There was a moment during the recent Australian Open when you had to rub your eyes to believe what was happening; to step back and truly appreciate and savour what was occurring in Melbourne. In the space of two days Johanna Konta had walked onto court as the first British woman in a Grand Slam Semi-Final for 33 years, Jamie Murray had reached his third men’s doubles Final, his younger sibling Andy had fought his way to his 5th Australian Open Final and young Gordon Reid had made it to the Final of the men’s wheelchair competition.
For the vast majority of the tournament’s second week no other country could come close to Great Britain’s broad representation. At one point the likelihood of there being three British Champions was on the cards. It could have been four if Konta had managed to get past eventual champion Angelique Kerber. With the country’s top players in at least the last four on four different fronts, the 2016 Australian Open was arguably the finest Slam British tennis has ever had.
The story that got fans most excited, from these shores and in her country of birth Australia, was that of Konta, whose ascension from world no 146 in July to no 28 in January has been phenomenal and a real success story for British sport. A sign of things to come occurred in the first round when she comfortably beat 7-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams. After that the draw may have been favourable but she certainly made the most of the opportunity, deservedly powering through four further rounds. The semi-final against Kerber was one step too far but putting her run into perspective emphasises just how brilliant her recent form has been. She had never previously qualified for the Australian Open, had lost in the first round of the 2015 French Open and never got past the first hurdle at Wimbledon. Reaching the 4th round of last year’s US Open and overcoming players such as Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Garbine Muguruza on the women’s tour hinted that something special was on the horizon. The Australian Open confirmed it. Now she has transformed her mental approach Konta has everything to become a top player. Maintaining such standards is the next challenge but, if she can, a potential top 20 place and the status as the first British woman to be seeded at Wimbledon since 1984 could be hers. British women’s tennis may finally have the superstar it has longed for so long.
The rise of Jamie Murray into one of the stars of doubles tennis is another laudable tale. It says it all that he could actually beat his brother, who has reached 9 Slam finals, to becoming the first Murray to be a world number 1. He is 2nd in the world right now but remarkably almost quit three years ago when he was struggling to stay in the top 100. Eyebrows were raised when he split with ex-partner John Peers after an incredibly successful 2015 in which they finished runners-up at both the US Open and Wimbledon, reached 8 finals and qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals. Yet the change has proven a masterstroke as he and new partner Bruno Soares came from behind to beat Daniel Nestor and Radek Stepanek in the Rodd Laver Arena, a first grand slam men's doubles win for both in just their 3rd tournament together. It was a 2nd Slam for Murray after his mixed doubles Wimbledon title way back in 2007. They cruised to the final and then showed supreme character and composure once there, even after Murray had been broken when the pair first served for the title. It was a third final in succession and second title for a duo who look like they could dominate the doubles game. After his success with Peers and intelligent re-union with old coach Louis Cayer, Murray is at the summit of his sport. Throw in his important contribution to Britain’s historic Davis Cup triumph and it has been quite a 13 months for a man who is finally getting the recognition that he thoroughly deserves.
Another Scot who tasted success down under was 24 year-old Gordon Reid, who added a first Grand Slam singles title in wheelchair tennis to his two previous doubles triumphs after overcoming the Belgian Joachim Gérard 7-6, 6-4. On his way to the final he knocked out top seed Shingo Kunieda who had not lost in this major for almost a decade. It could have been a double title if not for his defeat in the men’s pairing with Kuneida, despite them being 5-0 ahead in the final set. A promising junior player before contracting a spinal disease, Reid’s glory in Australia can act as an inspiration to those wanting to partake in disability sport. With the Rio Olympics and Wimbledon, which is set to hold wheelchair singles for the first ever time, to come this year the name of Gordon Reid is one you are going to hear a lot more of.
At the start of his runners-up speech, Andy Murray drew many a sympathetic laugh when he stated ironically ‘I feel like I’ve been here before.’ Indeed, this was the 5th time that he has fallen just short at the Australian Open and the fourth to Novak Djokovic. His consistency is superb but it is a steadiness of quality that still isn’t quite enough to topple the supreme Serb, a man whose dominance is starting to replicate the stranglehold that Rodger Federer once had over the tour. He needs to find a way to cope with the world number 1 and quickly. Murray put up a good fight and pushed his old nemesis hard but still lost in straight sets, a tie-break sealing his fate. A five-setter in the previous round and one day less of recovery time compared to his opponent did not help. Notwithstanding the disappointment, he was again majestic in Melbourne in the previous 6 rounds. The last year has arguably seen his best ever form, even if no more Slams have been added to his collection – 4 titles, a first on clay, two Australian Open runners-up trophies, semi-finals at Wimbledon and the French Open and the Davis Cup triumph he won almost single-handedly for Britain. More majors will surely come for a player of such skill, fitness and mental fortitude. After losing 7 Major finals he certainly deserves them.
There was unexpected joy, familiar anguish and newfound success for the Brits in Australia. It is rare that British sport gets to celebrate such widespread progress in a major tennis tournament. Whether it can be replicated remains to be seen. Relish it whilst you can.