the ranking points. The late rounds are the only place they can add to their legacy with a single match. It’s all about getting there.
The pressure of this must be immense. The best way I can relate (and I doubt this is anywhere close to as hard as what tennis players do) is through taking a class in which the final exam counts for something like 70% of the grade. You do your best on participation and small quizzes, but with every good grade you’re reminded that none of it matters unless you ace the big one. All the early success is necessary but not sufficient. You’re constantly on edge.
The plight of the underdog is even worse. Pegula’s opponent in the first round of the Australian Open, Jaqueline Cristian, was likely playing primarily for the prize money and ranking points that are of little consequence to Pegula herself. (Not only does Pegula have millions in prize money, but her parents happen to own multiple professional sports teams and are very rich.) At 161st in the world, Cristian was looking to reclaim the heights she achieved in late 2021 by taking another scalp of a top player. The trip to Australia is long; a win, even in the first round, could make it worth the all the air fare and nerves and days spent training in the hot sun and nerves and frustrations and nerves (did I mention the nerves)?
Tennis matches don’t last very long, in the grand scheme of things, and the stretches that decide the winner and loser are even shorter. Hopes and dreams are either fulfilled or quashed by a couple forehands and backhands. The challenge of a match is twofold: You have to develop your game to the point that it’s better than your opponent’s, and then you have to manage your emotions well enough to give your game the chance to prove decisive. If your backhand is off early on, or if your arms are trembling, even in the first few minutes, you might already be screwed. For all the mental training tennis players put themselves through, I think a lot of professional tennis is about playing on instinct and hoping the adrenaline and endorphins wash away the anxiety.
Unfortunately for Cristian, it was clear within two or three games that Pegula had so many technical advantages that everything else seemed almost irrelevant. Sitting up in the stands, the greater weight of Pegula’s groundstrokes was evident even in the warm-up. She hit the ball harder and deeper, while one of every three or four of Cristian’s groundstrokes would drop short. (Not a massive difference, but fatal against a top player.) Cristian did what she could with the tools she had — she won a few points with what seemed like her best shot, the backhand down the line — but it was an uphill battle from the opening point.
Though the match was over in 59 minutes, it must have felt like longer to Cristian, adrift as she was on the ocean-blue court. She never seemed to throw in the towel, it was just that she didn’t have the firepower to make a meaningful impact on the match. Twice she hit aces on her second serve — but Pegula went on to break her both times. Cristian picked up on the fact that Pegula hit virtually all her putaway shots to the forehand side, reading several of them successfully — but she went on to lose most of the points anyway.
It can be a desolate place, the first round. Losing is obviously the worst-case scenario, but even winning doesn’t guarantee much. In 2016, Fernando Verdasco beat Rafael Nadal in a four-hour, 42-minute first-round epic at this very tournament. Not only did he exact revenge from their incredible 2009 semifinal, but he really played fantastic tennis — he hit so many blistering forehands in the fifth set that even Nadal was helpless by the end, losing six straight games. In revisiting the highlights, Verdasco’s level feels meaningful, like he had a real shot to go deep in the tournament. His businesslike celebrations after the match suggested he felt the same way. But he lost meekly to Dudi Sela in the second round. Story over.
Though winning this match is a necessary piece in Pegula’s path to the title, it’s nothing more than the first of seven stepping-stones. Pegula was already talking about getting ready for her next match during her on-court interview. Cristian left the court quickly. The crowd appeared to sympathize with her, at least to my ears. I caught myself rooting for her early. Sometimes the pain of a loss comes not from surprise but from mourning what could have been gained with a win, and here she was leaving the tournament with very few positive takeaways. (I doubt Cristian will find solace in this, but when she held serve in the middle of the second set to seal what would be her only game of the match, the crowd — and this is to say nothing of Pegula’s popularity — cheered louder than it did after match point.)
It was all over very quickly. I’m staying in a six-person room in a hostel, and got along with my roommates better than I expected on the first day — I’m one of those introverts who needs to be adopted by an extrovert to truly have social success, otherwise I can’t initiate conversation. I was fortunate to be in the room at the same time as a couple friendly chatterboxes late in the evening, then went to a bar with one of them and one of their friends (who asked me, upon hearing I lived in the U.S., if I had ever experienced a school shooting). When I went back to the room early to sleep off the jetlag, someone else came in and told me people were fucking in the bathroom. We chatted for a few minutes. I asked who he was rooting for at the Australian Open; when he mentioned Ash Barty, I didn’t have the heart to tell him she had retired early last year. When I went to sleep, I felt good about the connections I’d made.
I went out at nine in the morning on my second day, before anyone else had woken up. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that check-out at the hostel was always at 10 a.m. and that one of the people I’d gone to the bar with was checking out that morning. But when I got back around noon, I still jolted when I saw four of the six beds had been stripped and the room was empty.
As we take a look at the landscape of the world of professional tennis, one thing is certainly clear: There is a definite changing of the guard when it comes to the top of the men’s and women’s game. No more are the days of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic being the front runners in every major — while Nadal and Djokovic still battle on, there are now more contenders vying than ever before. In regards to the women’s tour, even though Iga Świątek is the number one player in every sense, there is still a wonder as to who is going to win these majors. Sure, Świątek is the favorite – and she deserves to be – but several of her peers possess the dazzling peak level to beat anyone on their day.
But aren’t Novak Djokovic and Iga Świątek the overwhelming favorites? Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we will see them lifting their respective trophies in two weeks’ time. There is a deep cast of players you can look at and say yes, I can see that player winning or that player seems primed to win their first major. We have gotten used to seeing players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, and Dominic Thiem (once upon a time) making major finals and establishing them as fixtures at the top. In the women’s game, several players frequently make deep runs, like Coco Gauff, Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari (though it seems when the finals of a major roll around, you tend to see someone there for their first time).
With any major you always have players that come out of nowhere, making a deep run, changing the course of not only their season but possibly their careers. Here are three men and three women that I think can make a deep run down under and cause some noise in Melbourne. Of course, these are predictions and predictions usually go wrong but in sports, anything can happen.
Frances Tiafoe battled his heart out at the 2022 U.S. Open in a five-set marathon with the current world number one, Carlos Alcaraz, who will miss the year’s first Grand Slam due to injury. It was a heart-breaking defeat for Tiafoe, whose charisma and easygoing nature had won him the support of the New York crowd. How can you bounce back from something like that? Frances just has to be Frances. Tiafoe is a high-energy player whose joy is palpable every time he takes the court – if he can maintain that liveliness, he’ll be just fine. Tiafoe is projected to play Nadal in the Round of 16, which, given Tiafoe’s win over Nadal at the U.S. Open, seems like a prime opportunity for Frances to take out the Spaniard. Nadal has not had the best start to his season, looking like a shell of himself early on, and for him to make another magical run down under seems unlikely (but then again, so did last year’s run). Definitely keep your eyes glued to your televisions, phones, computers, however you consume tennis and watch out for Tiafoe in this tournament. We could definitely be seeing him in the final four again.
Qinwen Zheng was the WTA Newcomer of the year in 2022. Her most notable match had to be in Paris, Zheng took a set off all-conquering force Iga Świątek. If Zheng hadn’t had the misfortune of struggling with menstrual cramps later in the match, the contest could have been even closer. Zheng suffered an injury in Adelaide against Kvitová but as long the injury doesn’t linger or nothing too serious, Zheng is definitely someone who could make a deep run at this tournament. She could potentially draw one of the favorites, Coco Gauff, in the third round and then if Zheng reaches the quarters a rematch with Świątek awaits. She is definitely one of the players I’ll be watching out for in Melbourne.
Sebastian Korda just recently gave Novak Djokovic all he could handle in Adelaide last week, even having a match point against the all-time-great. Korda doesn’t have the easiest draw, potentially drawing 2022 finalist Medvedev in the third round. As the Adelaide battle with Djokovic and Korda’s win over Carlos Alcaraz in Monte-Carlo last year show, Korda doesn’t shy away from going against the world’s best. Medvedev has only played Korda once, back in 2021 at the Paris Masters, which was a three-set victory for the Russian. I’m not saying I think Korda will beat Medvedev if they play, but it’s far from out of the question. Korda has proved that he can hang with the world’s best and he is definitely someone to watch out for down in Australia. Heck, Sebastian’s Dad, Petr Korda, won the Australian Open back in 1998, it’s the 25th anniversary. Maybe it’s time for another Korda to make some noise.
Maria Sakkari is the sixth seed in this year’s tournament. You’re probably asking, “hey, didn’t you mention Sakkari as one of the more consistent players earlier in this article?” (Yes, and I’m glad you’re paying attention!) But I do think it’s worth mentioning that I am looking at Maria Sakkari to possibly go on another deep run in a major. She has made the fourth round twice in Australia and back in 2021, she made the semifinals at both Roland-Garros and the U.S. Open, so she is definitely a contender for the Australian Open. Sakkari does potentially draw one of the favorites, Jessica Pegula, in the quarter-finals. I personally think Pegula would win that match up based on how she has looked early on in the year but Sakkari definitely has the game to win. Sakkari definitely has more experience getting to the tail end of majors over Pegula. Even though Pegula has made the quarters at all the Grand Slams except Paris, Sakkari has gone one step beyond that. Look out for Sakkari to be around towards the end of the tournament yet again.
Jack Draper is an interesting player at this year’s tournament. I say that because he draws the defending champion, the number one seed, Rafael Nadal. Now, why would I say Draper is a player to keep your eye on? Well, Draper has been playing some really good tennis to start the year, defeating Karen Khachanov in Adelaide last week and although he lost to Soon-Woo Kwon in a three-set battle, Draper has been making noise for the last couple of months. He beat Felix Auger-Aliassime en route to making the third round at the U.S. Open last year. I think a lot of experts are looking at that Nadal match as a potential early upset for Rafa. It will definitely show how much (if at all) Nadal has improved since his poor start to the season. If Draper can catch Nadal on a bad night in Melbourne, we could be seeing the young Brit go far in this tournament.
Veronika Kudermetova made the third round of the Australian Open last year and reached the quarter-finals in Paris. Now, even though she had to withdraw from her semi-final clash in Adelaide against Belinda Bencic due to a left hip injury, the hope is that she will be ready to go come match time in Melbourne. She played well in the fourth round of the U.S. Open against eventual finalist Ons Jabeur so she knows how to take it to the top stars of the game. She posted an impressive state line serving against Victoria Azarenka in Adelaide, with 20 aces to only 3 double faults. If Kudermetova puts serving numbers like that up in Melbourne you could be looking at her making a deep run at the year’s first major. The only issue is the hip injury and the severity of it.
