ESPN’s 30th Australian Open Starts Sunday
Yesterday, ESPN tennis analysts Darren Cahill and Chris Evert spoke with media about the new tennis season, a wide range of issues in the sport and the first Major of the year, the Australian Open. ESPN’s 30th consecutive Australian Open starts Sunday evening in the U.S. from Melbourne, with 100 live hours on TV and WatchESPN, plus 500 live hours on ESPN3 (release). Cahill was speaking from his native Australia; Evert, who reached the final of the Australian Open all six times she competed, was in Florida.
Topics on the call included:
- The sudden return to the game by former greats as coaches, with an evaluation of how the new pairings may fare….Evert called it “the story of the year” and Cahill said the trend “is great for tennis.”
- If “Czar of Tennis” — Cahill would better enforce start times and time between points…and make a bad serve toss a fault….Evert wants more combined tournaments (men and women).
- The State of American Tennis…Evert is very hopeful about the emerging young women: “there could be six women in the top 20 by the end of the year”…Cahill says any American in the top 150 could be in the top 50 this year, but on the horizon sees a strong crop of American juniors pushing all players currently in their early 20s (not just Americans) and perhaps “this next generation is going to leapfrog them.”
- The two agreed the common trait among top players is the willingness “to suffer”: Cahill: “the one thing that is common throughout all top 10 players, especially the top 5 or 6, is that to win a tennis match, all of those guys are prepared to suffer on a tennis court, physically, mentally, emotionally.”…Evert: “You have to be willing to suffer out there, come through it, not give up, not succumb to it. You just got to fight it and come through it. That’s what champions do.”
- The Federer / Nadal GOAT Debate. (With Aussie Cahill adding The Rocket to the conversation.)
- Specific questions about Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka, John Isner, Lleyton Hewitt, Bernard Tomic, Venus Williams and Laura Robson.
- Each gave their suggestions to improve the Davis Cup and Fed Cup.
Q. Darren, can you give me your thoughts on John Isner as he heads into the season. Obviously he had a decent run in the summer, some injuries here and there. What do you think is holding himself back from becoming more of an elite player? Is it his return game? His body? Five-setters at majors?
DARREN CAHILL: I think it’s the return game and also a physical thing for John. We had the chance to catch up with him at the Hopman Cup and unfortunate for him he had this ankle injury. He had an enormous amount of work in the off-season to make sure he was going to get over those knee injuries he struggled with at the end of last year. With that, the training, he got a little bit of an aggravation to the ankle. He carried that into the Hopman Cup.
I think first and foremost in his mind is to get fit for the Aussie Open. I think overall it’s really improving his return games. He has one of the best serve games in the world and he has one of the worst return games. He breaks down in the bottom five with the guys in the top 100. He has a lot of good people around him. Jim Courier is advising him. He’s had his coach for the last year in Mike Sell, I believe. He’s got a lot of people around him trying to improve that. He knows that. We saw that through the American summer, Cincinnati, tournaments where he was much more aggressive off the ground, where he’s looking for the first short ball and running forehands. But it’s much easier said than done and he’s got to put that into practice more often. Once he does that, that will free him up in the five-set matches and stop him from playing the long four- or five-setters that is taking the wind out of his sails for giving him the chance to go deep in a slam.
Q. Chrissy, can you give me your thoughts on the biggest challenges facing Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams?
CHRIS EVERT: As far as Serena is concerned, I’ll be curious to see if she can maintain that passion. She was like on a mission last year. She had so much enthusiasm after every single match that she played, was so high on talking about what she needed to improve, her passion for the game, her place in history.
My question is, you know, can she conjure up the same enthusiasm this year as she did last year. If she does, watch out everybody because she is the type of player that needs that motivation. She’s the type of player that really needs to be pumped up for these matches. We’ve seen her in a couple of matches during the year where she hasn’t been able to get psyched up, she’s been a little injured, and she’s had a couple of losses. I mean, I think she just needs to keep up the mental and emotional part of her game and stay healthy.
As far as Sloane is concerned, I have a lot of respect for her game. When you look at contenders and players that are nipping on the heels of Serena, I look at Maria, Victoria and Sloane Stephens is right up there with her because she physically has shown, especially at the US Open when she played such a great match against Serena, she’s almost there. I just think it’s the belief with her. It’s all about confidence with her.
I think her choice of coaches was a great one. I think that’s going to be a winning combination, for her to have Paul Annacone. I think that was a really good move on her part. He’s just the kind of guy who can sort of talk to her about confidence, talk to her about pressure. I think he’s going to help her a lot. But Sloane’s right there, right there along with Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
Q. You’re putting her up there pretty high considering she’s hardly as proven as those two.
CHRIS EVERT: I do. I think in big matches. I think the great thing about Sloane is that she reached the fourth round or better in all the Grand Slams last year. I’m looking ahead. I’m just looking at the Australian Open right now. I’m looking that she always gets psyched up. Especially she had great memories from last year playing at the Australian Open. I’m looking at a contender for Serena. When she plays Serena, I think she gets that extra energy going. Serena I think motivates her and inspires her to play her best tennis. So I guess, yeah, I mean, she really was disappointing in matches week in and week out, but at the same time in the big matches she came through. So that’s why I believe in her.
