For this year at least, the Happy Slam lived up to its title.
It’s hard to recall a major tournament that packed as much drama, surprise, quality, and emotion as this Australian Open did.
There were seismic upsets and instant classics, callbacks and comebacks, the warm blanket of nostalgia, and, in the end, sheer euphoria. There were enough good vibes to carry us through the interminable Grand Slam drought between now and the French Open in late May.
Here are the 10 most indelible moments from the fortnight in Melbourne.
The first indication that this Slam would not be like other Slams came early in the first week, as Denis Istomin – a 30-year-old wild card who’d had to save four match points just to qualify for the tournament, and came in with a 1-33 lifetime record against top-10 players – caught lightning in a bottle and stunned a tepid, tentative Djokovic. Just like that, the bottom half of the draw cracked open like a coconut, as the man who’d won the tournament five times in the previous six years bowed out.
Nick Kyrgios, suffering a mystifying first-week exit, was about par for the course. More memorable was the particular way the combustible Aussie went out against Andreas Seppi: winning the opening two sets, only to inexplicably melt down in the third and fourth sets, only to revive himself in the fifth and earn a match point, only to lose anyway and walk off Hisense Arena to a smattering of boos from his home fans. Perhaps most memorable of all was Kyrgios’ unusually self-reflective press conference afterward, when he admitted that he was underprepared, and can’t help getting in his own way, and probably needs a coach.
A tournament that had to that point been a passing curiosity, went fully off the rails in the fourth round, when, hours apart on Rod Laver, the two world No. 1s, Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, crashed out. First, Murray got serve-and-volleyed to death by Mischa Zverev, cleaving a path through the top half of the men’s draw. Then Kerber got blasted off the court by CoCo Vandeweghe to open things up in the women’s draw. It was a missed opportunity for both, who failed to defend their 2016 points. Murray, the reigning runner-up, could’ve stretched his lead over Djokovic at the top of the rankings. For Kerber, the loss would ultimately cost her the No. 1 spot.
Karolina Pliskova, the ascendant powerhouse who’d narrowly missed out on a US Open title in the fall, came to Melbourne as many people’s pick to win the tournament. In the third round, though, she got more than she bargained for in 19-year-old Jelena Ostapenko. The explosive Latvian teenager won the first set, and rebounded from a second-set bagel to take a 5-2 lead in the third. But Pliskova fought her way back from the brink – with some help from Ostapenko, who later admitted to Pliskova that she’d tightened up – and the two of them proceeded to wrestle for control of the decider. They ultimately extended the set to an 18th game, which Pliskova finally won to avoid the massive upset.
Roger Federer would play higher-stakes matches later in the tournament, obviously, but his third-rounder against Tomas Berdych stands out as the eye-opening moment when he first demanded to be taken seriously as a contender. After two scratchy opening matches, Federer found his form in a major way. He put Berdych on a string and moved him around with ease, never giving him even the slightest opening. He hit 42 winners against 17 errors, and won all but two first-serve points. It was gorgeous, and a sign of things to come.
Like Federer, Nadal ended up playing until the last point of the tournament, but it was a third-round victory that helped launch his incredible run. Up against fireballing teenager Alexander Zverev, Nadal got down two sets to one, and looked like he was being overwhelmed by his opponent’s power, as had begun to happen to him with increasing frequency. But Nadal rediscovered something within himself in that match. Between his blind leaping backhand smash in the fourth set, and the above 37-point rally with which he broke Zverev physically in the fifth, he remembered how to close. He ended a skid of three straight fifth-set losses, and rode that wave of renewed confidence all the way to the fifth set of the finals.
It was overshadowed some by the magnitude of the finals, but Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s run was one of the stories of the tournament. At the age of 34, her years-long comeback – after a years-long hiatus – reached a glorious crescendo, as she outlasted Pliskova to advance to her first Grand Slam semifinal since 1999. Her reaction said it all.
Venus Williams’ resurgence was among the most joyous sights in Melbourne, and her semifinal win over Vandeweghe was the tournament’s emotional apex. The 36-year-old lost the first set, but managed to turn the match around against her far younger opponent, playing with no quit and fear as she gutted out a three-set win that sent her through to her first Slam final since 2009. Her reaction to finally making it back, after coming through a few tough years beset by illness and injury, was enough to give you goosebumps.
Unfortunately for Venus, she ran into a buzz saw in the final: her younger sister. Serena knocked off Venus in straight sets to win her seventh Aussie Open title and 23rd Grand Slam, both Open-era records for men or women. Though their match was often discomfiting, the end result was unforgettable. Venus got to be the first person to hug and congratulate Serena on her historic win, and got to share the podium with her as she held up the trophy for the world to see – proof of untouchable greatness.
You could not have scripted a better, more fitting conclusion to this epic tournament. Federer and Nadal, meeting in a major final for the first time since 2011, capping their out-of-nowhere runs with an electrifying, agonizingly taught five-set epic. After three-and-a-half hours of scalding backhands and boomeranging momentum, Federer finally triumphed, winning his first Grand Slam since 2012, and extending his men’s record with his 18th major title.
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