There are so many variables when it comes to who eventually lifts the trophy at the end of a major tournament. Between Injuries, weather delays, and everything else, anything can disrupt someone’s rhythm and completely change the trajectory of any match. That’s what makes this sport such a joy to watch. Of course you have the top of the field and their elevated likelihood of being there at the end of the tournament, but upsets happen in every single tournament. I can guarantee there will be moments at this year’s championships we will be talking about for years and years. Get ready for one heck of a ride, buckle up, and let’s enjoy these two weeks Down Under.
Tennis fans may be optimistic or pessimistic regarding the impending release of the first five episodes of Break Point, a tennis-based docuseries on Netflix, but practically all of us are certainly aware of it. While the series is aiming at potential tennis fans rather than existing ones, those who already follow the sport inevitably have hopes and expectations. A few of our writers recorded their thoughts below.
Peter Childs: I for one am incredibly excited to see the Break Point series document several tennis players’ movements on tour. I got to see a few of the Netflix crew trail Taylor Fritz and Morgan Riddle among others at Indian Wells. This doc will help grow the game and make more people who don’t usually watch tennis get excited for new personalities, much like I got into F1 after watching Netflix’s series, Drive to Survive. Any coverage is good coverage. Let’s go!
Hanya El Ghetany: I’m excited to see that tennis is getting the glam it deserves. It will really be interesting to know if the series ends up increasing the size of the tennis fanbase or having a counter effect. I’m not sure if it will add anything to current fans’ experience besides maybe some behind-the-scenes action and getting to know the players more off the court.
Vansh Vermani: I’m excited for the docuseries as a fan of tennis. There’s no doubt that narratives will be exaggerated and hyperboles will be made, but ultimately this series isn’t made for diehard tennis fans who follow the tour week in and week out. It’s about introducing new fans to the sport and showcasing the future of tennis, not to mention to allow fans more insight into players’ raw emotions, and behind-the-scenes access to routines, feelings, and expectations. It’ll be interesting to see how the sport is showcased from a unique and different angle.
Owen Lewis: I’m a little concerned. Though it wasn’t a surprise, I was disappointed to hear that the series sensationalizes certain parts of the tour (like Nick Kyrgios winning a major in doubles) and diminishes others (Iga Świątek’s 37-match winning streak isn’t mentioned in the first five episodes). As someone who thinks simply watching a tennis match is enough to become interested, I’m selfishly hoping that the sport I know and love isn’t distorted too much in an effort to appeal to casuals. If you run into me at some point in the next couple weeks, you may find me feverishly repeating, “I am not the target audience.”
Ashlee Woods: As someone who has been campaigning for the evolution of tennis coverage, this is a good start. I’m upset that it’s not offering much outside of what I normally know, but it’s not geared towards tennis diehards. Eventually, tennis will need documentaries that dive deeper into the world of tennis. But, as an introduction, I’m okay with this and I hope it’s a success.
Myles David: I truly do love the initiative the producers have taken to show off the sport to a broader audience and introduce athletes to players who may not be house hold names yet. The major stakeholders in tennis seem to have rallied around the series (getting this much player access is quite the feat) and want to see it do well. I just hope it breathes some sort of new life into the sport because I’ve seen so many people just causally blurt out something to the effect of, “I really don’t care anymore now that Serena and Roger are done.”
Jethro Broughton: I’m honestly not too bothered about watching Break Point, though I’m sure I will at some point when I feel like it. From what I’ve heard from journalists who’ve watched it already, it won’t offer much to me that I don’t already get out of tennis. And the big Kyrgios focus is off-putting to say the least.
Archit Suresh: I’m curious to see what kind of impact Break Point has in terms of making tennis more of a mainstream sport and what kind of changes to both coverage and inside access it brings to the table. I always love getting any kind of inside look at players given how little tennis is promoted compared to most major sports, but from what I’ve gathered I also know that I’m not the target audience for this as someone who’s invested in daily results of Challenger events and hopes to work in the sport. I’m a bit concerned with directions they’ve chosen not to go in (or not been allowed to go in) but I’m relatively optimistic that this is something tennis desperately needs and is ultimately good for the long term growth of the sport in a post Serena/Big Three world.
Aryna Sabalenka cruised through her WTA 500 final in Adelaide to pick up the title. It’s been a very good week for the world number 5 with victories against Samsonova, Vondroušová, Begu and finally Noskova (more on her later). Sabalenka didn’t drop a set on the way to the title and showed that on the fast Aussie hard courts she is flying high and has her sights firmly set on the AO title. With a strong 500 win of this magnitude, Sabalenka is off to a good start in 2023. Between this title and her win over Świątek at the WTA finals (6-1 in the third set, no less), the world number one may have a rival in Sabalenka this year.
Jessica Pegula also looks set to challenge Świątek for some big titles this year. Though Iga wasn’t at her best in their United Cup match, the way Pegula dismissed her was something to behold. Pegula’s performance had everything: return winners, shots on the run that clipped the baseline, massive forehands to equal Świątek’s own. Pegula will have to adapt her gameplan to fit different conditions, but on the quick court, she played near-perfect tennis. If she can reproduce that level, even an in-form Świątek could struggle.
2. A dangerous dark horse emerges
A new dark horse has emerged in Adelaide that many players will want to avoid in the Australian Open draw: Linda Noskova, a young Czech player (where have we heard that before) whose big ball striking and emerging net game managed to take out Daria Kasatkina, Claire Liu, Victoria Azarenka and Ons Jabeur from the Adelaide draw. All these victories came in impressive fashion and showed a level well above Noskova’s world ranking of 102. The only glimmer of light for the tour is that Linda has to go through Australian Open qualifying next week to get to the main draw.
3. Consistent Coco
Over in the city which never stops raining, Auckland saw Cori Gauff pick up her third career title in a very rain affected week. The draw wasn’t nearly as strong as Adelaide (due to it being a 250 rather than a 500 and being much further away from Melbourne) but Coco showed that she can see off the players that she should beat in fairly convincing fashion. Given that Gauff was one of the first major shocks of the last AO and she’s made her first major final in the past twelve months, the chances of another early upset seem minimal.
4. Djokovic feels the love
A lot was written and talked about how the Aussie crowd would react to Novak Djokovic’s return down under. Well, if the response in Adelaide was anything to go by, the reaction will be overwhelmingly positive. Crowds of well wishers squashed themselves into any area of the tournament to watch the 21-time grand slam champion, even for his doubles match. Novak managed to use this energy to help him get some good victories over Quentin Halys, Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev before probably the most gripping 250 final we will see this year against Sebastian Korda. The Serb saved a championship point in the second set, the 16th time he has saved a match point en route to victory, and the eighth time he’s done so in a final. With his 92nd (yes, 92nd) title under his belt, the nine-time Australian Open champion looks primed to make it ten in a couple weeks.
5. Fritz and Norrie hit the ground running
Taylor Fritz and Cameron Norrie were a regular of the worldwide exhibition circuit during December and the matches they played there have seemed to have allowed the two players a running start in Oz. Both players put on their national jerseys in the United Cup and showed consistent lights-out tennis. Fritz managed to win all but one of his matches, getting wins over the likes of Matteo Berrettini, Hubert Hurkacz and Alexander Zverev. Norrie, quality of opponent-wise, went one better, getting two back to back top 10 victories over Nadal and Fritz and seeing off his good mate De Minaur in Alex’s back garden. Both players are well-positioned for a strong run in Melbourne.
Next week more stories can be told. AO qualifying, another round of WTA and ATP events in Adelaide, ATP Auckland and WTA Hobart come to the Aussie summer swing. Let’s see who else can write themselves into the minds of tennis fans and journalists alike for the Australian Open.
Denis Shapovalov just lost to Novak Djokovic for the eighth time in eight matches. The match’s scoreline, 6-3, 6-4, was not close, but the contest itself felt tight. Shapovalov, as in some previous matches against Djokovic, had opportunities to build leads and was largely unable to capitalize. He made some bad errors, including a big handful of double faults, but he pushed Djokovic — not an easy task on an Australian hard court. The match took almost two hours, a rarity for a straight-set match without a tiebreak. Shapovalov broke Djokovic’s serve after trailing 40-love in the second set. The loss is not without positive takeaways.
After a match like this, in which Shapovalov showed plenty of reminders of his skill and potential but fell ultimately (and significantly) short, both the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders would have a lot to say. You played pretty well! Yeah, but are you ever going to beat this guy? Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, in my opinion, but I think you can be optimistic about Shapovalov’s performance or come down on him pretty hard for it, and you could make some strong points either way.
Look, Djokovic is a terrible matchup for Shapovalov. The 21-time major champion’s peerless defense is anathema to Shapovalov’s risky (if explosive) aggression. Shapovalov would not have double faulted nine times against any other opponent, nor would he have biffed an easy backhand volley on a vital point at 4-all in the second set. Not that this result should be asterisked, but Shapovalov would have had an easier time against any other opponent in the world. It’d be harsh to fault him for losing to his principal tormentor.
Despite the lopsided head-to-head, Djokovic clearly took the match seriously from the outset, which is a compliment to Shapovalov. The Serb is prone to bouts of lackadaisical play in many of his matches — but, crucially, he only indulges in them when he can afford the dips. In this match, he was sharp immediately, dodging a pair of break points in the opening game, then another at 2-all in the first set. Though Shapovalov scored a body blow in the second set by going up 4-3 after being down a break, Djokovic duly responded with a quick hold and a break at 4-all. The fact that Djokovic didn’t let go of the set speaks to the idea that he didn’t think he could afford to give Shapovalov an inch.
Shapovalov’s highlight reel from this match is nothing to sneeze at, either. He played some incredible defense, which I think is an underrated part of his game — he’s a great mover, and he’s rangy, so he covers the corners really well. He slides confidently, helping him explode back out of the court’s nether regions when his opponent drives him there. And I’ve never really seen him gas out, at least not in the past couple years — he can defend like this for hours if he needs to. He hit a half volley on break point at 4-all in the second set that made me gasp. He blistered a few massive forehands. Even against the smooth wall that is Djokovic’s tennis, Shapovalov’s game found a few footholds.
This match had more than enough reminders that Shapovalov is a damn tough opponent at his best. There’s the huge serve, the athleticism, the heavy groundstrokes. He’s a great fighter: With Djokovic serving at 3-2, 30-love, Shapovalov erred to end a rally and started berating himself. I thought he was wasting his energy, Djokovic never drops serve from 40-love up. But Shapovalov dug in, banged a couple winners, and got the break. The return of serve is often a mess, but everything else is often great enough to make up for that hole in his game. And when he does have a good returning day? No one is safe.
Shapovalov is a former quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, where he pushed eventual champion Nadal to a fifth set in 2022. He has experience against Djokovic on the big stage. He’s taken part in 20 main draws at the slam events; his body of work is extensive enough that he knows everything he needs to win a big title. And if he needs more time to figure it out, that’s fine — he’s only 23. He’s not going to beat Djokovic at the Australian Open, but if he plays his best, I could see him taking out virtually anyone else. With two victories under his belt prior to the loss to Djokovic, his 2023 is off to a solid start.
