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2019 Q1 Report Card: Who Makes the Grade Through April?

I might be the only one, but it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re just three months into the 2019 tennis season. Between “Serena v Roger” at the Hopman Cup, the Australian Open, Federer handing the baton to the next generation… only to immediately take it back, the emergence of Felix Auger-Aliassime and Bianca Andreescu, and the full Nick Kyrgios Experience in Acapulco, we’ve already been given enough more than enough material to overreact to. Any other sport, you couldn’t ask for that much in a whole season, and yet, it’s only April. Gotta love tennis.

So, before something else crops up for us to lose our collective minds over, I thought I’d take the opportunity to hand out some grades for the goings-on so far:

The AO Champs: A-

A grade that is either too generous or not generous enough, 2019 has given us two very different tales for Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka. In Melbourne, both were not only on top of the tennis world, but looked like they’d stay there for the foreseeable future, and yet their recent results would suggest they’re not as far removed from the pack as we previously thought. A combined 5-6 in post-AO matches, both have legitimate questions they have to answer heading into the clay swing – Djokovic, whether at 31 and on the back of three-straight majors, he can still be a week-in-week-out monster, and Osaka, as a freshly-minted number one, whether she can manage the target that is now painted on her back, to say nothing of the upheaval in her own camp.

Rafael Nadal: B-

So far at least, 2019 has been a weird year for Rafa Nadal. He was the undisputed in-form player of the tournament at the Australian Open… until he ran into Novak Djokovic, who simply took him apart in the final. Then he let Nick Kyrgios get under his skin in Acapulco, before bouncing-back in Indian Wells with a nice run to the semis… where he pulled out with an injury that has sidelined him since. I suppose based on reputation alone you have to still install him as favourite at the French Open, but both in terms of health and ability to beat Djokovic, it’s hard to feel that much confidence.

Roger Federer: B+

No, Federer’s not just getting this grade to rile-up Rafa fans. Is it an amusing by-product? Maybe… In any cas, I feel this is a fair grade for Fed, given his recent performances would seem to warrant a higher mark and yet, he deserves to be knocked for his disappointing Australian Open exit as well. Indeed, his form from Dubai onwards has probably been his best since Shanghai 2017, and it’s crazy to think that at 37, he’s still straight-up punking guys who have nowhere near the miles on his legs, but there’s no getting around that loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Melbourne (0-12 on break points!). Certainly there’s no denying a red-hot Federer is still a danger for anybody, but the question remains as to whether on those days when he doesn’t quite have it (like against Tsitsipas), his B-game is enough to grind out the Ws.

The country of Canada: A

To be fair, Canada seems like a pretty cool place most of the time, but specifically when it comes to tennis, right now they’re absolutely killing it. Between Denis ‘El Shapo’ Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Bianca Andreescu, they’ve got the three most exciting prospects in the game, and really with the results they’re racking up, it’s hard to even call them prospects. At 19 (although 20 in a few days), 18, and 18 respectively, Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime and Andreescu have already proven they have the game, and as long as they keep progressing, there’s a realistic chance Canada ends up the next Serbia – or even exceeds them – as an out-of-nowhere tennis superpower.

The country of Australia: Incomplete

Even for a country that has seen the highs (28 Davis Cups, 7 Fed Cups, and more grand slam champions than you can poke a stick at) and lows (every time Andrew Ilie tore his shirt off) that Australia has, tennis down under is in a very curious position, as in 2019 we’ve seen plenty of both. Between the ugly Bernard Tomic-Lleyton Hewitt spat that played out in Melbourne, everything (good and bad) going on with Nick Kyrgios, and Ash Barty slicing and dicing her way to the Miami title, it’s as possible to paint a negative picture as it is a positive one – it’s entirely up to your interpretation. Personally, I’m just happy to see one of my countrywomen winning a big title again, but if the big headlines continue to be made from off the court… and in the grandstands… and underneath the umpire’s chair… and on instagram… well, we’ll be back to the old narrative of asking “what’s wrong with Australian tennis?”.

