The first major of this decade is over and there is so much to talk about as Novak Djokovic and Sofia Kenin leave Australia with some precious but shiny cargo.
Once again, Novak Djokovic is the king of Melbourne Park, but his eighth Australian Open title must rate as the toughest he’s had to win.
Why? Because not only did he have to win the championship match in five sets for the second time (after doing so against Rafael Nadal in 2012), he also had to come from a two-sets-to-one deficit against a tenacious Dominic Thiem to do so.
Never in seven previous attempts had the Serb won a major championship match trailing by that much, and it seemed the 32-year-old would suffer his first defeat in an Australian Open final when he faced a break point in the third game of the fourth set.
However, Djokovic would save the break point with a terrific serve and volley aimed at Thiem’s backhand. After breaking later in the set, the Serb would force his way out of trouble and then overhaul the Austrian in the final set to conquer Melbourne Park for a record eighth time.
On hand to present the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup to the Serb was the 2005 champion, Marat Safin, who was Djokovic’s first ever opponent not just at the Australian Open, but also at grand slam level.
It was on January 17, 2005, when Djokovic – then a 17-year-old kid – made his grand slam debut under the lights of Rod Laver Arena, and facing Safin – twice a beaten finalist at Melbourne Park but a former US Open champion – proved to be a tough ask.
History will tell us that Safin won 6-0, 6-2, 6-1 in just over an hour – making it Djokovic’s heaviest defeat in a grand slam match.
The Russian later went on to defeat Roger Federer in an epic semi-final, saving a match point in the fourth set in the process, before breaking local hearts by beating Lleyton Hewitt in the championship match for his second (and final) major title.
But what Safin, now 40, didn’t know was that the kid he beat so convincingly would later go on to win 17 grand slam titles – eight at the Australian Open, five at Wimbledon, three at the US Open and one at the French Open – as well as become world number one.
It was therefore fitting that the Russian was on hand to present now-32-year-old Djokovic his eighth Australian Open title, 15 years after handing the Serb a tennis lesson he would never forget. Until Sunday night, it was the only time they were seen together on Rod Laver Arena.
Safin and Djokovic #AusOpen
From 2005 To 2020 pic.twitter.com/ZdCrxw28Eb
— situasinya (@CrowDits) February 3, 2020
Earlier, Djokovic appeared in big trouble when, from 4-all in the second set, a pair of time violations left him rattled to the point where he lost six straight games on the bounce, falling behind 0-4 in the third set.
It seemed as though Thiem, twice a runner-up at Roland Garros, had all the momentum and was executing the perfect game plan as he bid to put an end to the big three’s dominance at the grand slams.
But in the end, nerves didn’t fail the 26-year-old – but inexperience did. Coming up against one of the greatest male tennis players this generation has seen in only your third major final is a huge ask, but to Thiem’s credit, he took the fight right up to the death.
It is also tough going into the final when your opponent has had 24 hours’ more rest than you (as was the case when Djokovic defeated Federer on the Thursday night), in addition to having won energy-sapping four-set matches against Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev along the way.
And while the next generation of players (think Thiem, Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex de Minaur to name a few) were again left wanting at the majors, Thiem was quick to point out that they are slowly but surely closing the gap on the big three.
In his post-match press conference, he alluded to last year’s US Open final in which Medvedev nearly became the first man since Gaston Gaudio to win a major final from two sets to love down when he pushed Rafael Nadal to five sets.
This was also the third consecutive major final to go to five sets, after Djokovic saved two championship points to defeat Roger Federer in last July’s Wimbledon final – the first to be decided by a super tiebreak at 12-all in the final set.
While Djokovic’s win made it 13 straight majors won by the celebrated trio of himself, Federer and Rafael Nadal, on the women’s side of things we saw a 12th winner in the past 13 major tournaments won by someone born in the 1990s or later.
Breaking through for her maiden major title was 21-year-old Sofia Kenin, who arrived Down Under having never previously made a grand slam quarter-final.
She was expected to last until only the fourth round, where defending champion Naomi Osaka would have awaited. However, early exits by her, as well as former champions Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, saw Kenin’s draw suddenly open up.
She cashed in on her weakened section of the draw, defeating Coco Gauff in three sets in the fourth round, advancing to the final eight at a major for the first time in the process, and then dismissed Ons Jabeur in straight sets to set up a semi-final showdown against world number one Ashleigh Barty.
With a packed crowd hoping to see their local hero become the first Australian since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 (and first woman since Wendy Turnbull in 1980) to reach the Australian Open final, Kenin had other plans.
The American saved two set points in each set, winning in straight sets as she converted her best grand slam performance into her first final at this level, thus sending the locals home disappointed.
Opposing her on the other side of the net was Garbine Muguruza, who had previously won two major titles and been world number one, but arrived Down Under unseeded following a slow regression that followed her winning Wimbledon in 2017.
The Spaniard’s experience saw her enter the championship match as a slight favourite, and she was on track to win her third grand slam title (but first on hard court) when she won the opening set 6-4.
