If this month’s Australian Open is anything to go by, 2024 promises to be a high-octane year.
The first Grand Slam of the season delivered. In the men’s singles, Jannik Sinner roared back from two sets down to defeat Daniil Medvedev and win his first major title, and Aryna Sabalenka underlined her potential to become a dominant figure in women’s tennis after her straight-sets triumph over Zheng Qinwen.
Sinner stole the spotlight as the latest member of the ‘next generation’ to win a Grand Slam title, but other young talents laid down markers of their progress towards tennis’ top table. At the other end of the scale, there were some painful reminders of what happens when veterans reach their limits.
Here’s what we learned at the 2024 Australian Open.
The match I most enjoyed
Like most people, I had the top corner of the women’s draw circled going into the tournament. Iga Swiatek, the world No 1, had Sofia Kenin in the first round and would then face the winner of Danielle Collins and Angelique Kerber in the second round. That’s three Grand Slam winners and a finalist in one little corner.
I figured Collins, a free-hitter with grit who loved to compete and had beaten Swiatek in Rod Laver Arena before, would give Swiatek hell, and she did. Collins was destroying Swiatek through the second set and the first half of the third and taking everyone on the journey, like she so often does. She was up two breaks in the third. Swiatek said that in her mind, she was already on her way to the airport.
And then… and then…
Isn’t that the story of tennis? One player cracking under the pressure? An all-time great rising off the mat? Collins suddenly grew shaky out of nowhere. She’s generally a pretty cool customer once she gets her teeth into a match. Not this time. Her swing speed slowed and Swiatek, sensing her moment, reeled off five straight games to win.
The thing I will never forget
I’m going to stick with Collins for a moment. I caught up with her after that match, and I mean right after that match. She’s known for going straight from the court to the press room when she plays. Often, the sweat is still beading on her forehead and her breathing is still labored as she speaks.
Other than a tournament stenographer, we were alone in the room. She was annoyed but on her way to being over it. We’ve known each other for a bit. We share a love of surfing, yoga, and introspection. Whenever we speak, she puts it all out there, which I appreciate. She’s got a college degree from the University of Virginia. Collins is a hardcore grown-up.
She said the losses, even one like this, don’t sting as badly because she was at the end of her career — this is likely to be the last year on the tour for her.
I didn’t understand what she was saying. She’s only 30 and she had just pushed the world No 1 to the edge. She still has so much beautiful tennis inside her.
She said she has other things she wants to do. Family is important and she wants to start one. The training, the travel, the loneliness of the road and the game, it wears on her and she isn’t afraid to admit it.
“This is a hard life,” she said.
And one other thing that will truly last in my memory: sportswriters of a certain age used to tell me stories of watching Major League Baseball legend Mickey Mantle stumbling around the outfield, his knees shot, in his final season. It wasn’t pretty, they said.
Andy Murray wasn’t quite that in his first-round loss to Tomas Martin Etcheverry, but he was slow, stiff, flat and unemotional and, well, not anything close to Andy Murray, not even the versions of the metal-hip Andy Murray of the past few years.
He has earned the right to play as long as he wants and go out on his own terms, but seeing him struggle like that, unable to move and bend and do all those thrilling Andy Murray things, that’s something I can’t un-see.
The player who surprised me in a good way
I didn’t know much about Dino Prizmic, the 18-year-old qualifier from Croatia with the tree-trunk thighs, until he was bullying Novak Djokovic around Rod Laver Arena in the first round.
Prizmic gave Djokovic everything he had. The match lasted four hours. Djokovic had to dig deep and was playing the kind of desperate tennis you don’t usually see from him until the end of the second week. Prizmic was fearless, smacking the ball like Carlos Alcaraz.
I loved every second of it because I felt like I was seeing tennis’ future come to life in the best way. There is all this handwringing about how the sport will dwindle once Djokovic and Rafael Nadal join Roger Federer in retirement. What’s going to happen?
Dino Prizmic is going to happen. And Holger Rune. And Alcaraz. And Sinner. And Ben Shelton.
The sport moves. May it ever be thus.