WTA tour: A+

Forget the conclusion of March Madness, when it comes to sporting unpredictability at its finest, there is no better offering currently than the WTA tour. Sixteen tournaments in, we have sixteen different champions, and make no mistake, this isn’t just Osaka, Halep, Pliskova, et al. farting away winnable titles, this is women like Belinda Bencic, Su-Wei Hsieh, and the aforementioned Andreescu and Barty earning their own spotlights, such is the depth of talent on offer. That said, there’s no denying tennis is a sport that feeds on star-power, but at least in the short-term, this level of parity has made for a very entertaining product, and really, it’s hard to ask for much more than that.

Aryna Sabalenka: C-

Yes, I know she won the Sunshine Double in doubles, but as a singles player, it’s hard to grade Sabalenka any higher. Starting the year as the undisputed “next big thing”, the 20-year-old Belarusian certainly got off to a good start by winning in Shenzhen, but has been something of a disappointment since. Sure, she’s cracked the top ten, but on the back of last year’s impressive US Open swing, it seemed like she would take a bigger step forward and emerge as a consistent presence at the big tournaments, and yet she went out with 3R, 4R and 2R exits in Melbourne, IW and Miami respectively. For a player with all the goods right now to be a top player, that’s simply not good enough.

Stefanos Tsitsipas: B

Beating Roger Federer, making his first major semi-final, and breaking into the top-ten, Stef Tsitsipas (and while we’re here, the first “s” is silent) has every right to be chuffed with his season so far, and this grade would be even higher if it weren’t for one thing – scheduling. Already this year, he’s played nine tournaments, and that’s simply far too much for any tennis player (I’m looking at you, Dominic Thiem) to balance fitness with form. Then again, maybe it’s best he stays on the court…

Stefanos Tsitsipas’ social media game: F

The whole “teasing Naomi Osaka about her Michael B. Jordan crush” was funny the first time, the 50th? Not so much. I can’t decide if he’s keeping it up because he likes Osaka, or wants MBJ for himself. Either way, it’s getting old.

That super-jacked Miami line judge: A+

Probably my favourite peripheral character at a tournament outside of Wimbledon’s Evil Colonel Sanders, this guy always gets plenty of play in Miami, and with good reason. For whatever age he is, dude is straight-up killing it with the pythons covered in tribal tattoos, and this year he really outdid himself with an extra helping of bling that was probably stolen from the set of a Migos music video. If this guy isn’t the next president of the ATP, I’ll be very disappointed.

Andreescu, Thiem Win BNP Paribas Open Titles

BNP Paribas Open—Indian Wells, California

In one of the best women’s matches you will ever see, 18-year-old rising-star Bianca Andreescu captured the biggest title of her career on Sunday in Indian Wells, California, upending three-time Major winner Angelique Kerber 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Needing four match points to seal her victory, Andreescu struck two aces, broke serve on four occasions and won 100 total points to Kerber’s 94.

Losing her serve at 5-3 in the third set, Andreescu called upon all her reserves to close out the match in two hours and 28 minutes.

Improving to 28-3 on the year, Andreescu also took home $1,354,010 for her efforts.

Kerber, who still remains in search of her first Premier level title, remains the reigning Wimbledon champion.

*****

Dominic Thiem capped off a sensational week of tennis in Palm Springs on Sunday, defeating Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to win the BNP Paribas Open.

Striking one ace and winning 67 percent of his first serve points, Thiem broke serve on three occasions and lost his own delivery twice. Having to overcome the loss of the first set, Thiem began strong in set two by racing to a 4-1 lead. With the third set much closer in score, Thiem used his flat-hit ground-strokes and deep court positioning to outlast his legendary opponent.

Winning his 12th career title, Thiem is now ranked No. 4 in the world.

Federer, who was seeking his 101st career title, also fell in last year’s final to Juan Martin del Potro. Both Federer and Thiem will next play in the Miami Open.