However, Kenin, who had committed 15 unforced errors in the first set, would flip the script thereafter, winning the second set 6-2 and then sweeping the final four games of the match to become the youngest Australian Open women’s champion since Maria Sharapova in 2008.
She also became the first American woman not named Serena Williams to triumph at Melbourne Park since Jennifer Capriati in 2002, and only the sixth this century to win a major after Lindsay Davenport, Capriati, the Williams sisters and Sloane Stephens.
Additionally, she has also overtaken Serena Williams and Madison Keys to now become the top-ranked American in the WTA rankings, and achieved a new career-high ranking of number seven.
Not bad for a kid not only featured in this video below in 2005.
As for Muguruza, it was a disappointing end to a tournament that had seen her rediscover her grand slam-winning form, as evidenced in wins over top ten players Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Simona Halep in her run to the championship match.
She had been the first unseeded woman in a decade to reach the final at Melbourne Park, and was hoping to become the lowest-ranked player to win here since Serena Williams famously won it while ranked 81st in 2007.
Had she won, she would have gone into the US Open (where she has yet to reach a quarter-final, let alone a final) later this year with the chance to complete her set of grand slam titles.
Still, reaching the final after arriving Down Under with little expectations will again fuel the belief that the Spaniard can once again challenge at the majors, and at age 26, there will be more opportunities for her to add to the French Open and Wimbledon crowns she won in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
As for Ashleigh Barty, despite the disappointment of her semi-final capitulation against Sofia Kenin, she still performed well throughout the tournament to reach the last four for the first time, but ending a long drought of local champions will have to wait another 12 months.
The 2020 Australian Open also saw the final appearance of 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki, who announced late last year that this would be her final tournament before retiring.
History will tell us that the Dane’s career ended with a forehand error in a three-set defeat to Tunisian Ons Jabeur.
Around the same time Wozniacki’s career wrapped up, any chances Serena Williams had of equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles were extinguished when she suffered an upset loss to Wang Qiang on Rod Laver Arena.
The 38-year-old American will now have to wait until the French Open later this year to equal the record, but her best chances of doing so will come at Wimbledon and the US Open, which she hasn’t won since 2016 and 2014 respectively.
Another pre-tournament favourite, Rafael Nadal, saw his recent bad luck Down Under continue when he lost his quarter-final to Dominic Thiem in four sets – leaving the title he won in 2009 as his lone highlight in 15 appearances at the event.
While he remains on 19 major singles titles – only one behind Roger Federer’s haul of 20 – he will start as the prohibitive favourite to land the milestone 20th major title at the French Open in June, by the end of which he will be 34.
For Federer, who was participating in his 21st consecutive Australian Open (overtaking the record of 20 held by Lleyton Hewitt), this year could have marked his final appearance at Melbourne Park.
The Swiss maestro again did well to reach the semi-finals, and after pre-match rumours that he would withdraw prior to his showdown against Novak Djokovic, he chose to take his place, and after a competitive first set, ended up losing in straight sets.
It marked the third time that the 38-year-old had fallen to Djokovic in an Australian Open semi-final, after 2008 and 2011. He also lost a four-set semi-final to the Djoker in 2016.
As each year passes by, and as he edges closer towards 40, speculation continues to grow as to when who many consider to be the greatest tennis player of the modern era will finally hang up his racquet.
Perhaps the lure of winning the Olympic singles gold medal for the first time prompted him to delay retirement and play on for another year. Likewise for Nadal, who has not yet won the ATP Finals, and Djokovic, who is also missing an Olympic singles gold medal.
But as long as the big three are still at the top of their game, any talk that they will gradually ride into the sunset, one after the other, will wait for at least a few more months yet.
And that brings to a close what has been yet another eventful and record-breaking Australian Open, which saw the continued dominance of Novak Djokovic on the men’s side, and the continued exciting rise of young major champions on the women’s side.
The end of what has been a huge Australian summer of tennis can only mean a few things – the start of the major footy seasons and the Supercars aren’t too far away from kicking off.
The fourth season of the AFLW, which has been expanded to include four new teams – the Gold Coast Suns, Richmond, St Kilda and the West Coast Eagles – gets underway this weekend with the Tigers facing Carlton on Friday night.
It is a near-exact replica of the men’s season opener, although instead of it being on a Thursday night in front of over 90,000 fans at the MCG, it’ll be played in front of what is still expected to be a capacity crowd at the much smaller Ikon Park on a Friday evening.
Speaking of the men’s competition, the Tigers will unfurl their premiership flag against the Blues in the AFL season opener on March 19 at the MCG.
It’s also over a month before the NRL season gets underway, with the Parramatta Eels hosting the Canterbury Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium on March 12.
For the motorsport fans, it’s just over two weeks from now until the Supercars season opener – the Adelaide 500 – at which two-time defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will begin his bid for a hat trick of championships.
And should you dare to count the days until the next Australian Open, it’s only another 349 days away.
For now, I hope you have enjoyed the past month of tennis as much as I have.