Bad Medvedev, Average Osaka, Serena’s Analysis, Five-Setters & Tony Trabert

Due to popular demand — or more precisely, someone named Leena today and someone named Colin several months ago — we’re going to weigh in on the Australian Open. Yeah, like no one else has already done that.

Here are some random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Djokovic was good, but Medvedev was a lot more bad. There’s a tendency in the post-match commentariat to want to praise the champ rather than trash the loser. That’s understandable and nice. Everyone should hail Djokovic’s accomplishment. Going nine for nine in AO finals would be unfathomable if Nadal hadn’t already done even better at Roland Garros. Nothing we say here diminishes Djokovic’s greatness. But Djokovic needed to play well for about 10 minutes, when the first set got tight. The last two sets were way more about Medvedev stinking than Djokovic playing well. We know, people love to say that one person playing well makes the other play poorly. But remember, you get to serve half the games. You have some control over the match. Medvedev lost serve seven times in 14 service games. Even given that Djokovic is probably the best returner ever in the men’s game, a top five player shouldn’t be losing anywhere near half his service games to anyone — not even Djokovic — on a fast hard court. I would guess that both Medvedev and Djokovic would agree with that. It was a bad, bad performance by Medvedev. People are reluctant to say that after a final, but if that were a quarterfinal, the consensus narrative would have been that Medvedev was just plain awful.
  • The problem with five-setters is the aftermath. We don’t favor eliminating best-of-five. But it has to be recognized that Bo5 produces many disappointing matches late in tournaments. We would have bet the entire ranch and crypto vault that Tsitsipas would lose to Medvedev. Everything. That’s because Tsitsipas had just come off a brutal four-hour slugfest against Nadal. No matter what Tsitsipas says, there was no way he was going to have the energy to hang with Medvedev after that. Nadal takes your legs out from under you. When you beat Nadal 7-5 in the fifth on a hard court, it had better be the final, because you ain’t going to have much left in the tank after that.
  • Osaka’s average game is good enough to win more than 90% of her hardcourt matches. For her to lose on a hard court, she needs to play badly. Her current play reminds us of peak Federer on hard courts from late 2003 to 2006. He took the occasional loss, but only if he played very poorly. An average performance was good enough to beat anyone. Osaka doesn’t have that talent cushion on clay and grass, but on a hard court her safe game is better than anyone else’s roll-the-dice game.
  • Serena’s analysis. For her entire career, Serena Williams has made her matches about herself. It’s the way she and Venus were taught growing up, and that approach has served them darn well. Pete Sampras did the same thing. Their view has been that if they play their regular game, they win. It’s a helpful defense mechanism that’s been wired into them from a young age. It’s comforting and useful to think something is totally in your control. Sometimes Serena will go the other way, and say her opponent played out of her mind, the best the girl ever played. But that’s just a different way of saying the same thing: For me to lose, something really weird has to happen. The vast majority of the time that analysis has been correct. It has never been as untrue as it was in the Osaka match. Serena said afterward that the loss was all about her mistakes, but it wasn’t. She had three more unforced errors than Osaka. It seemed every rally had the same pattern — Osaka moving Serena around and then hitting the ball into a wide-open court. If they had started each point by dropping the ball and hitting it, rather than with a serve, the score would have been even more one-sided. Serena has a good tennis mind. She knows that.
  • It’s about the tennis. In this COVID era, there’s been much debate about the impact of crowds or lack of crowds on the players. But we see the results of the three Slams played since the pandemic started and will make the case that the results seem pretty much exactly what one would have expected in non-COVID times. On the women’s side, two of the three Slams were won by the best player, Osaka. In the third, a gifted clay-court artiste, Iga Swiatek, beat the Australian Open champ, Sonia Kenin, in the final. On the men’s side, Nadal won the French and Djokovic won the Australian — the perennial result. The U.S. Open was won by Dominic Thiem, the guy who was, at least at the time, the best player outside the Big Two or Three. Nadal and Federer didn’t even play the tournament, and the third, Djokovic, got disqualified. One can really overthink this stuff. Nadal likes crowds. Djokovic does sometimes. So-and-so benefits from the crowds. Someone else doesn’t. But it’s really about the tennis. The best players keep winning.
  • Ash Barty and the break. Full disclosure: We like Ash Barty and would like to have seen her do better. There was much discussion of the injury timeout taken by her opponent, Karolina Muchova, when all looked lost. But this kind of discussion gets tiresome. The injury timeouts are allowed under the rules. Would it be better if no one took them? Sure. Would it be better if there were no bathroom breaks? Sure. But they’re allowed. And as long as they’re allowed, players need to be prepared for such “surprise” breaks. It’s not a surprise if it happens all the time. And players could actually adapt their training to be better-prepared for such breaks. We don’t know exactly what went wrong with Barty, and to her credit, she didn’t seem to make a big deal of the injury timeout. But anyone who has played juniors or college tennis has seen way worse gamesmanship. As long as this stuff is legal, let’s move on and stop the hand-wringing.
  • Homage to Tony Trabert. ESPN did a nice but short tribute to Tony Trabert during the men’s final. Trabert died this month at age 90, and was a key figure in tennis history. Spend some time Googling if you don’t know about him. In addition to being a great player and a Davis Cup captain, Trabert was an important tennis commentator in the U.S. during the tennis boom of the 1970s. He was, along with Bud Collins, the voice of tennis for so many people of a certain age. And his role in the tennis boom — at a time when there was much less tennis on TV — is greatly under-appreciated.