Q. Would you both give me your thoughts on the surge of ex-great champions becoming coaches. It started with Lendl, Becker is in the game, Chang. Specifically for you, Darren, since you know him so well, what do you say the chances are of Andre ever getting into the coaching game.
CHRIS EVERT: I think that’s actually the story of the year, is the coaches. When you look at the men and the women, even the women, you look at Sharapova, Stephens, Wozniacki having Hogstedt. Stosur changed, Robson changed. I think these players think the coach changes is going to give them the edge they need to go the extra mile.
I don’t know if anybody can do as well as Lendl has done with Murray because Lendl and Murray to me was the perfect, right from the get-go, combination. Lendl’s strengths were Murray’s weaknesses at that point, which was focus. Lendl was so ice cold out there, really had that determination. He was unemotional. I think that’s what he’s helped Andy Murray with.
When I look at Djokovic, I look at Djokovic/Becker, I’m feeling good about that combination because I think Becker was very aggressive. He went for all his shots. I think Djokovic could go for his shots a little bit more. I think that’s where Djokovic is so consistent and so smooth, has that great timing and smoothness. But he could probably go out of the box a little bit more and take a few more chances, come to the net, hit some more winners.
I think Becker’s aggressive personality and aggressive game could give him the edge that he needs. Although Djokovic still had a great year last year. It’s not like he’s going to be transformed into another type of player, but I think Becker can add some additional elements.
Edberg/Federer, I don’t know how anybody can tell Roger Federer what to do. He has a great game. If there is a problem with Federer, it’s the fact he just isn’t consistent day in, day out. He’s got the game. We’ve seen it. He can beat all the top players. But I think it’s more the motivation, to stay in there, to hang in there, to close matches, to be sharp every single day. I’m not quite sure that is something that can be achieved when you have played as many matches as Federer has. I like all the combos. The women’s also.
DARREN CAHILL: First of all, I think it’s great that anytime these former champions want to get back into the game, the big winner in this is tennis. It’s great to see these guys put their hand up and get back into the game, whether it be commentating, coaching. But becoming re-involved in the game is great for tennis in general.
Mostly for it to work, it has to be for the right reasons. Most of these that we’ve seen lately seem to be not right reasons. Let’s be honest, one of the big reasons we haven’t seen a lot of former champions get back into the game, a good salary a coach makes, these guys can go out and do public speaking and exhibitions and make that money in three or four days. Being on the road with another player is not in their best interest most of the time.
This is a special generation of tennis players in the men’s game, a little bit of these players seeing that, wanting to be involved with that. I think also the fact that these players are now reaching out to these guys and getting them involved has made a big difference, including these players, they’re picking up the phone now and making the phone calls to these former legends and saying, Hey, do you want to help me? The players are getting on the front foot, much like Andre used to do.
Also if you go through the course of a lot of the five-set matches, especially the tight ones, the top four, I put Federer in there, not Ferrer, mostly it’s 10 or 12 points that will separate winning or losing in one of these matches. These guys can bring to the table something that most coaches cannot. They’ve been there. They’ve experienced it. They’ve lived it. They’ve problem solved through it. And if they can change the course of a half a dozen points, that’s 12 points in a match that they can change. That might be through strategy, through belief, through psychology, fitness, off-court preparation. They are bringing an X factor to the court that a lot of normal coaches cannot.
I think it’s a great thing that we can all learn from these guys. I’ll put my coach’s hat on. I’ve learned a lot from Lendl working with Andy Murray. Becker involved, Ivanisevic involved, Chang involved. Each one of these guys are going to bring strengths to the table, and I think it’s a wonderful thing.
As far as Andre is concerned, I think if you’re going to pick one player that probably won’t get back into full-time coaching, he’s had several offers, big players, top 10s, on both the male and female side have approached him, but I think you’ve seen his life now move more towards the education in the United States. He’s heavily involved in that. I think it would take a drastic alteration for him to turn his attention back to tennis.
Q. If you were the czar of tennis, what is the one thing you would like to see improved and why?
DARREN CAHILL: I think a lot of the stuff that the ATP especially has done in the last couple of years has worked. I would reinforce the time between points. If it was me, I would make a start time an exact start time. If players were scheduled on court for a 2:00 start, I would make the first ball being played 2:01 or 2:02. Players would have to be on court at 1:57 doing their warmups. I would make it when people tune in, they know the first ball was hit at 2:00.
I think there’s so much lead time from the start, middle to the finish of tennis it’s dead TV to a large degree. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for tennis to be packaged up so it’s more attractive for people which will shorten matches. Obviously people have shorter attention spans because they have so many options on television these days. You have to make tennis reliable and attractive to people.
There’s a bunch of rules that I would change, like the first serve ball toss. If that gets away, that’s a fault, which happens both in the male and female game. I think there’s a lot of stuff that is going to tighten up the game of tennis which is going to make it more attractive for the television viewer.
CHRIS EVERT: I like to see the men and women play more tournaments together. I know there’s been a big effort in the last few years. Darren, how many are there? Eight tournaments now?
DARREN CAHILL: About a dozen now at least.
CHRIS EVERT: Not counting the Grand Slams, though. There’s eight plus the Grand Slams?
DARREN CAHILL: I would say more.
CHRIS EVERT: Really?
