Naomi Osaka: There will be no mercy

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka’s blasted past Hsieh Su-wei  6-2, 6-2, on Tuesday.

She has won three Grand Slams at the 2018 and 2020 US Opens, and the 2019 Australian Open. As she said, when very deep in a Slam and she stays super calm, then she will not make too many errors. In fact, at the second week, at the Slams, the 23-year-old can clears her head. She is addicted to the hardcourts, as she slame some gigantic winners. In fact, as of late, she has won 13 times in a row in three setters. She just won’t give it away.

When she beat Garbine Muguruza, it was very tight and Osaka cut down on errors. At 5-5 in the third, she played perfectly.

Even though she is much more outgoing than she was a few years ago, when she talks, she likes being soft. And kind, too. But when she is playing, there will be no mercy. She can go on the lines, with her hard forehands and backhands.

To beat Osaka, the other players have to pay attention, every second. Because if they do not, it is time to walk away.

In his match with Aslan Karatsev, Gregor Dimitrov was looking as well as he could, and he was hoping that he would reach the semis. However, the Buglarian became hurt and after the first set, he almost quit. He couldn’t move, no more speed, and no running. He lost easily in the last three sets.

Karatsev, the qualifier and unknown player, stayed in there. He has reached the semis, and while his backhand and his first serve are quite solid, to reach the final, he will have to dethrone Novak Djokovic, who ousted Alexander Zverev. No doubt, he will be a serious underdog. But, he still has a slight chance.

The Australian Open: The middle of the road

Fabio Fognini

Way back, during the middle of their long and winding career roads, Rafa Nadal and Fabio Fognini have played each other 16 times. They have played each other, all over the world. In reality, there were some so-so matches. But there have been some incredible contests, like when the Italian was down two sets at the 2015 US Open and he came back, shocking the Spaniard in five sets. Fognini was on fire. Playing in the New York night, he managed to hit so many winners, with his spinning forehand and backhand, and then flatten them out.

But after that, Nadal continued to improve his backhand and at the net. Since then, Nadal won six matches, while Fognini had just one. That is why Nadal has won 20 Grand Slams. He is the favorite on Monday. He knows that so he has to go for the lines pretty early. When he is healthy, he can grind it, but when Nadal is slightly hurt, he has to leap try to dominate early.

Fognini has also improved over the past couple years, improving his focus. He still can be frustrated when he isn’t going well, but he also lifts his head and he continues to fight. If Fognini is close, then he has to continue banging at Nadal’s backhand. Nadal has refined his backhand, but it is not perfect.
Another Italian, Matteo Berrettini, is more mature and thoughtful. He finally understands where he is going, and also, when he should mix it up. He will face Stefanos Tsitsipas, the cool Greek. Tsitsipas can be patient, or he can go for too much too early. He is tall;his first serves are very hard and his returns is high. He does have a shot to win it all. He is that talented.

How about American Mackenzie McDonald who made it into the round of 16? No one knew him, outside when he played college at UCLA and won the 2016 NCAA singles and doubles crowns. When he turned  pro, he was ready to move up higher and higher, but he became seriously hurt, and he had to stop for many months. Now he is back, and he is true-blue. However, he has to face against Daniil Medvedev, another one who can wins a Slam. The Russian made it into the final at the 2019 US Open, and he almost won, but Nadal beat him in the fifth set. If McDonald plays great, he can push Medvedev, but he isn’t ready yet to overcome the top-5 players. Yet … Another American, Jessica Pegula, has been around for 10 years. It took her a long time to become assertive and accomplished. On Monday, she faces the steady, No. 5 Elina Svitolina. It is time for Pegula to hop in Melbourne.

Australian Open racks up upsets

Sofia Kenin

American Sofia Kenin wept in the second set. She was nervous, she was shaking, and she could not come down. Last year at the Australian Open, she won the tournament. But this week, she could not concentrate.

She lost in the second round, against the older player, Kaia Kanepi, 6-3, 6-2. When the No. 4 plays again, she has to suck it up. She just has to forget it about it.

“I obviously felt like I’m not there 100% — physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels real off, obviously. It’s not good,” Kenin said.  “I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure.”

