Cleaning out the notebook and Notes App from the 2023 Australian Open…
1. Novak Djokovic is your 2023 Australian Open men’s champion, winning the event for the tenth time, and tying Rafael Nadal with his 22nd career major. This event was a testament to his powers of persistence and survival instincts. This title came 15 years after he won for the first time. And, closer to 40 than 30, he remains at the peak of his powers.
2. Aryna Sabalenka is your 2023 Australian Open women’s champion. And, damn, did she earn it. She dropped no sets until the final and managed to save her best performance for last. Sabalenka played unflustered tennis in a three-set insta-classic. We talk plenty about her reconciliation with her serve. But what about her groundstrokes, crossing the net with as much pace as ever, but with more built-in cushion? What an absolute triumph.
3. Is Elena Rybakina the best server in women’s tennis? She reached her second major final in the last three events, taking out the top seed in the process. She brought it for seven matches and was the picture of poise in victory and defeat. No more outer courts.
4. Stefanos Tsitsipas was splendid for six rounds, mixing pace with precision, serving reliably (without having to rely on his serve) and relishing the atmosphere at Melbourne Park. Then he ran into Djokovic in the final. In another era, he is a decorated champion with an aesthetically appealing game. In this era, he must be wondering “What do I have to do to beat this guy?”
5. Tommy Paul entered the tournament one spot out from being seeded. He won’t have to worry about that happening again for a while. He's now a top-20 player. The 25 year-old American reached the semis winning a variety of matches in a variety of ways (out-grinding Alejandro D. Fokina; outpowering Roberto Bautista Agut; out-veteraning Ben Shelton). He didn’t offer Djokovic much resistance in the semis. But, still, what an event for him.
6. A decade removed from her last major title, Victoria Azarenka rolled into the semifinals winning five matches including a victory over No. 3 Jessie Pegula. She then lost to Rybakina. At 33, she may never win another major. But she should take immense pride in her career, her longevity and her transformation from standoffish young star to wise head.
7. A year ago a pair of Aussie wild cards, Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis won the doubles, forming the spine of the first episode of “Break Point.” Tennis being tennis, the pair couldn’t defend their title….and so it went to another team of Aussie wild cards, Rinky Hijikata (former UNC Tar Heel) and Jason Kubler (former Sacramento resident).
8. Discount double Czech. You thought Djokovic dominates. The Czech team Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova took the doubles title, their fourth straight major in events they have entered.
9. Like early 90s Gwen Stefani, Brazil’s Luisa Stefani is accumulating buzz before her inevitable emergence. The 25-year-old drew all sorts of praise among the tennis chattering class as she teamed with countryman Rafael Matos to win the mixed doubles, beating Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza in the mixed doubles final.
10. In the boys, Alexander Blockx of Belgium doesn’t just win the surname-looks-like-a-crypto-exchange but wins the title beating Learner Tien of Irvine (and USC) 7-6 in the third set.
11. In the girls final, a battle of Russians, as Alina Korneeva beat Erika Andreeva 7-5 in the third set. Colette Lewis has your results. Of course she does.
12. A great tennis New Year’s resolution for us all, self included: give the wheelchair tennis more attention. It’s a wonderful addition to the sport; the skill level is outrageous; the backstories are as well. The results start here.
13. The revelation of the tournament was, of course, Ben Shleton, the Floridian (with Indiana roots!) who was a college player a year ago and a top 50 player today. So much to like about his game, starting with his lefty forehand; his durability (handling best-of-five just fine) and his likability. This was close to a perfect tournament for him. He answered a lot of questions. He leaves knowing there are still more levels to crack.
14. You can’t spell Rune without “rue.” If you are Holger Rune, do you recall this event for playing to your seeding (No. 9) and your hype and going nine sets before dropping one? Or do you recall this event foremost for squandering a 5-2 fifth-set lead, then two match points, then a 5-0 super-tiebreak lead, in your defeat to Andrey Rublev? The kid—and he is a kid—is 19. He is really good. And will only get better. But what a weird mix of maximal confidence and then tightness when it’s closing time...Same theme, different verse. Sebastian Korda is so very good. A few weeks removed from brandishing a match point against Djokovic (a feat that only grew more impressive as peers struggled to even win games), he beats Medvedev en route to the quarters. There, he retires with a wrist injury. What a mix of pride and disappointment he must be feeling.
