LET’S LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE: Rafa is just three matches away from claiming the record of most men’s Slams won – 21. Serena is still in the running to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams. There are three American women and three Russian men in the quarterfinals, and Ash Barty has a good shot at becoming the first Aussie woman to win the Happy Slam since 1978. Let’s hope fans return Thursday – puh-leez.
SORRY, JEN: Even if Jen Brady wins the Australian Open, she won’t be the most distinguished athlete named Brady to excel in February. A quarterback named Tom already has claimed that title.
PATRICK MOURATOGLOU – RETHINKING EVERYTHING: In a long interview Serena’s longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou said Williams is “not as obsessed with the 24 [Slams record] as most of the people in the tennis world, but she definitely wants to win Grand Slams. That’s the only reason she came back to tennis.”
He added that the only way to deal with the huge record that’s in front of her “is not to think about the opportunities. Because when you think about the opportunities, you bring expectations, and we all know that expectations are not the best friend of the professional athletes.
“The only way is to focus on how to get what you want and don’t think about what you want, you just think about what you have to do, focus only on that…But it’s definitely not easy.
“I always refer to the  Wimbledon Marion Bartoli won…There were several players then that had the opportunity of their lives…[But] a lot of them were completely unable to play because of expectations and the opportunity they didn’t want to miss. If you think about that, it’s finished.”
As for her upcoming match against Simona Halep, Patrick contended, “Simona played the perfect match in Wimbledon [she won 6-2, 6-2 in 2019]. But it’s going to be a different process for her because she knows she can play like that against Serena, which she never did before. She will come probably with more confidence, and we’re prepared.”
Mouratoglou noted that Serena is “moving better than the last three years…It’s something we’ve emphasized because in tennis that’s probably one of the most important things. If you are late on the ball, you can’t do what you want to do…You have to be able to move fast…It’s something that, probably in the last two, three years, has had consequences. When you’re not having a good day, you need a Plan B. To have a Plan B, you have to be able to move…[It’s something that] cost her a few important matches.
“So we decided to find a way to bring back the footwork she used to have. She’s done a great job…It’s about being fit enough. It’s working on speed. It’s working on the split step to be done at the right time…It’s a lot of little details…If the split step is half a second late, you lose one or two meters. It’s huge. It has to be extremely precise.”
Speaking of precise, Mouratoglou’s thinking on COVID’s impact on tennis was clear: “The situation is extremely worrying because tournaments are suffering, a lot can’t be held…[and] the prize money is too low. A lot of people think players make too much money. I don’t…Most of them don’t make that much money.
“If you take away taxes, the plane tickets, the cost of the coach…with the prize money being divided by two sometimes, they’re losing money every week. This cannot last for a long time…It’s not sustainable without a crowd…A tournament works with 30% tickets, 30% sponsorship and 30% TV rights. You lose 30% of your income, you have to reduce the prize money, then the tournament just survives and most players don’t. It has to be rethought probably, but I don’t know if it can.
“The problem is you send players here and there, and you’re not sure they’ll play. They spend a lot of money on tickets, on hotels. Also the conditions are different everywhere. I heard that if you go to Singapore and you’re unlucky and on the wrong plane, you’re 21 days in the hospital in a small room. You lose all the benefit of your training, and you lose a lot of money. This makes it so stressful…Everything has to be rethought. Sometimes it’s great to say, ‘Let’s start from scratch, forget everything we know.’”
Still, Mouratoglou noted, “Tennis in general has become much more professional. The last 10 years it has evolved incredibly. That prize money being higher has a lot of positive consequences…Players have more in their pockets and are using it to invest in their tennis. They have a fitness coach, all of them. They have a physio…They take care of themselves much more. They work much more on every single detail: the tennis, the fitness, the nutrition. They’re much better athletes than they used to be. They play much longer. The top players are very powerful. They have many more tools, so it’s also very tactical. That makes it much more interesting than in the past.”
As for all the injuries in tennis, Mouratoglou said, “Some players don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to give too much information to their potential rivals. Also we are in a very politically correct world, which is not something I like. This is also a side effect of that. After losing a lot of players want to look gracious, so they say, ‘Oh, no, I’m fine [physically].’ They’re clearly not fine. It’s just to look good…[But] It’s more interesting to say the truth.
“Novak and Rafa are champions, and champions don’t try to take pressure away by pretending they have an injury. Champions don’t try to escape the pressure, they embrace and accept it.”
When asked about Serena pulling out of last year’s French Open, Mouratoglou said, “We’ve been struggling these last years because she had a lot of injuries, so she wasn’t able to practice the way we wanted. It’s a vicious circle because when you can’t practice well, you don’t get fit. When you’re not fit, you get more injured. We had to get out of this vicious circle.
“At Roland Garros she had an injury that would have been extremely bad. That was definitely the right decision to stop, to heal. Now we’re more in a virtuous circle than a vicious one.”
THE NEXT JEN: While talking on air with Jessie Pegula, Brad Gilbert bravely tested the nicknames he’d come up with for the American. Some were old school, like the song “Jessie’s Girl,” based on the rock song, or Pegula-Hoop, a play on the once sensational hula hoop device. Some were more current, like J-Peg. But the baffled Pegula didn’t like any of them.