Over the past couple days, not only did she lose, but two other top-10 players went down: Bianca Andreescu and Petra Kvitova. The teenager Andreescu just came back from more than a year off. So, she will shake it off.

However, the two-time Grand Slam champ Petra Kvitova is mentally gone at times, thinking of something else when she is playing. She might be thinking, “Why I am playing so badly, and should I actually be here. I just can’t stand it.”

It is still early, and we all know that Karolina Pliskova can be super powerful and take down anyone. In the first week of a Slam, she can just get away, with mediocre play. But, in the second week, it is hard to figure out if she is will be patient or nutty when she hits the ball. She has yet to win a Grand Slam, but once again, she still has a shot to win it all. On Thursday, she beat Danielle Collins.

The other American, Shelby Rogers, beat Olga Danilovic…

Canadian Denis Shapovalov won easily over Bernard Tomic. Shapovalov will face Felix Auger-Aliassime on Friday, another rising and very good player. This will be a test.
Spaniard Feliciano Lopez is 39 years old and he is still playing singles, doubles and mixed. He just keeps churning. On Thursday he won another long fifth-setter, dispatching Italian Lorenzo Sonego, which is so impressive.

Starting again at the 2021 Australian Open

Sofia Kenin

At the Australian Open, No. 1 Ash Barty is finally ready to go. She has been healthy, but in 2020, she pulled out before Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. She did not want to get on the plane because of coronavirus had struck in March, and she was scared.

Months later, in the fall, she was itching to play again because she loves it, and she also missed her the WTA friends.

”I feel like I’ve done all the work,” Barty said. “I feel like we’ve ticked the boxes and I’m feeling like every single year we continue to develop my game and it’s better and better. Obviously I haven’t played competition tennis for a year now, so it’s going to be a challenge. But, we also know that hopefully again it will be a long season and we don’t have to panic.”

Bianca Andreescu is healthy again aftershe suffered a knee injury in 2020 after she won the 2019 US Open. Like Barty, Andreescu says she’ll return in January at the Australian Open. “I am feeling really good about the progress I’ve made during my time off.”

The Canadian has a lot of strokes, she is very mighty and impulsive. She just have to be healthy because it is almost that she is starting again.

One year ago, Sofia Kenin in Melbourne began to hit the ball like a cannon shot. She was secure and she kissed the strings. She beat Barty and Garbine Muguruza to win it all at the age of 21. She grew up.

“I definitely feel like I’m a top player, and I’ve proven it. I had a lot of physical points [in my matches], so fitness was No. 1 , and just trying to keep my game strong and try to improve it,” Kenin said.

Here are five others who can all win the 2012 Australian Open: Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Iga Swiatek and Karolina Pliskova. The first four have won a major, but not Pliskova, who has come so close in the second weeks at the Slams. She can crush the ball, but she just dreads the end. Karolina: Become serene.

It is time to fly at the Australian Open

John Isner

It is too bad that John Isner has decided not to go to the Australian Open. “It really was just a situation where I didn’t want to be away from my family for that long. I decided to stay home.” While he has lost a couple dramatic five setters in Slams, he still loves on the hardcourts, so he will be woeful in early February.

A few of the main men are already in Australia: Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Dominic Thiem. The Serbian has won eight titles there, beating a bunch of dusty players, including when he knocked down the Austrian Thiem in a five-set final last year.

Even though he lost, Thiem already knew that in 2020, he was going to win a Slam. At th U.S. Open, he finally did it, out-hitting Alex Zverev, 7-6(6) in the final-set tiebreak. It was so dramatic. Zverev, the German, will eventually grab a Slam, as long as he comes into the net more and to returns deeper. However, when he loses, he can be very sore and upset. Without a doubt he needs to calm down.

There are some players who can definitely win it all at the Aussie Open, such as Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Stan Wawrinka. Medvedev came very close in the final at the 2019 US Open, but he couldn’t grab it versus Rafa Nadal. But, he rarely give up and he has some bumper shots. Yes, he has a real chance. The Greek Tsitsipas is also rising, as he is very strong, with some amazing shots. To win at the AO, he has to use more variety. Swiss Stan Wawrinka has won three Slam titles. If he is healthy, he cand clock the ball from both sides. He could win it again, this year. Last year, he limped through. .

