Five Things We Learned From The Australian Open
1. Djokovic Is A Step Above The Field
Novak Djokovic underwent surgery on his right elbow after last year's Australian Open, and a return to the top of the sport was no guarantee. Last May, Djokovic’s record for the season sat at 6-6.
Just eight months later, Djokovic is the clear No. 1 player in the ATP Rankings. On Monday, when the new standings are released, Djokovic will lead World No. 2 Nadal by 2,635 points and World No. 3 Alexander Zverev by 4,480 points. The Serbian has won 36 of his past 39 matches, and 57 of 64 since his 6-6 start to 2018.
And perhaps it wasn’t that he won the tournament in Melbourne, but how he did it. In the semi-finals, Djokovic lost just four games against Lucas Pouille, marking the seventh time in the Open Era that a man had lost four games or less in a Grand Slam semi-final.
Then, with the championship on the line and a legend in Rafael Nadal across the net, the 31-year-old made just nine unforced errors in three sets to clinch a record-breaking seventh victory in Melbourne. It was Nadal’s 25th major final, and never before had the 17-time Slam champion failed to win a set.
“Twelve months ago it was highly unlikely I would be holding three Slams,” said Djokovic, who also triumphed at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018. “I just have to be conscious of that and understand that I'm blessed.”
2. Nadal's Injury Lay-off Didn't Affect His Form
Nobody expected Djokovic to defeat Nadal in straight sets in the final, and that result does not take away from the Spaniard’s efforts this fortnight. After all, when he arrived at the Australian Open, Nadal had not played a tour-level match since retiring in last year's US Open semi-finals against Juan Martin del Potro.
You would not have been able to tell that Nadal missed four months by watching him bulldoze his way through the bottom half of the draw. The World No. 2 did not drop a set en route to the final, the seventh time he has done so at a major.
And most importantly, Nadal looks fit and ready for another strong season on the ATP Tour. He holds a 116-15 record since the start of the 2017 Australian Open, so a loss against Djokovic won’t dim his spirits.
“I had a great two weeks, being honest, I can't be sad,” Nadal said. “I played against a player that today was better than me. There's no doubt about that. That's all.”
3. Tsitsipas, Tiafoe Lead #NextGenATP Charge
There were a lot of firsts at this Australian Open for the #NextGenATP, with some of the world’s leading 21-and-under players leaving their marks at Melbourne Park. Leading the way was reigning Next Gen ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, who advanced to his maiden major semi-final.
This time last year, the Greek had just six tour-level wins to his name. But Tsitsipas stunned Roger Federer in the fourth round and backed that up with an impressive four-set victory against in-form Doha titlist Roberto Bautista Agut before falling short against Nadal. On Monday, Tsitsipas will climb to a career-high No. 12 in the ATP Rankings, 52 weeks on from sitting at No. 83.
Frances Tiafoe also made his biggest breakthrough yet, battling to his first Slam quarter-final. In his first 11 Grand Slam appearances, the American reached the third round just once. So beating fifth seed Kevin Anderson and 2017 Nitto ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov en route to the last eight was impressive.
4. Pouille, With Mauresmo In His Corner, Making A Push
Entering the Australian Open, Pouille had lost four tour-level matches in a row. Less than a year after cracking the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings for the first time, Pouille was the 28th seed in Melbourne.
But with new coach Amelie Mauresmo by his side, Pouille went on a memorable run to the semi-finals, where eventual champion Djokovic stopped him in three sets. Two especially impressive wins came against 11th seed Borna Coric and former World No. 3 Milos Raonic.
Pouille had lost all three of his FedEx ATP Head2Head clashes against Raonic heading into their quarter-final. In fact, the Frenchman had not won a set in any of those meetings. But he jumped to a two-set lead and battled past the Canadian in four sets to make his maiden major semi-final.
“I'm very happy the way I played and with the way I got into this tournament, this beginning of the year,” Pouille said. “I think it was the best start possible. It gives me a lot of confidence for the rest of the year.”
5. Herbert/Mahut Make History
Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut arrived in Melbourne with an opportunity to complete their career Grand Slam. The Frenchmen had triumphed as a team at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. But an Australian Open trophy was still missing from their trophy cases.
After battling through three-setters in the second and third round, Herbert and Mahut found their stride, winning their final eight sets of the tournament to capture glory on Rod Laver Arena, ultimately defeating two-time Nitto ATP Finals winners Henri Kontinen and John Peers.
“We knew when we won Roland Garros [last year] that [the Australian Open] was the one missing, so for sure it added maybe a special motivation when entering to this tournament. After, it's always tricky because when you want something, you have to make the good decisions and to be in the good state of mind to be good on court,” Herbert said. “I think we wanted it, but we also wanted to be good on court in each match and we focused on the game, and that's why maybe today we could achieve what we achieved here at the Australian Open.”