Serena's quest for No.24 and time for a Federer flourish? The stories of the Australian Open
As Grand Slam tennis returns next week, we examine the storylines that will define the 2020 Australian Open...
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Serena's quest for No.24 goes on
Three years have now passed since Serena Williams last got her hands on a Grand Slam singles title. That came in Melbourne, with victory over her sister Venus. It seemed unthinkable that it would be her last at the time but of course she was carrying her daughter Olympia at the time and had to take a pregnancy and maternity break from the game, which may have moved on without her.
Since her return in 2018, Serena has reached four Grand Slam finals and lost them all without winning a single set. More worryingly, two of those defeats came at the hands of Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, both at the time incredibly inexperienced players - the type whom Serena would ordinarily blow away and beat psychologically. She's still clearly capable of competing in Grand Slams but the aura that once surrounded her appears to have ebbed away. The competition is simply not afraid of her any more.
There should be no writing Serena off, however. Time and time again she has battled injury and postnatal depression and risen to the top of the game. After her considerable successes on the court and with a young daughter it would be easy for her to call it quits, but it is clear that she wants Margaret Court's record for Grand Slam singles titles. It would be fitting if she were to do it in Australia, in the shadow of a court named after the controversial Australian veteran.
Sweet farewell for Caroline?
While rumours about Serena Williams' and Roger Federer's immediate futures in the game abound, one top player certain to depart the scene is Caroline Wozniacki. Over the years she has had to put up with repeated injuries, her diagnosis with rheumatoid arthritis and press intrusion into her private life, but she has always been a popular and upbeat presence on tour.
Of the past decade, only Serena Williams has spent more weeks at the top of the WTA Rankings than Wozniacki's 71 and there will always be an asterisk next to her name due to her failure to translate her consistent success at WTA events into multiple Grand Slam titles. But two years ago, she finally got her hands on one in her third major final. While a meagre 2019 has seen her slip down the rankings, she will be hungry to end her career on a high note and some good form in the warm-up tournament in Auckland augurs well for her.
Time for a Federer flourish?
After failing to win a Grand Slam for nigh on five years, Roger Federer's 2017 Australian Open triumph was a marvel to behold and ushered in a new era of success for the Swiss veteran, with his eighth Wimbledon title and another triumph in Melbourne following in the proceeding 12 months. Despite these three successes in the twilight of his career, however, his record of 20 major titles is under serious threat from Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He may well live to regret the two Championship Points he had at Wimbledon last year which he squandered.
There have been plenty of rumours that 2020 could be the final year we see Federer competing, with an Olympic gold medal in singles a notable absence from his highly impressive CV and with time and youth on Nadal and Djokovic's sides, the 38-year-old will be keen to pick up a couple of Grand Slam titles. He has not won at the US Open for 12 years now and his chances of another Roland Garros title seem highly remote, so Australia, his second favourite major, will be a tournament he is targeting.
As for the chasing pack...
Novak Djokovic's form at the Australian Open in the 2010s was terrifyingly good - six titles speak for themselves and were it not for struggles with injuries in 2017 and 2018, it could well have been even more. With 16 Grand Slam titles to his name and an all-court game, he will be confident of adding another Melbourne triumph to his trophy cabinet, not least given that he overcame Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in major finals last year.
For Nadal, the Australian Open is something of an enigma. He has not emerged victorious at the tournament since 2009 and has lost in four subsequent finals. Nonetheless, a victory this year would equal Federer's tally of 20 Slams and make him the first man to win all four majors more than once. GOAT material.
Can the NextGen come to life?
Of the traditional heavyweights of men's tennis, only Roger Federer advanced from the group stage of the ATP Finals in London last year, with Stefanos Tsitsipas claiming the title. Much of the debate surrounding the last few years of tennis has been centred around conjecture about when the "Big Three" will be replaced as the dominant force in the game but it appears that there is finally a group of players able to challenge Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Tsitsipas announced himself to the world by breaking Federer's 17-match winning streak at the Australian Open but was overrun by Nadal in the semi-finals, while the Spaniard was pushed all the way by Daniil Medvedev at the US Open. After a decade in which all but one Grand Slam title went to Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka, it's time for the younger generation to grasp the mantle after too many false dawns.