There is always something fresh and exhilarating about the first Grand Slam tournament of the year. The fact the Australian Open is played under summer skies in Melbourne, when 12,000 miles distant Britain is shivering its’ way through January only adds to the excitement.
However things are even more fascinating this year. For the best part of two decades both the men’s and women’s games have been dominated by truly great players and immediately recognisable names who most certainly warrant the label of legends: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, the Williams sisters Serena and Venus, Maria Sharapova. Now a highly talented band of younger players have most certainly come of age and although the established champions are nowhere near ready to move out of the spotlight just yet, the threat of youth is clear and imminent.
John McEnroe, without question the most opinionated voice in the tennis world, is convinced a changing of the guard is inevitable this year. “One of these kids is going to break through this year and win a major,” maintained the soon to be 60 year-old New Yorker. “There’s a bunch of them and you can make a case for them all being ready.”
Recent history suggests it’s easier to make that breakthrough in the women’s game and Naomi Osaka already possesses the major title so many crave. By winning last September’s US Open at the age of 20, the Florida-based Japanese moved to the front of a lengthy list of young females who possess all the attributes to become major stars.
Just six months older, Alexander ‘Sascha’ Zverev scored back-to-back victories over Federer and Djokovic to win the ATP Finals at the London 02 Arena in November and underlined the belief many have held for sometime; the German is the most sensational talent to emerge in many years.
With Ivan Lendl now filling the role of Head Coach, the hardest of tennis taskmasters will almost certainly make Zverev more durable and prepared to win the major titles. “Obviously, the reason I’m with him is to compete and win the biggest tournaments in the world,” admitted Zverev who knows that Lendl’s advice helped Andy Murray take the step up from being a perennial nearly man to a champion. “It’s the only reason Ivan would join as well.
“In the relatively short time we have been together, he has shown me what extra is needed to win the big ones. He’s a smart man who has done it as a player and done it as a coach. So he knows what it takes. He knows how to make the best players even better. That’s why I took him.”
However there are a host of talented young men from diverse nations who could easily get the jump on Zverev. From Russia there is the hugely powerful Karen Khachanov who won last November’s prestigious BNP Paribas Open in Paris, with wins over Zverev and Djokovic. A week later the Greek Stefanos Tsipitas distinguished himself by winning the NextGen ATP Finals in Madrid, a tournament designed to provide a platform for luminaries of the future.
And the list goes on: Croatia’s Borna Coric who played a major role in his nation winning the Davis Cup last year, Australia’s Alex De Minaur who according to former world no.1 Lleyton Hewitt possesses those all so necessary attributes of nimble athleticism, resolute determination and unwavering work ethic. And add to the mix another Russian, Daniil Medvedev who at the year-opening Brisbane International mercilessly capitalised on Murray’s continued fitness concerns.
As somebody who knows a thing or two about tennis success, Federer sympathises with the young breed. “It’s not easy for all these youngsters because so many people are always trying to pick the next big champion and that creates a lot of pressure on their shoulders,” said the 37 year-old Swiss. “I look at all of them and then cast my mind back to somewhere like early 2003.
“People were questioning when I would win a Grand Slam title and whether I was good enough. I heard what they were saying and in many ways I’m glad I’m not there anymore. Then I won my first Wimbledon title that summer and the rest became tennis history.”
A sense of shock still lingers around the female game after the events of the US Open final, not because Osaka won the title but more the way Serena Williams lost it. Martina Navratilova was just one of a host of respected critics who long believed Osaka possessed the potential and observed: “The way Naomi carried herself both during and after the match was truly inspiring.”
Now she is a Grand Slam champion, Osaka will become a prized scalp and the challengers are gathering like vultures. Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus is only 20 but started her 2019 campaign on a positive note, capturing the Shenzhen Open in China.
Russia’s Daria Kasatkina established a reputation in 2018 as a talented player who was not intimidated by big reputations across the net and Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, now completely reintegrated in tennis circles after spending a couple of years seeing if she preferred cricket, rounded out last year by winning the biggest title of her career at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, China.
Big question marks hover over the heads of big names such as defending Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki who was last year diagnosed as suffering with rheumatoid arthritis while Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber will be determined to break her recent pattern of enduring a year of unsuccessful results after previously hitting the heights.
A host of questions in the world of tennis are set to be answered in the next couple of engrossing weeks Down Under.
Official hospitality for the third tennis grand slam of the year at The Championships, Wimbledon is available to book on our website...
Do you like what you've read here? Sign up to our newsletter and be the first to hear about more sports news and blog posts, competitions and special offers from Keith Prowse hospitality.