Shapovalov’s rivalry with Djokovic, though it showcases some impressive moments for the Canadian, also highlights his struggles to improve. In their very first meeting (at Djokovic’s backyard in the Australian Open), Shapovalov managed to win a set. He’s yet to do better in a rematch, and he’s had seven bites at the apple since that initial meeting. His return of serve falls to pieces sometimes, but even when it holds up, he can’t convert enough of his break points — he’s 7/29 against Djokovic in total, and 4/22 in his last three matches with the Serb. Shapovalov was the better player for the first six games of today’s match, worming his way into two Djokovic service games without facing a break point himself. Then his serve went haywire at 3-4 and he coughed up a break via three double faults. If Shapovalov hasn’t managed to iron those wrinkles out of his game against Djokovic by now, will he ever?
There’s a temptation to say Shapovalov will figure things out eventually, purely because he’s so clearly skilled, but I’m not convinced. He hasn’t done the best job of learning from his mistakes in the past. In the quarterfinals of the 2020 U.S. Open, he beat Pablo Carreño Busta 6-0 in the fourth set to force a fifth. Carreño Busta had been struggling physically, and Shapovalov seemed surprised and unprepared for a fifth-set resurgence. He lost the decider 6-3. Then, prepared with a nearly identical scenario at the 2022 Australian Open — Shapovalov had forced a fifth set against a diminished Rafael Nadal — he again folded in the decider. This was worse than the U.S. Open loss; Shapovalov didn’t have the excuse of it being his first major quarterfinal, or his first big match against a legendary opponent. He had even beaten Nadal before. But despite Nadal playing fairly tamely (his five winners and three unforced errors suggest he wasn’t trying to force the issue) in the fifth set, Shapovalov made 13 unforced errors and lost it 6-3. He may have logged a lot of time on the ATP Tour, but his notes are a little all over the place.
It’s not difficult to argue that the defining trait of Shapovalov’s career so far is inconsistency. He’ll have a great win or a great run, then he’ll crash for a while. He made the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2021, lost a high-quality, tight match against Djokovic in which he played like a top-five player, then lost four of his next six matches. He beat Nadal in Rome last year, then, inexplicably, suffered six defeats in a row at a time when he should have been buoyed by momentum. It’s not ideal for anyone to follow up a big win with a losing streak, but for a top-20 player, it’s especially hard to find an excuse. And I can’t give him a pass for being young — he’s just 23, yes, but he had his breakout when he beat Nadal in Montreal in 2017, over five full years ago. His ranking steadily rose from just outside the top 50 to #10 in late 2021; it’s since regressed to #18. He’s had ample time to get used to the grind and demands of the tour, and he just doesn’t seem to be improving much.
Consistency is at the core of most great tennis players. Shapovalov doesn’t have it, and until he gets it (if he gets it), he’ll continue to amaze occasionally while underachieving the rest of the time. At this point, Shapovalov doesn’t need to beat Djokovic to show improvement, he just needs to keep his game from imploding for more than a few weeks at a time. Had he won today’s match? I’d have no way of immediately proving it was more than a flash in the pan.
In February, I wrote about Andrey Rublev. Specifically, I wrote that I was concerned for his future on tour — he hadn’t shown much improvement over the past few years. He had made his first major quarterfinal in late 2017, and though he took part in more major quarterfinals over the next four-plus years, he was yet to win a set in one. (He has now, having taken two sets off Marin Čilić at Roland-Garros this year, but still hasn’t broken through to the semifinals of a big one.) The Big Three have pioneered an ongoing era that makes improving constantly uber-important — if you don’t do it, someone else will, then they’ll start beating you and pass you in the rankings. Even if you’re on top of a rivalry, unless you look for ways to tighten your execution, players will figure you out. Just ask Daniil Medvedev, someone who Rublev used to have fits against, but has managed to win his last two meetings with. Sometimes the fun times slip away before you know how good you had it.
The problem’s not just that you have to improve to get to the top, it’s that you have to improve a lot. Rarely is it enough to turn a glaring weakness into a slight one. Take Casper Ruud, one of the tour’s most improved players in 2022. Not too long ago, his backhand was a big hole in his game. He would over-spin the shot and hit it high over the net, meaning he couldn’t hit the dangerously flat backhands you see frequently from Novak Djokovic. Spin and net clearance aren’t bad things, but Ruud’s backhands also tended to lack depth — his backhand wing produced a lot of innocent mid-court shots that served as cannon fodder for an opponent’s forehand. Ruud’s backhand is way better now. He hits those flat winners down the line much more often. But in two of the biggest matches he played this year — the Roland-Garros final against Rafael Nadal and the ATP Finals title match against Djokovic — his backhand still wasn’t good enough. His legendary opponents peppered that side of the court over and over until Ruud dropped the ball short or missed altogether. And though Djokovic and Nadal are as difficult as opponents get, and Ruud’s backhand might not seem like a liability at all against virtually anyone else, it’s those who ruthlessly expose weaknesses who stand in the way of big titles more often than not.
Like I said, Ruud has actually done a great job of improving this year. He made a Masters 1000 final, two major finals, and ascended all the way to #2 in the rankings, all things he was nowhere close to doing in 2021. It’s the players who have stagnated — or worse, regressed — that might be worrying about their 2023 seasons. (And there are several.)
It gets worse. At least for the purposes of reaching number one in the world, a player needs the nature of their game to be incredibly high-level. There are many out there who are great at improving, or maximizing the tools they have, but have games with limited potential. Cam Norrie, for instance, is a well-balanced player. (And he just beat Nadal from a set down at the United Cup.) He’s smart on court. He works hard, he has great endurance, and he rarely beats himself. But he’s just never going to develop a nuclear forehand. His ceiling, his best level, is lower than Frances Tiafoe’s, despite Norrie’s ranking being five spots higher. While Norrie is a very solid top-20 player, it’s hard to imagine him becoming a solid top-5 player. I’d say Hubert Hurkacz is in the same boat — his shaky forehand just proves too damning at the very top level, no matter how good everything else is.
It’s easy to look at Carlos Alcaraz’s comet-like path to number one in the world and wonder if other players could follow a similar route. Alcaraz got to the top so quickly! He was barely seeded at the Australian Open under 12 months ago, then was ranked sixth by the end of the clay season and had finished scaling the mountaintop by the end of the year. But while other players might be able to imitate Alcaraz’s intent to improve and tireless spirit, his game is much harder to mimic. Alcaraz is so fast that he must have been born with at least some of the speed he has now. (Or he went to a great track camp.) His game isn’t just well-balanced, it’s sharp: He can do damage with powerful forehands and backhands, soft drop shots, and at net. Though the serve is the most important shot in tennis, Alcaraz has so many weapons at his disposal that even though his serve isn’t that great, it doesn’t hurt him too much.
I hesitate to call Alcaraz’s array of weapons “talent” — I don’t know how much of his style he sought out through formative years of practice and how much he had naturally. Whatever the case, though, it’s clear most other players can’t compete with his game. Blunt as it sounds, Denis Shapovalov is never going to become as good a returner of serve as Alcaraz is now. Medvedev will never have the same kind of forehand as Alcaraz, Taylor Fritz will never be as fast. As much as I stressed the need to improve earlier, players also have to learn to work within their limits.
All this is only part of the reason why the ATP has only had six different world number ones since early 2004. Throw in the (simultaneous, until Roger Federer retired at the Laver Cup this year) existence of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, and reaching #1 proved impossible for virtually everyone else. Andy Murray managed to do it in 2016, but he had to surpass 12,000 ranking points to get there (no one on the ATP has more than 7,000 right now). And Medvedev, the last player to hold the honor before Alcaraz, was pushed off the mountaintop after just three weeks. Getting to number one in the world is damn hard.
The first reason I’m writing this is to break a long creative drought. The second is because the era I just described is ending soon, and I think writing this could be a good way to center my expectations for the future of the ATP, especially going into 2023. I’m guilty of saying repeatedly that I’m prepared for the new, more inconsistent, era of the ATP. The truth? I’m used to what we have now. It’s one thing for me to say I’m ready for the new era and another for me not to tweet, “this is the first time a player who isn’t a generational great has won a major since…” as soon as someone besides Djokovic, Nadal, or Alcaraz wins a big one. We’re not quite in the new phase yet; Djokovic and Nadal won three of the four majors this year and Alcaraz, who I’d bet my copy of Open (this is a more serious wager than it sounds) on becoming an all-time great, won the fourth. He might be a new star, but he’s going to spend a very long time at the top of the game. He’s already acting as the bridge between the past era of men’s tennis and the next one.
But what does the rest of that era look like? Maybe Felix Auger-Aliassime, Holger Rune, and Jannik Sinner will form something of a new Big Four with Alcaraz. More likely? Those four, headlined by Alcaraz, will win a bunch of titles, but there will be significant gaps for other players to grab majors. All of them will spend some time at number one. Ruud will be the next number one; he’s just 1000 points behind Alcaraz right now, many of which he can make up at the Australian Open — he didn’t play due to injury this year. Fritz might win a major and/or get to world number one. He’s improved a lot, to the point that he can win rallies like the one below with Djokovic. I think that being able to win such rallies will no longer be a must for world number ones, because Djokovic will no longer be the gold standard. Not all of the obstacles someone like Rublev faces are going to fall. There will still be difficult matches and improving will still be crucial, but the challenge won’t be what it is today.
Not all of these changes will happen next year. Maybe none of them will. There’s a probable 2023 where Djokovic wins the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Nadal wins Roland-Garros, and Alcaraz or another youngster wins the U.S. Open. Despite Djokovic and Nadal being in their mid-thirties, they still hit astonishing peaks in the 2022 season. But age’s effects are sneaky. Federer was 37 when he beat Nadal at Wimbledon in 2019 and came within a point of beating Djokovic directly afterwards. He looked ten years younger than he was. Then he picked up a knee injury and only won 30 more matches (he won 53 in 2019 alone) before he retired.
After watching Djokovic and Nadal find new ways to stay on top in the past five years, I won’t pretend to know exactly when the next era is coming. But it is. Nadal has lost five of his last six matches; if he goes deep at the Australian Open, none of that will matter, but if he loses early, it might be time to start talking about a decline. Just last year, way past his physical prime, Nadal took part in a series of epic matches — Medvedev in Australia, Alcaraz at Indian Wells, Djokovic at Roland-Garros, Fritz at Wimbledon. He makes the tour more competitive and thrilling, as does Djokovic, as did Federer. I don’t want to imagine the game without the remaining members of the Big Three, and soon, I won’t have to imagine it, I’ll be watching it.