DARREN CAHILL: Brisbane International, Sydney International. There’s a bunch.
CHRIS EVERT: I’ve always liked that. Sometimes it’s a little disappointing when I’m going to commentate a tournament and I go there on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, the crowds are sparse. The crowds don’t come out until the weekends. I kind of like the idea of big TV events with the men and the women, a few more events than they have now.
When the men and women are really playing together, working together, in this game together, because I came from a generation where the men didn’t want to have anything to do with us in the ’70s. We had to go out and form our own tour, the Virginia Slims Tour, because we were getting 10% of what the men were getting if we were playing tournaments together. There were so many years where there was such a big division between the men’s and women’s circuit.
Now with the last few years, with the Sony Ericsson, Indian Wells, I see it’s really coming back. That provides a lot of excitement for the viewer. I know the men and women players kind of get charged up when they’re playing in a tournament together also. Just to have more bigger, especially events with the men and women playing together, I think that would enhance the game.
DARREN CAHILL: Also, I think for anything to happen of significance, there has to be a Commissioner of Tennis. I’m not sure we’ll see this in our lifetime. For anybody to come in and have one voice that’s going to act in the best interest of tennis, we have to appoint a commissioner, whether there be a commissioner for men’s tennis or women’s tennis or over both games. I think sitting over both games is in the best interest of tennis.
Nothing will happen at the moment because there are too many factions with too many voices. You have the ATP, the WTA, the ITF, who sit above everything and oversee everything, then the Grand Slams act in their own best interest, doing what is best for their own Grand Slams. At the moment you have way too many factions controlling the game of tennis and everybody trying to get their little piece of the pie. It just doesn’t make any sense. So for any major changes to happen in tennis, there has to be a commissioner appointed.
CHRIS EVERT: One more idea. Just the fact, let’s take the pressure off American tennis a little bit. The last few years, there’s been such a negative connotation concerning American tennis because worldwide tennis has improved so much, globally you’re having so many wonderful players. Look at because of Li Na basically there are more tournaments in Asia, like 14 tournaments in Asia, than any other part of the world. I just think it would be great for the American public to be accepting of that and get behind more of the global players, get behind these players, not always complain Li Na is playing Sam Stosur, and I don’t really feel like I’m a part of this match because neither one of them is American. Maybe a greater appreciation and acceptance of the fact that tennis has grown globally and that’s a good thing.
Q. Darren, what do you see the state of men’s team tennis? Davis Cup has not changed its format. It’s losing global steam. Do you think there’s anything that should be done, something created that doesn’t exist?
DARREN CAHILL: Kind of goes back to my last answer about the Commissioner of Tennis a little bit, doesn’t it?
We’ve been talking about a change in the Davis Cup format for many, many years. To me I feel like it’s a little bit antiquated. There are better ways of doing it that I feel like we can get out to more people, make it more attractive to television. Maybe not more attractive to where those Davis Cup matches are played, because if you turn up to most Davis Cup matches, they’re packed. That will be the argument that the ITF has, that it’s not a broken system because every time they have a Davis Cup tie, jam-packed crowds.
For me there’s a better way to package up. I think beyond the World Cup, it’s the second best team sport competition in the world. We have to be able to look at ways of growing and expanding it. The last 20 years, because of the schedule, because of player participation, commitments, it hasn’t grown. It’s still good, a great competition, but it hasn’t grown like a lot of the other team competitions have grown.
Again, I’d go back to that last answer to the last question. If we had a person that sat above everyone and was able to give advice in the best interest of the game, I’m pretty sure we’d be able to come up with a system that would grow Davis Cup over the next 10 or 15 years and make it into what it was probably 20 years ago, if not the greatest team competition in the world pretty close to it. I feel like there are other sports competitions that have gone past it.
I don’t have the easy answer. I think there’s been a lot of variations of that thrown up over the last 10 years. All of them have a lot of positives. Some have a lot of negatives as well. I don’t have the answer for it. But there are a lot smarter people out there than me that will be able to help out with that.
Q. Chrissy, same thing with the Fed Cup? How do you see that? What could be done? Should there be a new competition altogether?
CHRIS EVERT: It’s so tough. It was so great in the ’70s and ’80s when I played Fed Cup and we had it in one week. I hate to say that because I know that women’s tennis has gotten away from that. They thought they could really promote it in the countries, the countries would have great events, draw a lot of people, get a lot of TV, get a lot of support behind their countrywomen, but I don’t see that happening.
It’s fading away. Fed Cup is fading away. I would prefer to have one big week where you get the top players, you get Serena representing America. You get the top players, you play one week, you have whatever, a 16 draw. You have worldwide television. I just think that could be an unbelievable event, televised, a lot of patriotism involved, fan support.
I think the one week tournament is just better than having all these other weeks. The stadiums aren’t being filled in these countries. I think the effort was made, but I think we should go back to having the one week or 10-day type of Fed Cup. I think it’s important. It’s like the Olympics. I think it’s important. There was no better feeling than when I played on the same team with Martina, Zina Garrison, Pam Shriver, had Billie Jean King as my coach and captain. It was a thrill of a lifetime practicing with these women, being coached by these legends. Just the feeling of these different countries, the uniforms, the music. Evening was so spectacular. But I think you could put it all in one week.
