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Steve Flink: Australian Open Reflections

1/29/2013 6:00:00 PM


In many ways, the year commenced in style at the first major of a brand new season. Novak Djokovic became the first man in the Open Era to secure three singles titles in a row, and did so in his own inimitable manner. Victoria Azarenka moved past a semifinal controversy of her own making to defend her women’s title with a remarkable display of moxie, technique and temerity. We witnessed unexpected triumphs and noble failures, surprises and suspense, and tennis of the highest order. After a few days to clear my mind, I am ready to offer my thoughts on the fortnight just gone by.

THE MEN’S FINAL

Immediately after Novak Djokovic had come from behind to oust Andy Murray in the men’s title round contest, I wrote a detailed, blow by blow account for this web site, but let’s reexamine that encounter. It was a showcase for both competitors to display the full range of their athleticism, shotmaking virtues, defensive skills, and resolve. It was a high quality and hard fought battle, absorbing in every way. I made my case last fall that Djokovic versus Murray is now the sport’s premier rivalry.

Although Murray was soundly beaten in the end by a better player on the day, the fact remains that he acquitted himself extraordinarily well. Murray has now suffered the sour taste of defeat in five of the six Grand Slam tournament finals he has contested, but he has grown up immeasurably. Gone are the days when he shows up for a major final overwhelmed by the occasion. When he lost his first Grand Slam final to Roger Federer in straight sets at the 2008 U.S. Open, he had just come off a two day, four set triumph over world No. 1 Rafael Nadal. Murray was 21 and simply not ready. His next defeat in a” Big Four” final was against Federer at the 2010 Australian Open, and Murray remained paralyzed by his surroundings, bowing in straight sets again.

A year later, Murray took on Djokovic in the Australian Open final, and gave his most desultory performance ever on a big occasion, tamely surrendering 6-4, 6-0, 6-3. From 4-4 in the first set, he lost seven games in a row. But then he played a fine match against Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final, losing 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in a spirited clash. From there he went to New York and toppled Djokovic in a five set final for his first major crown.

The Murray who showed up to confront Djokovic in the final at Melbourne a few days ago was a true professional. For two-and-a-half sets, he did not lose his serve, and his capacity to defuse Djokovic’s pace and precision in the backcourt exchanges was extraordinary. Murray was rock solid from the baseline, and he served his way out of some treacherous corners. In the opening set, he cast aside four break points at 2-3, saved another break point at 3-4, and then was much sturdier than Djokovic in the tie-break. The British competitor did not make a single unforced error in that sequence and put all four first serves in play. Conversely, Djokovic double faulted on the first point, missed all five of his first serves, and made some costly unforced errors.

Had Murray broken in the second game of the second set to establish a 2-0 lead, the outcome of the match might have been different. Murray had swept seven points in a row to hold his own delivery and reach triple break point on Djokovic’s serve, but the Serbian went on the attack to save two of those break points, and Murray missed a crosscourt backhand narrowly wide on the other. Djokovic held on. That set advanced to another tie-break, and Murray was serving at 2-2 when a feather blowing in the wind came into his line of vision. Murray paused to remove the feather, probably ruining his service rhythm. He double faulted. Djokovic was unstoppable thereafter, winning the tie-break with unerring backcourt play seven points to three.

Murray had a blister on his foot bandaged after that tie-break, and his movement seemed to be impaired slightly the rest of the way. But the fact remains that Djokovic was revitalized after reaching one set all, taking nine of the last eleven games. It was the first time in ten finals that he has played at the Grand Slam events that Djokovic has not lost his serve. That was a magnificent feat against Murray, who stands right behind Djokovic among the best returners in tennis. Djokovic had won five of his first seven Grand Slam finals (including four in a row) before falling in the finals of the French and U.S. Opens a year ago against Nadal and Murray. This was a must win situation for the Serbian, who lifted his record to 6-4 in major finals. He will inevitably capture at least one more major this year, and probably two. But worry not about Murray. I believe his chances of winning Wimbledon are quite good, his opportunity at the U.S. Open not bad. As for Djokovic, only Rafael Nadal in my view can prevent him from completing a career Grand Slam by stopping the Serbian at Roland Garros.

THE WOMEN’S FINAL

Azarenka defended her title with a first rate display against the ever popular Li Na, who was appearing in her second Australian Open final in three years. The level of play in this title round clash varied considerably. Li produced bursts of brilliance off the ground, showing off her relatively new versatility off the forehand, sprinkling the court with flat winners off that side but also covering the ball with more topspin for greater control. Her two-handed backhand was excellent in the early stages, allowing Li to keep an apprehensive Azarenka pinned behind the baseline.

