The Allure of Mixed Doubles

The stands on Rod Laver Arena were sparsely populated enough for the mixed doubles quarterfinal between Australians Lisette Cabrera and John-Patrick Smith and Brazilians Luisa Stefani and Rafael Matos that I was able to waltz down to a prime seat without worrying about its owner showing up. It’s no surprise, really — odds are you don’t know any of those names. I sure didn’t when I sat down to watch.

And I’ll admit that I was initially disappointed the first match for the Rod Laver Arena day session was mixed doubles rather than singles. The tennis powers that be likely would have had the same feeling in my position — some formats are prioritized over others, and it certainly isn’t mixed doubles at the top of the pile.

The numbers can back me up. Prize money for the mixed doubles winners at the Australian Open ($157,750), once split between the partners, is less than what an adult singles player earns from losing in the first round. Losing in the first round of the mixed tournament nets a team a whopping $6,600, which, once divided between partners, might not even be enough to cover the cost of airfare and time in Melbourne. It’s extremely unequal, but singles players objectively do get much more attention. Just look at freelance journalist Ben Rothenberg’s recent tweet about doubles:

You read that right — singles players taking part in doubles garner more attention than doubles players taking part in doubles. This is the case for any number of reasons, one being that tennis is marketed as an individual sport, “gloveless boxing” (though it’s not nearly as violent, to the point that I don’t think it deserves the comparison to pugilism) as some call it. Having teams of two face off kind of kills the mano a mano aspect.

Doubles is really a different sport. You’ve got the balls and rackets, yes, but the dynamics of the points don’t resemble that of singles at all. The court dimensions are even modified, with the alleys getting involved. Players’ reflexes are tested more. At least one player is almost always at net, which can result in dizzying exchanges of quick volleys and soft lobs. There is less running and more use of angles. Few of the characteristics that make singles tennis what it is feature in doubles.

That’s not to say doubles isn’t worth watching. On the contrary, some prefer it to singles — the manic exchanges that take place when all four players are at net are played at a speed singles can only produce in its dreams. Even granting that there are only two players on court in singles, they find their way to net less and less frequently these days. The power baseline era, brought on by incredible string technology, makes some of the extreme angles players used to only be able to find at net possible from the back of the court. In doubles, though, net approaches are necessary to find the angles to punch the ball past a pair of opponents. The strategic elements are fascinating; partners huddle up quickly to talk tactics and then flash hand signals to each other before every point.

Whether doubles’ relative lack of popularity is due to the nature of the format failing to appeal to as big an audience as singles does or tennis just not marketing doubles properly, there’s no doubt which format garners more attention. And even among doubles tennis, mixed is the black sheep. The “Doubles Tennis” subsection under Wikipedia’s “Types of Tennis Match” heading begins, “Doubles is played by two teams of two players each, most often all-male or all-female.” The only tournaments in which you can even play mixed doubles are the majors, and more recently United Cup. (The revived Hopman Cup should also feature the format.) While women’s and men’s doubles have rankings, mixed doubles does not, seedings at the Australian Open being decided by players’ ranking in single-gender doubles. Matos and Stefani had only played together once prior to the Australian Open, and that was mere weeks earlier at the United Cup.

It’s a shame that mixed doubles is such a low layer in the lasagna of what is prioritized in this sport, because watching Stefani and Matos play their quarterfinal was quite something. Stefani had brilliant touch on the lob, successfully lifting the ball over both her opponents at times. She once lobbed the ball over the net player on a return of serve, something I’ve never seen in singles. (“Really good lobs in the last few games,” Matos said of Stefani during their on-court interview.) Matos has a somewhat loopy, unpenetrative forehand, rather like Yoshihito Nishioka’s, but managed to find enough angles with it that the shot became a strength rather than a liability. They played some stunning points in tandem — the first rally in the highlight video below sees Matos rescue a point with a tweener, then he and Stefani each return an overhead smash from Smith, until finally the Australian misses.

Stefani and Matos both have impressive doubles pedigrees; Stefani, who suffered a bad injury in the semifinals of the 2021 U.S. Open doubles, won the second Adelaide tournament with Taylor Townsend. She’s ranked 25th in the women’s doubles rankings, with a career-high of 9, and has won six doubles titles. But look at her total career earnings — $565,287 — and it’s easy to see that doubles, single-gender or mixed, is not where the money is made. The highlight video linked above has about 12,000 views and a handful comments so far, maybe 1/5 of what you might see on an early-round singles match. When Stefani and Matos won their quarterfinal, the official Australian Open account sent out a celebratory tweet including “Forza” — which is Italian, not Portuguese.


Wanting to follow the Stefani-Matos run to its completion, I watched the first set of their semi against Marc Polmans and Olivia Gadecki (who was mentored by Ash Barty and skipped the 2022 Australian Open due to neglecting to get vaccinated) from the hilltop near Melbourne Park. It was clear early that Polmans and Gadecki were a sterner test; Polmans was acing Stefani repeatedly and was a force at the net. I thought the 20-year-old Gadecki was the fourth-best player on the court, but at the end of the set she tightened her execution on her returns and volleys, and she and Polmans took the first set 6-4.

The hilltop, which was heavily populated during the previous Djokovic-Rublev match, was nearly empty once Djokovic finished waxing his poor opponent. Exhausted from the day and conscious of a desire not to stay out another hour just to see Stefani and Matos lose, I left after the first set of the semifinal. When Polmans and Gadecki were up 5-4, a bird flitted across my field of vision, its dark outline in stark contrast with the white clouds. Its wings flapped rhythmically but more quickly than I thought a bird’s would — each wingbeat didn’t seem to do much. It wasn’t until I focused on the silhouette that I realized it was a bat.

Waking up the next morning, I saw that Stefani and Matos had come back to win — not only had they won the second set and then the super-tiebreak (which is played in place of a third set), they had saved a match point. Polmans even got a hard return to Stefani at the net, a pattern that had worked well for him throughout the first set. But Stefani was expecting this one, punched a volley down the middle that Gadecki had to stretch for, then hammered away the weak reply. Two points later, Stefani, who was returning serve, noticed Polmans cheat a little to his left at net, then unloaded a backhand return winner into the open space for game-set-match.

Their opponents in the final, Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna, carried considerably more star power than the vanquished semifinalists. Mirza spent time as the #1-ranked women’s doubles player, as well as the top-ranked Indian WTA player. Her doubles partners in the past include the legendary Martina Hingis, with whom she won three majors in a row from Wimbledon in 2015 to the 2016 Australian Open. In 2017, she partnered briefly with Peng Shuai. She has beaten Victoria Azarenka — who is a two-time Australian Open champion and made the semifinals again this year — in singles. Having turned pro way back in 2003, Mirza’s career is a huge inspiration for Indian tennis and fans around the world. Her social media platforms are way larger than those of basically every tennis player besides Serena Williams and the Big Three. And having announced her impending retirement — though she will play a couple more tournaments, this Australian Open was her last major — her run to the final with Bopanna had the potential to be a dream farewell. I was on Twitter during the final, and I had never seen the timeline so active during a mixed doubles match.