15. Coco Gauff is like ice cream and pizza. If you don’t like her, you’re the problem. But we need to balance (to…New Balance?) out the optimism with a realistic assessment: She is 18. She is progressing beautifully. She is stampeding into the tennis future. Her greatest asset might be her poise. And losing to Jelena Ostapenko in round four…is a loss that ought to sting.
16. A sport resists serious treatment when it has competitions that end after four in the morning. More importantly, late matches have material impacts on the competition. Curfew time.
17. From the credit where-it’s-due department: the USTA takes plenty of incoming slings and arrows, often justifiably. But there are now 10 Americans in the ATP top 50, this at a time when tennis has never been more global. Only one (John Isner) is north of 30. Represented therein: a variety of games, physiques, and paths. Some leaned on the USTA more than others. But the math is the math. This was no fluke. Of the top 12 seeds, five fell to Americans. But the top two Americans both had disappointing events.
18. Lots of complaints about the television coverage, at least in the United States. Bear in mind my obvious conflict—working for a network that would have liked more rights and was, essentially, outbid. But here’s the deal: Tennis doesn’t rate—though we can ask whether that’s an accurate reflection of popularity, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Spend years and years burying a product and alienating fans and rotting with unchecked conflicts and what do you expect? ESPN saw tennis as a means of goosing digital growth and ESPN+ subscriptions. Fine. It demanded exclusivity as part of its bid—no Amazon or Tennis Channel or other potential competitor in the mix or on the grounds. Fine. Especially coming off years of Covid losses, Tennis Australia simply took the highest bid, collateral damage or creative compromise or alienating fans be damned. ESPN compounded problems by deciding to keep costs down and produce the event out of Bristol.
At some level, this is all just rational actors acting rationally. This a media rights deal; not philanthropy or an exercise in nobility. But this is also tennis being tennis: intransigent, territorial, short-sighted, acting to the detriment of the sport overall. As I wrote last week, most of the blame here falls on Tennis Australia, not ESPN. The obvious solution: the seller puts up some guardrails. “Hey, look, buyer, we’d love for you to cut that check. But we are making some demands. Until streaming grows, there always has to be linear T.V. coverage. We need your team on the ground and not bleary-eyed in Bristol. We’re coming off this bump with Netflix and now we’re squandering that, making the sport so damn hard to find and alienating fans. Help us out here. Your shabby treatment amounts to sports-i-cide. And we can’t have blood on our hands.”
For whatever reasons—underestimation of leverage? laziness? greed? misperception of how minuscule streaming numbers truly are?—that didn’t happen. Tennis Australia got a fat check. But I wonder if Tennis Australia realizes how much they have lost in the process. And how damaging this is to a sport fighting harder than ever for bandwidth, real and metaphorical.
19. It was yet another big event for college tennis, led by Shelton, who was playing No. 2 singles for Florida a year ago and is now a top pro (and a millionaire). And note this announcement from the tours. For a long time 17 year-olds have had a tough choice: go to college and risk slowing or ruining their career or go pro and risk squandering a full-ride and four-year education. As rules have changed; as careers have lengthened; as college competition improves….it’s no longer a dilemma. And credit to Lindsay Davenport for this excellent point: the vibe from college tennis—using the crowd’s energy; accepting underdog status; being an individual while being part of a unit—has never been more important in the pros. When Shelton played Aussie Alexei Popyrin in Melbourne, it must have felt a lot like going to Knoxville or Tallahassee. And he wasn’t cowed.
20. It was a quiet hot stove season in tennis. Not a lot of coaching changes. But note that Donna Vekic took on Pam Shriver…and was among the last five players remaining in the draw. Sometimes correlation doesn’t equal causation. Other times players are rewarded for making outside-the-box hires.
21. The re-up from last week….Yes, sports are, inherently physical. Yes, injuries are part of the proposition. But this many? This early? This varied? Already low on stars, the tournament loses Kyrgios, Carlos Alcaraz, Ajla Tomljanovic, and Paula Badosa before the event—and those are just the Netflix principals—and Nadal by Wednesday. We don’t think twice about images like this. Or that Sebastian Korda can break through and beat top ten players….only to leave with a concerning wrist injury. We don’t realize how much conversation revolves around talk of who’s healthy and who carries what injury into what round. Imagine other sports confronted with this fact pattern and, instead of addressing root causes or investing in solutions, essentially shrugging and saying, “Pity. Good luck with a fast and full recovery. Hope to see you back on tour soon!”
