The victors have left, the vanquished have gone. Melbourne Park is empty save for a bevy of workmen de-rigging the site.
For two weeks the Australian Open 2017 seemed like the centre of the universe but now it is over. And as the dust settles on a remarkable two weeks of sporting brilliance, shocks and surprises, there is a mild sense of disbelief in the air. After all that drama, the two champions are the two undisputed legends of their sport: Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose – roughly translated: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
To say that Open was open this year is to take understatement to the very limit. The seeds tumbled out of the competition like oranges from a ripped shopping bag and from the very first day, holes appeared in the draws, gaps through which anyone with talent and courage could progress. Maybe this year was finally the moment we would see a changing of the guard. But no.
In the women’s field, Angelique Kerber was trying to reinforce her position as the defending champion and world No.1. She had struck a blow for the next generation by beating Serena here last year and backed it up by reaching the Wimbledon final and winning the US Open. Could she keep Serena at bay for another season? No; she never got a chance.
The fight to get to the top is cut-throat but staying there is a pressurised, relentless task. And Angie could not do it. Seemingly lacking that self-belief, the inner confidence which had carried her to such success last year, she was edgy in the first round, pushed hard in the second and finally bundled out in the fourth round by CoCo Vandeweghe. Serena, meanwhile, made stately progress.
For the best part of two decades, Serena has been the indomitable force of women’s tennis. The only woman to offer any real challenge to her superiority has been her sister Venus – no woman has beaten her more times – but at the age of 36, Venus’s resurgence seemed unlikely.
Struggling with Sjorgen’s syndrome, a debilitating autoimmune disease, Venus never knows from one day to the next how she will feel. Yet for two weeks in the Australian sunshine, she felt good. Very good. She fought as she had in her prime, she found power that harked back to her pomp and she forced her way to the final. At her age, this might have been her last hurrah but she intended that hurrah to be heard around the globe.
And Serena beat her.
The 6-4, 6-4 triumph earned her a 23rd grand slam trophy but we have been talking about that number for so long that it has almost lost its meaning. Two years ago, it was all about 18: could Serena match Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for major titles. Back then, matching Steffi Graf’s tally of 22 seemed like a far distant target and yet here we are, 24 months later, and Serena is the unmatched queen of the Open Era: 23 titles and counting; 19 years of supremacy. Only Margaret Court has more with 24 – and that record may not last the year.
At the age of 35, Serena had swept all before her. She removed Johanna Konta – the form player coming into the tournament – in the quarterfinals and stood and watched as the likes of Garbine Muguruza, the French Open champion, Karolina Pliskova (the US open runner-up) and Kerber fell by the wayside. Once into the final, she was happy her sister had made the journey but she would not let her come close to the trophy.
In the men’s draw, the shockwaves shuddered through the locker room from the second round. Novak Djokovic, the six-time champion, was downed at the second hurdle by Denis Istomin, a wild card from Uzbekistan. A few days later, Andy Murray, the world No.1, was sent packing by Mischa Zverev, a 29-year-old German who had all but given up on his career due to injury a handful of years ago.
Huge gaps had appeared in the top and bottom half of the men’s draw – this was the chance for the younger men, those eternally optimistic souls who had butted heads with the established stars, to make their mark. But they couldn’t do it. They tried and some came close, but Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would not let them pass.
The tales of Federer and Nadal’s comebacks from injury has been well documented elsewhere on this website so suffice to say that neither man had come to Melbourne with the serious intent of winning the title. Nadal had more cause to be hopeful – he had had less time off and he felt physically stronger than his old rival – but even so, he was trying to win a grand slam from a standing start.
But as the rounds went by and the final came into sharper focus, both men reverted to type. It was the last match of a major championship; this is what they do, this is what they know, this is what they are here for. By the end of Sunday night, they would have 32 grand slam titles between them – they just needed to sort out who went home the cup this time.
It was the final that everyone had dreamed of but that no one though could happen. And as it unfolded, it was all that anyone could have hoped for: Federer attacking on the front foot, Nadal pummelling and punishing from the baseline. And for once, Federer managed to turn back the clock and rediscover the free-flowing, aggressive game of his prime. He said he needed to free his mind and play free – and he did. When Nadal looked to have him on the ropes, he found the knock-out punch – and so often it was the backhand that did it – and after five sets and three and a half hours, he had his prize: his fifth Australian Open crown and his 18th grand slam title.
The changing of the guard has been postponed; the establishment refuses to be moved.
Nadal took his defeat well, but you could tell that it hurt. But there was a glint in his eye as he looked towards the French Open. He has not won a grand slam title since Roland Garros 2014 but he knows now that he is ready to end that drought.
The Australian Open 2017 had been a fairy tale story for both champions but it was only the opening chapter of what could become a classic season.