— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) February 2, 2020
Here are my top 10 Australian Open happenings and phenomena, in ascending order:
10. Australia on fire: The horrible bush fires preceded the Australian Open, and there was talk of postponing the tournament. The atmosphere received the second-worst rating that can be given, and Victoria’s chief health officer called the overnight air quality in Melbourne “the worst in the world.” Nevertheless, after a brief delay, qualifying began, and—sure enough—three of the players sustained significant problems with coughing and weakness.
The atmosphere cleared in time for the main draw to begin, and players contributed to the cause by pledging money for every ace and/or double fault they hit. Simona Halep did something different; not a big producer of aces, the Romanian instead agreed to chip in money every time she gave coach Darren Cahill the evil eye. Halep made it all the way to the semifinals, and the relief fund thereby gained an extra $20,000.
9. The second time is harder: Defending champion and 3rd seed Naomi Osaka lasted until the third round, when she was upset by Coco Gauff in straight sets.
8. The party ends too soon: World number 1 Ash Barty, playing before her home crowd (which isn’t an easy thing to do) looked for all the world like she might just grab the trophy on the final weekend. She knocked out the likes of Polona Hercog, Elena Rybakina, and an in-form (until the second set) 2019 runner-up Petra Kvitova. But then Barty ran into one Sofia Kenin, and—though they were both beset by what appeared to be a case of nerves—it was Kenin who figured out how to make the best of a bad situation, defeating Barty 7-6, 7-5 in the semifianls.
7. It’s so dark, I can’t see the women: No big women’s matches were played at night. On a personal, self-serving level, I benefited from this because I was able to watch all of the big WTA matches. But there was absolutely no excuse for this kind of scheduling.
6. New partner, same trophy: Barbora Krejcikova defended her mixed doubles title, this time with partner Nikola Mektic. Last year, the Czech doubles star won the trophy while playing with Rajeev Ram.
5. As good as it gets: 4th seed Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza put on the best show of the tournament in their semifinal. Someone had to lose, and that was Halep, but the quality of play by both opponents was exceedingly high.
4. The upset of the tournament: Most fans probably didn’t see it; most fans proably didn’t even think about it. But Zhenzhen Zhu, playing in her first major, upset top seed and all-around major wheelchair tennis threat Diede De Groot in the quarterfinals. De Groot’s defense was stunning—she saved eight match points—but toward the end of the match, her serve let her down. Then De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, the top doubles seeds, lost the doubles final to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.
Kamiji swept the tournament, also winning the singles championship by defeating Van Koot in the final.
3. It was so much fun, we did it again: 2018 champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the Australian Open doubles championship again, this time by defeating top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova in the final. This is the team’s third major championship; they also won the 2019 French Open.
2. Do do that Mugu that you do so well: She’s……back! Two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, who has been wandering around in who-knows-what shadow world for a couple of years, entered this year’s Australian Open in a not very auspicious way—she had the flu. Indeed, it looked as though she would have to retire after the first set of her opening round. But Muguruza, back from a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season, found a way to carry on, and carry on she did. In fact, she almost won the tournament. And though her loss in the final has to hurt deeply, the good news is that Mugu has returned to the top of the WTA mountain, where she belongs.
1.“What? Like, it’s hard?”: During the tournament, U.S. commentators barely acknowledged that Sofia Kenin existed. They just carried on with their Coco mantra, even after the teen phenom was out of the tournament (courtesy of Kenin). Then, when Kenin upset world number 1 Ash Barty, everyone had to take notice. A top junior who faded once she entered the tour, Kenin was determined to find her way, and find her way she did. The 21-year-old came to Melbourne with a good serve, a great drop shot, a very poor memory regarding errors and misfortune, and a tenacity and self-belief that should be the envy of all of us.
Kenin lost the first set of the final, and while that would serve as the kiss of death to almost any other first-time finalist, to Kenin, it was no big deal. She faced down Garbine Muguruza and took advantage of a letdown in the Spaniard’s energy, something many first-time finalists are not able to do, simply because they are overcome by the occasion. Kenin won the final 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. When the rankings are published tomorrow, Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin will be the world number 7. Take notice.