And Mirza more than pulled her weight. Though she missed a couple overheads in the first-set tiebreak, she rallied from the baseline beautifully, even exchanging forehands with Matos without backing down. But the Brazilian team proved slightly stronger in the end. In the first set, Mirza and Bopanna had a chance to serve for the first set at 5-3, but were broken after a slick drop volley winner from Stefani. Then, on a deciding point with Matos and Stefani up 2-1, they played the rally of the match: Mirza and Matos drilled forehands at each other from the back of the court while Bopanna and Stefani waited at net, coiled to strike if given the opportunity. Finally, after Matos and Mirza had exchanged forehands down the right sideline and from the deuce court, Matos blasted one at full tilt inside-in at Bopanna, who couldn’t handle the pace. The ball flew long, giving the Brazilians what would be a decisive lead.

There’s no grand conclusion here. Others have eulogized Mirza’s epic career better than I could. Stefani and Matos will surely play together again, likely successfully, but they won’t get a chance until Roland-Garros. They deserve a lot of credit for this title — as Courtney Nguyen pointed out during their post-final press conference, Stefani has now won five titles in her last eight events.

But while show courts around the world might have alleys, that’s about as much attention as pro tennis gives to mixed doubles. And that’s a shame, because what I saw of mixed doubles this tournament seemed lighter and more fun for the players than the other formats (maybe because of the lower stakes, admittedly). Players regularly — and warmly — hugged not just their partner but their opponents after matches. There was dedication but no animalistic roars, frustration but no tantrums. The format certainly seems worth tending to a little more.

On championship point, Stefani read a crosscourt forehand from Mirza and crashed a volley right at Bopanna, who didn’t have time to react. The ball struck him in the midsection. Stefani held her hands up in acknowledgment before jumping into Matos’ arms to celebrate the title.



Magical things happen during the Australian Open semifinals. Sure, that sounds hyperbolic, but the last four in Melbourne has been the stage for countless epic matches. It was where Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep played a series of lungbusting rallies in 2018, both saving match points, with Halep eventually prevailing 9-7 in the third set. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic clashed in 2012 on one of the slowest hard courts to date, playing points of such attrition that Djokovic looked dead on his feet by the end of the second set and positively mummified by the end of the third (and came back to win the match in five!) And in 2009, Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco played the greatest match I’ve ever seen, a five-hour, 14 minute ballet of violence. Verdasco drilled winner after winner, 95 of them by the time the night was over, while Nadal scampered from corner to corner in a desperate effort to eke out enough errors to avoid getting blown off the court at the Australian Open for a third straight year. It was wonderful.

So when I sat down ahead of the women’s semifinals yesterday, I was pretending to be cautious in my optimism, but really, my expectations couldn’t have been higher. The sun was slowly setting outside Rod Laver Arena, sending this ethereal golden glow creeping across the sky as seagulls begun to settle on the structure (as they do when night falls at the Australian Open). Before the match, there was a fantastically over-the-top light show on the court. The seats were full, all four players were riding distinctly interesting runs through the tournament…it was an incredible atmosphere. I even found the courage to chat a bit with my neighbors.

Rod Laver Arena through the night.

I don’t think I took a breath for the entire first semifinal. Elena Rybakina and Victoria Azarenka played a first set entirely befitting of two major champions. It was glorious back-and-forth, push-and-pull, all the way until Rybakina claimed the opener 7-6 (4). Azarenka scored the first meaningful blow — at 2-all, 30-all, Rybakina unloaded a 184 km/h serve that landed inches away from the T, but Azarenka read it seamlessly, getting a clean swing on a backhand return. Rybakina was pushed back by its depth and weight, allowing Azarenka to run in and belt a forehand winner. Another great first serve return later, the Belarusian had the first break.

But Rybakina came back instantly, her superpowered groundstrokes vaporizing any anything that dropped a little short or hung up for a split-second. Azarenka is more historically lauded for her return of serve (understandably, given her astonishing returning performance at her 2012-2013 peak and her significantly longer career to this point), but it was Rybakina who did more damage on the return in this match, holding Vika to a mere 6/27 points won on the second serve (I did a double take the first time I saw this stat). Rybakina broke twice in succession, serving for the set at 5-3.

Then she lost her first serve, opening the door for Azarenka to shine again. The two-time Australian Open champion saved a set point with a stunning forehand pass down the line, hit while on the run, and in a blink of deep groundstrokes, found herself up love-40 on Rybakina’s serve at 5-all. Azarenka failed to break, though, despite having looks at second serves on all three break points (one of which she dumped into the net), and in retrospect that was her downfall.

When Rybakina won the tiebreak, despite the respect I had for Azarenka’s fighting spirit and incredible career (this is a woman who once served for a major final against one Serena Williams, after all), I thought the match was over. First sets in big matches are tight a lot of the time, but when one player comes through — especially if they’re the more powerful player — you often see them relax and go for their shots more. With Rybakina having served at a mere 48% in the first set and winning it anyway, I felt that if she went into top gear, she’d be unstoppable. (The second semifinal followed almost the exact same pattern — Aryna Sabalenka snuck out a close first set, then bombed away with her crushing groundstrokes in the second, leaving Magda Linette no chance.)

And sure enough, Rybakina picked up speed in the second set. Azarenka certainly didn’t give up, saving an early break point with another stunning forehand passing shot, but Rybakina was all over her: Azarenka faced break point in every single one of her service games in the second set. Though Rybakina was broken when serving for the match at 5-2, her tennis was alarmingly sharp. By the end of the match, she had more winners than Azarenka (expected) but she also had fewer unforced errors. This is as good a metric to explain the result of the match as any — if the more powerful player also manages to be more accurate, their opponent doesn’t have a chance. There’s just no way to counter pinpoint aggression.

I was exhausted after the first semifinal. It wasn’t that I was unexcited for Sabalenka-Linette, Rybakina-Azarenka was just all-consuming. I felt simultaneously happy for Rybakina and how well she had responded to the lack of recognition for her Wimbledon title and sad for Azarenka, who is experienced enough to know exactly how close to the title she was. I wished I had a couple hours to digest all the emotions before the second semifinal. That said, the match was a great watch anyway — the stylistic contrast between Sabalenka’s raw power and Linette’s never-say-die defense even reminded me a bit of Nadal-Verdasco. (Though the match had the opposite result, with Sabalenka eventually crashing through Linette’s defensive wall.) Verdasco would have nodded knowingly at Sabalenka’s flawless performance in the first-set tiebreak.


The semifinals might have followed a similar pattern, and they did both end in straight sets, but the skill on display from all four players was mindblowing. There were untouchable aces, screaming return winners, eye-wateringly sharp forehand angles hit on the run. I don’t want to exaggerate the quality of the matches, they aren’t ones people will talk about in ten years, but the standard required to make headway was lofty.

Watching major tournaments is a bit like binge-watching an incredibly dramatic TV show. It’s emotional and gratifying, but it’s also hard to fully process all the storylines in real time. You might miss an important detail, then only catch it when you rewatch highlights a month later. The semifinal slate yesterday had four magnetic storylines — Rybakina seeking a second major and the proper recognition that she was denied after winning Wimbledon, Sabalenka striving to win her first major (and make her first major final), Azarenka trying to tap into her Melbourne magic from a decade ago, and Linette aiming to prolong her dream run of giant-killing. Then two of those storylines were cut short within two hours while the two others became more layered and thrilling. I feel like the losing semifinalists’ runs deserve some mourning, but with the Rybakina-Sabalenka final (which very much has the energy of unstoppable force vs. immovable object) looming, dwelling in the past comes at the expense of enjoying the present and future.