What the surging American likes is her first-ever run to a Slam quarterfinal, her supportive family, the Buffalo-based sporting environment she grew up in that has inspired her, her coach David Witt, who long guided Venus, and the pleasant fact that she’s front and center in a stunning class of young American women who are pushing each other to giddy tennis heights.
Yes, her fans know that devastating knee and hip injuries derailed her career. No wonder the 27-year-old insists on emphasizing that a tennis career has to be seen as a journey. Pegula has won only one tournament, the 2019 CITI Open in Washington DC and until she beat Elina Svitolina yesterday, she hadn’t notched a single win over a top ten player in her career. Goodness, she’d lost 11 of 12 sets against top-tenners.
But in Melbourne the No. 61 ranked player is blooming. In addition to her victory over No. 5 Svitolina, she beat France’s considerable Kiki Mladenovic, the home-standing Aussie icon Sam Stosur, and defending US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka. These later two players have won four Grand Slams together.
Yet in order to reach her first Slam semi, Pegula has to beat a pal and a frequent practice partner who has a huge game – Jen Brady. Like Pegula, Brady’s had quite a journey. The best player to emerge out of Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, she migrated to Boca Raton and then to UCLA. She then struggled long in tennis’ minor leagues before heading over to Germany to work with a tough-love coach and a no-nonsense trainer. While the USTA has spent millions on promoting their Next Gen campaign, Brady, who won in Lexington last summer and then reached the US Open semis, is without a doubt the Next Jen. But is she the face of America’s energetic Next Gen?
Young Coco Gauff has charisma, Sofia Kenin has a Grand Slam title and Pegula is a fighter. Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Alison Riske have proven their worth. Teen Amanda Anisimova has a lofty upside. But with her power forehand, her completely wicked serve and her improved focus and fitness, Brady may well emerge as the best American in a post-Williams universe.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A SEASON MAKES: Last year Sofia Kenin came to Melbourne and took the tennis world by storm. Rather unknown at the time, and ranked just No. 15, she won the title and drew much well deserved adulation. But this year the 22-year-old felt the unkind weight of expectations. Early in an Aussie Open warm-up tournament, she got drubbed by Garbine Muguruza 6-2, 6-2. In the second round of the Australian Open, she fell to Kaia Kanepi 6-3, 6-2 and was reduced to some brave, teary truth-telling about life in the limelight. To make matters worse, in the Phillip Island tournament that was staged simultaneously with the Australian Open, she lost to Olivia Gadecki 6-2, 6-7, 5-6. The Aussie teen is No. 727 in the world and our theory is that Kenin’s return to America on a 747 will be a soul-searching journey.
ABOMINABLE ABDOMENS: Maybe it has something to do with the players quarantining or maybe not. But abdominal tears have been far too common in Melbourne. Early in the tournament Novak Djokovic’s abdominal injury drew great attention and yesterday Casper Rudd had to retire from his fourth-round match against Andrey Rublev due to a similar injury. Matteo Berrettini also withdrew prior to his fourth-round match against Stefanos Tsitsipas with an abdominal issue.
UNFAIR TO DJOKOVIC? Novak Djokovic’s backers were unhappy. They said it was unfair that the tennis world was oh, so sympathetic to Rafa tweaking his back early in the Australian Open, but when the Serb hurt his abdomen, there was mystery, some confusion and criticism. All the while, American fans are complaining that the world No. 1 has been most unkind to Yankees. In about 55 hours he took down two of our best, Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, and he’s won 16 matches in a row over Americans. The last time he fell to a US player, it was in the third round of Wimbledon in 2016, when he was overpowered by Sam Querrey. With his last victory, the extraordinary Nole surpassed Chris Evert and scored his 300th Slam win. Only Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and Roger Federer (with 362) have more.
THE GOLF-TENNIS CONNECTION: There is, of course, a long history between the two prime country club sports, tennis and golf. Way back when, Ellsworth Vines excelled at both. Althea Gibson was an elite tennis champion, but she had to play golf to make money. Ivan Lendl’s daughter Isabelle was a superb golfer. And young Sebastian Korda’s sisters are now doing well on the golf circuit. In July of last year America’s Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish won golf’s American Century Championship. And yesterday Daniel Berger, the son of former tennis pro Jay Berger, an outstanding tennis coach, won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am with an eagle on the 18th hole. Jay reached the 1989 French quarterfinals, was once No. 7 in the world and over his career earned $992,136. Yesterday his son pocketed $1.4 million.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES: Rennae Stubbs said, “We have 19 cases here in Melbourne. And all of a sudden the whole city is closed down for five days. I mean I had 19 cases in my building in New York [and nothing happened].”
TILEY’S TRUTH: Australian Open chief Craig Tiley told Sky Sports that it was a “massive blow” having fans banned. He noted there were a lot of near sell-outs and the final weekend would be at capacity. He added that the financial losses have been severe, but he still hopes that the crowds will return.
RAFA’S UNFORCED ERROR: An hour before it was officially announced that Matteo Berrettini was going to withdraw from his match against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Rafa revealed in his press conference that the Italian was injured.