Four of these can reach into the second week at Melbourne, among others: Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Taylor Fritz, and the controversial Aussie Nick Kyrgios. Yes, Kyrgios can be a little crazy, but when he is on, he is as talented as anyone on tour.

Sofia Kenin: She thinks and doesn’t give up

Sofia Kenin

Many players leap into the second week of a Grand Slam, and they are on fire. But, when they get on the court, they realize that, all of a sudden, they have to play ever better to upset the terrific competitors. Sofia Kenin actually did it during Australian Open over two weeks, sputtering at times, but not during the three sets she played. Mentally, she focused, she changed things up, and she went for it, with her hard and deep forehand and her backhand. She thinks, she doesn’t give up, and she actually breathes.

Of course, almost all of the top players want to achieve No. 1. They all visualize it in their heads, when they are about to go to sleep: celebrating.

Kenin knew that when she finally became very consistent and aggressive she was ready to grab it. She did over 14 days. But now, she has a number of challenges during the next few months on hard courts. It will be fascinating to see how she recovers at Indian Wells and Miami, the two of the most important upcoming events. It is critical that she continues her strong play.

Ash Barty had a very good tournament at the AO. A lot of people thought that she would win for the first time, but she still has to improve her second serve, her return and her backhand with more topspin. If she does, she will win a Slam this year….

Naomi Osaka is a tremendous ball striker, and she can whip it. But, once and a while, she can be very erratic. She is thoughtful, and she is honest, but she has to grow up more. She just has to mature or she won’t grab the No. 1 this year.

Two veterans lost, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova. Halep has won two Slams, so she does get hurt a lot, but coming up over the next five months, she will win a few events, good ones, too. However, even though the Czech Pliskova can look terrific outside of the Slams, but once at the big events, she forgets her successful strategies. That is why she has not won a major. Can she actually do it this year? I have no idea anymore.

The 15-year-old American Cori Gauff had a fine event. She is doing that regularly now. She wants to play all the time. She is very young, and she doesn’t want to sit down. She is an ambitious kid.

On some weeks, Madison Keys is finding in the corners. She is a huge hitter, and she can nail it on her first serves. But, on court, she can get frustrated and she stops thinking. She lost in the third round at the AO. She just has to forget about it.

Djokovic edges Thiem to win the 2020 Aussie Open … again

Novak Djokovic

Who would have guessed that Dominic Thiem was about to upset Novak Djokovic in the final at the Australian Open? He was ahead two set to one, and he was in the zone. But, in the last two sets, the Serbian knew that he has to do a few different things, and he did. Somehow, he won the match 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

He continued to pound, his eyes were very wide, and repeatedly came into the net and put it away.

Djokovic now has 17 Grand Slams, and he is No. 1 again. Without a doubt, he is one of the best players, ever.

“Serve and volley is not something I’m accustomed to. I’m not really doing that that often,” Djokovic said. “I kind of recognized that as an important tactic in those circumstances, and I’m really happy it worked.”

He must be. Roger Federer has won 20 Grand Slams, and Rafa Nadal has 19. Combined, the “aging” 30-year-old guys have won 56 majors. That is incredible. The young, top competitors look pretty good on court, but they have yet to grab a Slam. Eventually, the current players will win a Grand Slam, but exactly when? Perhaps when Djokovoc, Federer and Nadal retire. Not this year.

The good thing is that Thiem is constantly improving. If he continues to get better, than at some point, he will beat everyone at a slam. Mentally, though, he still needs to understand how to play. In the last two sets, he was decent, but not fantastic. That is why he lost three times in the finals, at Roland Garros (twice versus Nadal) and once at the Australian Open (Djokovic).

“It’s unique in sports history that the three best players by far are playing in the same era. That’s what makes it very, very difficult for other players to break through,” Thiem said. “As a different player than them, you have to beat at least two of them to win a big title. Almost all players [have] failed to do that. That’s what makes it so tough. … In the last two sets, I definitely gave everything I had. Novak is part of three guys who are by far the best players ever who played tennis. If you play a Grand Slam final against him, it’s always going to be a match where very small details are deciding [it]. Of course, there were some small mistakes here and there, but they’re happening. At the end it was a super close five-setter. I don’t really regret anything.”