Of course, tennis tournaments share that quality with almost everything in life.

The Little Voice

Regrets! We all carry them. They’re instructive in avoiding a repeat performance of past mistakes, but we dwell on them for other reasons, too. Maybe a hypothetical universe in which we didn’t make a certain mistake is more desirable to us than the present we live in. Though such a line of thinking is self-defeating, a way of blinding yourself to both the present and future, we’re all mosaics of our past memories. How are we supposed to ignore them, even the unsavory ones?

I wonder constantly how tennis players manage regrets. I’ll regrettably turn to the poorly-researched and recently racist John McEnroe as an example: In the Strokes of Genius documentary, he said, “I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life trying to figure out a way to remember the wins instead of dwelling on my losses.” McEnroe won seven majors, more than but a handful of the best to ever pick up a racket, so if he wrestles with this, virtually everyone else probably does too. So many matches get played in so many different ways against so many opponents that inevitably, no matter who you are, you’ll suffer a heartbreaking loss or a horrendous choke. You will regret something. It’s unavoidable. How do you deal with that, the retrospective what-if?

Andrey Rublev squeaked past Holger Rune in the fourth round of the Australian Open today, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (9). The match really couldn’t have been closer — five sets, two match points saved, net cord return winner on the last point (AGAIN!). Rublev was wracked with relief at the win, falling on his back in victory as one might do after winning a final, not a mere fourth-rounder. His celebration carried elation, yes, but I think Rublev was also relieved that he wasn’t picking up any more emotional baggage (of which he has quite a bit) for the moment.

The match as a whole was more epically dramatic than high-quality. It had its sleepy periods (I almost dozed off in my seat early in the second set after finishing a pack of gummy snakes). Rune, in particular, seemed way off his game. He hit 12 double faults and significantly more unforced errors than winners. I thought something was missing from his rally shot; he usually hammers every groundstroke, but in this match, he looped quite a few, almost to the point of moonballing at times. Whether it was an ankle issue he picked up in the previous round or something else is irrelevant now, but even in loss I wonder if Rune demonstrated himself as the better player. While Rublev led practically all of the stats, Rune was the one who went up a break in the fifth set and was the first to match point. I’d back Rune to win a rematch in a second.

Not that any of that will be of solace to Rune himself. He lost despite a bunch of opportunities to win. I just got back from Federation Square, where I watched Novak Djokovic dispatch Alex de Minaur like Ron Swanson dispatches cuts of meat — I mean it, this match was as one-sided as a match between two high-ranked professionals can get — and I think de Minaur is going to sleep better than Rune tonight. He had an impossible task, really. Djokovic isn’t only a nine-time Australian Open champion, he was in one of his moods, hitting return winners off first serves and shutting down de Minaur’s offense entirely with his spidery baseline coverage. Even if de Minaur had played the best tennis of his life, Djokovic would have beaten him in straight sets, the match would have just been marginally closer. Rune actually had a beatable opponent in Rublev — and was on the precipice of beating him multiple times! He served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, got a chance to return for the match at 5-4 (he didn’t win a point in either game), had the two match points at 6-5, then led the super-tiebreak 5-0 and 7-2. Even in a sport as cruel and fickle as tennis, that’s a lot of demons to create in one match.

In contrast, you can watch de Minaur’s presser here (which is fascinating), and while he expresses regret that he couldn’t make the match more competitive, he sounds more dazed and confused than anything. He mentions going in with a gameplan, but when pressed on what it was, it’s obvious from his demeanor that he never had much faith in his tactics. He gets that Djokovic was near-faultless. He knows that it didn’t matter what his gameplan was, Djokovic hit the ball so relentlessly and consistently deep that de Minaur didn’t have time to execute anything properly. While he wishes he could have put up a stronger front, he knows there was nothing he could have done to win. If he can avoid getting existential about how much better Djokovic is than him, this match doesn’t change much. No reason to be deeply regretful.

This may be more important than it sounds. I think that most tennis players (and maybe athletes in general) fear regret more than they do loss. Matteo Berrettini said in Netflix’s tennis documentary (ever heard of it?) Break Point that his greatest fear was “feeling that I could have done more and I didn’t try, like I didn’t give everything that I had.” In the following episode, we learn that Taylor Fritz played the Indian Wells final despite a badly injured ankle because he didn’t think he could forgive himself if he didn’t take to the court. You’ll notice neither player mentions being afraid of losing here, it’s the lack of effort that’s abhorrent to them. Tennis will find various hells to put players through even when they try their hardest, but finding that inner peace — cheesy as it sounds — is a priority. Even the best players ever lose at more tournaments than they win. Tennis is about dominating, yes, but if you can’t cope with the losses, you’ll be a mess for god knows how long.

And regardless of any objective evaluation — objectively, Fritz shouldn’t have played that final because of the likelihood of it making his ankle worse — what matters most to the player are their own feelings about their play. Tennis players are insanely hard on themselves, often tearing their self-esteem down when they should give themselves grace. Fritz playing through injury was potentially self-destructive, but he saw it as self-preserving. Did it set a good example? No. Would I have done the same? Definitely not. But maybe it was the best thing for him in the moment, eventual result of the final (which he won) aside.

Having too many regrets is like walking around with a sack of cannonballs around your shoulder. You ask yourself, “what if I had done this instead of that?” and the logical answer is that it doesn’t matter because the past is past and dwelling on it impedes your ability to succeed in present and future, but the mind is a stubborn thing. You could be so much happier now, it tells you, if – you – had – just – avoided – making – that – one – mistake. I’ve had days when I linger in the past too much, and it doesn’t matter what my agenda is that day, I’m not getting anything done. The sun is down before I know it. Rublev played a terrible point to lose the fourth set against Rune, not doing enough with a few midcourt forehands and then blowing a swing volley. The thing to do after that is to take a full-blooded cut at the next sitter, because hesitating mid-swing will only make it easier for your opponent to stay in the point. But at match point, 9-8 up in the fifth-set tiebreak, Rublev hit a tentative swing volley to the wrong side of the court and got passed easily. He won despite the hiccup, but it was damn close. He snapped back into the present just in time.

Rublev was clearly still recovering from the stress during his post-match interview. Players tend to spout the same dull platitudes in post-match interviews, often regardless of how important or tense the clash was, but Rublev was glaringly honest. The interviewer asked him if the match was like a rollercoaster. Rublev said it was more like a gun to the head. It was an uncommonly transparent look into a player’s psyche.

Poignant as it was, though, the premise of Rublev’s analogy struck me as flawed. He seems as susceptible as anyone to that little inner voice of regret. It badgers him during matches, constantly asking why he didn’t play each and every point perfectly, which may be why he berates himself so much after seemingly understandable errors. It’s all in pursuit of satisfying that little voice which always demands more from him. Had Rublev lost today after having a two-sets-to-one lead, the little voice probably would have raised in volume, screaming at him as he hit the practice courts, yelling as he tried to sleep. If what tennis players fear above all else truly is regret, then their greatest threat is not the metaphorical gun going off, it’s the possibility of that little voice droning on forever.

