Changing of the guard at the Australian Open

This article was written by Nicole Hunt – live from the Australian Open.  

Just after 11pm Sunday night John McEnroe interviewed Stefanos Tsitsipas after the 20 year old had beaten Roger Federer on Rod Laver Arena.  It wasn’t the first upset result on Sunday in either the mens or the womens draws, but it was arguably the biggest.

‘Ladies and Gentleman,’ McEnroe said, ‘You’re watching the changing of the guard.’

Federer later said that he’d already heard that line many times, but what seems different at Melbourne Park this year is the sheer weight of numbers behind that change.  It’s not just Tsitsipas knocking on the door.  It’s Zverev, Tiafoe, de Minaur, Popyrin, Shapovolov and in the women’s side, Barty, Osaka, Collins, and many more.  Most hover around the age of 20 and they’re not so much knocking on the door now as battering it down. 

Let’s start with the women’s draw.  Ash Barty stared down five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova yesterday as the first week of the Australian Open drew to a close.  Losing the first set, Ash came back to win the second and then took a convincing lead in the third before Sharapova, aged 31, started to claw her way back into the match. On Rod Laver Arena supported by a vocal and passionate crowd, Ash held her nerve and served it out to progress to the quarter finals for the first time in her career.  She is just 22 years old, which barely seems possible given she’s been part of the tennis scene for so long and for a time had a whole other career in cricket.  It’s a tough road from here to the final, but Ash is capable of anything.

Naomi Osaka of Japan is only 21 and already has the 2018 US Open to her name.  It was Osaka that eliminated Ash from last year’s Australian Open in a powerful display that stunned the crowd. Of course the US Open title was soon to follow and there’s likely to be many more ahead for Osaka.  She’s looking just as solid this year.

Danielle Collins of the USA is the giant slayer of the women’s draw in week one.  She may be a little older than some of the others at 25, but has certainly had the best performance of her career this week.  Collins ousted the number 2 seed Angelique Kerber on Sunday, allowing Kerber to win only two games for the entire match – a stunning result that reverberated right around Melbourne Park as Collins raised her arms in victory.  No matter where you are around the park someone will say to you ‘Did you see what just happened on RLA!’

In the men’s draw, American Frances Tiafoe had already had the best win of his career in a five set epic against Andreas Seppi of Italy last Friday.  It was a packed crowd in Show Court 3, known for its couldron like intensity with the spectators so close to the court they’re virtually a participant in the match.  Tiafoe traded sets with the 34 year old Seppi before taking the final set 6-3.

Though Tiafoe called that the best moment of his career, it was eclipsed on Sunday when he was victorious against Grigor Dimitrov in a tenacious display of powerful groundstrokes from both, and Tiafoe’s soft hands at the net.  It was also Frances’ 21st birthday and surely one he’d never forget.

When Tiafoe won the fourth and final set and collapsed relieved on his bench, which he’d decorated during the match in the style of a teenage boy’s bedroom, the crowd sang Happy Birthday to Frances and to his twin brother watching on from the stands.  When he extricated himself from the mess of used drink bottles and piles of sweaty shirts and towels that he’d spread around his seat, he celebrated his win in the style of NBA star LeBron James, dropped to his hands and knees on the court, then gave an emotional and tearful interview in front of his family.  His birthday gift? A quarterfinal showdown on Tuesday against Rafael Nadal.  Some might be overawed by that prospect, but all Frances wished for was for it to be on Rod Laver Arena at night in front of a huge crowd, that would be a dream come true.

Then of course there was Tsitsipas.  Last night he was victorious on the arena that Tiafoe dreams of, and he talked of it as being a dream too.  It’s Melbourne Park, it feels like home to us but the regard with which players from around the globe hold that arena, Rod Laver himself, and the ‘Happy Slam’ tournament, is really striking.

There is something like lightning about these young stars.  They are at times flashy and brilliant.  They believe in themselves and their ability.  They challenge line calls with almost reckless abandon in the utter belief that they are right.  Often, they’re completely wrong.  They make wild unforced errors but hit just as many amazing winners and tweeners because they are willing to take risks in that way that only youth does.  You don’t limit your chances.  You think at 20 that you have a million more of them.

There will be a momentous battle tonight when Simona Halep, current Number One, and Serena Williams battle it out for a place in the quarters.  One of them will make it and will likely face one of the rising new stars.  Who else will be there to challenge them at the end?  A girl from Osaka looking to prove she’s worth more than one Slam? A girl from Ipswich who loves coffee and cricket? Let’s see.