In 2017, after the euphoria of the Federer-Nadal Australian Open final had faded into mild confusion that they were still winning everything later that year, I remember reading a piece that declared the changing of the guard would happen in two years. Two years went by, then two more years after that, then another one, and still the transition isn’t complete. The tennis gods are trying to ease us out of the Big Three era as slowly as they possibly can. I have had ample time to get used to the idea of a tour without the all-time-greats who have dominated the tour for almost half their lives. And I think I’ll still be at least a little bit taken aback when that idea finally, inevitably, hardens into reality.
The GOAT debate is a subject I can’t help myself on sometimes, to the point it was one of the first things I wrote about when I first joined Popcorn almost exactly a year ago. In short, I don’t think it can be settled solely by statistical achievements. Stats are the starting point for the conversation, to qualify the candidates. They confirm who the best players of each era were. However, to compare people who played decades apart is very difficult because the way the game is played has evolved over time. I don’t doubt that people who have been successful now could also have been in the past and vice versa. There’s no way of knowing for sure. For me, the greatest players are the ones who not only are the best in their sport but also transcend it. They are recognised by non-fans for their status or known for using their celebrity to be a force for change, either in their sport or even wider (although given most tennis players seem to be introverts, going beyond their specific sphere is rare).
We are very fortunate in the current era of men’s tennis that three of the greatest male players of all time are pushing each other beyond limits established by history. However, they seem to be the only options for the grand GOAT mantle to recent generations of fans. Yes, they are breaking statistical records but those aren’t enough to fully understand a player’s impact and legacy. Hopefully there’s more pieces on players of the past to come, because their stories are fascinating. More than that, we should explore who else could be considered in the mix for the greatest tennis player of all time, even though that question cannot truly be answered. Greatness is timeless, and is not necessarily always improved upon with every generation.
Just over fifty years ago, on September 10th 1962, Rod Laver completed the ‘Grand Slam’ – winning all four majors in a calendar year – becoming the second man in history to do so. Laver was (and still is) seen as the ‘GOAT’ by many. Until Roger Federer came on the scene (and later Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic), such a title did not seem clear cut. Pete Sampras had the numerical record, but he never won Roland-Garros, let alone completed the Grand Slam. Bjorn Borg was probably the biggest tennis celebrity in history, but even his great rival John McEnroe called Laver the greatest.
Laver has a few unique distinctions, especially when it comes to his dominance during the 1960s. His 1962 ‘Grand Slam’ also included the Italian Open (now known as the Rome Masters), which at the time was regarded by some to have major status. He is the only man to have won the ‘Grand Slam’ as a professional, something Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all fallen short of achieving. He is also the only man to have won the ‘Pro Slam’, winning all three of the biggest professional championships in the world in 1967 (four if you include a one-off high-profile event held at Wimbledon).
Here’s a quick history lesson for those who may be confused by this statement, as the biggest professional titles should be the four majors we know today: the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. However, they weren’t always tournaments for professional players, even though they were still the biggest prizes in tennis. Before 1968, they completely banned professional athletes from taking part. Now is not the time to go into the full history of amateur and professional status, but it is safe to say much of tennis back then was driven by greed, sexism and classism. All this despite the claim that the highest calling was to play sport for the sake of excellence, not for money.
All this did was create a divide in tennis, from the 1930s to 1968, between the amateur and professional games. As soon as a player reached the top of the amateur game, and began consistently winning, he (and it was almost always a man) would be offered a lucrative contract to play professionally. As a result, the best players were on the professional tour, but the biggest prizes were on the amateur tour. It was like NFL teams and players not being allowed to play for the Super Bowl, Premier League teams not being allowed to compete for the FA Cup or the situation the Super League almost created where the biggest teams in Europe wouldn’t be able to compete in their domestic leagues or the Champions League.
Rod Laver was caught up in all this, which is why despite winning the ‘Grand Slam’ twice, he has a total of 11 major singles titles, still tied at 6th with Bjorn Borg on the all-time list. However, the Pros had their own ‘majors’ until ‘open tennis’ started and they faded in significance or just discontinued altogether. They were the US Pro Tennis Championships (on Indoor Hard and later Grass), the French Professional International Championships (on clay) and the Wembley Championships (on an indoor court made of wood). From turning pro in 1963 to returning to the ‘true’ majors in 1968, Laver won the biggest professional prizes in tennis a total of eight times. His first was the 1964 Wembley Championships and the final one was the 1967 US Pro championship, averaging at around 2 per year during those four seasons. If you treat these as of similar status to majors, then Laver’s total would go up to 19. Add in a one-off professional event hosted at Wimbledon in 1967 (part-organised by the BBC) at which all the top players appeared, and you can increase the total to 20, which is in the same league as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. There will always be an asterisk to this, as three opportunities to win a major every year is very different to four. Who knows, if Laver had the opportunity, maybe he could have won over 20 majors. Even so, he is recorded as winning a record 200 titles in his career, which is a number no one is ever likely to reach again. This is where comparison issues come in once again, as records of most results before 1968 are difficult to find, especially for amateur events. However, these results are enough that Laver’s record should be enough to include him in the conversation for greatest (male) player of all time.
Like today’s ‘Big 3’, Laver had a rival: fellow Australian Ken Rosewall. Rosewall also could have had ‘Big 3’ level of major titles, having won eight ‘official’ ones and 15 ‘pro’ ones over a 20-year period, bringing him to a total of 23 big titles. Ken was a few years older than Rod, having won majors as an amateur before turning pro in the late 1950s. At first, he had the measure of Laver when the latter first turned pro, however from 1964 onwards Rod turned the tables as he dominated the professional scene, edging the head-to-head when they finished their careers. Even though Rosewall had the edge on clay, Laver still managed to nick a couple of big titles on the surface from him (including the 1969 Roland-Garros title). The 1960s were similar to recent great decades of tennis in that respect, with exceptional players pushing each other to greater heights.
Recently, Jeff Sackman of Tennis Abstract used his ELO rating system to rank players throughout the last century in his “Heavy Topspin” blog, and placed Laver at the top of the list. ELO is calculated based on wins and losses against opponents, weighted depending on their own rating. Despite often losing to his rivals initially, Laver would turn the tables over the years to finish with the advantage. His two calendar slams probably also boosted his rating. This was impressive given the quality of players he came up against. As a pro he faced Rosewall and the legendary Richard Gonzales and Lew Hoad, but also Roy Emerson, Tony Roche, John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe. All great players, yet Laver had an edge over his peers that, according to Sackmann’s method, no player in other eras appears to have had.
With this context, now we need to look at Laver’s game to see what he brought and how it might have influenced the sport. Laver was at his peak when wooden racquets were used, even though more recognisably modern technology was just around the corner. Watching the gameplay from the 1960s and 1970s, contact points were smaller (as were racquet heads) and string tensions were a bit higher but still gave tremendous feel and power due to being made of gut rather than a polyester hybrid. Follow-throughs on strokes seemed less extreme, especially on the backhand, players seeming able to produce plenty of controlled and effective shots with shorter swings. There is an assumption that it was serve-volley dominated, but this was something more seen in the 1990s. Serve-and-volley was important then, but players demonstrated much more of an all-court game. That is, they used every part of the court they could, whether in position or placement. Baseline and net play were mixed together, often in the same rally. Likewise, there was plenty of variety in shot selection as well. The pace was also very different–a shot clock definitely wouldn’t have been necessary as the players were almost instantly ready for the next point.
Fortunately, there’s some footage of Laver out there so we can see how he played, including the full final of the 1969 US Open where he beat Tony Roche to win his second calendar ‘Grand Slam’. It’s not a classic, neither player seemed to be at their best and the conditions weren’t great, the match taking place on a damp grass court. There was also a bit of controversy as Laver had an advantage over Roche in terms of his footwear from midway through the first set onwards. It was definitely nowhere near as intriguing as their Australian Open semifinal epic earlier in the year, but at least it was competitive for a set and you can see Laver producing some magic as the match went on. It is worth watching if you want to get a feel for the era and see beyond the highlights and watch a full match involving a past legend, and it’s the best quality footage out there.
Three things stood out to me when watching Laver’s highlights: his forehand, backhand and movement. He was great at all aspects of the game, of course. The serve was powerful and precise, the volleys silky smooth yet brutally effective. His return was so good too, often setting him up well for a point, only really missing in off-moments. But it was these three aspects that jumped out the most.
Laver’s forehand (a lefty) produced an incredible amount of power at times, able to hit winners from anywhere on the court if given any opportunity. This was due to his massive left forearm. Watching it in action, it’s easy to forget the racquet he is using is very different to the ones used by the tour today. Most players wisely kept the ball away from that wing as much as they could. The backhand, a single-hander as was standard at the time, is a fascinating stroke. Laver could produce a startling variety of shots on the backhand, which very few players of any era can replicate. He could hit through it with pace, add some wicked slice or add any form of spin to extend the rally and give him any edge he could find. In fact, he had incredible feel on the ball from both wings. It was all in the wrist, and the spin he played with was impressive especially for the time.
Rod was known as “The Rocket” not just because of his power but also because of his speed around the court, and it is easy to see why (though it may have originally been an ironic nickname). He seemed able to run down any ball, making him very hard to hit through. It was very much the cornerstone of his game. Not only that, he could somehow hit winners from a defensive position, or hit wonderful shots from less than ideal angles. However, he could still get pretty much anywhere he needed to. (Which was necessary for a man only 5’8’’, which is short compared to most players, even from his era.)
According to former ATP Tour player John Bartlett, whose career began in the latter years of Laver’s dominance: “As a player, he was doing a lot of things that the modern players are doing. He hit with enormous top spin and power, with a wood racquet.” As a 21st century viewer, I can see this. Bartlett also had an opportunity to practice with Laver once during his career. “When he hit a backhand, he turned so much, all you could see was his back. He also teed off on every ball, and just put varying amounts of topspin on.” Laver was clearly an incredibly versatile player and incredibly skilled with his wrist and ability to control a tennis ball.
Sometimes, Laver could realise where to go milliseconds before striking a shot. He could hit winners if he saw the opportunity but he wasn’t looking to always hit an overly aggressive shot. He was an excellent frontrunner in matches, using this mindset to establish dominance. This didn’t mean he was immune to errors or nerves, but like other greats, he managed them better than most. Even when he was behind, he grew more motivated rather than less, continuing to search for anything that would give him a solid footing in the match. Like many other great players, he could raise his game and come up with something special when needed. If you wanted to win against Rod Laver, you had to go out and beat him.
All of these attributes have been ascribed to one or all of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in recent years as well, be it aggression, movement or determination. If you gave prime Laver a modern racquet, he’d probably adjust pretty quickly to the current era. Watching him, you can see where John McEnroe got his inspiration (although the Australian was far better behaved on court). No one at the time seemed to produce tennis like he could. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any other player like him, especially on the backhand wing.