The Next Phase for Iga Świątek

Iga Świątek, world number one and three-time major champion, is out of the Australian Open. And the way she went down, to a storm of brilliance from Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, was of little fault of her own. Sure, you can point to her first serve not doing enough damage (which I’ll get into), but this was Rybakina’s day. She was always going to be a thorny obstacle for a top seed this tournament — if Wimbledon had granted points last year, she’d have been a top seed herself — it was just Świątek’s misfortune that Rybakina ended up in her path.

The game plan against Świątek might not be easy, but it is clear. You can’t match her defense or high-margin aggression, so you have to take chances and try to blast through her with risky winners, starting with the return of serve. Naturally, this puts a lot of pressure on your power shots: Knowing how incredibly precise you have to be makes it that much more difficult to hit those tiny targets. Rybakina, though, seemed impervious to the pressure. She clubbed a pair of return winners in the very first game, breaking after Świątek had grabbed a 40-love lead. Though the world number one eventually broke back, that set the tone — Rybakina’s power would be the decisive factor in the match.

Świątek certainly had her chances, most notably a 3-0 lead in the second set, but she was never exactly in control of the match. At 3-1, she made four first serves — and lost four points. Świątek’s first serve is her primary (and really only) weakness at this point. She’s capable of good spot serving but, maybe buoyed by the knowledge that her ground game is enough to beat most players without the help of a great serve, seems to just want to get the point started much of the time. It’s understandable. Why take unnecessary risk when you can win safely? Against a firing Rybakina, though, it wasn’t possible for Świątek to win with so much margin for error in her game. Świątek won 57% of her first serve points; Rybakina won 80%. The world number one netted a short forehand, the kind of shot she hits for a winner in her sleep, to drop serve at 4-all in the second set. Rybakina served the match out to love moments later.

Though Świątek is the world number one, and a dominant tour-leader at that, this result…doesn’t change things at the Australian Open all that much. She was the tournament favorite, yes. But when she lost to Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals at Roland-Garros in 2021, the draw was thrown into chaos. Literally anyone could win after that, we said. Here, the vibe is different. Jessica Pegula is the world number three, crushed Świątek pre-Australian Open, and is yet to drop a set. Aryna Sabalenka, power player extraordinaire, has been scarily accurate so far. Fourth-seeded Caroline Garcia is in-form and has survived a couple fierce tests. Rybakina is certainly a contender after this performance. You have Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion of the event, who just survived a tight match against Zhu Lin to reach the last eight. Jelena Ostapenko and her titanic bullwhip groundstrokes (from which no one is safe) are into the quarterfinals as well. In a tournament that hasn’t featured too many magical matches just yet, I can’t wait for everyone to start scything each other down in the later rounds.


Much of the talk heading into this young season was whether or not anyone could be a meaningful rival to Świątek after her dominant 2022. Maybe that was the wrong question. It is incredibly hard gatekeep a spot at the pinnacle of the tennis tour. Take Novak Djokovic’s 2011 season, one of the very most dominant in the Open Era. He won 41 straight matches that season as well as three of the four majors. He demolished all his rivals. But in 2012, he started losing to the other members of the Big Four, seemingly all at once — it wasn’t any individual one of them that did the damage.

Świątek has been directly in the spotlight for almost a year now, and during that time, her peers have been studying her for weaknesses. It’s just the nature of tennis. Players get sick of losing to the same player over and over, so they figure out tactical angles to prevent it from happening again. Świątek’s potentially vulnerable first serve is no secret; gone are the days of the 37-match winning streak when the query of how to beat her was greeted with a giant question mark. During most of that stretch, each part of Świątek’s game was operating on such an outrageously high level that her serve became too small a weakness to be relevant. But now, whether it’s because the rest of her game has inevitably regressed to the (still extremely impressive) mean or because players are being more proactive in attacking her serve, Świątek is a little more vulnerable.

I’m not trying to write a eulogy for Świątek’s time at number one (there is sure to be more of it) here, but it’s worth mentioning how unstable the ground at the mountaintop is. Whether the pressure or the chase pack or injuries end up getting to you, you’re coming down eventually. Daniil Medvedev lasted all of three weeks as world number one on the ATP before getting displaced.

My point is this: Świątek’s (first?) phase of utter dominance is probably over. And it’s not that the loss to Rybakina marked the ending, but heading into a new season, using it as the lens through which to view Świątek’s future reign could be instructive. The way Rybakina beat the world number one — huge returns, crushing groundstrokes — will be difficult to reproduce. But even before Rybakina’s win, other players put forth the blueprint. There was the Sabalenka win over Świątek at the WTA Finals, the Pegula win over the world number one at the United Cup. More players will blast away at Świątek’s serve, and by the law of averages alone, some are going to execute successfully enough to succeed.

The next step for Świątek is to climb yet another peak that no one else can reach. Improving her first serve will both set up her forehand for easier putaways and make her more difficult to attack, and if that happens the road to beating her will become shrouded in fog again. It’s unfair, really, that the best player in the world should be forced to improve, but that’s where Świątek has found herself. Tennis never stops, even for those who rule it.

Świątek is hardly in trouble. Sure, she’s defending the points from her six big titles, but it was never a question that other players would pick up at least a couple of those titles in 2023. Clay isn’t too far away, where Świątek is more dominant than she is on hard court; her biting forehand and stifling movement are further enhanced on the dirt. And I’m confident she will win the Australian Open in the future — it’s not like this loss carries a sense of foreboding for her future in Melbourne. Świątek is still only 21! But if we were wondering which players could even pose a challenge to the world number one in 2023, we already have some answers.

The Superhuman Superhero

By Claire Stanley

Andy Murray’s Australian Open might be over for another year, but the resilient Scot proved beyond all reasonable doubt this week in Melbourne that he is most certainly not down and out.

Showing grit and stamina beyond his years, Murray defied all the odds stacked against him during his first two matches. He was written off by many before he had even taken to the court against 13th seed Matteo Berrettini and then again when he trailed by two sets and 5-2 in what became his longest ever match, an incredible comeback against home favourite Thanasi Kokkinakis in a five set thriller (the 11th time he has won from two sets to love down).

It wasn’t to be against Roberto Bautista Agut last night in a packed Margaret Court Arena – but Murray can leave with his head held high after more than 14 hours on court.

My reflections on that match, having been there in person:

1: I can’t believe the audacity of Murray hitting some of the shots he – quite frankly – had no business hitting being a one-hipped man of 35 with 7,000 blisters on his feet.

2: It took Bautista Agut three and a half hours to beat Murray when at times the man could barely even move.

My second point is, of course, not a criticism of Murray but a nod to his sheer determination and dogged fighting spirit to never lie down, never give up. To never say it’s over until the last ball has been played. He fought until the very last point and I’m certain this week in Melbourne has earned him a legion of new fans who have been absolutely astounded by his resilience and passion for the game.

