Raonic lone bright spot for Canada in first week of Australian Open

Canada's Milos Raonic signs his autograph onto a Canadian flag after defeating Croatia's Marin Cilic in their fourth round singles match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (Dita Alangkara/AP)

It may be a new decade, but the results of the first Grand Slam event of the 2020s are looking pretty familiar.

The 2020 Australian Open ushered in a new decade of tennis this week, but those expecting something different from the previous ten years might not have gotten what they were hoping for in the first week of Grand Slam tennis this year.

The big three are in charge, the women’s draw is unpredictable and a Canadian giant stands alone. Ring any bells?

Here’s what happened in Week 1 of the 2020 Australian Open.

Oh (Dear), Canada

After a historic 2019 season, expectations were sky-high for Canadian tennis heading into the 2020 season.

The best word to describe the 2020 Australian Open for Canada is “disappointing.”

Five Canadians featured in the singles main draws. Only one advanced out of the first round.

Four more, most notably Eugenie Bouchard, didn’t even qualify.

Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime have been touted as two of the most promising young players in the game, with Shapovalov, in particular, being tapped as a potential threat to go deep in Melbourne after his strong finish to 2019 and impressive performance earlier this month at the ATP Cup.

Shapovalov, who came into the tournament as the 13th seed, was the first major upset of 2020’s first Grand Slam, losing his opening match in four sets to Marton Fucsovics.

Canada’s Denis Shapovalov throws his racket in frustration during his first round singles match against Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. (Dita Alangkara/AP)

“There’s so many great players out there,” Shapovalov told reporters after the loss. “And if I’m a little bit off, if I’m a little bit nervous, anyone can beat me as well.”

“Obviously not all of me was there today.”

His good buddy Auger-Aliassime, who reached three finals in 2019 and set a number of youngest-ever records, didn’t fare much better. The 19-year-old was overpowered by former top-10 player Ernests Gulbis in his opening match.

Both young Canadians lost to lower-ranked opponents. Fucsovics is 67th in the world, Gulbis is 256th. They were the two of only four seeded men to lose in the first round and were the highest ranked players to lose their opening matches.

And then there was Vasek Pospisil, who used a protected ranking to enter the tournament. His Davis Cup performance served as a triumphant return to top-flight tennis after back surgery and was one of the feel-good stories of 2019.

Unforunately, he failed to pick up in 2020 where he left off in 2019, losing in straight sets to serving powerhouse Ivo Karlovic. Despite out-acing one of the tour’s greatest ever servers, he only had one breakpoint in the match and failed to convert it.

Perhaps the lone Canadian Round 1 casualty who was not necessarily disappointed with their result was, ironically, the country’s sole representative in the women’s singles draw, Leylah Fernandez.

The 17-year-old from Montreal made her Grand Slam debut in Melbourne, but had to do it the hard way by going through qualifying. Just to enter the main draw, she needed to beat three opponents in brutal conditions, but did so without dropping a set.

Even though she fell to American Lauren Davis in the first round of the main draw, the mere act of qualifying was a huge step for the teenager.

Another Game for Milos

As Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime and Bianca Andreescu burst onto the scene, Milos Raonic almost became the forgotten member of the Canadian contingent. With injuries limiting his play over the last few years, and forcing him to miss Canada’s moment of glory at the Davis Cup, the man who kick-started Canada’s recent rise in the tennis world was forced to take a back seat.

“I couldn’t care less,” Raonic told reporters Sunday in regards to losing the spotlight to his younger countrymen. “I just care about how I’m playing and how I feel on court”

And he let his game drive that message home even more at the year’s first Grand Slam.

As the new generation struggled in Melbourne, the 29-year-old reminded everyone that he is still relevant. He made that statement by becoming the only Canadian singles player to win a match at the Australian Open.

In fact, he’s won four. And as of Monday morning, he’s still alive in the tournament, although he’s got a brutal quarterfinal on the horizon.

Raonic won his first four matches with ease, taking all of them in straight sets without having his serve broken.

Most impressive was his Round 3 dismantling of world No. 6 and 2019 semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. Not only did Raonic take down last year’s ATP Finals champion in straight sets, he never even faced a breakpoint in the match. It was the second year in a row the Canadian beat a top-ten player in straight sets at the Australian Open.

He backed that up with an equally impressive win over 2018 Aussie Open runner-up Marin Cilic to reach the quarterfinals for the fifth time in the last six years.

“It’s always been very positive for me here and I’ve always found a way to play well,” Raonic told reporters after his fourth-round win. “Fresh physically and mentally at the start of the year and having some time to train in the off-season, it does me a lot of good.”

He plays defending champion Novak Djokovic in the last eight, but even if he should lose, the tournament has been a massive success for Raonic. It was a great bounce-back start to the season after an injury plagued 2019. He also reminded everyone of what a dominant force he can be after the kids stole his thunder last season.

And from a results perspective, reaching the quarterfinals for the second straight year is huge because he has now defended the largest single-event point total he had in all of 2019.

What makes the run even more spectacular is that Raonic was lucky to even be seeded. He was the 33rd ranked player in the draw, one short of seeding, until Alex de Minaur withdrew just before the tournament began, bumping Raonic up to No. 32. If that hadn’t happened, Raonic could have been drawn a top player in the first two rounds.

Still the Big three

Just prior to the Australian Open, the ATP Tour released a video featuring a number of younger and high-ranked players making their predictions for 2020. The most common prediction was that someone outside the Big Three of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will win a Grand Slam title.