It is clear that Laver has had a massive impact on the sport. Greats tend to be either innovators (Suzanne Lenglen) or perfectors (Novak Djokovic). Arguably, Laver was both, mastering all aspects of the game, whilst his spin-heavy style made him a leader amongst his generation. No wonder players like McEnroe, Borg, Sampras, Federer and Nadal all looked to him as a role model in attitude and play style, despite being from different generations. He didn’t just inspire the greats, plenty of people picked up a racquet because of him.
Greats go beyond achievements in an arena. As Laver began to wind down his playing career through his 30s, he began to focus more on growing the sport. He wrote several books, provided coaching and set up clubs for people to try out tennis. Unsurprisingly, he is incredibly knowledgeable about the sport, really understanding what it means to play well. As a result, Laver helped continue to inspire people beyond the stadiums and the television sets. (Baseline Tennis did a great video on his impact on tennis.)
However, Laver eventually withdrew from tennis as much as he could, trying to live a quiet life in the US. Off the court, he was a mild-mannered man. Despite being a ruthless competitor and revolutionary on court, he was still a traditional tennis gentleman and this earned him plenty of respect from his peers and tennis figures across the generations. The humility he has still comes across today, yet with an incredible tennis brain that gives him great insight into the game and probably was a big part of his edge as a player.
This humility and quietness means that whilst he is willing to do occasional interviews or be a guest of honour at the Australian or US Opens, generally he prefers to stay out of the public eye. When he does talk to Australian media, it’s often to comment on the nation’s current generation of players. He has praised Ash Barty, although his comments on Nick Kyrgios have been more mixed. I asked Australian journalist Todd Scoullar about Laver’s reputation in Australia, as sports stars’ impact is often more at home: “He is greatly revered in Australia and I would definitely say the majority of sports fans know who he is. And obviously because one of our most widely used stadiums is named after him, it’s probably fair to say the majority of the population know who he is. Whether they know exactly what his achievements are, it’s hard to say.”
Nowadays, Laver has faded into legend. The great man is still with us, but there are generations of fans who never saw him play live. It is definitely true that the greats are most appreciated in their time. The excitement is always focused on the here and now, whilst the past is stored in record books, grainy footage and faded memories. To remain relevant, either you set unbreakable records that fans and media continue to care about, or you set yourself apart through character and endeavours outside of playing a sport. Rod Laver will keep himself in the conversation of all-time greats for as long as he is the last man to have won the ‘Grand Slam’ and as long as he is the only man to have done it twice. However, it’s worth going and looking at why he remains an all-time great, you won’t be disappointed. You will find him to be the prototype of the modern player in so many ways, whilst still wonderfully unique and a breath of fresh air for a modern fan. We need to keep players like Laver in discussion about the ‘greatest’ athletes in our sport, and not get swept up in the moment. No one has to draw a definitive conclusion, but just remember that “Rocket” has a very good case.
The 2022 Australian Open final between Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal wasn’t just one of the better matches of the year, it may have been the most pivotal. In winning from two sets (and 2-3, love-40 in the third) down, Nadal secured his 21st major title, which broke a tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at 20. Much of Nadal’s momentum in his 20-match winning streak to begin this year also likely originated from winning that unlikely title. Medvedev, meanwhile, has struggled since losing his choke hold on the final. He’s won a couple small titles, but for the most part, he has failed to play his best, and it’s cost him: He no longer has control over his rivalries with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev and his ranking has fallen from first to seventh.
In the five hours and 24 minutes it took to decide that Australian Open final, forehands and backhands were hit that are still having an impact on the tour nearly 11 months later. With the next Australian Open not too far away, I wanted to return to the fateful match. Did Medvedev choke? If so, what was the moment? How did Nadal turn things around? I rewatched the final and kept a running log of my thoughts below. Time stamps correspond to the video below in case you want to revisit an important moment.
0:13: Nadal plays a very strong first point, scything a couple crosscourt forehands at extreme angles. Medvedev is yanked far enough off the court by the second one that he has to guess where the next ball is going, and Nadal flicks a winner past him. The narrative going into this match was that if Nadal were to win, he’d have to do it economically, so the opening point seemed like an ideal start.
6:15: Nadal holds after one deuce. It took six minutes.
7:33: An interesting wrinkle on the first point of Medvedev’s service game: midway through the rally, on a seemingly neutral ball, Nadal jacks a crosscourt backhand as hard as he can, drawing oohs from the crowd. But what the backhand has in pace it lacks in aggressive placement, so Medvedev gets it back fairly easily, and goes on to win the point.
11:20: At 1-all, love-15 on Nadal’s serve, the first alarm bells go off for the Spaniard. Medvedev locks him in a 26-shot rally — not ideal given Medvedev had looked by far the fitter player earlier in the tournament — and blasts a backhand winner down the line.
I remember watching most of Nadal’s matches this tournament, and it’s hard to overstate the doubts about his fitness levels. He had flirted with blowing two-set leads all tournament — he lost the third to Karen Khachanov, the third and the fourth to Denis Shapovalov, who may have beaten him had he not completely crumbled in the fifth set, and the third to Matteo Berrettini. He seemed to be tiring regularly in third sets, even when he had the lead. Personally, against Medvedev, I gave Nadal next to no chance of winning. Even if he could build a lead — which would be way harder against Medvedev than against the players he had already beaten — I thought he would have a hard time closing out the match.
13:00: With a love-30 lead on Nadal’s serve, Medvedev has a putaway right on top of the net, but he smashes it down the middle and Nadal’s long left arm somehow flicks a forehand past the onrushing octopus. It gets Nadal to 15-30 and he eventually holds, but at the time, the hold felt tenuous. The way Nadal was winning points didn’t seem sustainable at all, while Medvedev’s rock-solid baselining looked as reproducible as anything.
13:00: It’s worth mentioning here that early on, Medvedev looks totally unperturbed. Nadal had used the slice to disrupt his rhythm in the past, but Medvedev was impervious to it at the start of this match. With a previously useful tool for Nadal apparently no longer effective, his odds looked even more daunting.
24:43: Through four games, the average rally length is 8 shots.
28:30: In Nadal’s 2-all service game, Medvedev hits two winners and Nadal misses two backhands. Medvedev breaks at love in what feels like sixty seconds.
36:10: Nadal double faults twice in a row to begin the 2-4 game, looking considerably rattled at this point.
36:50: In the next rally, Nadal curls a forehand down the line that brushes the outside of the sideline. Medvedev returns it. Lost for ideas, Nadal tries either a short slice or a bad drop shot, and Medvedev easily runs it down and puts it away. The rally feels decisive — like Medvedev’s defense had reached a point where the court wasn’t wide enough for Nadal to hit a winner against him.
41:34: Medvedev serves out the set, 6-2. He won 16 of the last 18 points of the set, broke Nadal at love twice in a row, and lost six total points on serve.
What sticks out in rewatching the match at this point is that Nadal definitely started playing better to get his teeth into the final, but Medvedev had to start playing worse as well. The Russian’s execution in the first set was absurdly tight, and once Nadal’s well of hot shots dried up, the opener was a rout. I had thought at the time that Medvedev — who was coming off his first major title and a generally strong indoor season — was ready to seriously take it to Djokovic and Nadal by winning a second straight major. In the first set, he looked every bit like the best player in the world. Alas, his level didn’t last, and neither did his momentum.
43:00: A stat from the good folks at the Australian Open: 38% of Nadal’s first serves went unreturned in his first six rounds; just 14% got him free points in the first set against Medvedev.
49:02: With Medvedev serving at 0-1, 15-love in the second set, Nadal gets back a huge serve and gets into the rally. He crushes a forehand down the line with a louder-than-usual grunt. Medvedev defends, neutralizes, and forces a Nadal backhand error on the 19th shot of the point. It feels like another demoralizing blow to Nadal. When you combine Medvedev’s long rally prowess with his big first serve — he hits his fifth ace later in the game; Nadal is yet to get a single one — it is hard to imagine Medvedev losing the match. Or any match on hard court.
54:05: As of 1-1, 30-15 in the second set, Nadal has hit 20 unforced errors. This feels high; he’s been relatively aggressive, but not to the degree he needs to be to seriously trouble Medvedev’s defenses. Medvedev has 7, an average of less than one per game.
1:00:25: We get the first momentum shift in Nadal’s favor, as the Spaniard wins a 40-shot rally with an insane backhand drop shot. The shot comes out of nowhere: Medvedev hit a very solid crosscourt forehand and Nadal, slightly on the stretch, reached to his right with an almost casual motion and feathered the winner over the net. The crowd goes nuts. Nadal gets to 15-40 on Medvedev’s serve with the rally, the first time he’s seen a break point all match. The point is also contradictory of the match preview and the match so far: it was the longest rally of the match — advantage Medvedev — but Nadal seemed fine physically and finished it off with a touch of brilliance.
1:05:59: Having broken serve for the first time in the previous game, Nadal consolidates at love to go up 4-1, and now the match really does feel different. Medvedev’s airtight baselining has tapered off a bit, and in conjunction with the 40-shot rally, Nadal has serious momentum.
1:08:54: Medvedev is making 80% of his first serves; Nadal is at 50%. Deeply impressive on the part of the former, but also perhaps a sign of how the match could change if Medvedev’s well-above-average execution dovetails even slightly.
1:11:00: Nadal begins his 4-2 service game with a forehand error, then Medvedev sizzles a backhand winner down the line. At love-30, Nadal hits a crazy second serve — a spin-loaded comet that swerves visibly and barely brushes the T — and Medvedev still gets it back. Though Nadal puts away the next shot, the match is back to feeling like it’s on Medvedev’s terms.
1:13:54: Medvedev breaks back, Nadal’s amazing second serve responsible for the only point the Spaniard won in the game.
1:19:54: Medvedev totally loses his first serve in the 3-4 game. Nadal breaks at 30, pushing his opponent back with a big inside-out forehand and finishing with a drop shot that leaves Medvedev slipping and sliding on the Melbourne letters behind the baseline. With the set feeling like a must-win stanza for Nadal at the time (obviously a bad take in hindsight), the break felt huge.
1:27:00: At some point during the 5-3 game, it becomes clear that Nadal just isn’t playing well enough. He fights through a bunch of break points with winners, and there’s a moment where it seems like he’s going to win the set. But despite having a set point, Nadal ends up getting broken, and not because of a burst of brilliance from Medvedev. While the Spaniard is playing plenty of coherent points, errors are seeping into his game consistently. This game had a shanked forehand, a missed smash, and an errant backhand pass with most of the court open.
1:42:30: It must be said at this point: this is not a classic tennis match. In Nadal’s 5-all game, the Spaniard hits a number of great shots, but more and more of his groundstrokes are falling short. Some of them, jarringly, are landing halfway up the net. I remember feeling frustrated for Nadal when I watched this part of the match at around 4:30 on a Sunday morning in January: all that heartbreak for Nadal in previous Australian Open finals, this unlikely run to one last title match, and here he had shown up with nothing close to his best. Whether nerves or fatigue were responsible I had no idea, but Nadal looked as irritated as anyone. Despite Nadal escaping with the hold, I thought the game was a bad omen for his future in the final.