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The player who surprised me in a bad way
I picked Elena Rybakina to win the women’s singles. She lost in the second round to Anna Blinkova of Russia in an epic third-set tiebreaker that Blinkova won 22-20. It was nuts.
Top players suffer upsets, but what was disappointing about Rybakina was that she disappeared down the stretch of the match against Blinkova.
Rybakina won Wimbledon in 2022 and was a finalist here last year. She demolished Sabalenka in the Brisbane final to start the season. The slick hard courts in Melbourne Park are ideal for her smooth, flat power. She has a big and beautiful game and those long-arm serves are like a trebuchet.
But in the moment of truth, when you thought she would just hammer her opponent into submission because she is so much better and is a Wimbledon champ, she disappeared, playing a kind of softball tennis, trying not to make errors, and so, of course, she made a ton of them.
It reminded me of the slicefest final set of the 2020 U.S. Open final between Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Two massive hitters trying so hard not to lose.
That’s no way to live, on the tennis court or off it.
Everyone off the court was talking about…
Why is Alexander Zverev playing tennis?
Zverev hasn’t just been accused of domestic violence. In October, a criminal court in Berlin issued a penalty order, fining Zverev nearly $500,000 (£393,000) in connection to allegations from his former girlfriend, Brenda Patea, the mother of his daughter. In Germany, a prosecutor can seek a penalty order on cases it considers simple because there is compelling evidence that should not require a trial. The defendant has a right to contest the order, which Zverev has, and he is due to face trial in May.
In media interviews and claims filed with German legal authorities, she has alleged that Zverev pushed her against a wall and choked her during an argument in 2020. Patea said she told friends about the incident at the time but did not report it to police until October 2021 because of a mixture of shame and concern for their daughter, who was born in March 2021.
Zverev has denied all the charges. “Anyone who has a semi-decent IQ level understands what’s going on,” he said after his semifinal loss to Medvedev. He did not expand.
Why Alexander Zverev is allowed to play despite domestic abuse allegations
This is the second time a former girlfriend has accused Zverev of abuse, though the first one did not file charges. None of this was mentioned in the episode of the Netflix show Break Point that featured Zverev, or in the ‘bro-ey’ on-court interviews after his wins.
The closest anyone affiliated with the tournament came to mentioning it was Jelena Dokic, the former player and abuse survivor, who announced during an on-court interview with Sabalenka following her semifinal win over Coco Gauff that Sabalenka would sign a towel and they would auction it off, with proceeds going to abuse victims.
Sports fans and pro athletes have become used to a system where athletes serve some penalty while these sorts of charges are working their way through the legal system.
Tennis does not have a policy that addresses these kinds of situations. The men’s tour, the ATP, has said for the past two years that it’s working on it.
Is it? Really?
What should America make of this tournament?
The men’s Grand Slam drought may go on for a while.
Taylor Fritz was the last American man standing. He performed better against Djokovic in the quarterfinals than he often does — Fritz took him to a tiebreaker in the first set and then fought off seven break points to level the match in the second. But after two sets, he was spent and Djokovic ran through him down the stretch. He said he’s got to work harder to get to a place where he can play four or five hours of physical tennis.
Frances Tiafoe went out in the second round to Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic, a talented 23-year-old with a beautiful game who has barely done much of anything noteworthy on the tour.
Tommy Paul lost in the third round to Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanovic right after. He had match points in the fourth set before losing it in the fifth.
Ben Shelton also got a hard lesson in the third round from 35-year-old Adrian Mannarino, the Frenchman who strings his rackets as loose as a bedroom mattress, who used Shelton’s power against him. Mannarino, the definition of a wily veteran, tied the 21-year-old’s ankles in knots all afternoon.
They’re all solid players. Shelton and his 150mph serve and athleticism may well carry him to a big win before too long. He’s still so raw, like an AI bot constantly collecting information and making fast progress. He will be better for that Mannarino loss.
But they would all agree they are not where Alcaraz, Sinner and a handful of other young guns are right now. The rankings say they are better than all but 20 or so players in the world. Pretty great, but that’s not what they want. It’s not why they are doing this and it can be crushing.
As Collins said: “This is a hard life.”
(Top photo: Dino Prizmic, right, greets Novak Djokovic; by William West/AFP via Getty Images)