The first Grand Slam of the season is over. Left in its wake are two very deserving champions who, unfortunately, played two very forgettable finals. There’s a lot to take away from this Slam. Though I wish I could say that most of it was positive, that would be wishful thinking. From heat-scorched courts to fallen favorites and wildly -uneven finals, here are my “Ten Final Thoughts” from this year’s Australian Open. Ladies first…
1. Li Na finally received her due with a first-ever Australian Open title after three attempts. She defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 6-0 in a match that will hopefully be remembered more for decisive (and dominating) play in the second set rather than her nervy play in escaping the first set. Coaching warnings/fines notwithstanding, she and Carlos Rodriguez have worked hard on her mental game in order to get her through the seven matches needed to win a Slam title.
They were mostly successful, but you must admit that Lady Luck smiled on her more than once in this tournament. Conversely, she also shot a nasty side eye to Dominika (missed opportunities to close out the first set in the final) and Lucie Safarova, Li Na’s opponent in the round of 32. Lucie’s side eye came in the form of a slightly long backhand on match point against Na that missed the baseline by 5 centimeters. The rest, of course, is now AO history.
2. We always knew that Dominika Cibulkova had the game to trouble the top players but were never sure she could play at the red-line level needed over the long haul of an important tournament. That question has now been answered! She credits part of her improved performance to changes that she and her team have made with her game (new racquet) and fitness regimen to help reduce/prevent injuries. But the heart is all her!
She virtually destroyed Simona Halep and Aga Radwanska in the quarters and semis (6 games lost) after her three-set victory over Maria Sharapova, and lost only 9 games in 3 matches before it. One can only imagine how well 2014 will be for Dominika if these changes truly represent a “game change”.
3. Canadian Genie Bouchard proved showed that she’s no flash-in-the-pan teen newcomer. The 19 year-old solidified her status as one of the tour’s pre-eminent young guns with an amazing run to the semifinals, and quality wins over Casey Dellacqua and Ana Ivanovic. She might be young, but she carries herself like a tour veteran in her approach and the work needed to reach the top of the game. Kudos must also be given to her coach, Nick Saviano, who’s guided her since she was 12, and appears to be a positive and stabilizing force in her game and outlook. After all, her results over the past two years speak for themselves.
Though Milos Raonic has long been touted as Canada’s best chance for Slam success, it’s Genie who tasted Junior Slam success (2012 Wimbledon girls’ title) and has gone deeper in a main Slam draw. She ended 2013 ranked 32, and was named the WTA Newcomer of the Year. She’s ranked 19, and her future looks extremely bright. Now, if only we could do something about her frat boy “army”.
4. Aside from Li Na, the favorites in the women’s draw mostly fell by the wayside with shocking losses. Serena Williams was dumped by the same resurgent Ana Ivanovic who beat her sister Venus for the Brisbane title. Maria Sharapova, a player known for her fighting spirit, was out-battled by Dominika, a player who spots her nearly a foot in height and probably just as much in wingspan. Vika Azarenka, with Redfoo watching pensively from the stands, was ousted by a jaw-dropping performance from Aga Radwanska; complete with a third-set bagel. Aga was then dumped by Cibulkova the next day due to bad scheduling and tired legs.
Serena will be okay after this loss (see below). Vika, however, I’m not so sure about (see below). Maria did better with new coach Sven Groeneveld than Jimmy Connors, but this was still a disappointing tournament. Her chances at winning another Slam don’t look to be any better now than back before her Connors experiment. And poor Aga just can’t seem to catch a break at the Slams. This was her best chance to make a Slam final since 2012 Wimbledon. Bad luck in scheduling is admittedly part of the issue. But let’s be honest: her finesse game will always get stressed when she has to create magic in multiple matches. It’s simply just too tough in the high pressure atmosphere of a Slam.
5. The top two women in the WTA left Australia with very different outlooks on the upcoming season. Serena Williams, “blocked back” in tow, should be relatively fine with her loss…or as fine as she ever is with a loss. If Serena is less than her best and Ana plays to her potential, a loss is not out of the question. So now that the winning streak is over and the pressure for #18 is off (for the moment), she can plot her next steps en route to tennis immortality, presumably starting with an appearance at Indian Wells.