It was intriguing if uneven tennis. Azarenka battled back gamely in the opening set after trailing 5-2, taking the next two games. She even had a game point for 5-5 before Li closed out that set. The prospects for Azarenka looked bleak; in 24 of the previous 25 women’s finals at the majors, only once had the player losing the opening set recouped to win. That was two years ago, when Kim Clijsters defeated none other than Li Na.

In any case, Azarenka found her range against Li. She took a 3-0 second set lead. With Li serving at 1-3, 30-15, the 30-year-old Chinese player rolled her ankle. She had the ankle taped by the trainer and returned to the court, holding serve to close the gap to 3-2. The set went to 4-4. Li may well have been self-conscious about her ankle, but was still moving remarkably well. But Azarenka took that set 6-4. Early in the third set, astonishingly, Li’s ankle gave way again. Serving at 2-1 on the first point of the fourth game, she fell flagrantly. This time she hit her head on the court as she fell backwards.

Li stopped play again to see the trainer but returned with vigor and even had a break point for 3-1. Azarenka fended off her rival and eventually prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Azarenka is often frail under pressure. But not in this instance. She was very worthy of her second major title, and of holding onto her No. 1 world ranking with the victory. Perhaps this triumph will strengthen her inner security.

BEST MEN’S MATCHES

The obvious choice for best match of the tournament was Djokovic’s round of 16, five hour and two minute marathon with Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka played madly inspired tennis, and performed out of his mind. The No. 15 seed had lost ten times in a row to the Serbian. The 27-year-old Swiss has always been a sparkling shotmaker. His one-handed topspin backhand is sweepingly beautiful, and his first serve is one of the most underrated in the business. It is no accident that he has concluded every one of the past five years stationed among the top 21 in the world. For a brief stretch, he even resided among the esteemed top ten.

But Wawrinka soared to a level he has never approached before on this evening of all evenings at the 2013 Australian Open. A strangely disheveled Djokovic was caught completely off guard. Wawrinka was up 6-1, 5-2, to the astonishment of one and all, including himself. But Djokovic has learned not to panic, no matter how dire his outlook. Wawrinka served for the second set at 5-3 and had a 30-0 lead, only to throw it away with a stream of unforced errors. Djokovic battled back, won the second set on a run of five consecutive games, took the third, and arrived for a fourth set tie-break poised to complete an impressive comeback.

Djokovic owned a 6-0 career tie-break lead over Wawrinka, who has a propensity to crack in the tight corners of too many matches. Wawrinka’s forehand has long been a big yet totally unreliable stroke, but now he was not missing. He took the tie-break seven points to five. Wawrinka seemed depleted early in the fifth set and the trainer rubbed his ailing legs. But adrenaline carried Wawrinka to the cusp of a startling upset. He saved a break point at 3-4, 30-40 in the fifth set as Djokovic surprisingly missed an opening off the forehand. At 4-4, Wawrinka had 15-40 and four break points altogether. Djokovic dared Wawrinka to beat him there, but the Swiss faltered. On they went, deep into a gripping fifth set. At 10-11, Wawrinka led 40-15 but then needed to save two match points with a terrific service winner down the T and a glorious backhand down the line winner into the clear. But, at match point for the third time, Djokovic defended as only he can, keeping himself in a point he should have lost several times. At the end, Wawrinka approached crosscourt off the backhand, and Djokovic rolled his passing shot acutely crosscourt for a spectacular winner. Djokovic had survived 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 12-10 in the round of 16. He would never look back after that moment of sheer grit and gumption.

That was surely the match of the tournament. But honorable mention must go to Murray and Roger Federer, who played an enticing semifinal. Not once in three previous meetings (all finals) at the majors had Murray overcome Federer. But he enjoyed one of the great serving nights of his career. In four of the five sets he played against the determined Federer, Murray was not broken. He has often been justifiably criticized for a passivity he displays in important matches. Too frequently Murray has tried to rely on defense to carry him through, even when he has been fully capable of taking matters more into his own hands.

In this meeting with Federer, Murray was cracking his two-hander crosscourt with voracious authority, ripping his forehand with depth and pace, looking for every opportunity to dictate, returning serve stupendously. Federer had gone five hard sets in the quarterfinals two nights earlier with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and perhaps was feeling the effects of that skirmish in his legs and lower back. But his essential problem was returning. Murray won an astounding 63% of his second serve points, getting good depth on his second delivery and taking advantage of Federer’s unwillingness to belt more of his returns. Those aggressive moments on the return were few and far between for a beleaguered Federer.

Murray took the first set and then reached 5-5 in the second set tie-break. But he showboated on a high forehand volley, leaping into the air and failing to put that shot out of Federer’s reach. An opportunistic Federer drove a backhand passing shot for a winner, and soon sealed the set. Murray broke early in the third, controlled the tempo in that set, and then rallied from a break down to serve for the match at 6-5 in the fourth. On the first point of that game, Murray passed Federer with a forehand down the line. The Swiss went up near the net and said something to Murray, cursing at the British player according to what was heard on the BBC. That was not the first time that Federer had used foul language in the match, but the other cases had been under his breath and directed at himself—something all of the players and certainly Murray have done over the years.