1:52:34: At 5-6, 30-all, two points away from giving up the second set to Nadal, Medvedev flings an ace down the middle. He holds. At the time, when the second set went to a tiebreak, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which Nadal lost the breaker and won the match. It wasn’t just that overcoming a two-set lead against Medvedev would be extremely difficult, it was that the second set was brutally long, and I didn’t like Nadal’s odds of playing three more competitive sets against Medvedev without completely gassing out, much less winning them.
1:59:18: Nadal grabs a mini-break at 3-all with a solid backhand return followed by an inside-in forehand that comes pretty close to both lines. It’s a great play; at this point, it seems like raw (and accurate) aggression is the only route to a Nadal win.
2:01:08: At 5-3 and 5-4 up in the tiebreak, Nadal comes to net — not behind bad shots, either — and both times, Medvedev hits good passes that force Nadal into errors. After drawing Nadal to net with a drop shot and ramming a backhand past him, Medvedev has set point. Nadal hasn’t made the most of his chances this set, but I don’t think he did much wrong here; Medvedev just entered a purple patch at a great time.
2:03:43: Had Medvedev won the match, the set point in the second set might have become the most famous point of the final. Nadal plays a clearheaded point: forehand crosscourt, forehand down the line, backhand volley into the open court. He executed all the shots pretty well. Against most other players, it probably would have been enough. Against Medvedev, it wasn’t even close — the Russian’s lightning-quick legs see him get back both forehands, then get him in position for a clean backhand pass down the line so easily that he doesn’t even really have to slide into the shot. Medvedev celebrates emphatically; the crowd cheers and then boos as they, for whatever reason, feel that an extended celebration of a brilliant shot is unsportsmanlike. The match seems over.
2:08:35: Nadal is clearly going for more on his forehand in the first game of the third set. He’s letting it fly, scything through the shot rather than looping it, and the extra aggression helps a bit. He opens up a 15-30 lead, then a massive inside-out forehand gives him a putaway right on the service line. Nadal crushes it inside-in — only Medvedev is waiting in the corner and backhands the ball right past Nadal. It’s a demoralizing blow to the Spaniard, who had bossed a couple rallies in a row.
One stat Nadal leads comfortably through the whole match is forehand winners, and it’s here that we can see one of the few holes in Medvedev’s game. Ideally, a player uses their forehand as a sword — their primary weapon — and their backhand as a shield, a solid wing that won’t break down. It’s not that having a powerful backhand is impossible, but the forehand, being hit with the dominant arm, is usually the much more explosive shot. But Medvedev’s forehand, in this match (and probably in general), is less effective than his backhand at hitting winners. His backhand is absolutely superb and does score him quite a few winners, but I don’t think a player should want or have to count on their less powerful wing to deliver point-ending shots. When Nadal’s own backhand levels up midway through the match, he’s capable of killing a point with both wings, giving him a significant advantage in firepower over Medvedev.
It’s not that Medvedev’s forehand weakness is destroying him — he’s a set away from winning the Australian Open title. But as the match wears on, his inability to finish points consistently with that shot hurts him more and more. (See break point at 5-all in the fifth set.)
Nadal keeps blasting away through the game, eventually bringing up break point. He gets in a really deep return only to follow it with a blown forehand, and his reaction afterwards says it all.
Medvedev holds. It’s here that we get the now-famous shot of the Infosys win predictor: from 36% before the match, Nadal is now deemed to have a 4% chance of winning.
2:18:14: Medvedev strings together a pair of forehand winners to go up love-30 in Nadal’s 0-1 service game. But Nadal is able to hold, slinging some point-ending forehands and a big serve. His one-point-at-a-time mentality is on display here — there’s every reason for him to get demoralized at this stage, having lost a heartbreakingly close second set, missing a break point in the previous game, and falling behind in his first service game of the third. Yet Nadal stays calm, hits some spots, and digs out the hold. It’s a small victory in the moment, but one whose significance is magnified in retrospect.
2:23:54: Medvedev does a beautiful job of dictating a point, hammering a backhand down the line before forcing Nadal’s error with some fine angled forehands. Nadal hunches over for a second after the rally, planting his racket head on his left foot and leaning forward slightly. I had missed this on the first watch, but it’s little details like this that, besides the scoreline, made a Medvedev win look inevitable.
2:29:24: Two and a half sets into this match, the average rally length is still a brutally long 7 shots. A little later, we see a graphic that says Medvedev is winning 58% of 0-4 shot rallies, 49% of 5-9 shot rallies, and 61% of 9+ shot rallies. From Nadal’s perspective, what’s the proper countermeasure? He’s not dominating in any metric, and in both long and short points, he’s getting demolished. Medvedev has had a solid edge in both the serve-return battle and the toughest rallies.
2:32:16: Another gut-wrenching moment for Nadal. He hits a spectacular inside-out forehand return to begin Medvedev’s 2-all service game. It affords him a very short forehand, which he rips crosscourt. But Medvedev reads it perfectly and passes him with a clean crosscourt backhand. The story of Nadal’s performance so far is that he hasn’t been consistently good enough, but even when he has come up with the goods, Medvedev has had the answers. Nadal’s back-against-the-wall moment won’t come until the next game, but this moment felt as deflating as anything for the Spaniard.
2:37:20: Nadal’s plight peaks in his 2-3 service game. At love-30, Medvedev returns a Nadal smash that was hit right on top of the net, works the rally perfectly, and scorches a backhand winner down the line. Nadal is now trailing 2-6, 6-7 (5), 2-3, love-40. In a match with many inflection points, this one is the ultimate, so it’s worth doing some point-by-point analysis of what’s to follow.
Break point #1: Nadal gets in a first serve, pushes Medvedev back with a crosscourt forehand, then feathers a drop shot winner over the net. Nothing Medvedev could have done there. Nadal allows himself a fist pump and grits his teeth.
Break point #2: Medvedev gets great depth, forcing Nadal into a short backhand, but the Russian misses an aggressive crosscourt backhand long. It’s a bad miss, but not one I ever would have expected to potentially cost Medvedev the match.
Break point #3: Medvedev tries a drop shot, which isn’t a terrible idea — he was on the baseline; Nadal way behind his — but the execution is way off. Nadal gets to the ball easily and chops a backhand slice crosscourt that Medvedev bunts into the net.
So we can certainly point to things Medvedev could have done better on the second and third break points. But he didn’t exactly throw away either point, and he hadn’t been playing all the previous big points exceptionally well, especially in the second set. Not breaking in this game was not a choke; from love-40 down, Nadal didn’t make an unforced error for the rest of the game. The Spaniard getting out of this game was inarguably a momentum shift, but in the moment, I imagined that it would lead to Nadal winning a set at most. At 3-all in the third, Medvedev still seemed to be well in control of the match.
2:47:12: At 3-all, 30-15, Medvedev horrendously biffs a backhand putaway while mere feet away from the net. It felt big in the moment, but he responds with a beautiful angled backhand winner, then a crosscourt forehand winner to hold.
2:54:35: To me, this match really starts to turn during Medvedev’s 4-all service game. Nadal begins with a stunning backhand pass, but starting at 15-30, Medvedev has a breakdown. From right on top of the net, he only needs to put a drop shot in play for it to be a winner, but he taps the ball into the net, then immediately starts sarcastically applauding the pro-Nadal crowd’s cheers. Medvedev plays the 15-40 point almost lackadaisically (though escapes due to some insane defense). And at 30-40, Medvedev approaches Nadal’s backhand again. The Spaniard has all the time in the world to measure a bullet down the line, which he sends flying past Medvedev. Crowd goes nuts.
3:00:22: Nadal serves out the set with four straight winners: inside-in forehand, crosscourt forehand, backhand down the line, inside-in forehand. It’s an intimidating sequence, and maybe the first time all match Nadal has really buckled down successfully with the crunch on. I still thought the final was Medvedev’s in the moment, but this stretch made me think he would have to recover his godly first-set level to get across the line.
A quick word on the crowd: they were not great. Medvedev’s sarcastic clapping in the 4-all game was warranted. The typical reaction to a botched drop shot as bad as Medvedev’s is a gasp of shock; here, the fans shrieked in elation. Even Nadal had to acknowledge them — before set point at 5-4, 40-love, he held up his hand to silence the crowd before serving. Cheering your favorite player is one thing, doing so at the expense of their opponent feels excessive. There wasn’t much that could have been done to manage the situation, but spare a thought for Medvedev.
Back to the tennis. Though Medvedev’s biggest chance in this set was at 3-2, I’d say his biggest level dip was at 4-all — he made a series of puzzling decisions in the game, from multiple drop shots (one missed, one Nadal ran down easily) to approaching Nadal’s backhand behind a substandard forehand on break point. Medvedev had held his previous six service games; this one got away at least in part by his own hand.
3:08:13: A sign of Medvedev fatigue: serving at 0-1, Nadal bosses a rally, setting up a midcourt forehand. Like he did a couple times in the third set, Medvedev reads that Nadal is going crosscourt and camps out in his backhand corner. But here, he’s slower to get to the ball, and can only poke back a defensive shot with one hand on the racket. Nadal duly finishes the point with a winner. On the earlier points, Medvedev had hit clean crosscourt passing shots off virtually the exact same ball.
3:12:58: Medvedev gets to break point for 2-0, but Nadal sizzles a forehand winner down the line (from a very deep position you wouldn’t usually expect a winner from) to save. On his next break point, Medvedev misses a regulation backhand. It’s a nice microcosm of how this match turned around: it wasn’t solely Nadal brilliance or Medvedev failing to take his chances, it was both.
3:15:20: Medvedev’s lack of a reliable finishing weapon is really starting to cost him. At deuce in Nadal’s 0-1 service game, he has a look at a pretty neutral backhand volley. Trying to slice it short into the ad court, Medvedev misjudges the ball so badly that it bounces before even reaching the net. Between this, his often iffy offensive forehand, and his fatiguing legs, the balance is shifting towards Nadal in the rallies.
3:21:28: Medvedev double faults to drop serve at 1-all. He gets his quads massaged on the changeover.
3:24:20: Mark Petchey makes a great point on the broadcast: Medvedev is struggling physically, but the only way to rush Nadal is to hit the ball hard, which requires more energy. I’ve long thought that Nadal is one of the worst opponents to get tired against for this very reason. He’s difficult enough to play in even rallies, but if your rally ball loses even a fraction of juice, he’ll start hitting the ball to whatever corner he wants. Then you become even more gassed as you’re forced to do more running. Rushing him is absolutely key. Not long after Petchey says this, Nadal starts hammering backhand winners down the line with alarming regularity, which is usually a rarity for him.