While that could still happen in Melbourne, the Big Three showed few signs of slowing down in Week 1.

World No. 1 Nadal has looked arguably the best of the three heading into the second week. He won his first three matches without dropping a set before putting away the ever-challenging Nick Kyrgios in four sets in the fourth round.

Defending champion Djokovic has grown stronger with every match. He dropped a set in his opener, but has been untouchable since, winning his next three in straights. Djokovic was the odds-on favourite to win an eighth title in Melbourne before the tournament started and there is no indication that anything has changed.

Federer has looked the most vulnerable, but still comes into the quarterfinals with momentum. He barely survived a third-round encounter with John Millman, edging the Aussie 10-8 in the fifth set tiebreak.

He then dropped the opening set of his fourth-round match with Shapovalov’s slayer Fucsovics, but rallied to win 18 of the next 23 games to reach the last eight. It hasn’t been Federer’s best tournament, but he’s finding ways to win and has the easiest quarterfinal matchup against world No. 100 Tenny Sandgren.

Federer and Djokovic are in line to meet in a blockbuster semifinal.

And as for the bold prediction that there will be a new Grand Slam winner in 2020, only one of the players who made that call in the ATP video is still in the tournament, that being Alexander Zverev. The world No. 7 is one of two players left who has yet to drop a set at the tournament.

The 22-year-old’s opponent in the quarterfinals, 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, also appeared in the video, predicting that there wouldn’t be a new major champion in 2020.

23 and Waiting

As always, Serena Williams came into a Grand Slam event as the overwhelming favourite. Even more so than usual considering she won her first title since the 2017 Australian Open and first as a mom just two weeks ago in Auckland.

And when she came up against Qiang Wang in the third round, a woman she had beaten 6-1, 6-0 last year at the US Open, it seemed like an easy walk into the last sixteen.

But Wang was in no mood for a repeat, sending shockwaves through the women’s draw by taking out the seven-time Australian Open champion in three tight sets.

APTOPIX Australian Open Tennis
Serena Williams of the U.S. reacts as she plays China’s Wang Qiang in their third round singles match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

“I honestly didn’t think I was going to lose that match,” Williams said during her post-match press conference. “I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today.”

Williams was the first top-ten player on the women’s side to be eliminated. It was only her second loss before the round of sixteen at a major since the 2014 US Open.

Wang had an answer for everything Williams threw at her. She was also unfazed in the decider after missing an opportunity to serve out the match at 5-4 in the second set.

Williams’ quest for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title will have to wait until May at the French Open. The American sits one title behind Margaret Court on the all-time list. Williams’ last slam title came at the 2017 Australian Open. She has reached four Slam finals since, all since giving birth in September 2017, losing them all in straight sets.

When asked if she still believes that she can break the record, Williams said, “I definitely do believe or I wouldn’t be on tour. I don’t play just to have fun.”

New Women’s Champion Coming

Entering the third round of the women’s singles, the biggest surprise was how unsurprising the tournament had been. In many ways, women’s tennis has often been more interesting because it is more prone to upsets, making tournaments unpredictable.

Not this time. For the first time in over a decade, since Wimbledon 2009, the top-ten women in the draw all made the third round.

Then Serena lost and the floodgates opened.

A new champion in Melbourne is now guaranteed as all previous women’s singles champions in the draw have been eliminated.

Fifteen-year-old Coco Gauff made a statement by beating Venus Williams again and then taking down defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round to reach the last sixteen. Clearly her Wimbledon run last year was no mistake. Her run was ended by countrywoman Sofia Kenin, who reached her first major quarterfinal.

It was a costly loss for Osaka, who was ranked No. 1 after the Australian Open last year. She is projected to fall to around No. 9 with the loss and risks falling out of the top ten.

The biggest surprise on the women’s side, other than Serena’s loss, was 78th-ranked Ons Jabeur blasting her way into her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, ousting Carolina Wozniacki and Serena’s conqueror Qiang Wang in back-to-back matches.

One of Kenin and Jabeur will reach their maiden Grand Slam semifinal as they will meet in the quarters.

Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit also reached her first major quarterfinal, a run highlighted by a 6-0, 6-1 blowout of sixth seed Belinda Bencic.

World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, playing on home soil, looked shaky at times and needed a few three-setters, but was able to battle into the quarters where she will have a blockbuster up against last year’s runner-up Petra Kvitova.

After the favourites started so strongly, things quickly dissolved and only three of the top eight seeds reached the quarterfinals: Barty, Kvitova and 2018 runner-up Simona Halep, although the bounce-back of unseeded two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, who upset back-to-back top-ten opponents to reach the quarters, was low on the list of surprises.

Bye Bye Woz

The most emotional moment of the tournament to date came on day five as 2018 Australian Open champion and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki took her final bow.

Before the tournament began, Wozniacki announced this would be her final event, which made each of her matches must-watch TV.

She made it through the first two rounds, including an upset of 23rd seed Dayana Yastremska, before finally running out of gas in a third-round three-setter with Jabeur.

“I think it’s only fitting that my career finished with a three-setter, a grinder, and that my career would finish on a forehand error,” Wozniacki said during her on-court post-match. “Those are the things I’ve been working on my whole career.”

The audience was treated to an emotional video tribute before Wozniacki signed off with a big hug from her father.


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