Whatever Murray has been doing with coach Ivan Lendl is working – his serve has improved (albeit he struggled with it against RBA due to the pain in his back and feet) and his forehand has strengthened. Dare I say he was giving off the vibes of 2016 Andy Murray more often than not over the course of those three matches? At the very least, he played better tennis than he did for the whole of last season. In a recent Murray Musings podcast I described 35 as being the perfect vintage. In his post-match interview on Saturday night, another 35 year old – Novak Djokovic – said 35 is the new 25. Maybe this old man is getting a new lease of life.

Four years ago I cried when I thought it was all over for him. I sobbed watching his pre-AO press conference and I bawled watching him fight back, but subsequently lose to (yet again) Bautista Agut in the first round. I was almost inconsolable when the AO organisers played his “retirement” tribute video.

I pride myself on being a words person but I do genuinely struggle to eloquently describe the impact Andy Murray has had on me over the years. It was my mum, a real tennis lover, who first introduced me to him way back in 2003 when he won a Futures tournament in Glasgow. It was definitely harder to follow players outside of the slams back then, and even more so for Andy since he was still a junior, but after he won the US Open juniors in 2004 the coverage on him increased. We would scour tournament results to see if he had played and how he had gotten on, and we followed his progress as a wild card at Queens Club in 2005 where he got his first ever ATP Tour win and made it to the third round. From then on we were hooked.

For years we watched him, hoping he could make that leap from phenomenal challenger to bona fide champion. We cried with him in 2008 when he lost the U.S. Open final to Roger Federer. We cried again in 2010, 2011 and 2012 when he lost the Australian Open and Wimbledon finals. There were tears of joy in August 2012 when he won his first of two Olympic gold singles medals. We cried even more when he won his first major at the U.S. Open in September that same year.

Finally – 2013 came around. Ten years ago now. We cried, cheered, cried some more when Andy, ever the underdog, came out fighting and unstoppable against Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, getting his hands on the trophy he coveted most.

My mum had terminal cancer at the time. When Andy won Wimbledon she said: “I’m so glad I got to see that. I always wanted to see that.”

She never got to see him lift the Davis Cup, win his second Wimbledon or become World Number 1 – but she always knew he had it in him.

People often ask me why I love Andy Murray so much. What is it about him? I’m not lying when I say it’s his grit and determination, and his ability to make tennis look difficult while proving to anyone that if they work hard enough, and want something enough, they can achieve it too…

But it’s also because Andy Murray got me through some of my darkest days – and he still does. I would rewatch matches that my mum and I watched together and remember the chats we would have while they were on, remember our armchair analysis of his play and the rallies and points that made us grasp hands and gasp out loud. My mum introduced me to the joy of Andy Murray and for as long as he plays I’ll always imagine her sitting next to me, watching his matches with me, hiding behind her hands or throwing her arms in the air. He brought her joy even in her sickest moments – and for that I will never be able to thank him enough.

The impact he has on his fans is profound – Andy Murray is superhuman and we are so, so lucky to have him. I can’t wait to see what this year brings.

Proving the doubters wrong: Murray reacts to winning his first major title. Screenshot: U.S. Open

Diana Shnaider: When Insane Talent is Not Enough

By Alex Boroch

When 18-year-old Diana Shnaider from Russia stepped on court at Margaret Court Arena in the second round of the Australian Open to open action against sixth seed Maria Sakkari, much of the audience was unaware of the incredible talent they were about to witness over the course of the next two and a half hours. Even though I had already seen some impressive performances from Shnaider in the past months – not least thanks to her inspiring success in the WTA 125 Challenger Series at the end of the previous season – I, too, was surprised by the depth of my reverence by the time the match was over.

Although Diana Shnaider’s current success was far from unpredictable early (we are talking about a former world No. 2 on the ITF juniors list), there are more obstacles in the way of her career than you could probably find at Stonehenge.

Shnaider is far from an isolated case in terms of facing obstacles and a lack of support. Since there is a little tennis nerd in all of us, I would like to refer to the legendary Algerian tennis player Lamine Ouahab — the only player to defeat Rafael Nadal in a juniors Grand Slam event. Wondering about a common thread between these two special athletes? I can assure you: There are not too many. At least for now, I do not know about any triumph of Diana Shnaider over Rafael Nadal in a recorded match. 

Here’s what I am getting at: All the talent in the world is of no use to a player if their financial situation does not allow for proper training. That is what unites the fate of Diana Shnaider and Lamine Ouahab. At least for now, and hopefully only for a while. 

Ouahab, who later switched nationalities to Morocco on the tennis circuit, is now 38 years old and, barring future miracles, is a long way from realizing his full potential – he hit a career high of 114 in the rankings. Ouahab wasn’t the most dedicated to fully exploring the limits of his body, mentality and overall ceiling, but mostly the lack of support and unfairness within the vast tennis cosmos was what cost him – which, like in so many other sports and aspects of life, is driven and fully controlled by the sole aspect of profit.

(Small side note: When we talk about “cosmos” in a more-or-less relevant tennis context, Kosmos with a “k” is rarely the means to success – as the ITF with its “Davis Cup” recently experienced. In an appropriate way: happy retirement to Gerard Piqué.)

To put things in perspective again: Shnaider’s chances of being successful in her career are and have been higher since birth than for Ouahab from Algeria. Those are simply linked to some privileges and lack of furtherance. The place of birth and one’s residence have a huge impact on the chances of a successful career. 

But even in Shnaider’s case, it is far from a given for a Russian-born athlete that the necessary support to be a successful professional tennis player will be provided. In recent years, many Russian top athletes in tennis decided to switch nationalities and compete under the Kazakh flag, since the Kazakh Tennis Federation offered more opportunities for financial aid and sponsorship. 

It was only last year that 23-year-old Elena Rybakina, a Moscow-born player who decided to play for Kazakhstan in 2018 after five years of competing for Russia, won the prestigious Wimbledon tournament. As Rybakina confirmed in several interviews, her decision to play for Kazakhstan was mainly influenced by the support the country could give her when she was an up-and-coming young player. The current world No. 25 was struggling with financial difficulties after high school and stated:

“It was not an easy decision because, of course, financially it’s difficult. It’s a very expensive sport. Like all the parents, my parents, they were worried if something happens, if you get injured, of course you want your kid to study and not to risk.”

When Shnaider walked into the gigantic Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne early Wednesday afternoon (local time), and many people – myself included – realized that she  was not even carrying a bag with a sponsor on it to carry her racquets, I knew immediately that I had to write a detailed text on this topic.

While in modern football teenagers are sometimes traded within clubs for absurd amounts of millions, the three-time major champion in junior doubles could not even land a kit bag sponsorship. An absurdity that is hard to imagine. 

If I were a brand ambassador, the Moscow-native would totally fascinate me for various reasons. Her look embodies uniqueness, in the form of a stylish head scarf and a more vintage Fila look reminiscent of – for some generations – the so-called “golden days” of tennis that lie a few decades back.

Not only her look is reminiscent of better times, but her incredible forehand bomb, which is enhanced by her lefty angles and versatility, also brought world number six Maria Sakkari to despair. Contextually, “despair” might even be a slight understatement. The forehand whip – paired with the unbelievable will to win in the form of numerous cheers and fist pumps – eventually drove Maria Sakkari to fury.