22. Imagine you’re Netflix. You have invested millions in a multi-part tennis series. You launch in Australia. It’s one thing that virtually every cast member had a disappointing event. Hey it’s sports. The unpredictability is part of the ride. But then you have fans in the critical U.S. market unable to find the matches? That stops momentum just like a match against Djokovic. Netflix must be wondering, “Wait, what? What kind of a self-sabotaging sport is this?”
23. If only there were a players association to address issues like injuries and commitments and match time starts….without tours and management agencies that are conflicted. The PTPA announced its Players Executive Committee and here’s hoping the united players voice continues amplifying.
24. Maria Sharapova (ironically or not) raised an excellent point in Break Point: endorsements are not what they used to be. Burned by lavishing millions on players who not only fail to fulfill promise but fizzle precisely because of said lavished millions, brands have grown cautious and scaled back. You see a lot more top players who are not being paid to wear attire. Contracts are studded with performance-based clauses. The wealth is more concentrated than ever. (Suffice to say, Roger Federer’s Rolex deal is not Jack Draper’s Rolex deal.) The good news: there are more varied opportunities than ever for players, and more opportunities to take equity instead of money upfront.
25. The equivalent of a restaurant’s “soft open,” the Aussie Open eased in mid-match, same-side-of-the-court coaching. And…it did not have much material impact, good or bad. Didn’t change outcomes, as feared. Didn’t turn coaches into celebrities, as hoped. One lighter moment: in the quarters, Tommy Paul appealed to his coach, Brad Stine, for advice on where Ben Shelton would serve. Stine made a “T” gesture. Shelton intercepted this intel, served wide, and the two players shared a knowing smile.
26. A big winner from the Australian swing: The United Cup. It ain’t perfect. It needs tweaks. But it leans into tennis’ asset hiding in plain sight: the strength of both the men's and women's games. It enriches the players. (Taylor Fritz and Jessie Pegula—anchors of the winning U.S. team—both earned around $800,000 for the week.) It’s a hell of an improvement from the ATP Cup. And with Davis Cup in the hospital (hospice?), the United Cup has a big opportunity to expand.
27. An acknowledgement of the Ukrainian players, who are playing—and living—under unimaginable conditions. Marta Kostyuk, Anhelina Kalinina, Kateryna Bandl, Dayana Yastremska. That they are winning matches is really quite remarkable. And here’s Chris Clarey on Elina Svitolina. Imagine the dissonance. You are in Australia, staying in luxury accommodations, and loading up on free sushi and playing for life-changing money…while at home, it’s winter and there’s no heat or electricity….and while we’re here: Karen Khachanov signed a camera lens with a message encouraging Armenia in the face of an Azerbaijan incursion. I went down this rabbit hole and, why aren’t we talking about this more?
28. Nick Kyrgios reached the Wimbledon final. At the U.S. Open, he beat the defending champion and recent No.1, Daniil Medvedev. He stars in the first Netflix episode. He is playing his home major. He is the defending doubles champ. And….then withdraws on account of injury. He turns 28 in a few months. You wonder as much if his return hinges on the mental impact as compared to the physical.
29. Mettle > metal. You play two five-setters, spend 10-plus hours on court, and go to sleep after the sun has risen? Andy Murray had precisely the wrong opponent for his third match, the steady Roberto Bautista Agut. But Murray leaves having answered a lot of questions about his durability, his ability, and his desire to continue playing.
30. Jelena Ostapenko took out Coco Gauff and reached the quarters. Ostapenko doesn’t care what you—or opponents— think of her. And this makes her all the more intriguing.
31. Diana Shnaider—the rare player post-Agassi who sent us scrambling for the right spelling of babushka—qualified, won a round and took a set off Maria Sakkari, annoying her in the process. Can she really just go and play college tennis now?