3:34:22: Having dug out of love-40 at 2-all, Medvedev gets to game point. He has a look at a baseline overhead and shanks it way past the baseline. It’s moments like these that stick out on the rewatch — Medvedev could have put himself three games away from the title, and given that he had been down a break at 1-2 in this set, going up 3-2 would have handed him some serious momentum with the finish line approaching.
3:35:36: Medvedev saves another break point at 2-all, actually managing to dictate a point with his forehand. He finishes with a winner inside-in after dragging Nadal across the baseline a few times. The problem is, you can see how much effort this requires from Medvedev — he doesn’t have Nadal’s f-u power from the forehand, so he has to throw his entire body into every shot. At this point in this match, it’s clear that outside of his serve, he doesn’t have a way to win points economically, which is a big problem if he’s fatiguing.
3:39:25: Nadal finally breaks in the 2-all game on chance #7, pulling Medvedev to net with a drop shot and angling a backhand pass way beyond his reach.
3:41:42: Interestingly, though Nadal has won the third set and is up a break in the fourth, the Infosys win predictor now only gives him a 10% chance of winning. Remember, when the score was 2-6, 6-7, 0-1, Nadal was at 4%, so winning the third set and going up a break in the fourth is apparently only worth six percentage points. (Interesting to think of what the win predictor would have said when Nadal was down 2-3, love-40 in the third set — 1%?)
Alternative theory: the win predictor kind of sucks.
3:44:35: Nadal has a little god mode moment at 3-2. Up 30-15, he half-volleys a deep return into the opposite corner for an inside-out forehand winner. Though Nadal is capable of this type of shot, he doesn’t hit it often — his forehand is at his best when he has time to load up for a haymaker swing; the half-volley winner is a shot associated much more with the recently retired (and much-missed) Roger Federer. But Nadal nails it here, then closes out the game with a low volley that travels at an angle almost parallel to the net. Medvedev doesn’t bother chasing it.
3:49:49: To give you an idea of the ebbs and flows in this match, Nadal begins his next service game by shockingly missing two identical, bread-and-butter crosscourt forehands. He falls behind 15-40, but erases the break points in about the same time it took Elon Musk to lose all his credibility while trying to run Twitter.
At deuce, they play an instructive rally. Nadal is dictating, and though Medvedev has time to set up behind a couple of his shots, the depth on his groundstrokes has vanished a little bit. It’s a recipe for disaster: Nadal yanks him into his forehand corner, then wrong-foots him with an inside-out forehand winner.
3:56:20: With Medvedev serving at 3-5, 30-15, Nadal returns a perfect T serve, then scorches a backhand winner down the line when Medvedev tries to approach the net. At 30-all, Nadal blasts a backhand crosscourt with incredible weight and pace even if it comes nowhere near the lines — it staggers Medvedev a little bit — then murders another winner down the line. When Nadal plays like this, I want to say he can still give Djokovic hell on a hard court, 19-set losing streak to the Serb on the surface be damned. Nadal looks unstoppable when he hits his weaker groundstroke this well.
4:03:33: Nadal serves the set out at love to send the match to a fifth.
4:05:27: Medvedev serves to open the fifth. At 15-all, he volleys to Nadal’s forehand. He gets passed down the line. At 30-all, he approaches to Nadal’s forehand. He gets passed down the line. This is where I started to think Nadal would win when I watched this match live: you don’t approach to Nadal’s forehand, and you definitely don’t screw around by trying it multiple times early in a fifth set. Medvedev had either lost his mind or his legs, and either one could prove fatal.
Medvedev ends up holding with a bunch of good serves, but I remember this game leaving me seriously concerned for his prospects at the time.
4:12:55: Nadal has started to win what seems like every point that goes beyond three or four shots. He wins a long one to hold for 1-all.
4:16:46: Some stats: Medvedev has run 4.64 kilometers in the match so far to Nadal’s 4.28, and has done 56 “sprints” to Nadal’s 30. A possible reason for his physical deficit despite his younger body.
Regardless of any stats that can help explain it, I have to comment on Nadal’s remarkable durability in this match. With the exception of his really shaky period late in the second set when he was hitting groundstrokes halfway up the net, he’s looked just fine physically. His performance in long rallies has actually gotten better as the match has gone on. I hadn’t anticipated Nadal holding up this well before the match given his age deficit and Medvedev’s significantly better physical performance before the final. As far as I know, no one else picked Nadal to outlast the then-25-year-old either. The fact that he did is incredible.
4:21:48: At 2-all, 30-15, Nadal returns a second serve deep, Medvedev’s backhand has no pace whatsoever on it, and Nadal blisters an inside-out forehand winner. Medvedev’s first serve is carrying him on its back; whenever he misses, he’s losing the point. Medvedev is serving phenomenally well so far in the fifth set — this was just the third time he had missed a first serve — but he’s lost all three of those second serve points. The accurate first serving is clearly unsustainable; it feels inevitable that Medvedev will eventually start missing due to the pressure or just lose his rhythm.
4:23:40: Facing break point at 2-all, Medvedev misses his first serve. He rallies pretty well, hitting an inside-out backhand and a decent forehand down the line. The only problem? Nadal slices back the former and chases down the latter, delivering his patented running forehand down the line. It kisses the sideline for a winner, Medvedev nowhere near it. Mark Petchey says that it’s the best shot Nadal has ever hit. (In terms of skill required to make a shot, Nadal has hit ones that are miles better, but in terms of that balanced with importance, this one is certainly up there.)
At the time, Nadal’s shot selection confused me, despite the fact that he had hit a brilliant winner. He had been winning every rally with relative ease, so why take a chance on a coin-flip forehand? It would have been easy enough to neutralize Medvedev’s shot with a forehand crosscourt, then to slowly break down the Russian in the rally from there. That exact technique had been working all through the fifth set. I still don’t know why Nadal went for the forehand he did, but it worked, so he doesn’t need a reason. This is probably one of the many reasons why Nadal has 22 major titles and I’m sitting on my bed writing a “live” diary of a match he played ten and a half months ago.
Another thing: this is the first time Nadal has had the lead in the match since 2-1 (on serve) in the first set.
4:34:53: Nadal has a handful of game points at 3-2, but can’t close out the game, and Medvedev gets a look at three break points. Luckily for Nadal — and for no discernible reason — Medvedev’s backhand return, usually his stronger wing, goes haywire. He misses backhand returns on all three break points, and only one of them can clearly count as a forced error. Nadal’s first serves on the other two had been pretty ordinary. A stat shows that Medvedev made 97% of his returns in the fourth set (a set he lost, remember) and is down to a dire 60% in the fifth. It’s a bad time for Medvedev to lose his rhythm on the return; after all the missed game points earlier in the game, Nadal was getting a bit nervy. He holds for 4-2.
This is an interesting game to observe Nadal play, because he’s fighting himself as well as his opponent. He lost the 2012 Australian Open final to Djokovic and the 2017 final to Federer from this exact position: a break up in the fifth set. With Nadal at age 35 and in his first Australian Open final in three years, this match had the potential to be his most heartbreaking final loss in Melbourne yet. Even as he maintained the break lead, it felt like there was a twist coming.
4:44:43: With Nadal serving at 4-3, 15-love, the match clock hits five hours. It’s insane to think how long this match ended up being (at five hours and 24 minutes, it is the second-longest in Nadal’s career behind the 2012 Australian Open final, and it’s the longest in Medvedev’s career). The first set was even a relative rout at 6-2. Imagine if that set had gone to a tiebreak.
4:54:34: Nadal steps to the line to serve for his second Australian Open title and 21st major overall. I don’t think anyone expected this game to be straightforward, but at first, it looked like it might be: Nadal starts with a big serve for 15-love, then whacks a very aggressive forehand to set up an easy volley.
4:56:05: …and then the other shoe drops. Nadal makes a forehand error, then double faults. Medvedev goes on the attack at 30-all with a backhand down the line and a crosscourt forehand and whips away an easy smash. At break point, when Nadal is typically so clutch, he makes a good wide serve, hits an inside-out forehand, then takes on a crosscourt backhand…and swipes it into the net. It is now 5-all in the fifth, Nadal’s lead erased, his chance to serve out the match gone. He bites his lower lip and smiles a little.
5:01:18: With Medvedev serving at 5-5, 30-15, they play what I consider to be a sneaky candidate for one of the biggest points of the match. Medvedev hits a huge serve down the middle that Nadal claws back short, then tries a drop shot to Nadal’s backhand that the Spaniard repels with his classic no-look backhand flick winner. Had Medvedev won the point, he’d have two game points for 6-5, meaning a likely hold of serve, meaning Nadal would have to win the match in a tiebreak. Not only had Nadal lost the second set tiebreak in this match, he hadn’t won a tiebreak against a top-ten player since the World Tour Finals in 2019. This isn’t to say Nadal couldn’t have broken from 40-15 down, or that he couldn’t have won a super-tiebreak. But the odds would have been stacked against him.
Instead: Nadal gets to 30-all. Medvedev never has a game point at 5-all. Nadal breaks and goes on to serve out the match in the following game.
5:02:51: At deuce in the 5-all game, Medvedev hits a short crosscourt backhand and immediately gets burned by Nadal’s forehand down the line. You can never, ever hit short to Nadal’s forehand and expect to emerge safely. But five hours and 10 minutes into this match, Medvedev’s shot quality suffering a little isn’t totally shocking. Again, Nadal is a bad opponent to tire against.
5:04:20: On the third break point of the game, Medvedev hits a perfect T serve. Had Nadal been leaning the other way, it would have been an ace. As it happens, Nadal — returning from well behind the Melbourne letters — gets back a sliced backhand return with decent depth. And here, Medvedev’s forehand weakness screws him. He doesn’t have the easy power for an effortless winner. He jumps as he makes contact in an effort to generate extra pace, but his inside-out forehand not only isn’t enough to get past Nadal, it lands beyond the baseline.
5:07:34: Again, Nadal finds himself at 30-love. I remember thinking the following point was massive as I watched this live: 40-love meant certain victory, 30-15 meant a possible repeat of the 5-4 game. Nadal smashes a serve out wide that clips the sideline and flies past Medvedev. It’s ruled his third ace. The let radar beeps, but — shockingly — no one seems to notice. The umpire doesn’t pick up on it, Medvedev doesn’t complain, Nadal doesn’t say anything, and the commentators don’t comment, either. I’d guess that the excruciating tension was responsible for everyone missing this, but the beep was clearly audible. An unfortunate moment for Medvedev.
5:08:39: In a point emblematic of how he’s developed over the years into a more aggressive player, Nadal hits his classic wide serve, then a big inside-out forehand, then races to net to put away a drop volley. Medvedev can’t get there. The crowd explodes, Nadal drops his racket and covers his face in euphoric disbelief. He has won his 21st major.