“If she screams one more time in my face. No, no, no, no, one more time… she’s coming toward me. One more time and I’m going to speak to the referee,” Sakkari said of the 18-year-old Russian.

At the end of the day, Maria Sakkari narrowly won the match. Although Shnaider ended up leaving the court as the defeated player, she was not really a loser that day. Theoretically, It may also have been the starting point and the help needed for a successful pro career. 

Reaching the second round in Melbourne potentially reaped her almost $110,000.  

Why “potentially”? A few months back, Shnaider, due to lack of financial aid, announced that she would not be immediately turning pro and instead would be playing college tennis at N.C. State. 

“One of my mother’s friends told us about N.C. State,” she explained in a video announcing her commitment to play during the 2022-2023 season. “Right now, the situation is really bad for me, and for Russians to travel, so we made the decision that it would be the right time to come here.”

Here comes the twist: Should Diana Shnaider decide to pursue a college tennis career, she would not be entitled to any prize money she won at the Australian Open due to the applicable college rules. It’s a decision that will certainly keep Shnaider busy for the days and nights to come. With her outstanding performances Down Under dating back to qualifying, Shnaider has already secured a place inside the top 100 of the rankings, currently sitting at #94 in the live-rankings. 

One thing is certain: Shnaider’s talent would not get in her way should she decide to turn pro. Later in her press conference, Sakkari spoke of her opponent’s professional prospects: 

“It was a very high level from both of us. She played an amazing match,” (via Tennis 365). “She’s very young, she’s very promising. Maybe she should consider not going to college and turning pro.”

Andy Murray and the Impossible Something

I think I’m ready to admit that at times last year, my emotional investment in the career of Andy Murray left me feeling somewhat tired. Not because of his form but because I knew that he wasn’t going to give up even with the whole world telling him that it was time. Never let it be said that it’s not OK to be frustrated with athletes’ attitudes. Especially those that we love. Especially those that steadfastly refuse to accept endings. Because until they accept that it’s over, we can’t either. I couldn’t either. I just couldn’t.

But I came close. Oh, boy, I think I came close.

I knew that I and so many of my friends that I’ve been lucky enough to meet through being a fan of this irritatingly resilient man would end up being there long after many more casual supporters had turned out the lights and closed up shop on having faith in seeing something more from him. More than that though, I found that an ugly sense of familiarity greeted me with every Murray tournament entry. Indeed, I found myself getting used to first and second round losses, meeting them with a handshake of acceptance of where he now found himself, a low whisper of “he did alright, he tried, there’s always next week…” exchanged with my fellow diehard supporters.

“But is next week really worth it?” I would find myself wondering later on when on my own. “Like, is this really what he wants, is this really what’s making him happy?” The fact of the matter is that Murray has never been alright just making up the numbers in draws. He’ll have been sick and tired of handing players weekly opportunities to speak about how much of an honour it was to play him in their winner’s post-match on-court interviews. That’s what he became, a big name that holds weight with his career achievements but could be scalped with a heavy and consistent baseline performance by good players and claimed as a demonstration of their own personal talent.

If this sounds like the talk of a bitter fan, that’s because it’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what I was. Murray owes us nothing but his impact on my life has at times delusioned me, made me feel like maybe he does a bit, like maybe after all these goddamn years of screaming ourselves into nothingness for him, that maybe, just maybe, he owed us just one final something. And I think I came to a point where I realised that something was perhaps a step too far for him, that this guy of such career fight was now on his back and breathing heavy with the weight of metal and pain and one final career ride.

To count out miracle-makers before their final breath is a mistake often made and I think last year, I came very close to making it. I came close to accepting the running down of the clock, the dying of the light, the setting of the sun. Murray, built different as he is and wired with a surgeon’s knife to be sent back into battle, was cramping up, his muscles seizing in early rounds of best-of-three-set tournaments. As his season ended, it was the first time that I ever recall taking a step back and taking in what I thought was writing written large up on the wall that loomed dark behind each and every Murray loss.


Embed from Getty Images

Roaring into the Melbourne morning at 4am, Andy Murray looked like a dead man walking, so fucking ALIVE in spite of obvious exhaustion, a winner in spite of his bodily restraints that should have rendered him gone. An impossibility of a man, he stood there only briefly, barking on the crowd that were wired in within the lateness. But what I feel Murray does better than most is that his attitude can at times take hold of the cameras that watch him and speak one-to-one through the screens to those at home and in that moment, I felt it for me.

“You thought I was done, didn’t you, Scott? You of all people, with your cardboard cutout and podcast and silly little tweets about me. You thought me finished…”

And I am not ashamed to say that I found myself emotional because after following this man to the ends of the Earth, yes, I think I maybe did a little. I think I did. I thought I’d seen it all. And so if Murray has taught me anything over the first two rounds of the Australian Open 2023, it’s that it’s fun to be just a little bit mad with your expectations in spite of the disappointment that often follows. Because every now and then, that craziness will creep on through into reality to give us something. Whatever happens now, whatever Murray goes on to do at this tournament, whatever I go on to do in life, whatever you – yes, you reading this right now! – go on to do with the rest of your day, remember that something is always possible. Always.

What he proved last night is that even if he’s nailed in a casket and buried in the ashes of fire hot, Andy Murray will rise from the aftersmoke of it all with a limp in his walk and a glint in his eyes to ask us all with the most serious of dour Scottish wearisomeness “now is that really all you’ve got?”

Warrior: Andy Murray wins back-to-back 5 set matches at the Australian Open 2023. Screenshot: Australian Open Youtube Channel

Andy Murray Does it Again

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Everything people are saying about how this match should never have gone so late, how it was unfair on everyone from the players to the unpaid ballkids who raced back and forth for six hours, is true. I doubt I can add to the issues that have already been pointed out and the potential solutions that have been put forth, but I can tell you what I saw inside Margaret Court Arena — there was the usher who had been on his feet since 6:00 p.m. and told me he had never stayed later than 2:30 a.m. (we all filed out of the stadium at around 4:15). A huge clump of fans left after the third set. Some of the fans who stayed asked if concessions were still open and looked blankly at the ushers when they were told places were closed. People ran out to the lone booth that remained open and came back with trays of hot chocolate and coffee and tea. Phones died, meaning people couldn’t call Ubers. Claire Stanley, one of the three biggest Murray fans on this Earth, had to leave because her phone ran out of juice and she needed to catch the last tram, which she barely made.

That was in the middle of the third set. The match wouldn’t end for another three hours.

When I was watching on one of the TV screens inside the arena — I think it was early in the fourth set — I heard a fan talking to an usher. The fan was being kicked out for saying something, I’m not sure what, to Thanasi Kokkinakis during the instant-classic second-round match with Andy Murray. The conversation was shockingly reasonable for the hour and the nature of the situation. The fan said that Kokkinakis had called him a cocksucker and that a different usher had come to talk to him for what he’d said beforehand, and thereafter the fan had done nothing but cheer appropriately for Murray. “It’s hilarious to me that he, one of the athletes, can call someone a cocksucker and nothing happens, and I do nothing but cheer for Andy Murray since your coworker came to talk to me and I get removed,” he said. The usher seemed not to blame the fan personally, and the fan repeatedly told the usher he understood their plight.

