Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 29, 2017

A Good Weekend For The GOATs In Melbourne

A NOTE TO READERS: The week ahead brings changes to the posting schedule.  The next post will be on either Wednesday or Friday.  Next Sunday’s post will be delayed until Monday February 6th.  The regular Thursday and Sunday schedule will resume on February 9th. Thanks as always for reading.

It took five sets and nearly four hours, but Rafael Nadal eventually subdued Grigor Dimitrov, the 15th ranked 25-year old Bulgarian in the Australian Open semifinals, thus joining Roger Federer and the Williams sisters in the finals of this year’s first Grand Slam event. Nadal needed three match points in the final game, but when the last point was won this weekend’s Aussie Open finals became the first in the Open Era to feature four players in their thirties.

First up, in the wee early morning hours of Saturday in the U.S., were Serena and Venus Williams, on opposite sides of the net in a Grand Slam final for the ninth time. They first played in Melbourne nearly two decades ago, in 1998. Then they were a pair of teenagers, full of outsize potential. Now they walked into Rod Laver Arena as queens of the tennis world. With seven Grand Slams among her forty-nine singles titles and time as the number one ranked player in the world, Venus has had a storybook career.

The oldest Melbourne finalist in the Open Era at age 36, few expected her to be playing in the final match of the women’s side of the tournament. But Venus cruised through the draw, not dropping a single set through her first five matches. Finally in her semifinal against fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe she lost the first set in a tiebreaker. But this was Vandeweghe’s first Grand Slam semi, while it was the twenty-first for Williams. Ultimately that experience showed, with the veteran breaking her younger opponent a total of five times in the three set victory.

Yet as great as Venus’s career has been, there is no argument that like the resume of every other active woman player it has been eclipsed by Serena’s accomplishments. When she won at Wimbledon last year Williams matched the Open Era record of Steffi Graf with twenty-two Grand Slam singles titles. That victory made her the oldest woman to capture a tennis major in the Open Era. Saturday Serena shattered that mark while moving past Graf and within one Grand Slam of Margaret Court’s overall record of twenty-four.

Their match started with some erratic play, as the first four games resulted in service breaks. But Serena’s return ability ultimately began to show itself. Up until the final Venus had won a majority of points on her second serve during the tournament. On Saturday she prevailed less than thirty percent of the time in that situation. With her 6-4, 6-4 win Serena Williams not only captured her twenty-third Grand Slam singles title, she also moved back atop the WTA rankings. This is the seventh time that Williams has been ranked number one, and it comes almost fifteen years after the first such occasion.

If the women’s final lacked drama, the men’s battle one day later more than compensated. Once again ardent American tennis fans got up in the middle of the night, this time to see Nadal and Federer renew their old rivalry. If the 9th seeded Spaniard was an unexpected finalist, the presence of the 17th seeded Swiss was a complete shock. Federer himself admitted that, playing his first tournament in more than six months after knee surgery, he would have considered making it to the fourth round a wildly successful tournament.

Yet both were on the court at Laver Arena, in a match in which the momentum ebbed and flowed for more than three and a half hours. In the end it was Federer in five sets, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3; though well into the final set it appeared that Nadal would deny his rival an eighteenth major title. After winning the fourth set Nadal immediately broke Federer to start the fifth, and moved to a 3-1 lead. But what no one in the stands or watching on television knew was that the 35-year old Federer was about to win out.

First he held serve for 2-3. Then, after failing on five break points in the set, Federer finally converted to square the score. After holding at love he again managed to break Nadal, but needed five break points to do so as his younger opponent refused to go quietly. That eighth game featured a dramatic twenty-six shot point eventually won by Federer. Nadal’s determination carried through to the final game, where he saved one match point before a screaming Federer forehand skipped off the sideline, out of Nadal’s reach.

Federer is the second oldest man to win a singles title at one of the four majors, behind Ken Rosewall who won three while older than Federer is now. His eighteen Grand Slam wins are the most by any male, and he becomes the first man in the game’s long history to win three different Slams at least five times. Along with his sole French Open triumph Federer now has five Australian and U.S. Opens and seven Wimbledon titles.

Fans of every sport love to debate the credentials and relative merits of candidates for the appellation GOAT – greatest of all time. Our games are constantly changing, making comparisons of players from different eras a fraught business. But there are generally agreed upon measures of greatness in every sport. So while debates among fans will go on forever, with 652 career saves (plus another forty-two in the postseason), or with eleven NBA championships in a thirteen year career, supporters of Mariano Rivera and Bill Russell can make a strong case that their hero was the best ever at his position.

In tennis the ultimate metric is Grand Slam titles, wins in the four major championships. With eighteen singles titles Roger Federer is the most decorated male player in history. With twenty-three Serena Williams is the top woman of the Open Era, and no one should bet against her catching Margaret Court. After a fortnight in Australia, the GOATs were the last two standing.

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