ESPN analysts Chris Evert and Darren Cahill spoke with reporters on Tuesday about the Australian Open, which begins Sunday. ESPN2 will air more than 100 hours of live coverage of the two-week tournament, starting Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET. Here are some highlights from the conference call:
Can Serena Williams win the calendar Grand Slam?
Evert: “It’s absolutely possible. … She’s got the motivation, because she’s been out of the game so many different times, either for injuries or for other interests in her life, so she’s still a fresh older player. … To stay healthy in this day and age is, as we’ve seen [with Rafael] Nadal and other players, more difficult, especially for someone like Serena who is such a physical player and has a tendency to get injured. When she’s on, she’s unbeatable. I don’t know if anybody can really stop her. But you have to remember that we’re talking [all four] Grand Slams in the same sentence, and they’re two-week tournaments and have always provided surprises.
“So the big question is for those two-week periods, can she keep the high level of focus and fitness? There are no easy matches anymore, as we saw last year here [at the Australian Open] when she lost [in the fourth round to Ekaterina Makarova] and at the French when she lost [in the first round to Virginie Razzano]. You got to start out 90 percent to 100 percent from the first match.
“Do I think it [a calendar Slam] will happen? I have my doubts only because she is human.”
Cahill: “At the moment she’s playing a level or two above the opposition. She’s a stronger, faster athlete than she was maybe three or four years ago. She’s a more intelligent tennis player now. The fact she’s been looking to take other people on, other people’s advice, has helped her tennis. I feel like she’s always learning. It’s a great example for everybody, that even once you reach your 30s, there are still ways to improve your tennis.
“The reason so few people have won the Grand Slam is because it’s such a very difficult thing to do — different surfaces, different balls, different challenges along the way. … But a fit and healthy Serena absolutely has a chance. If anybody can do it on either side, Serena can do it.”
What would a calendar Grand Slam mean for Serena Williams’ legacy?
Evert: “Anybody who wins a [calendar] Grand Slam in this era with the level of tennis as high as it is — because the level of tennis gets higher every single year — would currently have to be the greatest player that ever lived. Point-blank, that’s all that needs to be said. She would still be the greatest player that ever lived even if she didn’t win four in a row, in my mind.”
Cahill: “If she would go through and win the four majors in a row, that would mean she won six in a row [after winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year]. If she won six in a row, there’s no question in my mind she would be the greatest female player that’s lived.”
On 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens …
Evert: “She went into last year with these big eyes. She was a novice. She was finally on the big stage, on stadium courts. It was an awakening for her. It was like a dress
rehearsal for her. Now she’s had that experience behind her and it seems to me that she’s moving better and she’s also more relaxed in the position that she’s in, you know, in the top 50 in the
world. … [N]ow she’s mature, she’s calmed down. She does have the talent to win a Grand Slam title.”
Cahill: “We see a couple of kids, male and female, come through every year that have top 10 written all over them. Sloane is one of those players. I feel she’s matured in the last 12 months. Her game is great. It’s always been good. I feel like she’s got that personality that expects to be in the top 10, and that’s half the battle, feeling like you belong on the big stage, you belong playing the greatest players in the world.
“You just have to play a little bit of a waiting game with a player like her because she has a lot of weapons. She needs to find the best ways to utilize those weapons. Maybe that might come in three months, maybe that might come in three years, but there’s no question she has top 10 written all over her and can certainly win a Slam.”
Could you say the same thing about 18-year-old Laura Robson?
Cahill: “Absolutely. She’s half a step behind Sloane as far as the development. … Laura has improved her movement around the court, which is going to be a big factor with her to deal with the strength of shots in today’s game. There’s no question Laura has the talent. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in the ladies’ game that varies the spin the way she can do it. The fact she is a lefty is a slight advantage. She also understands the game extremely well. She certainly has the weapons. But there’s the court speed and the ability to play a little defensive tennis at times that is going to be important for her to evolve and improve. But there’s no question there can be a rivalry there.”
On 20-year-old American Ryan Harrison …
Cahill: “The second year on tour is a real learning year for a lot of these players. It’s what happened to Ryan as well [last year]. Exactly the same at Bernard Tomic. … [Harrison] slipped down a little bit after having a breakthrough in 2011. … I feel that this is a kid that takes the right steps to be as good as he can be.
“He’s changed coaches a few times. He works incredibly hard off the court. He’s taken on a mentorship with Andy Roddick, which is a good thing for him. You’ll find in the next few years, with Tomic, [No. 50 David] Goffin, [Milos] Raonic is already up there [at No. 15] — they’ll be around the top 10, if not in the top 10.”
Evert: “The men’s game, as far as American players, was a bit disappointing last year. The American women’s game is looking stronger than the men’s. Ryan and even Jack Sock, [John] Isner, these players, not to be too critical, but need that hard work ethic where they look and see how a [Rafael] Nadal trains, [Novak] Djokovic and [Roger] Federer and [David] Ferrer. The top players are at a different level when it comes to hard work ethic and the training and even the dedication. It’s just brutal now. That’s got to be one of the things, intangibles as far as, OK, you got a great game, but how much do you want it and how much are you willing to work for it? There’s a lot of talent in those two players I mentioned, Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison. But they’ve got to maybe go up a little level as far as their fitness and their hard work ethic.”
On Caroline Wozniacki …
Evert: “She’s playing the tennis of the last generation. I don’t mean that in a bad way. She never misses a ball, she’s consistent. She’s got great feel, great concentration. But the fact of the matter is she’s giving her opponent too much time when she [Wozniacki] could be offensive. She has to take a few more risks off the second serve. Anything inside the baseline, she should go for. It’s a tough task for her. Her goals have to be to take baby steps. Right now, she’s not looking to be No. 1. She should be looking to be in the top five, top six. That would be a reasonable goal for her. … Her thinking is going to have to change and get a little more offensive and a little more aggressive.”
Cahill: “You have to evolve as a tennis player; you have to get better. She needs to pump up her serve. She needs to find spaces in the court, not being three meters behind the baseline and wait for the game to come to her.
“I think the other factor, she fell into a little bit of a trap that a lot of players do when they have success. She made a change [in] equipment. She was the No. 1 player in the world. All of a sudden you get these major contracts being offered to you. The two things, unless it’s going to do your game a lot of good, that you should never mess with … [are] the shoes you’re wearing and the rackets that you’re using. They are the two most important pieces of equipment that are going to determine how many you’re going to win and how many you’re going to lose. Any change you make to that, it takes time. You can never turn a career around because of that particular change. I would have loved to see her stay with what she had and keep evolving her game from there.
“Look, I can point to a hundred examples where a change of equipment has been a negative for a player. I can maybe point to a handful where it was a good one. A good one last year was Sara Errani. She handed back a big check for her racquet sponsor because she found a piece of equipment that was better for her game. Look what happened to her. Unless you find a piece of equipment that you know is going to be better for your tennis game, stay with what you have.”
On Rafael Nadal …
Cahill: “He won’t put himself back on a tennis court unless he’s ready to win. The guy will do everything he can to get back to where he was. If he does come back, he’s not coming back to be top 10 in the world, he’s not coming back for the money, he’s not coming back for anything but to win majors. When he does come back, and hopefully he will, he will be 100 percent. He will put himself into a position that he feels like physically he can compete with these best players in the world again.”