DARREN CAHILL: You could probably think of doing a World Cup of tennis. That’s the thing with the ITF, if you do a World Cup, you can’t run it every year. Hopefully you’d be able to do it every second year, and the Olympics would be a third year as well. But a World Cup of tennis where the women and men play together in a bunch of locations where they all meet up in a central location for the semis and finals, you make it the World Cup of Davis and Fed Cup.
CHRIS EVERT: The philosophy of the men and women together is a better package, a better package for everybody all around. I agree.
Q. It’s pretty bleak as far as men’s tennis goes other than Isner and Querrey. Down around 89 to 113, there’s a bunch of Americans down there. Are there any of the guys down there that you see that can make the next step up and make it into the mid 50s like some of the women have done?
DARREN CAHILL: Look, I think it’s a huge year or two years, and I’m going to be a little more general here and not just say the American players, because all of those guys are capable of making top 50. They should be looking beyond that. They should be looking to the top 20 and beyond. All those guys are capable of making top 50, Harrison, Sock, all the guys inside the top 150 at the moment.
You also have a bunch of guys in the United States who are 15, 16 years of age who are outstanding. Some of the best male juniors that I’ve seen in a long, long time, we saw a bunch of them playing at the Orange Bowl recently. They dominated over there. The group of kids coming behind this generation that you’re talking about is outstanding. They will leapfrog these guys if they’re not careful in the next couple of years.
The big thing in a more general sense, we talk about Milos Raonic, Jack Sock, Ryan Harrison, Bernard Tomic, Grigor Dimitrov, in the next one or two years if they don’t make a big step up, most of the big contracts that all these kids are enjoying will disappear because everybody will start focusing on the generation behind them. So this is a huge year for all of those guys that I talked about. I don’t think tennis has ever seen an era where we haven’t had 19, 20, 21, 22-year-olds coming through and making slam finals or winning majors. You go back through every single generation, every generation, there were youngsters pushing to win majors.
The game has changed a little bit where it’s become a little more physical. We’re either overrating this generation, I’m going to move Milos Raonic out of there, he was close to the top 10, he’s been a little bit different. He’s been outstanding in the ATP events. He hasn’t stepped up in the majors, but I believe he will. The rest of them have not done much, not much at all.
The next two years is going to be incredibly important for the next generation to start making waves on the tour, pushing on the top 10, making semis of majors, otherwise this next generation is going to leapfrog them and they’re going to leapfrog them very highly.
CHRIS EVERT: I think what Darren said is correct. Talking about the women, two or three years ago, there was nobody except for Serena and Venus. There’s a lot of criticism. Over the last two years a lot have emerged.
This year when you look at how Madison Keys played, Sloane, Jamie Hampton, I mean, I think we could have five or six in the top 20 by the end of the year. Then you look at Duval, Davis, McHale, Alison Riske, we have a whole stable of young women now. They are pushing each other.
I’m down in Boca Raton where the USTA is situated, it’s on the same property as my tennis academy. I’m walking over and watching these girls battle it out. McHale is playing Madison Keys. They’re all playing matches, grinding it out, working hard, but they’re competing against each other. I think that’s what we didn’t have. I’m seeing the men, too. I’m seeing that Ryan Harrison is down there. The men are also grinding it out, playing matches.
I think the men are two years behind. I think it will happen. I think this year you’re going to see some good matches. Already in the last two tournaments some of the American men have done pretty well.
It’s all cyclical. It’s become more global. The Americans kind of slipped through the cracks a little bit the last five years. Especially on the women’s side I see a real emergence. Honestly, I think there could be six women in the top 20 by the end of the year. That’s how much confidence I have in the American women because I’ve seen the way they’re practicing, how they’re being coached, the dedication and hunger that they have.
That’s the way I feel about that.
Q. Roger put up all those incredible years, yet he’s 10-22 against Rafa. No Davis Cup, no Olympics singles. Conventional wisdom says he’s the greatest of all time. Could you kick that anomaly around, that he’s so widely considered the greatest of all time, yet against his greatest rival has such a losing record.
CHRIS EVERT: Well, you got Nadal.
DARREN CAHILL: Don’t get emotional, Chrissy.
CHRIS EVERT: I love all those guys. I think they’re all great. But Roger’s my guy. When I look at Nadal, I just see what a workhorse he is, how he grinds it out, how physically superior he is to all these players, his heart, his humbleness. I see who he is as a person but also who he is as a competitor. It’s a level above anything we’ve ever seen, I think, in the past on a consistent level.
Then you look at Roger, who is a star. He’s loved by everyone. The way he has carried the No. 1 torch has been with humility and a lot of class and so much physical talent.
My big question this year, I have a question with Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. I’m curious to see if Maria Sharapova can win a major and I’m curious to see if Roger Federer can win his 18th. Roger, as great a player as he is, he can beat anybody in the world, again, it’s the day-to-day consistency. He’ll play three or four great matches, but then he’ll have a letdown. He won’t be Roger out there. We’ve seen it so many times. That comes with getting older. It just chips away at you. You can’t be as fresh as you were when you were 22 years old at 32 years old.
In saying that, I think this will be the year where Nadal will get a lot of press, a lot of attention. I think he’s going to be paid his dues because he has been so kind of quietly in the background and let Roger have all the fanfare. He’ll get such an appreciation from everybody because you’re right, his record is phenomenal, especially against Roger. I just think, Nadal, it’s going to be his year.