That was Sunday, but this week, he might be pretty sad. The big players will think about it for weeks … or years. That depends on whether you deal with it or hide it. Djokovic loves to win demanding five-setters at the most important events. But, can Thiem live with it when he loses in front of millions of people, watching the final? I would doubt that.

The Australian Open, the final: Novak Djokovic vs. Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem

Is Dominic Thiem ready to dance, finally? It is possible, because the Austrian has played substantially better over the past two years. However, the big test now is to take out Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final. The Serbian has won it seven times, incredibly consistent and oh-so powerful. Mentally, when he is locked in, he can nail his first and second serves, he can smashed his backhand crosscourt, and now when he rushes to the net, he can drop it down and softly put it away. 

However, starting in August, Djokovic began to be frustrated and irritable. He was O.K. but not fantastic. Djokovic can rush it, from the baseline, and yank it wide. Then, he would yell at himself, and here and there, he would throw his racket.

Thiem can get frustrated, too. The 26-year-old has never won a Grand Slam yet. He was somewhat close, in the final at Roland Garros, twice, and Rafa Nadal pounded him. But this week, Thiem kept his head up, and slowly, he smacked his one-hander backhand, and his heavy forehand, deep and true. Plus, he can really run. It took him a long time to be more efficient and creative. He will say in front of everyone that when he is totally on, he can beat anyone.

Here is reality: Thiem has beaten Djokovic four times, while the Serbian won it six times. That is pretty close, because they have played against each other on clay — which Thiem loves — and on the hard courts, Djokovic can rise up at the heavens, quickly. 

Djokovic beat the famous Roger Federer in straight sets in the semis, somewhat easily, not only because the Swiss was injured, but because the Serbian was on top it. He has beaten him many times. When Djokovic is confident, he really believes that he can out-stroke him.

If he wins, Djokovic will have 17 Grand Slams. Before he retired, he could have at least 20 majors. He has a solid four more years to be healthy to win a lot of titles. He wants to, and he has said that, frequently.

But Thiem kept raising his game during the past two weeks. He won’t be nervous, because he has been there enough now at the all-important Slams. He wants to walk on court, start playing, and find out how he can push Djokovic into the wall. And over it. 

Yes, Mr. Novak is the favorite, but Thiem is finally locked in. He will win it in the fifth set, so tight, and kissing the lines. A winner.

The Australia Open Final: Gabriñe Muguruza versus Sofia Kenin

Gabriñe Muguzura

There are some saying it is surprising that Garbiñe Muguruza and Sofia Kenin are in the final at the Australian Open on Saturday. But, in reality, Muguruza has already won two Grand Slams. So, her emergence can’t be too big of a surprise, not matter how poorly she has played in the last year.

While Kenin might be unknown to many fans, she has a long record of dominance in the US juniors. Plus, her focus is flawless.

Last year, Muguruza was out of it, physically and mentally. But in the off-season, she practiced all the time, she became stronger, she running quicker, and put the ball away when she has a real opportunity. In 2019, she was frustrated, she was tired about playing, and she couldn’t find a way to lock inside her brain. Over the past 12 days, she looks terrific, she grew, she was thoughtful. By the second week, she knew that she liked the sport again.

In the semis, she out-thought Simona Halep 7-6 (8), 7-5. They both have won two Slam. At this tournament on the Melbourne hard courts, Muguruza was a little more aggressive and going into the net, and putting volleys away. Halep could not.

The Spaniard Muguruza is slightly favored to win it again, and she won’t be nervous, because she won Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The pressure was there, but she pushed it aside, and she rose into the sky. Twice.

In front of thousands of fans, Kenin stunned the No. 1 Ash Barty 7-6 (6), 7-5. The 21-year- old Kenin slammed her forehand and backhand, very hard, and pretty deep. She gritted her teeth. She punched it into the corners. She kept staying in there, even when Barty kept chipping her backhand. Kenin finally nailed her shots, and she won it.

