Serena, Pliskova, Djokovic make compelling statements in Aussie tune-ups

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The new decade got off to a rousing start with something new from the men — the ATP Cup — and something familiar, if not in recent times, from the WTA: Serena Williams hoisting a singles trophy. The win in Auckland was Williams’ the first in three years.

Also familiar: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic slugging it out in a high-stakes shootout, this time in the inaugural ATP Cup final, with Djokovic leading Serbia to a hard-fought — and hard-sought — win. Those events set up three of the storylines for the upcoming Australian Open. Let’s take a closer look at them and others:

Can Serena lock down her 24th Grand Slam singles title?

Auckland may be just a lower “international” grade WTA event. And the player Williams beat in the final, Buffalo’s own Jessica Pegula, is ranked just No. 84. But this may be just what Williams needed at the start of a new year to set herself up for a final challenge to Margaret Court’s record.

Williams, 38, is clinging to the final spot in the WTA top-10 rankings (she’ll be seeded outside the top eight for the first major). Her aura of invincibility has faded. Bold younger players relish the chance to create headlines by defeating an icon. Worst of all, the magic that Williams once conjured in Grand Slam finals has gone missing. She won 21 of the first 25 major finals she played. She’s 1-7 in her most recent.

But the “Happy Slam” has often been Williams’s happy place. She’s mounted amazing resurgences in Melbourne, crafted career-shaping moments, won more often on those hard courts than anywhere else other than Wimbledon (seven titles at each). She does fine without the hype of New York, the pressure of Wimbledon, or the clay Rubik’s Cube of Paris. Williams lost heartbreakers the last two times she played in Oz, including last year’s quarterfinal collapse against Karolina Pliskova. Williams led 5-1, 40-30 in the third set when she rolled an ankle. She never won another game.

After Auckland, Williams has one more reason to feel confident. In a moment of honest self-reflection she told reporters there: “I really felt like I was close [to the record] but I didn’t really show up in those [recent] matches. I have to figure out a better way to compete in those. It was tough for me.”

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Novak Djokovic helps Serbia lift the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney, defeating Rafael Nadal in singles along the way.

Is the ATP Cup too much of a good thing?

A natural competitor to the restructured Davis Cup, the ATP Cup also is the flagship men’s tuneup for the Australian Open. In the latter department, it has already made a big impact. In the final on Sunday in Sydney, Djokovic logged a critical — perhaps prophetic — straight-sets win over No. 1 Nadal to spearhead Serbia’s win.

The victory extended Djokovic’s hard-court winning streak over Nadal to nine matches and a surreal 19 consecutive sets. It also helped put the painful second half of 2019 further back in Djokovic’s rearview mirror. The way Nadal aced Djokovic out of the year-end No. 1 ranking for 2019 was not only impressive, it was unexpected and potentially legacy-shaping for both men. In winning the US Open, Nadal moved to within one Grand Slam of Roger Federer‘s record 20 major titles, leaving Djokovic trailing with 16.

Not for long, perhaps. Djokovic’s record in Melbourne is exceptional: 68-8 with seven titles. He’s had a handful of career-defining moments in Rod Laver Arena. At 32, he’s still the youngest of the three men vying for the Grand Slam singles title record. He needs a win in the coming weeks if he hopes to push for the record. Nadal is fully aware of the stakes.

The Spanish star has had some terrible luck at Australian Opens in the past, winning just once in five finals. He’s been knocked out by injury. He’s lost excruciatingly close, record-setting matches. He’s been ambushed by friend and foe alike. This year, though, he’s healthy, and he’s coming in with plenty of prep work. Nadal played six singles (4-2) and two doubles matches (2-0) in ATP Cup.

Because of the team ethos, the ATP Cup featured long days and often nights for all team members. The three-match ties were exhausting, especially for those, including Nadal and Djokovic, who played doubles as well as best-of-three set singles. The final result was sullied for some by Nadal’s decision to forgo the decisive doubles after his singles loss to Djokovic. Nadal cited fatigue as the reason.

The complaints about ATP Cup echoed almost verbatim those leveled at the revamped Davis Cup that was played just six weeks earlier. Ironically, Nadal led Spain to a win at home in Madrid in that competition. Having experienced both events, Nadal sees neither the need nor the room for both.

“I think is a great competition, but at the same time I can’t change my mind that two World Cups [within two months] is not real,” he told reporters after the final in Sydney. “So is not possible. We need to find a way to fix it, and we need to find a way to make a big deal with ITF and ATP to create a big World Team Cup competition, not two World Cups in one month.”

Djokovic appears to have the advantage going into the first major of the year, but Grand Slam events, where matches are best-of-five played every other day without any of the team event bells and whistles, are a different proposition that these team events. Don’t count out Nadal just yet.

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Rafael says having “two world cups” within a month of each other causes “confusion for spectators.”

Make way for the next generation

The tennis narrative for some years now (especially in the ATP) has predicted a “changing of the guard.” The theme gave rise to the #NextGenATP campaign, and it also put a spotlight on rising WTA stars like Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Belinda Bencic and others. Who was going to step up to cut down — and perhaps take the place — of a tennis giant?

That question has become less interesting than the one the young players of either tour are asking each other on a daily basis: “Whaddaya got?”

Next Gen standouts Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas aren’t engaged in rivalries with Federer or Djokovic. They’re feuding and pulling out all the stops against each other, or other Next Gen grads — staples like Daniil Medvedev or Denis Shapovalov. Osaka, Bianca Andreescu (who will miss the Australian Open with a tender knee), Aryna Sabalenka and others don’t appear as fired up about taking out a Williams, Simona Halep or Angelique Kerber as in asserting their dominion over each other. What good will it do to beat veteran champions if you can’t throttle your peers?

“At some point it’s like this: The big names go away, life goes on,” Medvedev told ESPN.com in an interview long before his magical summer of 2019. “That’s natural. Now there is a lot of movement underneath the top. We younger guys were all good, but you cannot say at 14 who will be really good. It’s being decided now, so we have to keep fighting each other to prove something.”

The competition at the WTA level promises to be particularly fierce. There were 14 women 21 or under in the top 100 at the start of this year. Three of them were already Grand Slam champions (Andreescu) or semifinalists (Marketa Vondrousova, Amanda Anisimova). Don’t expect the older luminaries to go quietly into the night, but look for the youngsters to bring the noise in Melbourne.

Can Ashleigh Barty overcome the home Slam jinx?

Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt played an Australian Open singles final but lost it. Samantha Stosur, the former US Open champ and last best Aussie hope, was beaten in the first round in Melbourne seven times in 17 starts. She never even got past the fourth round. Mark Philippoussis, Wendy Turnbull, Pat Cash, Pat Rafter … all of them played in Grand Slam singles finals at other majors but never at home after Chris O’Neil became the last Aussie to claim the title in Melbourne. She did that in 1978.

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