32. Feel like we need some ground rules for talking about retirement:
a) Fan (and media) speculation is okay, even expected. Is Joe Biden going to run for re-election, even though he’ll turn 82 in 2024? Is The Fabelmans Steven Spielberg’s final movie? Is Elton John ever going to tour again? Is this really Phillip Roth’s final book? The chattering class is entitled to speculate about the careers of those in the performing arts, athletes included.
b) It’s not cool to ask an athlete about their retirement plans. It’s an agonizing decision. It’s a person decision. It’s an existential decision. (“Am I ready to walk away and perhaps never be as good at anything again as I am at this sport?”) Athletes will reach and reveal this decision on their own terms. Not because they received a gotcha question at a press conference.
c) It’s deeply uncool for an athlete to join this conversation. When Alexander Zverev speculated that “Rafael Nadal will announce his retirement at Roland Garros,” it was a swerve across the median. And Nadal—who usually goes to great lengths to avoid any confrontation—clearly wasn’t pleased.
d) It’s intolerably uncool to demand, even lobby, that an athlete retire or that they are (cliché alert) “tarnishing a legacy” by continuing. Venus Williams has not won a major in 15 years. Part of her legacy is finding fulfillment and joy and competing into her 40s. That’s not tarnishing, that’s polishing. Especially in an individual sport, when there’s no roster spot being taken and no salary cap being eaten, play as long as you'd like.
33. While we are here….new rule: all defending Wimbledon champs must play on show courts. Who wins when Elena Rybakina is banished to the hinterlands, playing her first week matches in outer Perth? She is humiliated and, rightly, angry. (After the semis, she nodded to Drake and signed a camera: "Started on Court 13, now we're here.") The tournament misses an opportunity to promote a star with major bona fides—who will make an imprint on the event. This court exile has the effect of diminishing Wimbledon and the meaning of a Wimbledon title. Often debates over court assignments are silly—there are a finite number of courts and there are a finite number of slots. But this one is extreme.
34. Can we all agree that a) Russia was—and is— in the wrong in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, now nearly a year old…. b) banning Russian players from Wimbledon was not an appropriate/effective show of objection and outrage…. c) withholding ranking points from Wimbledon was not an appropriate/effective retaliation by the tours? Wimbledon got a lot of bad press and bad vibes, not least from the banned players. A lot of deserving players are now ranked lower than they should be because they won rounds but not points. And not much public opinion was swayed. With any luck, the Wimbledon draw is open to all in 2023; and full points are awarded. We can/should protest Russia and Putin in particular. But there are better ways.
While we are here…as it is written: don’t visit the sins of the father on the son. But imagine being Novak Djokovic, clawing back good will from the public with winning tennis and winning public appearances. And then your father is posing with fans wearing Putin's “Z” symbol. We say it again: the tennis is so precise; the public presentation is riddled with unforced errors.
35. Shuffling down the boulevard of broken dreams that is the qualifying draw….As the great Mats Wilander once put it about failing to qualify on Melbourne, “That’s a long way to go not to make a main draw.” Players who didn’t make it included Kristina Mladenovic (former top ten player; whose sometimes doubles partner, Caroline Garcia, is now a top five player); young Czech Linda Noskova (who beat No. 2 Ons Jabeur the first week of the season); and Wimbledon second-week player (but no points earner) Tim van Rijthoven.
36. Weirdest moment of the tournament? Two choices spring to mind: Danielle Collins exuberantly celebrating match point when she won her seventh point (not the tenth) of a tiebreak in the decisive set. Another option: the ballkid who made off with Nadal’s racket midmatch? For the record: a) Collins smiled off her error and, to her great credit, reset admirably after thinking she had won. b) Nadal smiled as well and was careful not to embarrass the kid.
37. Less lightheartedly….We often joke that tennis towels are worth their weight in gold. Note how often players lose (or win), shake hands, and immediately start accumulating the freebie towels to stuff in their bags. Now the fans are getting in the act? Not if superhero James Keothavong has anything to do with it.
38. What a strange year for Daniil Medvedev. He comes within a set of winning the 2022 Australian Open. But then falls to Nadal. He becomes No.1, but it’s the same week Russia invades Ukraine. He undergoes surgery. He’s banned from Wimbledon. He loses to Nick Kyrgios while trying to defend his U.S. Open title. He loses here to Sebastian Korda—without winning a set—and is now outside the top ten.