It’s hard to digest a match this long and this packed with plot twists. But I’ll try. First: was there a more emblematic way for Nadal to win his 21st major and second Australian Open? He had the final losses in 2012, 2014, 2017, and 2019. He hadn’t played for the second half of 2021. In the match itself, he faced an enormous deficit, then, not unlike in 2012, he had an opportunity to close out the match and it had gone begging. And despite everything, Nadal managed to recover and drag himself across the line. He had won the tournament in 2009, but had experienced so much pain in Melbourne since that I imagine this felt like the first time he had lifted the trophy there.
Medvedev was very classy after the match, which he deserves all the credit in the world for. He mentioned that the crowd had diminished some of his previous enthusiasm for tennis (“the kid stopped dreaming”) and that from this point on, he was going to be playing for himself rather than any fans. In terms of the match, though, Medvedev seemed remarkably centered, saying largely what I did above: that he was disappointed not to close out the match, but didn’t think he choked. Some of the weaknesses in his game — the attacking forehand, the touch at net and on the drop shot — were rather noticeable. But that was likely expected going into a major final against a difficult opponent. Still, I’d be shocked if a few moments in the final three sets didn’t take up camp in Medvedev’s mind every now and then.
Medvedev’s game has sadly deteriorated since this match. I don’t think he’s played as well as he did in the first set of this final in the past 10 months and change. He got another shot at Nadal in Acapulco and lost 6-3, 6-3, going 0/11 on break points. He got a hernia, then got trounced by Marin Čilić at Roland-Garros (I was at this match, and though peak Čilić lives up to absolutely all the hype, it was jarring that Medvedev was never really in the match). He wasn’t allowed to play Wimbledon. He failed to defend his U.S. Open title, losing comfortably to Nick Kyrgios. His typically awesome serve has randomly malfunctioned a few times, giving up over 10 double faults in a couple matches. Though Medvedev won a couple small titles, there are few other good things to say about his year. His trio of final-set tiebreak losses at the World Tour Finals felt almost gratuitously emblematic of his season.
I can’t see inside Medvedev’s head — maybe he is completely over the Australian Open final and his form can be chalked up to other things — but it’s hard not to trace his struggles back to the key moments in the loss to Nadal. I have no idea what’s to come for him in 2023. But I can say that during the stretch of the final when Medvedev was routing Nadal, I was ready to project enormous things for his career. He was fresh off winning the U.S. Open. He matched up well with Djokovic. He had survived an epic performance from Felix Auger-Aliassime in the Australian Open, winning from two sets and two match points down. He could deal with Tsitsipas and Rublev on a hard court easily. Medvedev still has a lot of things going for him heading into 2023. But that window when it seemed like he could be an all-conquering force on hard court has closed.
I think this match will mostly be remembered for what it did for Nadal, though. It put him above both Federer and Djokovic in major titles for the first time, a position he still holds at the end of the season. It erased his Australian Open demons. Despite what came after in 2022 — including his 14Roland-Garros — this was the crown jewel of his season, and though he’d never say it, I imagine that everything that he won after the Australian Open this year felt almost secondary for Nadal. He was never supposed to win this Australian Open, right up until the moment that he did. Nadal is adamant about living in the present. When he goes to Melbourne in 2023, he’ll be thinking about defending his title (though his odds of doing that aren’t all that much better than his chances of winning the title were this year). But it’s hard to imagine he won’t allow himself a smile at the memory of 2022.
Tennis rankings came up in conversation after a bizarre all-caps tweet from Nick Kyrgios.
The Australian was sharing a Tennis Channel graphic that suggested that according to the Universal Tennis Ranking (UTR) system, he would be ranked 2nd in the world behind Novak Djokovic, as opposed to 22nd.
This of course caused some debate over what kind of qualities rankings should reflect. UTR uses the below method, explained by Josh Vernon of Universal Tennis:
“For each match, the algorithm calculates a match rating and a match weight for each player. A player’s UTR Rating is the weighted average of up to 30 of their most recent match ratings. Only matches within the last 12 months count toward a player’s UTR.”
So, it’s understandable why this would benefit Kyrgios, whose most recent results were from the mid-summer period where he had some strong runs on grass and U.S. hard courts. The UTR system benefits him because it doesn’t require players to compete through the year (or at least half of it) like the ATP rankings.
For comparison, the ATP ranks players based on their best 19 performances across a 12-month period. Performance is not decided on a match-by-match basis, but by assigning points to tournaments based on stage reached (so the further you get, the more you score, on an increasing rate with each win), with some having more weight based on status (e.g. you gain more points from a major based on any other event).
I would be remiss at this point not to mention ELO as a ranking system, which is favoured by Jeff Sackman who runs Tennis Abstract. The full breakdown is here but the simple explanation is that it is not about which matches a player wins in terms of stage of a tournament, rather it is based on the quality of opponent. So, a result’s weight is based on whether the victor has beaten an opponent with a higher, equal or lower rating. Sackman’s rankings also take into account a 12-month period. Most systems use this timeframe, which makes sense as a 12 month period encapsulates an entire season and its many diverse conditions, making it a good indicator of “form.”
Let’s look at the four qualities Kyrgios has highlighted. ‘Consistency’ is an underrated trait in tennis. The mark of a top player is not just that they can win events and beat the best in the world. All professional tennis players have the capability of doing this at least once in their career, or at least those who crack the top 100 at one point. Their ‘skill’ level is going to be high and the margins between the top players are very small. The fact you can beat most players, most days, is just as much a sign of being one of the most elite players as anything else. Jessica Pegula on the WTA Tour is the perfect example of this, regularly featuring in at least the quarter-finals in most tournaments that she played in and half the time only losing to the eventual champion if she didn’t win herself. This is what got her #3 singles ranking on the WTA (which is based on a similar premise to the ATP, but takes the best 16 results rather than best 19). A player can have the capability of charging through the draw and being in contention based on past results (like Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov or Dominic Thiem on the ATP or Naomi Osaka, Garbine Muguruza or Eugenie Bouchard on the WTA) but it’s more impressive when you are doing this on a regular basis (like Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Taylor Fritz, Pegula, Daria Kasatkina and Iga Swiatek).
‘How much you play’ is very much linked to the above. Now of course favouring this in a ranking does hurt players who are physically injured or need to take time out for their mental health, parental leave, or other reasons. The Protected Ranking system mitigates some of the disadvantages, but given how most players come back to the tour not quite the same, at least initially, they should have to prove themselves again. Even if someone plays week in week out, and has a great last few weeks on tour, they have to show that they can still maintain that kind of performance whenever they step on court. However, this goes back to the same debate. Do you favour rewarding peak results or consistent results?
Let’s take a step back here and ask another question: what are rankings for? Why does tennis use them? First, they’re useful for structuring draws, especially to set up the most interesting final possible. This is not just because of the potential that it would be the best two players on paper, but also means that for events with bigger entry lists, the leading competitors are usually better spread throughout (though not always). This leads to the second reason, which is foundational to the first: It helps everyone make sense of the sport. ‘Everyone’ includes players to help them understand where they are in their development, but it is mainly for any off-court observers, especially fans and the media. We want to understand if one player is significantly ‘better’ than the other, which should inform us if their upcoming match will be interesting and for what reasons. Without a formalised computer system, we’d be using one based on reputation based on previous results, even if it was just the previous year’s results from the same event. Rankings set the context of the stories that unfold in matches and across the tournament, looking at who the favourites and underdogs are. People don’t usually like not knowing things and want to have some comfort in understanding something about what we’re going to see, so rankings give us something to hang on to.
So let’s go back to the earlier question: Should a ranking system be based more on peak results (ELO and UTR) or consistent results (ATP and WTA)?
People who maybe are less familiar with the tour often believe things are based on peak results over a career, so it’s probably simplest to understand. And it’s odd that given we know the world-class tennis they can produce, that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are not always number one and two and swapping the top spot between them. But then would it have been fair to rank Serena Williams number one in every tournament she played in 2022 given how rusty she was? That’s why there’s a 12-month window so that more recent results can influence things and help it make more sense to those who follow the sport a little more closely. After all, that’s how we got that magnificent Australian Open final where somehow Rafael Nadal won despite being an underdog against a gifted but nowhere near as decorated opponent in Daniil Medvedev.
This is where my categorisation of the different systems is shown up to be a little too simplistic. The Tour ranking is weighted in favour of peak results in terms of the value of tournaments won (e.g. winning a major in a season more or less guarantees someone a top 10 spot in the rankings). Likewise, ELO does reward consistency–a ranking goes down following a loss, how much depending on the ranking of the opponent. So, it still rewards those who go deep in tournaments regularly.
Often (though by no means always), the winner of a major has to have beaten a highly motivated elite player on the way. The next question is whether you define ‘peak’ results on who you beat or what events you win? Often it ends up being more or less the same thing. For example, in 2022 Carlos Alcaraz’s biggest point yields were the US Open title, followed by his Madrid and Miami trophies. However, if ELO was used it would be his Madrid title that was his biggest yield, then his wins at Miami and the US Open. The difference might not be major, but certainly emphasises different things.
Regardless, it makes sense to think that someone with higher potential should be favoured, but then there’s the question of how likely are they to meet that standard at an event. If their 12-month form is patchier, where let’s say they’ve won a Masters 1000 but struggled to get past the round of 16 most other events they’ve entered, it’s hard to gauge if they’re a top 4 or top 16 contender at a major. For example, if Nick Kyrgios is 2nd best according to UTR but hasn’t won a tennis match he’s played for 3 months building up to the Australian Open (hypothetically of course), how much of a contender do observers perceive him as? This is where we see the value of consistency as a trait to be rewarded.
The rankings for the most part strike a decent balance as they are. With one exception: ‘form’. In this case, ‘form’ means more recent results (for example the previous month or 6 weeks). Often, these influence perceptions of a player about to enter, say, a major. There is some benefit to players as they get a boost from a strong upturn in ‘form’ but how much depends on the level of the tournament.
A suggestion would be to weight 12-month rankings more heavily in more recent results. Essentially in a 12-month ranking, results from over 3 months would reduce in worth by 25%, 50% for over 6 months and 75% for over 12. So, this would mean players like Beatriz Haddad Maia at Wimbledon or Caroline Garcia ahead of the US Open would seem a lot less like dark horses and more like genuine contenders, as their strong recent results would be weighted more heavily. Likewise, majors that just ended would have more of an influence. In this version, Rafael Nadal would become world number one after Roland Garros in 2022. In fact, the rankings at the end of the season would be led by Alcaraz (U.S. Open champion), closely followed by Djokovic (World Tour Finals champion). The benefit is that consistency is still rewarded with this system because results through the year will create a stronger ranking, whilst a peak would have strong benefits for the short term but lose its value as the year progresses.
The main purpose of this piece was to get everyone thinking, and asking themselves what they would prefer to prioritise in a ranking system: consistency or peak performance, and whether you reward big matches or trophies more. Let us know which system you prefer, why, and what’s important to you. It’s not about pushing for a particular system, although I will say the method the tours use works well from my perspective.