DARREN CAHILL: Firstly, you’re speaking to an Aussie here. It’s difficult for me to get into the ‘best ever’ conversation. I think it’s impossible to talk about the greatest of all times because of the generations. It’s a bit of a moot argument. But because I’m an Aussie, it’s tough for me to go past Rod Laver anyway. I put not only what he accomplished on the court but also what he’s accomplished off the court as well. There will be no better representation for the game of tennis than what Rod Laver has been over the last 50 years. Rod is at the top of the tree.
There’s no question that Roger and Rafa are going to go down as two of the best players. They’re going to go down in that conversation. There’s a lot of things that make up having that title. It’s not just what you accomplish in a head-to-head record. I think it’s weeks at No. 1, it’s Grand Slam titles, it’s head-to-head records against other players, it’s longevity, it’s being able to get on the court and be at the top of the game when you’re 19 years old and still do that when you’re 33 years old. I think there’s a lot of things that go into that conversation.
The one glaring factor that Nadal will sit down at the table every time when someone says Roger Federer is the greatest ever, he’ll probably choke on his food a little bit. He’ll go, Excuse me, I have a 22-10 record over the guy you’re calling the greatest ever. It’s a great argument. The fact is Nadal has a great head-to-head record over everybody. He couldn’t say that five years ago because in the early parts of his career he was vulnerable to certain players, until three or four years ago. He’s problem solved that. He’s overcome that. He’s now a problem for everybody on every surface.
That’s why Federer used to have the argument a little bit, When I was playing my best, on my best surfaces, I didn’t get a chance to play Nadal and prove that head-to-head record because Rafa would lose in the earlier rounds. I would make it to the finals of the clay court tournaments, then Rafa would beat me.
That’s why I think it’s a fascinating argument. It’s one we’ll never have a definitive answer to. There’s no question both of those guys are going to be in that best-ever argument.
Q. Andy Murray called his chances unrealistic going into the Grand Slam. Coming back from back surgery, what should Murray be setting himself for this tournament?
CHRIS EVERT: Andy Murray said his chances for the Australian Open were unrealistic?
Q. Yes. What target should he be setting for himself?
DARREN CAHILL: Yeah, look, I think what Andy said, he’s 100% correct. Andy is the type of player that needs a lot of fitness, a lot of matches to be feeling his tennis legs on the court. At the moment, because of the back operation, he hasn’t been able to do that. I think it’s a logical thing stating that coming into the Australian Open. I think he set his sights on being close to 100% by Indian Wells and Miami, the two bigger hard court tournaments in the States right before the clay court season begins.
I think to expect him to come off surgery and have a few weeks training, play a couple tennis matches, then make him a realistic chance to win the Australian Open, is not realistic. It’s unrealistic. I think Andy is being sensible about lowering expectations, not only his expectations but everybody else’s as well. I think we’ll get a good indication about how he is after the first couple of matches here in Melbourne.
The big X factor with him, a couple years ago, after what he’s been through the last couple months, I would have given him no chance of winning the Australian Open. But because now he knows how to win majors, over the last 18 months, US Open champion, a Wimbledon champion, Olympic gold medalist, you put Andy Murray in the second week, you give him a pass through to the second week, it’s not overly taxing on his body, he can physically get through it without too many worries, things change dramatically for Andy. He becomes a factor again. It’s the first two or three matches that are going to be crucial for him that he protects his body and he doesn’t use too much gas in the first couple matches and he confidence a way to get through to the second week.
CHRIS EVERT: When I look back at Maria Sharapova when she had her surgery, it took her a while to get back. The thing with Andy, he is smart like you said, Darren, because it takes the pressure off him, too. He’s going to play better tennis without those expectations on himself. But also he is a physical player. That’s what Lendl has tried to work on, the mental side, the emotional side. He’s made great strides. He basically is a physical player. That’s where he wins his matches. If he has 1% doubt on a special move he’s making, changing directions, overhead, I wonder about my back, am I going to feel it, that’s really going to work against him in a big way because you need every edge you can if you’re going to be winning these Grand Slams.
I agree. I think it takes the pressure off him. I think the expectations should not be high. He shouldn’t have high expectations or his fans, and I think it’s going to take a few months to get really back into it and have him feeling confident and comfortable with his body.
DARREN CAHILL: Remember also we had the Rafael Nadal situation last year where he was out of the game for seven months, he missed the Australian Open. We said back then, as disappointing as it was, it may have been a huge blessing in disguise for him not to come back and put his body through the rigors of playing best-of-five straightaway. Andy has had a couple tournaments. He wasn’t out for quite as long as Nadal. But Nadal is a different athlete to Andy, as we know. Andy is very in touch with all the little niggles and problems that he has with his body. He’s not the type of guy that can shake that off on the court like Nadal can. It’s a little bit different for Andy. He’s played a couple tournaments. He hasn’t had too many matches. He was disappointing in his second-round loss in Doha. Lleyton Hewitt pulled out of the Kooyong tournament, but he is playing an exhibition match against Lleyton Hewitt on Friday to get that big match. But he is a guy that needs matches.
