Novak Djokovic believes the “face of tennis is changing” as the younger generation of players continue to step up their game in hopes of staking a claim on the major titles in tennis.
Djokovic, who returned to the top spot in the world rankings, thanks to a tremendous second half of the 2018 season, lost to just three players from the start of Wimbledon onwards last year – Stefanos Tsitsipas in Toronto, Karen Khachanov in Paris-Bercy and Alexander Zverev in the ATP Finals in London. All three are aged 22 and under.
The 31-year-old Serb looks to be back to his devastating self but remains acutely aware of the fact that the young guns are closing in, having been subjected to their threat and fallen short on those three occasions last season.
“Good,” Djokovic says with a smile when told the stat and age of the opponents he lost to in 2018.
Asked if he thinks any of those youngsters can rise to the occasion and win a Slam in 2019, Djokovic said: “There’s always a possibility and rightfully we’re kind of expecting them to be Grand Slam winners soon. Number one is Zverev obviously, who has been now top-three in the world for a couple of years in a row, winning London, winning I think three Masters 1000 events.
“He’s definitely the leader of the up-and-coming stars and the next generation. You have guys like Tsitsipas, (Dominic) Thiem, Khachanov, (Borna) Coric, these guys are showing that they’re able to challenge the top players for the top titles of our sport so for sure I’m expecting them to do well this season.
“How well? We’ll see.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 10, 2019
Last season, Coric defeated Federer in the final in Halle, the likes of Chung Hyeon, 22, and Kyle Edmund, 24, reached the semis of the Australian Open, and Zverev, 21, ended the year by clinching the ATP Finals in London.
Still, the Slams were still won by the ‘Big Three’, with Roger Federer triumphing in Melbourne, Rafael Nadal winning Roland Garros, and Djokovic taking the Wimbledon and US Open crowns.
“It’s not the first time that we’re expecting young players to challenge all of us for top positions. So far the top-three guys have been still able to keep those three positions of the world for many years, we’ll see what happens,” added Djokovic.
“But the face of tennis is changing because you’re having more challengers from the younger generation and it’s good. I embrace that, I salute that as a fan of the sport.”
Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat crashed out early in Australian Open qualifying but insists his game is moving in the right direction at the start of this new 2019 season.
The 28-year-old Safwat lost 6-2, 7-6(4) to home favourite Thanasi Kokkinakis in the first round of qualifying on Tuesday at Melbourne Park, in a clash that was a lot tighter than the scoreline may indicate.
Kokkinakis raced to a 4-0 lead in the opening set, but had to save break points in both his service games en route. The 145th-ranked Aussie had match points on Safwat’s serve in the eighth game of the second set, but he broke a string on the first one, and the Egyptian held for 4-5. Serving for the match the following game, Kokkinakis was broken for the first time in the match. Safwat forced a tiebreak and came back from 0-3 down in it, but Kokkinakis recovered and secured the win.
The 22-year-old Kokkinakis, whose career has been plagued by numerous injuries, was a surprise omission from the Australian Open’s wildcard list. The Adelaide-native defeated Roger Federer in Miami last year, and captured two Challenger titles in the second half of 2018, but it wasn’t enough to lock down a spot in the Australian Open main draw.
“That’s a very funny situation which I’m not going to comment on but I knew this could be a possibility from a few months ago,” Kokkinakis said when asked about being overlooked for a wildcard.
“Qualies is tough, the level is the level, there are obviously a lot of good players in main, a lot of good players in qualies but getting through three matches is not easy. A lot of times I look ahead, but I’m going to try and take it one match at a time and focus because as you see, if you lose focus there it can get yucky.”
He added: “I have a lot of motivation but it’s trying to find the balance between being calm and playing calm and being too fired up until you’re very nervy on court just because you want to prove [something] to some people. I’m just going to try to play my game, I know where my level is at, I know I just got to focus and I can play good enough.”
He described Safwat as “sneaky good” and was happy to get through in straight sets.
On his part, Safwat admits his low conversion rate on break points is something he is actively working on (he won 1/5 break points on Tuesday) but feels he is making some progress in that department.
“I was working on the past month, to improve my success rate on break points. How to win them, what’s happening, what’s the best way to win them? If I look at all my matches, I think today I had like five break points and I won just one and if I just raise it a bit by 10 per cent, it will add up in a lot of matches,” Safwat said.
“I’ve been working on this. It’s an important step to win those more crucial points. Because for me, like today, I didn’t feel my forehand, which is my biggest weapon, but I still managed to compete and I still managed to have my chances. So it wasn’t about forehands, backhands, serve, it’s about getting those crucial moments and raise my ratio at break points.”
Looking ahead this new season, Safwat isn’t setting any ranking targets but has some other goals in mind.
“To be honest, what I’m trying to achieve for the next few weeks is to stay the course, not really lose my course, to be very clear on what I want to do and even if it doesn’t work out – like for me in the match for example, last week it wasn’t really working for me, the thinking of converting break points better but today, I had a lot, but with three of them I really did well but I was unable to finish off the point. So it’s going forward in the right direction. I just want to stay clear in what I want to do and not get distracted by winning or losing. That’s my realistic target,” he says.
Another tight service game for Kokkinakis but he saves break point and holds for 4-0 🆚 Safwat. pic.twitter.com/y3HihCEAPQ
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 8, 2019
In an identical line-up to last year’s showpiece, Federer breezed to a 6-4 6-2 win over Zverev, who overcame the Swiss and then world number one Novak Djokovic en route to scooping the ATP Finals title in London last November.
Kerber then levelled the tie at 1-1 for Germany after edging out Bencic 6-4 7-6 (8/6) in the women’s singles rubber before the deciding mixed doubles encounter went right to the wire.
Federer and Bencic ultimately snatched a 4-0 1-4 4-3 (5/4) win after Zverev dumped into the net on the winner-takes-all point as Switzerland claimed the title for a second year in a row.
Federer, now a three-time winner of the event, has beaten Frances Tiafoe, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Cameron Norrie and Zverev in straight sets this week, bolstering his preparations ahead of the defence of his Australian Open crown.
“I’m happy I’m feeling this good and playing as well as I am,” Federer said on the Hopman Cup’s official website.
“It’s good to finish on a singles performance like this. I’m a bit surprised that the matches have gone as well as they have.”