“I’m just the messenger,” the usher said helplessly after a while. It had the effect of an ace on match point.

“I get it,” the fan replied, shaking the usher’s hand and politely asking for his name (not as in so I can talk to your manager, as in I’m sorry, I missed it the first time). He walked away, then spun around after a few steps. “Where is the exit again?”

Anyway, Murray and Kokkinakis played a pretty good tennis match this morning.

I have so many details flitting through my head that I really don’t know where to start. I remember finishing a piece about Novak Djokovic and then going over to watch the screen in Margaret Court Arena; soon thereafter, Andy Murray returned approximately 477593 overheads from Thanasi Kokkinakis and won the point in such an incredible way he immediately seemed relevant in the match again despite being down two sets and 1-2.

Some will say that the overhead retrievals were the turning point of the match, but Kokkinakis answered the bell after Murray’s defensive heroics, toughing out a hold at 2-all, breaking Murray at 3-2, then saving break point to hold again at 4-2. I don’t care who you are or who you’re playing, if you’re on the pro tour, I don’t expect you to win from two sets and 2-5 down. It looked, for all intents and purposes, that Kokkinakis had taken Murray’s best punch on the chin and was no worse off for it. He was having a career day. He kept blasting aces down the T that bit right into the centerline and left Murray ranting at his box. His forehand was a cannon shot, his backhand a helping hand rather than a liability.

But Murray never quit. He kept matters close enough to force Kokkinakis’s nerves into the equation. I was already wondering by the end of the third set if the Australian had ever been in such an intense match. The rallies required three or four finishing shots to kill properly; there were, seemingly, stretch lobs that forced a smash error on every other point. Kokkinakis was regularly pounding his heart as if to show how much will the match was requiring, even with him so close to a straight-set win. I feel for him, because I don’t think he ever outright choked (okay, the volley to lose the third set was a considerable choke). It was more that he made some errors on the pretty big points and Murray won the biggest on his own terms. You had Kokkinakis’s unforced error at 5-3, 30-all in the third set when he served for the match, then Murray’s error-forcing forehand on break point. Kokkinakis saved three break points at 5-all in the fifth, two with gigantic serves, only for Murray to blast an inside-out forehand winner on his fourth chance. You can only do so much.

This wasn’t one of the matches where Murray found himself sucked into a grind fest with an underpowered opponent by being unwilling to pull the trigger himself, which has happened countless times in the past few years. Murray actually did what I’ve been imploring him to do since his comeback and what others have been begging for his whole career: He hit his backhand down the line. He attacked Kokkinakis’s slices with curling forehand winners. Was this 2012 Murray? No. But the resemblance was stronger than it has been in a very long time. And Kokkinakis deserves the credit for pushing him to those heights; nothing less than what Murray produced would have been enough to win.

There were enough bits of magic sprinkled onto the five hours and 45 minutes that this match won’t just be remembered for Murray’s comeback. At 3-2 in the fourth set, Murray, as he is wont to do sometimes, stirred up the crowd with gestures and applause. We started yelling and didn’t stop. Kokkinakis took his time walking over to his side of the court, and I could see him smile from my seat. It was already past two in the morning at this point, we were just a bunch of people screaming for two people hitting a ball back and forth on a little blue rectangle early in a tournament. But the two people made it feel very special.

Murray’s career is inextricably intertwined with the Big Three’s, but he’s the easiest to differentiate. When you’ve won three majors out of the 66 the Big Four have won in total, you’re amazing, but you’re the fourth wheel. Murray’s comeback from injury and attempt to retool his game has not led to more major titles but to a string of gritty mini-epics, reminders that while Murray is no longer immortally tireless, he can still be tireless for a night.

Murray has played and won enough matches in his career that it’s probably exaggeratory to say that any individual one of them was unlike all the others. This was his 11th comeback from two sets to love down, an Open Era record. But to me it did feel different than the other insane matches he’s played during his career, and I think it did to Murray too. It was the second-longest match in Australian Open history! In his first-round press conference after beating Matteo Berrettini, Murray was pretty dour, despite the epic nature of the win he’d just scored. I’d have been joking around if it were me, fishing for as many compliments as I could, but Murray just nonchalantly expressed his pleasure. I expected the same out of him after this. He’s just a grumpy guy, I figured. It’d be nice if he wasn’t, but it’s okay that he is — this is just Andy. The idea of truly taking someone as they are, flaws and all, gets tossed around quite a bit, but I think a lot of the time, if you think about it hard enough, we would use the power to change people if we had it. Murray’s fans must surely wish his second serve were better. But when thinking about Andy, the idea resonated with me more than it had in a while. If he weren’t grumpy, he wouldn’t be Andy, and Andy strikes a chord with people as he is. 

Here’s why I think this match felt different to the Scot: The first question he was asked after the match was how he managed to pull off the comeback. I expected a slow, thought-out answer, and Murray did indeed eventually give a typically intelligent response. But the first thing to escape his lips was a high-pitched giggle. 

Imperial Novak

My first impression of the crowd was that there were plenty of Djokovic fans. And there were, but Djokovic’s detractors — and maybe this plays into the narrative that he isn’t popular — are very loud. I sat in front of a row of them way back in the second-highest row on Rod Laver Arena. The people next to me were just fine, one of whom I turned to at the beginning of the match to ask who he was rooting for.

“Djokovic,” he said. That was the end of the conversation. The first set went by in a blur; Djokovic’s opponent, Enzo Couacaud, rolled his ankle badly and lost three straight games after his MTO at 3-1 down. It left me feeling a bit icky — Couacaud had reportedly told the physio he heard something crack in his ankle, and he’d limped badly over to his chair, but he elected to play on nonetheless.

Couacaud actually played quite well for the final three sets of the match, as did Djokovic, despite the Serb’s increasingly obvious discomfort from his hamstring injury. Though physical impairment certainly affects performance in tennis, it always seems to be less impactful than we expect. Rafa Nadal picked up an injury late in the second set of his loss to Mackenzie McDonald that’s expected to keep him out for eight weeks, but Nadal slapped enough forehand winners in the third set to actually make it closer than the first two. And tonight, Djokovic blasted through the final two sets after losing a tight tiebreak, for the loss of just two games. Whatever parts of his game were hampered by the hamstring he made up for by blasting neon missiles with his forehand.

It’s kind of a stomach-turning dynamic, this. Djokovic is so much better than Couacaud, and many others, that he’ll knowingly play through injury because he’s fully aware he can beat them anyway. For all of his struggles tonight, he didn’t lose his serve and he faced just one break point. I have no idea how much worse he made his hamstring injury, but I imagine he’s prepared to sit in a body cast for a month if that’s what it takes to win this tournament. We all remember how Djokovic played through a growing ab tear at this tournament two years ago and waxed Medvedev in the final anyway. He wrecked his body to win, his play being so good that things actually worked out the way he wanted them to. It’s certainly amazing, but I find it hard to watch, imagining what kind of pain he’s putting himself through.