Vika Azarenka, on the other hand, lost a match to a player she should have beaten easily on her favorite surface. Even if you give her the benefit of the doubt given Aga’s inspired play, Vika looked out of sorts and not in the best physical condition for a three-peat. The question she needs to ask herself is whether she wants to be a very good player OR a great player. I’m hoping for the latter because Serena needs someone to test her own greatness, and Vika is the only one that can…besides Serena herself, that is.
6. On the men’s side, Stan Wawrinka played some of the bravest tennis of his career to win a well-deserved first Slam title. His quarterfinal win over the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, was a standout performance. That was followed by tight four-set win over Tomas Berdych in the semifinals that highlighted his improved mental strength in tiebreaks.
Perhaps then it was the build-up after those two matches that compounded the disappointment I felt in his sub-par final against Rafa Nadal. Stan came out playing superbly calm and resolute tennis in his first Slam final. Rafa came out tight (and injured), and there you have it! What followed afterward was incredibly ugly tennis by Stan against an increasingly-hampered foe.
However as with Li Na, I will again express hope that Stan is remembered for his pre-Rafa MTO tennis rather than the nervy stuff that came after it. Oh yeah, congratulations to the new Swiss #1!
7. Rafa Nadal again leaves Melbourne with disappointment AND a bonus injury as his reward for attempting to reach Slam #14. For some reason, the Australian Open has always been a challenge for Rafa. I’m not sure if it’s the time of year, the surface, or something in the Aussie air. Regardless of the reason, this continues to be his most challenging Slam, and the only one that he’s been unable to win more than once.
The bigger worry for Rafa, at least with regards to the 2014 season, is the fact that this injury could signal the type of less-than-stellar year that traditionally follows seasons like his triumphant 2013 season, or Novak’s 2011 season. For all of the fight and physical prowess we’ve come to expect from Rafa, there’s still an unsettling propensity for physical breakdown. But I’ll give it a couple of months before I become concerned about the French Open.
(Note to tennis pundits: please refrain from all talk of Rafa reaching or surpassing Roger’s total of 17 Slams until he gets to 16! Also, I don’t want to say that Pete Sampras’ presence at the final was a mitigating bad luck factor, but a Rafa win would have tied him for 14 Slams with Pete. Just a thought.)
8. Novak Djokovic’s loss to Stan Wawrinka wasn’t what one would call a “bad loss” in the classical sense. All players have at least one other player who, for one reason or another, plays them tough. Stan is one of those players for Novak, head-to-head record be damned. So Novak can leave this year’s Open with his head held high, and start preparing to do battle with Rafa and Andy for the American hard court swing first, then the European clay swing en route to the French Open: the one title he desires most that’s still missing from his future Hall of Fame CV.
9. Roger Federer came into this year’s Australian summer season feeling physically healthy and good about his game with a new larger racquet. Moreover, the combination of these things had left him more confident than he’d been in a very long time. Unfortunately, all of that confidence fell by the wayside with losses to Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane, Rafa in the Aussie Open semifinals. The loss to Hewitt can easily be brushed aside. The loss to Rafa, however, cannot be so easily dismissed.
Much was made about the hiring of Stefan Edberg to beef up his serve-and-volley game: presumably, to help (re)gain a weapon that would allow him to pressure the top guys who were becoming increasingly more difficult to beat from the back court. This was a resounding failure against Rafa in the semifinals, because he lost confidence and panicked after early struggles. Then, as Rafa started to impose the familiar pattern of lefty forehand to Roger’s single-handed backhand, the confidence left the other parts of his game. He began to shank his forehand, his backhand became brittle, and his reliable serve was unable to save him from any further indignities!
It’s never easy to watch Roger lose a match. This one, however, felt like the true “beginning of the end” for this great player.
10. American men and women continued their struggles at the Slams. Out of the 24 notable participants in singles, none made it to the quarterfinal round. The top men were Donald Young and Sam Querrey, who both made it to the round of 32 before being ousted by Kei Nishikori and Fabio Fognini, respectively. On the women’s side, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens were the last American women standing in the round of 16 before losing to Ana Ivanovic and Vika Azarenka.
Rather than keep beating the drum over the death of American tennis (in a post-Serena era), I think the better way of looking at this situation is through the lens of “the new normal”. The US will probably continue to have solid players, and also a fair amount of depth. But in all likelihood, we may be long past the point of being able to produce consistent Top 10 prospects.