CHRIS EVERT: Like you said, he’s the type of player that everything has to be 100% for him to win these Grand Slams. Everything has to be in his favor. He can’t have any niggling doubt in his mind. Somebody like Nadal, he can have things going against him, but he can find ways to win these matches. I think that’s a difference between them also.
Q. Bernard Tomic, after all the turmoil in his personal life last year, do you think he can elevate his game to match the expectations placed on him earlier? And Venus Williams, got to the finals in Auckland, seems to be hitting the ball well, healthier. What do you expect for her this season?
CHRIS EVERT: I’ll start with Venus. Darren, you can talk about Tomic. I think everybody should be happy that Venus is still playing. I doubted, what was it, two years ago, when she had the autoimmune, when she was diagnosed with it, there were a lot of doubts in my mind whether she would ever be 100% and come back. She’s really been very diligent about managing this autoimmune disease, very realistic in the sense of, I know some days it’s not going to be there, I’m going to be tired, but I’m going to make the most of the days that I feel good. She has a better appreciation of tennis, being a pro, being on the circuit, playing at her age, appreciating her health.
Again, she’s taken the pressure off herself by managing it, realizing that she’s not 100% physically every single match. I just love it. I think it’s great that she’s still playing, playing doubles with Serena, that they have that support system. I’m always pulling for her because I know the adversity that she’s been through.
I think fans should have an appreciation for her. She’s probably going to retire before Serena. She’s been such a graceful champion, being in the wings of her sister, being in the background, letting Serena get all the press and attention, she’s handled it in a very graceful way. Venus, she’s really shining right now.
DARREN CAHILL: Onto Bernie, I’ve been a big supporter of Bernie over the last five or six years, but also a big critic of his as well. I want to see him get the most out of his game. If you said to me two or three years ago, even last year, will Bernard Tomic be a top 10 player throughout the course of his career, I was all in. I would have pushed the chips into the middle, thrown my hands down, 100%, he’s all in, top 10 player for sure.
I’m not so sure now. I think the jury is out with him because he’s got a habit of losing time on tour. Our window for becoming a successful tennis player is so short you can’t afford to lose time. There’s many times when I question his work ethic on the practice court. I question his work ethic during a lot of matches he plays.
I don’t question how he plays in Australia. It seems like Australia gets the best out of him. I certainly question when he leaves Australia and plays overseas. It’s a long tour. Bernie struggles when he goes overseas. Unless he gets onto a surface that’s perfect for him, he struggles to win those matches that can turn player’s careers around. Once he gets behind, he struggles to find what’s in himself to turn those matches around.
As I said to an earlier question, he’s part of that next generation, 21 to 23, Harrison, Sock, Nishikori, Cilic, I don’t put Raonic in there, Grigor Dimitrov, but Bernie is right there within the next 12 months he has to step up, become a better athlete, he needs to improve his work ethic, he needs to improve a bunch of stuff that can give him an opportunity to become a top 10 player. It’s not too late for him. He can definitely do it. If he continues on the path he’s on, I’m not so sure he’ll make it.
CHRIS EVERT: He played Federer two years ago at the Australian, correct?
DARREN CAHILL: He played Federer last year in the third round. Undefeated in the Hopman Cup, won Sydney, lost to Federer in the third round.
CHRIS EVERT: I couldn’t remember if it was last year or two years ago but I remember watching him playing Federer at the Australian Open, thinking to myself, just like you, this guy could be top 10 because he was toying with Federer. He was toying at times with Federer. He just had the defense. He had the offense. He had the power. He also had the finesse. I agree with you now. To be a top player, you have to be a grinder. I’m not saying you have to go out there and be a grinder of being a defensive player, but you have to be a grinder in every sense of the word, mentally, emotionally and physically. He’s lacking that right now.
DARREN CAHILL: The one way I would sum it up, if you look through the top 10 players at the moment, the one thing that is common throughout all top 10 players, especially the top 5 or 6, is that to win a tennis match, all of those guys are prepared to suffer on a tennis court, physically, mentally, emotionally. They will suffer and do what’s needed to get it done each and every time.
CHRIS EVERT: And come through.
DARREN CAHILL: Exactly. At the moment I question that with Bernie. It’s not too late for him. The big positive for him in 2013, his commitment to Davis Cup, that was a huge turnaround for me being Australian and seeing him commit to Davis Cup and seeing him play some of his best tennis in Davis Cup. I want to see that on a regular basis throughout the year. Unless he’s prepared to go overseas and suffer in all areas of the game to find a way to win a tennis match, his chances diminish.
Q. What do you think the chances were of Lleyton and Tomic at the Australian Open? How long do you believe that Lleyton Hewitt can play on for?
DARREN CAHILL: Look, I had a chance to see Lleyton play all of his matches in Brisbane. I thought he was outstanding. Firstly, the court in Brisbane was like an old school hard court, one that we grew up on about 20 years ago. It was fast, slick, perfect for Lleyton’s game. You could see the moment he stepped on the court he was enjoying the faster conditions. These are the kind of conditions he was hoping for a bunch of years ago that were going to be able to help his game. My understanding is the courts here in Melbourne are pretty similar, especially Centre Court, Hisense, Margaret Court, similar to what they were last year. Lleyton is going to have to work harder for his points than he did in Brisbane.
