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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Friday February 26, 2021


The beautiful thing about Grand Slams is their open-endedness. The minute they conclude, we begin to contemplate the ramifications. As the tectonic plates of tennis shift, a fresh set of questions emerge. Today we’re here to ponder some of the questions that were either left unanswered or created by the Australian Open in 2021. Let’s do this.

Question No.1: What does Naomi Osaka’s dominance of hard court Slams mean for the WTA Tour?

For years, as Serena Williams has moved closer to the end of her playing days, we’ve heard the call for the next truly dominant WTA player. Spoiled by years of King, Evert, Navratilova, Graf, Seles and the Williams sisters, many have entered a state of panic in recent years. Where has all this confounded parity come from? Have the Williams sisters left a vacuum of mediocrity in their wake? Why can’t anybody step up and dominate the tour?

Now that Naomi Osaka has become a four-time Slam champion it looks more and more like the dominant force is here.


Get ready: the next few years of WTA tennis could end up being more exciting than the last few... Serena Williams is still very much in the picture, zeroing in on another major or two. Next we have Osaka, a bona fide juggernaut, having won four of the last six hard court major titles. Best of all? Beneath Osaka's frivolous façade lurks a cutthroat killer of a champion. Of course! You don’t get shrewd results like Osaka’s without a killer instinct.

But can she win away from her beloved hard courts? That is what we are all dying to find out! Many will try to prevent her. And the battles will be fierce.

For now, Osaka is still vulnerable on the natural surfaces. This presents a great opportunity opportunity for other ascendants to keep Osaka at bay. Simona Halep, Iga Swiatek and many others will want to take a shot at Naomi on clay. Serena Williams, Ash Barty and Petra Kvitova will want to take a shot at her on grass.

Osaka and the tour are entering into a new era. The Japanese star is on the cusp of becoming a true pop icon. She’s one of three players—Federer, Seles, Osaka—in Open Era history to have won their first four Grand Slam finals. She’s still just 23. There is still room to roam.

Question No.2: Is Serena Williams closer or further from winning No.24?

Short answer: closer.

Williams made some strides in the movement department in Melbourne, and those gains came as a result of her commitment to excellence. Serena is still focused on winning more majors and if it hadn’t been for the rude form of Naomi Osaka and a brutal draw in Australia, she may have done it.

The American icon shouldn’t be discouraged as a result of her failure to come away with the title in Australia. Instead Williams should take it as a sign: she is closer than she has been in years.


Williams is one decent draw away from getting the job done. At 39, it is utterly remarkable what she is doing on the tennis court. During a recent episode of the Lucky Letcord Podcast, I asked colleagues Erik Gudris and Richard Pagliaro if they felt that Williams was tarnishing her legacy by still being out there at her age, or was she building her legacy? The answer was easy for both: She’s building it.

The quintessential Serena fire cannot be quelled. This is a woman that burns for achievement, for victory, and more than two decades after her journey to GOATness started, the quest is still in high gear.

Nevertheless, there are significant headwinds facing Serena. Osaka has her number, and can beat her at her own game on hard courts. We mention the surface because Osaka’s hold over Serena may not be as firm on clay and grass. That’s one of the mysteries that could reveal itself this spring.

We must not count Serena Williams out just yet. She made big strides by taking down Sabalenka and Halep at the Australian Open. And in doing so she showed that she’s still very much an alpha dog on the WTA Tour, even if she isn’t the alpha dog.

Question No.3: Is it just a matter of time before Novak Djokovic passes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the Grand Slam singles titles race?

Recency bias can be a kicker. Naomi Osaka wins two out of three Slams and we suddenly set the minimum bar of 10 major titles. 4-for-4 in major finals, all by the age of 23? A double-digit Slam winner, naturally!



Same line of thinking on the men's side. Novak Djokovic now has 18 Slams: is he a lock to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24? It’s laughable yet possible at the same time. The Serb is so invincible when he’s on—he just destroys opponents, twists them up in knots and puts them out with the recycling. He’s a one man wrecking ball. So why not 24?


There goes recency bias, guiding the conversation again. But is #Djoko24 really such a far-fetched idea? The Serb has an expanding Wimbledon empire that could grow this summer, and for years to come. Couple that with his ownership of Rod Laver Arena, and suddenly 24 major titles (did we just write this?) doesn’t seem like a ridiculous stretch. It could potentially be done, just like gravity can be defied—but not forever.

Question No.4: The big three keep winning majors, what will it take for #NextGenATP to end this run of domination?

The familiar run of play: 1. NextGen ATP player does amazing things, maybe even takes down a Big Three member, on his way to a deep run at a Slam. 2. NextGen ATP player then runs out of gas and gets tossed into the incinerator. Discarded on the boulevard of broken dreams, a lopsided drubbing has taken place and licking wounds is the only option.

3: back to the drawing board, Big Three still large and in charge.

The question that we ask of Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Matteo Berrettini and so many others in the NextGen is this: Can you continue to add layers to your game so that you can finally surpass the three-headed fire-breathing dragon at the top of the Grand Slam totem pole?

The Big Three have won 58 of 70 since Federer’s first Slam at Wimbledon in 2003. They’ve won 15 of the last 16. Bravo, Dominic Thiem, for getting one. The rest of you have work to do…


 

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