January 20, 2020
Serena Williams and Coco Gauff underlined the importance of increasing your mental strength – whether you’re 15 or 38 years old.
Meanwhile, for Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the first day of the Australian Open was all about bringing fresh energy to a familiar stage.
And for British hope Dan Evans, part of the satisfaction lay in proving a certain legendary compatriot wrong.
There was no shortage of thrills and spills on the first day of the Australian Open.
Denis Shapovalov and Sloane Stephens were early casualties.
Shapovalov, who had expressed more concern about air quality than most, didn’t seem to be in the right headspace.
He received a code violation for throwing his racquet – and complained bitterly because he hadn’t actually broken any equipment.
All to no avail as he lost in four to Marton Fucsovics.
Meanwhile, Stephens won her first set against China’s Zhang Shuai 6-2. But she lost the next two 5-7, 2-6 and sealed her fate.
Despite the torrential Melbourne rain, the biggest stars demonstrated once again that what really matters is a sunny state of mind.
Take Serena. She has struggled for so long with the weight of history. Trying to win that elusive 24th Grand Slam title. And she has been her own worst enemy at times on the biggest occasions.
Not any more, it seems.
After beating Anastasia Potapova, Serena indicated that she has finally told herself to stop trying to be better than Margaret Court.
Asked how much attempting to beat Court’s record 24 Slams had factored into her own play, Williams opened up at last.
She confessed: ‘It has factored a lot into my play. And now it is just more or less about doing the best Serena Williams can do.
‘Margaret Court was a wonderful, great champion. And now how great is Serena Williams?
‘That’s kind of how I’ve been thinking the last two weeks or months and it has definitely helped me relax a lot.’
Whether or not winning the Auckland Classic and adopting a new mindset will win Serena the Aussie Open is still up for debate.
Even during the second set of her 6-0, 6-3 victory, there were times when Serena still looked a little vulnerable to a sustained test of her mobility.
But these are early days. And time will tell us if this fiercely determined 38-year-old has what it takes to triumph over a gruelling Grand Slam fortnight.
Her elder sister Venus was knocked out early by the new superstar of the women’s game, Coco Gauff. The same happened at Wimbledon last summer.
The defining moment of Coco’s 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 victory came when she failed to serve out the first set and Venus drew level.
A momentary look of panic spread across the teenager’s face. Then Coco spoke out loud to herself and seemed to say: ‘Come on now, let’s nail this.’
And that’s exactly what she did.
The very best players are their own best friends in moments of crisis or self-doubt.
That helps keep the crowd onside too. In Coco’s case, being just 15 also helps, of course.
She told the Melbourne crowd that she had heard them chanting her name during the match – and had only thought she would hear that at the US Open.
Once more Coco brought the house down.
Could we hear that same chant at Wimbledon 2020? Quite possibly.
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic could also do classic battle once more.
Federer amazed many in Melbourne by looking so fit and sharp. Even though some had predicted ring-rust, given his limited number of matches recently.
The Swiss idol admitted that he was delighted with the physical shape he is in. He played well, too, as he defeated Steve Johnson 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Federer’s serve was super-strong and his backhand worked like a dream until the last two games of the match.
By then the damage was done and Roger, another 38-year-old, had shown that he is a title contender once more.
Djokovic dropped a set as he came through against Jan-Lennard Struff.
But there was no panic. In fact, he announced that his New Year’s resolution was to enjoy himself more as an antidote to the pressure of expectation.
Meanwhile, Dan Evans responded to Tim Henman’s unusually controversial suggestion that he could eat less in typically defiant style.
Evans came from behind to beat American Mackenzie McDonald 3-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3. Then he patted his tummy for dramatic effect.
These mind games are every bit as fascinating as the tennis.
There will be plenty more of both before the players leave Melbourne behind for another year.