39. Speaking of Medvedev, I had a chance to speak with him last month in Saudi Arabia. He was lovely. He always is. He was there for an exhibition event with Zverev, Kyrgios, Fritz, Norrie, Thiem, Wawrinka, et al. (Ironically, Michael Mmoh was an alternate.) Meanwhile, Casper Ruud was traipsing around South America, determined to take his proper offseason in February. Never begrudge athletes—especially in individual sports with no guaranteed contracts—the right to make additional money. But note which players took a proper offseason (Sabalenka, Djokovic, Shelton) and which did not. And how the members of each group fared in Australia.
40. Five players who didn’t make it beyond round four but impressed nonetheless: Jerry Shang (who, at 17, qualified and became the first Chinese male to win a main draw match); Daniel Altmeier and his one-handed backhand; Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic—they just keep coming off the assembly line, these young Czech comers. Speaking of: Linda Fruhvirtova’s place in the top ten is such an inevitability. Shall we just place her there now and save time? Katie Volleynets has the game to match the name. The Lafayette, California native took down No.9 Veronika Kudermetova.
41. The extreme heat was only sporadically extreme during this event. But unless the planet begins to reverse itself and cool off—and this trend isn’t heading in the right direction—asking athletes to run around in triple-digit heat is sadistic. Asking fans and officials to watch in those conditions is both dangerous and bad business. We can have stopgap solutions like a heat rule and retractable roofs. But at some point, the rubber (melted as it may be) is going to meet the road. Tennis would do well to have some sort of climate plan. What happens when it is simply impossible to hold January events in Australia; or August events in southern Ohio?
42. Credit Matt Roberts for calling this to our attention. But Ernesto Escobedo came to Australia playing under the American flag…and left under the Mexican flag.
43. Tennis clap to Sam Stosur, a credit-to-the-sport type (and future Hall of Famer?) who played her final event. And same for Sania Mirza, a trailblazer, now 36, who played her final major match….in the mixed doubles final.
44. Davis Cup may be on a respirator. But it still, you know, exists. Such as it is, the United States has a captaincy vacancy to fill. David Nainkin and Dean Goldfine—popular and well-respected, both—will lead the U.S. team in Tashkent next month, but are interim leaders. For the permanent post, James Blake is an obvious choice. And he would be an excellent, unimpeachable pick. The USTA could also do something totally out of character and off-brand and take a risk. For kicks, I throw out the names Brian Billick, Chanda Rubin and Dirk Nowitzki. Brandon Staley next time…
45. Neither Roger Federer nor Serena Williams played the 2023 Australian Open. But this was the first event with both retired. And….missed as they both are, it was scarcely a storyline, their names scarcely mentioned. This is all healthy. Life doesn’t stop. Nor should it.
46. Owing to Covid, the 2020 Olympics was, of course, postponed a year. Which means the Paris 2024 Games are but 18 months or so away. The tennis will be held at Roland Garros. And you wonder to what extent participation will be a benchmark/carrot for various players. If you’re, say, Richard Gasquet or Gael Monfils or even Stan Wawrinka (who grew up a short train ride from Paris) might this factor in your plans?
47. Your periodic reminder: currency markets have a big impact on global enterprises—such as, say, tennis. So the Australian Open can increase prize money three percent. But the Aussie dollar could rise (or fall) in value that amount just within the 14 days of the tournament. (As I write this it’s 70 cents to the dollar and 65 cents to the Euro.
48. Your periodic reminder: the Big Four (plus Serena) are/were extraordinary. We bandy about these statistics….900 weeks in the top 10. Three majors in a year, 44th semifinal. “Hasn’t lost in Australia since 2018.” These are the outliers. Not the other major champions, who flit in and out. The arc of, say Muguruza or Medvedev or Thiem. They are not disappointing or erratic. They are normal. It’s Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Serena (and Murray) who are the statistical freaks.
49. Thanks for your comments and blandishments re: Tennis Channel. It’s the David Ferrer of networks. Not all the resources and weapons, but a lot of heart and soul and industriousness.
50. Rebranding Margaret Courts Arena “MCA” in hopes of people forgetting that the eponym is a bigot? That’s cowardice. Laura Robson saying this? Courage. She’ll take us out….
If you enjoyed this coverage, give editor @chrisjalmeida a follow. Always fun geeking out on tennis with you guys. Back to the day job. See you in Paris.