That being said, this is the fittest and hungriest and most focused Lleyton Hewitt that I’ve seen in six or seven years. Basically since he got to the final here in 2005. He looks injury-free, he looks happy on the court, delighted to be playing at this level again. He worked incredibly hard over the last three or four months to put himself in a position where he at least gives himself a shot. I’m not sure he can go all the way because I would say that about just about everyone outside the top four. To win one of these majors, you have to go through three of these major players to win a major. I think Lleyton is capable of beating one or two, but to beat three is a big ask. He’s very capable of causing a lot of damage.
Bernie is capable. We’ve seen it here in Australia many times before. It’s not the tennis here in Australia that I question, it’s more his tennis outside of Australia. Absolutely, Bernard Tomic can have a good Australian Open.
CHRIS EVERT: I think it’s very rare that you see a player over 30 play the best tennis of their career and also mentally be as intense. We talked about how Federer has kind of lost that a little bit. The older players, they’re not as hungry. It’s just astounding to me. I saw that last year at the Australian Open. He’s more intense than he ever has been. It’s just incredible to me to see this. He has such an appreciation for the game right now.
I think the players are starting in their early 30s, you didn’t see this in my generation, but you’re starting to see, because they’re in better physical shape, they’ve had more adversity, out of the game with injuries, have a deeper appreciation for the game. They feel like, I’ve got to milk this for another couple years because once it’s over it’s over. They’re being a little more emotional, a lot more thoughtful of their place in history and their careers as a whole.
I just think it’s great the way you can still play your best tennis late 20s, early 30s. Again, in my day, it was middle 20s, that was your peak time. We talk about grinding. He’s a perfect example, grinder.
DARREN CAHILL: Willing to suffer.
CHRIS EVERT: He’s a wonderful grinder. You say ‘willing to suffer.’ I like your description better. That really says it like it is. You have to be willing to suffer out there, come through it, not give up, not succumb to it. You just got to fight it and come through it. That’s what champions do, and Lleyton Hewitt is a champion.
Q. The Australian Open is the first slam of the year, players starting to make a move. I was wondering who you think will have a good 12 months. Wawrinka had a great performance against Djokovic last year. Something like that. Who is going to make a big step forward?
CHRIS EVERT: We kind of touched upon it. Let me talk about the women. I think Serena, again, if she can play with the same passion and the same enthusiasm she did in 2013, stay healthy, I think she still obviously is the one to beat. I think because of her sense of history now, that is another motivating force, she’s thinking about her place in history. The fact she has won 17 Grand Slams, she could beat Martina’s and mine. She could equal Steffi Graf’s. I think she’s excited about her place in history. The other thing is she’s always willing to improve. She’s never patting herself on the back. What you hear is, I’m happy I won, I’m looking to improve. My big question is, who is going to be her contender. Is it going to be Maria Sharapova? Is she going to be refreshed after these last few months? Is her shoulder better? Is she going to be serving better? Can she get it together? She has a new coach. Is it going to be Victoria Azarenka?
Q. Is there anyone bubbling under?
CHRIS EVERT: I think Sloane Stephens. When I look at the players that can challenge Serena or potentially have a great 2014, I think of Sloane and I think Madison Keys is up there. I think the beauty of women’s tennis right now is that you do have depth. Yes, Serena is sort of the benchmark of a true professional. She’s up there. There’s a little distance between her and everyone else. But then you have 10 or 12 players that are really poised to make great strides, to step in there and challenge Serena, which I think is great. I think it’s looking good. You like to see a lot of personalities. You like to see a lot of good tennis players out there. Women’s tennis right now I think is in a very healthy situation.
DARREN CAHILL: The two players that I think will push around the top 10 mark, I think Madison Keys is going to step up. Not sure if she’ll push for majors, but we’ll see her come into her own. I think Milos Raonic is the young player from Canada that I think will have a great 2014, get into the top 10, give himself a chance in the majors.
Q. Darren, during the Australian Open itself, which players outside of the top six should we keep an eye on?
DARREN CAHILL: I think Jo Tsonga is the one. He loves Australia. He plays great. He’s come into the Australian Open with small injuries before. We had a chance to see him at the Hopman Cup. He’s in outstanding shape. Has a couple French coaches now. Worked hard the last couple months. It’s the first time he’s come into the Australian summer feeling absolutely perfect with his body. His words. He dropped a little bit of weight. He moved around the court great. We know if Jo can play the type of tennis he’s capable of, he can beat anyone. I would keep my eye on Jo.
Q. Victoria Azarenka, she didn’t have the best relationship with the fans at the Australian Open last year. Do you think that will play on her mind at all this time around?
CHRIS EVERT: No. I think she’s very tough mentally. Her memory is short. I don’t think she’s going to give one thought to that whatsoever. Is another year. Life goes on. I think she’s just looking ahead. This tournament is very special to her because she’s won a couple times, he’s had great success, had some big wins. She loves the surface. She likes the speed of the court. She likes the moving. I think she’s going to be very dangerous here. I don’t think that will affect her whatsoever.
Q. Where would you say the Australian Open ranks in relation to the other Grand Slams?
CHRIS EVERT: Oh, my heavens, really? Do you really want to ask that question?
DARREN CAHILL: Don’t put it at number four. I won’t talk to you for two weeks.
CHRIS EVERT: It was number four when I played.
