With the first month of 2016 out of the way, the first Grand Slam of the year is done and dusted and it left us with some amazing tennis matches, a new women’s champion, several new records and a roadmap of what to expect from the rest of the season, which includes the Olympic Games in Rio.
On a lighter note, the Australian Open also gave us stunning points (that Roger Federer run), quotable quotes (Djokovic’s 'I don't want a big slap from karma'), some questionable outfits (what were you think Wawrinka) and a gracious runner-up Serena.
Here’s are the top five talking points from Australian Open and what they indicate about the 2016 season:
Women's tennis may finally see fierce competition again
For the best part of 2015, Serena Williams was the dominant force in the women’s tennis that few could conquer (just like a large part of her career.) But that was until she ran into Roberta Vinci at the US Open, who halted her charge for a Calendar Slam. The defending champ’s defeat, followed by an injury lay-off capped an otherwise supremely successful year. She started the first Slam of 2016 in her usual dominant way, without dropping a single set. That is till she ran into Angelique Kerber, playing her first major final. Kerber came back from a match-point in her first round to win her final 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
A player who beat former champions Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, en route to her first Slam. Kerebr’s Australian Open journey is definitely here to stay. The Australian Open also saw Johanna Konta, the first British woman in a Grand Slam semi-final for 33 years and Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai have a fairy tale Slam by reaching the quarterfinals.
Over the last few years, Serena has been almost invincible and several tennis analysts have said that her run has been a consequence of a lack of tough competition. Even when she didn't win a Slam, the winners were usually among the select pool of past winners, such as Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka or Petra Kvitova.
Thus, the first Slam of the year gave us a good indication that maybe 2016 is the year we will see revived competition in the women’s tennis.
Novak Djokovic, the tennis robot, can go higher than ever before
If there is one player that can endure five sets and long hours of strenuous tennis, it is the lean, mean, gluten-free machine called Novak Djokovic. But Melbourne Park’s most illustrious protégé didn’t seem to (or need to) break a sweat as he raced away to his sixth Australian Open title.
He started both his semi and final match by with a ‘breadstick’ (6-1) against the world No 3 Roger Federer and 2 Andy Murray respectively no less, and apart from a comparatively listless five-setter against Gilles Simon, Djokovic was at his ruthless best at his favorite Slam. The world number one was relentless in pursuit of his 11th major title and currently has amassed 16,790 ranking points. His closest competitor, Murray has 8,945 points and the disparity is plain for all to see. The gap between world number one and two is reminiscent of the late 2000s, when the world number one Federer was almost 4,000 points ahead of the then number two Nadal.
On most days, Djokovic is the best player, especially in Grand Slam. In fact, in recent times the only player who has gotten the better of Djokovic on the largest stage is Stan Wawrinka, an epitome of inconsistency himself.
As it goes, right now the only player seemingly capable of beating Djokovic on his best day, is Djokovic himself. Beginning his year with a such a commanding performance, outplaying even the top players in the world, 2016 could well be the year Djokovic achieves the elusive Career Slam, and with the Olympics approaching, maybe even a historic first Golden Slam.
Sania Mirza has taken over as India's biggest tennis star
India has not lacked for tennis performers in the last few years, with veteran Leander Paes consistently winning Grand Slams in Mixed Doubles, three of which came in the last year. Mahesh Bhupathi has been active on the doubles circuit as well, even though he has been increasingly focused on his tennis ventures such as IPTL. Rohan Bopanna, Somdev Devvarman have been qualifying for Slam and the former is a strong doubles contender though he doesn’t have the titles to back it.
But in the last few years, Sania Mirza has emerged as the country’s most successful tennis players, and her exploits of the past year make her a bona fide star.
The year 2015 was a remarkable year for Sania — she became the world number one in doubles, won ten titles including two Grand Slam back-to-back at Wimbledon and US Open and started her astonishing winning streak with partner Martina Hingis. She was also awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, India;s highest sporting honour. In 2016, she carried on from where he had left off, continuing her winnings streak to a 25-year old record, winning three titles, with a Slam in a month, was honoured with a Padma Bhushan and it is has been only a month.
If her run at the Australian Open, reaching the semis of mixed doubles and winning the women’s is any indication of the coming season, India's biggest tennis is sure to take set the bar higher.
Upcoming talent need to break ranks
The best player in men’s tennis is a no-brainer right now with the kind of form Djokovic is in, so it’s best to look at the other top nine players.
Murray seems to be back in his pre-2012 zone of 'always the bridesmaid, never the bride', Federer may be playing his best tennis, but that is not good enough, the Nadal we saw in Melbourne looks unlikely to be able to Slam tally, Wawrinka, like Murray, is a multiple-Slam winners who cant seem to carry forward the momentum or maintain consistency.
Yet, this Australian Open saw younger players make inroads into the top five. Milos Raonic was a semifinalist in Melbourne after dispatching former champion Wawrinka. The Canadian, who defeated Federer in the Brisbane finals before the Australian Open, will be the dark horse to watch out for.
Other top players like Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych made as far as they could, but the rest, including the likes of Marin Cilic (who actually has won a major title), Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, David Ferrer (none who can be called 'upcoming' any longer) need to put in that extra mile to maybe to reach the last four, if not win a Slam.
Tennis is under the corruption cloud and the authorities are finally taking note
The biggest tennis news and the most controversial, broke right before the Australian Open - the speculation that match-fixing is rampant at the highest level of the game. BBC and Buzzfeed News released a bombshell report that claimed that players have been throwing away games of money and the culprits include players in the top 50 including Grand Slam champions. To make matters murkier, the reports stated that eight of the players under suspicion were participating in the Australian Open and champion Djokovic was among the players who confirmed that they were approached by match-fixers early in his career.
Tennis has always come across as a relatively cleaner sport apart from a few incidents such as Nikolay Davydenko back in 2007. But these allegations brought into focus the underhand dealings that many claim to know about.
According to AFP, the report was initially greeted with barely disguised irritation by tennis authorities, but as the controversy snowballed they wisely took action and announced an independent review of the sport's under-fire corruption-fighting body. Tennis thus used a damaging scandal to paint itself in a favourable light, unlike other sports which have become mired in scandal in recent months.
With the panel review that combines all major tennis associations, there is a chance to nip the problem now revealed in the proverbial but before the sport is mired in a controversy that will tarnish its reputation beyond redemption.