The Floridian is thrilled. But, in the final, she has to pretend that no one else is there and it is all about her.

“I’ve dreamed about this moment since I was five years old. I just feel like I’ve always believed in myself,” she said. “I’ve worked hard. I’ve pictured so many times being in the final, all the emotions, how it’s going to lead up into the final. I feel like I’m doing good keeping my emotions. I feel like everything is just paying off. I see all the hard work I’ve been putting is really showing now.”

She could be right. So many U.S. women have won the Australian Open since the 1980s: Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Sharapova is another winner who came over from Russia when she was just 7 years old. And she still lives in Los Angeles.

Kenin’s parents are also from Russia, but Kenin came over to the United States just when she was very young. She started playing when she was only 3+ years old. She never stopped. Both she and Sharapova wanted to battle, all the time.

At the Australian Open on Saturday, if Kenin jumps on the ball immediately, and knows exactly what to do, she can win it. Sharapova won her first Slam when she was only 19 years old. If Kenin can go after everything, right then and there, she will win it in Melbourne. But if she begins to make errors, then Muguruza will seize the day. Hopefully, it will be a tremendous three-setter. Everyone will like that.

Australian Open: Roger Federer survives, barely

Roger Federer

Roger Federer was surely out of the Australian Open, down 8-4 in a final set match tiebreak. Somehow, someway, the Swiss survived, winning the last six and pressure-packed points. The match last more than four hours.

Finally, he tacked the Aussie, John Millman, 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(8). He could have lost, but he stayed there, focused, putting the balls back into the court and, when he had a chance, he went for it.

Millman played as well as he could, perhaps the best he played, ever. But he couldn’t knock the Swiss down. That is the way it goes.

“I never really felt comfortable. I felt John did a great job of keeping me on the back foot, that I couldn’t always step in,”Federer said. “Until the last shot; I went for it. He picked the wrong side.”

Federer has won 20 Grand Slams. Perhaps he can do it again, but at Melbourne, he has to play four more times to win it all. The other great players are still there, so Federer might have to face against Fabio Fognini, Milos Raonic, or Novak Djokovic in the semis. And in the final, will it be against Rafa Nadal again? For Federer, it is a very tough draw. But it is a huge challenge, and a very good one for tennis fans around the world.

Years ago, it really looked like Milos Raonic would win a Slam, and perhaps to become No. 1. But he gets injured a lot, and also, even though he hits so many winners, he can panic. But, now, he is finally playing patient and thoughtful. He just played a terrific match, upending the young player Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-5, 6-4, 7-6(2).  You never know how well Raonic will play in the second week. At least he reached the 2016 Wimbledon final. But, on the hard courts, he has to win a lot more. He just has to push himself everyday, or else…The 15-year-old Cori Gauff is totally on fire. She stunned the former champ, Naomi Osaka, 6-3, 6-4. Osaka has played some amazing matches at the Slams. But, admittedly, she was out of it on Friday. OK, maybe she did not play at her best level, but the American is very fast, and steady and powerful. She is coming up very fast, sort of like the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, back in the day. They walked on the court, and immediately, they won so many matches. Both of them have said that it took them years to be much better. When they won their first Slams, in 1999 and 2001, they jumped on it.

Will Gauff do the same thing, winning the Aussie Open right now? On Sunday, she has to face another American, the 21-year-old Sofia Kenin, who is playing terrific ball. It has to be a three setter, with some huge swings, from their forehands, especially.

Alison Riske had a nice win over Julia Goerges 1-6, 7-6(4), 6-2. She could have failed, but she dug in. She loves to crack the ball, and she is pretty good at the net. She has been around for a while, but it took her at least a decade to understand what she has to do. She is smarter now. However, she has yet to reach the semis at the Slams. On Sunday, she will have to go up against No. 1 Ash Barty, on Rod Laver Arena. Riske is not the favorite here because Barty has a tremendous amount of shots. But, in front of the packed crowds. Even in her home country, she has become nervous here and there. And if she does, then Riske will have an opportunity, to stun her. Pressure is more than an opportunity; it can be a killer.