To quote the great Mortimer Snerd (no, really – there was a Mortimer Snerd. Look him up on Google): “Who’d have thunk it?”
Almost two weeks on from the start of Australian Open 2017, we have arrived at the sharp end of the tournament. We have separated the wheat from the chaff to reveal the two best players in the business. And their names are – drum roll please – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Hang on, didn’t we do this before? Like 10 years ago? And pretty much every year thereafter for the next six years? Who’d have thunk it indeed.
The prospect of the ninth Roger-Rafa Grand Slam final has overshadowed everything else but as we approach the big match on Sunday night, it is worth remembering that other things have happened in the past couple of weeks; there are other storylines that have fascinated and infuriated.
So, here is a brief guide to what has happened so far (including a more than honourable mention for Messrs Federer and Nadal).
Roger and Rafa. Or Rafa and Roger. It all depends on your point of view. The comeback stories of both men and their march to yet another final seemed all but impossible just a couple of weeks ago. As the draw was made, the focus was on the current world No.1 and 2 – which one of them would walk away with the trophy? But it was the old champions who were to rule the roost. Roger admitted happily that a place in the quarterfinals, or even fourth round, would have done him nicely as a start to his comeback from a six-month injury break. He had not played since Wimbledon due a knee problem and a few rounds against the world’s best would have been a solid launching pad for his season. But after a quiet start, Roger rummaged around in his kitbag and found his Mighty Fed suit, the one with cape that gives him superpowers. Donning that and absolutely marmalising Tomas Berdych in the third round, the Mighty Fed was off and flying.
Rafa, meanwhile, felt a little better about his chances but, even so, knew that winning the trophy was probably asking too much after four months off with a wrist injury. But round by round, brutal forehand by brutal forehand, the Rafa of old presented his case: he was back and he was here to win. Last year was wracked by injury; the year before that was wrecked by a lack of confidence and form. This year, though, the injuries are gone and the passion is back – the way he wrenched the victory from Grigor Dimitrov’s racquet strings after almost five hours of lung-bursting effort was Rafa in his pomp.
3. Grigor Dimitrov
For so long the ‘great hope for the future’ (and if ever there was a lead weight to tie around a player’s neck, it is that moniker), Grigor flattered to deceive. He moved brightly into the world’s top 10 three years ago but did not know quite what to do when he got there. But now working with Dani Vallverdu, and now aged 25, Grigor has managed to harness his talents, rein in his desire to entertain with outrageous winners and muzzle his temper. Calmer on court, more controlled in his construction of points and much, much fitter, he is ready to challenge the boys at the top. After Friday’s epic semifinal, just ask Rafa how ready Grigor is to challenge the best of the best.
4. Alexander Zverev
No, he is not the new Boris Becker. He is the present Sascha Zverev. He baulks at the constant references to the German legend – at the age of 19 and with two third-round finishes at Grand Slams to his name, he feels it is disrespectful to compare him to the great Boris. But the way he took on Nadal in the third round here, the way he pushed him to five sets and harassed and harried all the way to the final point, proved that his day will come. And come soon. With a little more experience and a little more muscle, Sascha will start building his own legend.
5. Age is just a number
Of the 128 men who lined up for duty on day one, 46 were aged 30 and over. Of those who are left standing, both are 30 and over. Admittedly, those two are living legends but of the rest, several made their mark. Denis Istomin was the leading light among them, knocking out Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and six-time winner in Melbourne, in the second round. With a ranking of No.117, he needed a wild card to get into the main draw but then played the match of his life to beat the champion. He then backed that up with another five-set marathon to beat Pablo Carreno Busta. As Serena Williams put it: “30 is the new 10”.
1. Novak Djokovic
Coming to Melbourne as the conqueror of world No.1 Andy Murray and, as a consequence, the champion of Doha, it did seem that Djokovic had pressed the reset button after a poor end to the 2016 season. On paper, he was the man to beat again. But it soon became clear that all was not well with Djokovic’s game. Passive, lethargic and lacking that intense focus that made him the unbeatable force until the French Open last year, Djokovic was taken down by Denis Istomin in the second round.
2. Andy Murray
Newly knighted, newly established as the best player on the planet, the top seed appeared to have the world at his feet when he touched down in Australia. But from the first round, he did not look settled. He won three rounds all right but this was not the untouchable Murray who won all but three of his 53 matches in the last six months of last year. Mischa Zverev, playing lights-out serve-and-volley magic, was his undoing in the fourth round.
3. Milos Raonic
If ever there was a man who planned for success, it is Milos. Every facet of his life has been analysed, redesigned and reshaped to make him a better player. And with that huge serve and a will to learn and develop, he has turned himself into a potential world beater. But he cannot change his genes and at 196cms and 98kg, he is a big bloke. Maybe too big for the relentless pounding on his joints and muscles that tennis players must endure. Just when he seemed poised to make his move, his body broke down again and with a thigh injury, he limped to defeat against Nadal in the quarterfinals.
4. Australia’s future?
When Messrs Bernard Tomic, Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis first emerged onto the tour, Australian eyes lit up. Here were three potential champions in the making. And yet as the tournament reached the end of the first week, there was no sign of them: Kyrgios was beaten in the second round, Tomic lost in the third round and poor Kokkinakis never made it to Melbourne Park at all thanks to yet another injury.
5. The American dream
Total number of US players in the first round: 14. Total number of US players in the third round: 2. And both of them lost when they got there. Enough said.