On Djokovic’s dominance at this tournament, I’m genuinely curious what would happen if the same scientists who built the invincible chess and Go bots built a tennis bot and sicced it on Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena. How do you play Djokovic on a hard court? His serve has become near-untouchable. It’s not quite an Isner serve, but I’d almost rather try to break Isner at this point — send a return at the big man’s feet and he’ll snap in two trying to reach down for it, hit the ball onto Djokovic’s baseline and he’ll simply half-volley the ball back before commencing an onslaught of deep groundstrokes. Good returns are no guarantee you’ll win a point against that serve. Then he has the return, the drop shot, the increasingly soft feel at net. In the first round, Djokovic dropped all of three points in the third set against Roberto Carballés Baena. Let me know how they program that tennis bot, because I’d love to see what gameplan it uses. My guess is it’d just play like Djokovic, only its machine-like precision would be literal rather than figurative. They’d probably play a five-setter that lasted ten hours.

Seriously, how do you beat a motivated Djokovic here? If you didn’t watch the match against Couacaud and only saw the scoreline, you’d have no idea whatsoever that he was physically compromised. (The scoreline 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-0 is so very Djokovic.) At the World Tour Finals last year, the 21-time major champion emptied the tank against Daniil Medvedev in the round-robin stage, then was shaking with exhaustion by the fourth game against Casper Ruud in the final. He won anyway, never facing a break point. Some will say he was foxing to set up a rug-pull, but my theory is that he’s just good enough that he doesn’t even need to be fit to beat anyone outside the top two or three in the world.

The row of increasingly disgruntled Couacaud aficionados behind me grew antsier as Djokovic stretched his lead. “Bang!” they’d yell after every shot. “Yes!” they’d cry when a Couacaud lob landed in. Someone a couple rows in front of them told them to shut up. They clapped back at her, asking why she’d come out to the stadium instead of watching on TV.

“It’s just that the players can hear you when you shout during the point,” I tried.

“The people behind us are being loud too!” one of them responded, gesturing to the fans behind a glass partition. “You gonna tell them off?”

“Behind the glass?” I asked. I couldn’t believe they were equating themselves with fans in a sealed-off room. (In retrospect, I half-wish I’d slowly explained that the glass muffled the sound, thereby making those fans less offensive. Though maybe that would have ended badly.)

They repeated that the fans behind the glass were being loud. I gave up after that; any fully grown human being who uses the others are doing it, so it’s okay if I do defense is probably too sloshed to successfully reason with. Interestingly, though, while the row of fans clearly wanted Djokovic to lose, they also clearly understood how great he was. I heard, “how the fuck did he get that back?” more than once. Djokovic’s rifled return winners drew involuntary gasps. One of the hecklers laughed when someone suggested that they settle down early in the second set.

“Why? He’s gonna win anyway.”

With that last statement, at least, I had no argument.

A drunk fan got on Djokovic’s nerves early in the fourth set. Though the crowd was too loud for me to hear his conversation with Fergus Murphy, he was clearly peeved. Injured and irked by drunk fans, a lesser player might have buckled. Djokovic stepped back to the baseline, flung a first serve out wide, then fired a forehand winner into the right corner. If there’s anything I know about Djokovic, it’s that the heat from fans makes him stronger even as it hurts him personally.


After Djokovic ripped a stunning two-hander through the court on match point, I turned back to the guy next to me who had said he was rooting for Djokovic. “Were you ever worried?” I asked him. Sure, Djokovic had won easily in the end, but his physical impairment had been clear in that lengthy second set. I was a little grateful I wasn’t deeply invested in either player’s eventual success; the stress on top of the roiling crowd would have been brutal.

But he laughed and shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “Not until the second week.”

Andy Murray. That’s it. That’s the headline.

By Claire Stanley

Now that I’ve had the chance to calm down, somewhat, sleep and reflect on what happened in Melbourne last night, I’m ready to put my feelings into words.

Andy Murray v Matteo Berrettini may go down as one of my favourite, most exhilarating, most stressful matches in history. There really is no comparison to watching this kind of match live – you feel every raw emotion from the players and everyone around you, the air almost pulsates with energy and the sound is at times deafening.

I lived a thousand lives and died a thousand deaths last night. I couldn’t quite believe what I was witnessing in those first two sets. As ever I went into the match with my usual unwavering belief in Andy’s abilities – I said to multiple people beforehand that he could do it, he absolutely could beat Matteo. He was, after all, due a win after two tough losses in 2022. I figured by now he would have a better grasp on Matteo’s game, know his weaknesses, know what to expose… I wasn’t wrong and in those first two sets Murray did everything right, his tactics were flawless, his first serve had improved and his forehand looked strong and powerful – whatever he was doing with his coach Ivan Lendl was working and Matteo simply couldn’t get a grip on Murray’s game.

By the end of the second set I was almost convinced I would be on my way out of Rod Laver within the hour. I say almost because at the end of the day, I still know this is Andy Murray and anything can happen. And happen it did – Matteo took a short break between the second and third sets and came back out a different player. His aces were, put simply, stunning – the sheer force and power in the way he hit the ball was really something to see. I started to get “a feeling” – not a good one, but a sinking feeling that this wasn’t going to be quite so clear cut as I had hoped mere minutes before.

Throughout those third and fourth sets my emotions mirrored Andy’s – my shoulders slumped every time Matteo hit a blistering ace, usually when Andy had a break point or a chance to put the Italian under pressure. I screamed, roared and fist pumped when he did – he wasn’t done. He wasn’t letting the pressure get to him, he wasn’t losing that belief he could do it. Neither was I.

I could barely watch the fourth set tiebreak and by the time we entered the fifth and deciding set I was a woman on edge, watching through the sheer veil of my Scotland flag, almost using it as a protective shield against what was playing out before me. I had Owen (@tennisnation and Popcorn Tennis editor) checking in on me regularly: are you OK? How do you feel? He can still do this.

The fifth set is still a bit of a blur, I went through it on autopilot, willing Andy to hold his serve like his life depended on it – and hold it he did. There were some huge holds of serve that were crucial but if you ask me to pinpoint exactly which ones there were, I’ll laugh in your face – by the time we were at that point I could barely tell you my own name.

The championship tiebreak: as soon as Andy got the early mini break and consolidated by holding his own, I knew – I knew in my heart – he was going to do this. It didn’t come easy, at 6-2 I thought we were home and dry, and in the blink of an eye it was 8-6. But he refused to lie down, he refused to give up, and the crowd was getting louder and louder. My throat was raw and my voice was hoarse with emotion but I kept cheering him on, convinced he could hear my voice among the thousands. You can do this Andy, you’ve got him, you’re almost there.

And it was match point, Matteo to serve – I knew this was it. I had my phone out, ready to film the moment Murray captured his 50th Australian Open win. The joy – and relief – I felt when I saw that ball bounce off the net cord and fall onto Matteo’s side was also mixed with a moment of sheer disbelief. Is that how it happened? Is that how the match ended? There was a split second of silence – so minute if you weren’t there you probably missed it – before we realised what had happened and the crowd erupted. He had done it.

It still isn’t over. Better never stops.

Andy Murray shakes hands with Matteo Berrettini after their epic 5 set encounter in the first round of the Australian Open.. Image: Australian Open Youtube Channel