DARREN CAHILL: Right up there.
CHRIS EVERT: As far as commentating or as far as how the players are feeling about it?
Q. How the players see it.
CHRIS EVERT: I think it’s their favorite. All you hear, it’s one of the favorites. It’s the friendly Grand Slam, we love playing Down Under, we love the fans. I think it’s the most relaxing for sure of all the Grand Slams for the players. I think it’s the friendliest one. I think they’re doubly excited because it’s the first one of the year. They’re all fresh and raring to go.
It’s a tough question to ask. By the time you get to the French and Wimbledon and the US Open, there’s a little more strain, a little more pressure. Middle of the year. US Open they’re starting to physically get tired.
Most of the players say it’s their favorite one.
DARREN CAHILL: Well answered.
CHRIS EVERT: What do you think, Darren?
DARREN CAHILL: I’ll talk to you now when you come down here.
Q. Could you assess Roger’s performance in Brisbane, particularly with regard to the new racquet and his fitness. Could either of you talk about the challenge Roger is facing now moving to a larger racquet at this phase of his career. How long do you think it will take him to be comfortable with that stick?
DARREN CAHILL: I think when anybody has used a racquet for as long as Roger has, I think he was in that frame, made a small change to the frame in 2003 where he went from 85 to a 90 square-inch head. A lot of years to be using a frame. Anybody that makes that change, it’s going to take at least six months to work out the pros and cons of a particular frame. I would give him a little bit of time.
I thought his results in Brisbane were encouraging on one hand. I thought the way he started against Lleyton was really average. You could tell the ball wasn’t coming off the way he was used to it coming off. He was frustrated with it. He tried to hit his way through it. With his other frame, he would have understood it and worked his way through it much better. That’s why you saw the unforced errors count so high, I think 22 in the first set. A lot of that also was the way Lleyton Hewitt played in that first set. He didn’t have the time against Lleyton. I thought Lleyton played an outstanding first set and match.
You can’t judge him on a couple matches. I think overall it’s a good thing he’s gone to the new technology. It’s going to give him a little bit easier power. He won’t have to fight for it so much. Also on the return of serve, that frame or a different one, he’s going to find it’s going to help him against some of the big servers. The fact he’s trying to do this, the fact he’s appointed Stefan Edberg as part of his team means he wants to get the best out of himself. That’s the best thing about Roger, he may love this sport more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He loves being on the tennis court, practicing, getting the best out of himself. You can’t be critical about a player that does that. I still believe he’s capable of winning a major. I still believe he’s capable of winning any one of the four. Maybe not the French Open, a difficult task for him. The French Open does become more difficult once you get older. Any one of the other three this year 2014 he’s more than capable of putting himself in position to win it.
CHRIS EVERT: I agree. He wants to find that edge. He is making a big effort to think about what he can do to change, to modify his game, whether it’s coaching, whether it’s the racquets. I think it’s going to help his game. I liken it to when you change a racquet to having had an injury. You have that little 1% doubt under pressure, Oh, my gosh, I wonder if I could hit out like I normally did with my past racquet. That little inkling of doubt will probably enter his mind. That’s not a great thing. That’s why as Darren said I think it’s going to take months for him to fully 100% feel comfortable with it.
If that racquet enhances his serve and his forehand, it’s a good move because those are the two big shots I see in Roger’s game. He wins a lot of points off his serve. When he’s playing his best tennis, he’s slapping winners off the forehand. If he can do that with confidence, be consistent with it, I think that the bigger racquet is a much better move.
Q. Thoughts on Laura Robson this year? Realistically what do you think can she achieve there and in 2014?
CHRIS EVERT: Well, she changed coaches, too. Nick Saviano, who I have a lot of respect for as a coach. I think she went the good route with Nick. I think he can help her game a lot. Laura, again, she’s very powerful. She’s very bold in her shot selection. She’s got weapons which are great. Fitness has been sort of the thing she’s needed to work on a little bit more. She hasn’t always been I think as disciplined as she could be. I think she got criticism from her last coach because of that. She’s just a really happy-go-lucky, carefree, outgoing girl. She has to learn to really be disciplined, work hard, get her nose to the grindstone, as Darren likes to say, and suffer a little bit more, because I don’t think she has. The mental and the emotional aspect of being really solid, being really tough and solid, I think she needs to improve on that a little bit more. I think it can happen. She showed us she can win matches, beat top players, but can she do it consistently. It’s maturing. She needs to mature a little bit more and think about how much tennis means to her. I think she needs to get that hunger factor going because all the other top players seem to have it maybe a little bit more than she does. But I think the bottom line is her fitness. If she can really get that fitness going, be in great shape, cardiovascular, muscular, I think that’s going to help her mentally and emotionally as well.
DARREN CAHILL: Also for her chances at the Aussie Open, she pulled out of Hobart with a wrist injury, up a set against Yanina Wickmayer, but pulled out. As far as her chances at the Aussie Open, you can’t expect too much because she’s been struggling with that wrist for a long time. Looks like she’s taking that injury into the Australian Open. I think everything that Chrissy said I agree with.
CHRIS EVERT: You have to be bold. Madison Keys, Jamie Hampton, you got to be bold, not be afraid. That’s what all these players have in common. That’s really going to get you far.