But Federer had apparently felt that Murray had stopped playing the point and thrown him off on that first point of the 6-5 game. He should not have been shouting anything at Murray, much less a profanity. He needed to make his case to the umpire, and let the man in the chair decide what to do. In the heat of a fierce battle like this one, odd things can happen. But I have never seen Federer talking to an opponent during a match in that fashion. Was it gamesmanship or just an unusually irritable Federer acting out of character? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but the bottom line is that the release of anger and his inexcusable actions did the Swiss no harm. After Murray reached 30-15 to move within two points of a four set triumph, Federer played three bold and purposeful points in a row to force a tie-break, which he won easily. Murray had been ever so close to establishing a two set lead, and now he had failed to serve out the match. Federer was on an emotional high after surging into a fifth set.

But Murray brought him down to earth swiftly and convincingly. In the first game of the final set, Murray stood at 30-30 on his serve, but unhesitatingly drove a forehand crosscourt off Federer’s ineffectual return and the Swiss netted a sliced forehand on the stretch. Murray held at 30 and then broke Federer in the following game with a cagey, change of pace looped forehand that drew a miss-hit topspin backhand error from the four time Australian Open victor. Murray held at love for 3-0. He had opened the fifth set by winning 12 of 16 points, and would never look back, claiming a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 victory. In the final set, Murray won 16 of 19 points on serve.

For Federer, the loss to Murray was yet another five set setback, his 17th in his 38 career contests that have gone the distance. In many of those defeats, he did not come through because he got tight in the crunch. Federer is a singularly composed performer but underneath the veneer he cracks periodically in close contests. In the Murray match, though, he did exceedingly well just to push the match into a fifth set. He could easily have lost in three or four sets, and never got untracked in the fifth. Murray outplayed him across the board, pummeling away at the Swiss backhand, going selectively to the forehand to draw many errors. Murray played the better tactical match. Federer was worn out emotionally in the fifth set, and Murray claimed the win fittingly.

WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT

A few weeks earlier in Brisbane, 19-year-old Sloane Stephens of the U.S. had lost in straight sets to Serena Williams. But more than a few eyebrows were raised when Serena released a number of her patented “Come On” shouts after winning an important point. Stephens was not happy about Serena’s behavior. Stephens told her coach at a changeover that she found it “disrespectful.” In the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Stephens got another opportunity to face Serena. In her first three service games of the opening set, Stephens did not drop a point.

Williams, of course, had been nursing a serious ankle injury suffered during her first round match. Nevertheless, she had conceded only eight games in four matches en route to the Stephens appointment. And yet, Serena seemed uncommonly pensive as she moved cautiously through the first set. From 3-3 in the first set, Williams made her move emphatically, securing three games in a row and 12 of 16 points to move out in front. Williams took a 2-0 second set lead. Victory appeared to be around the corner. But Stephens broke back for 2-2, held for 3-2, and the complexion of the match was altered.

An uptight Serena saved a break point before holding for 3-3. In the eighth game, serving at 3-4, 0-30, Serena injured her back while chasing a ball very close to the net. Her serve lost a lot of velocity. She was broken to fall behind 5-3. But Stephens wasted a set point on her serve and Williams closed the gap to 5-4. The trainer came out to examine Williams and Serena took an injury timeout as she went to the locker room. Serena—still serving softly and timidly—bluffed her way to 5-5, holding at love in the tenth game. She even had a break point for 6-5 before the free-wheeling Stephens struck back to take that set 7-5.

In the final set, Williams was able to summon more strength and her serve improved. Serena broke for a 4-3 lead. But, serving into the wind in the following game, Serena double faulted for 15-40 and was broken at 30. Stephens then saved a break point at 4-4 with a thundering forehand winner up the line, and broke Williams again at 15 in the final game as Serena concluded the match with a pair of unforced errors off the backhand. Stephens prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 with unmistakable confidence. Williams had clearly been hampered not only by the ankle but by her back, and Serena did not think clearly in that match, playing to the Stephens forehand too often. Yet Stephens was outstanding. Her flat forehand was better than Serena’s, she ventured forward to make some scintillating conventional volleys, and she was resolute. Stephens reached her first career semifinal at a major and rose in the rankings from No. 25 to No. 17. Even in her compromised physical state, Williams would have stopped all but a couple of women left in the tournament, but she could not stop or intimidate Stephens. The view here is that Stephens will finish 2013 among the top ten in the world, and will win a major championship by 2015.

CONTROVERSY OF THE TOURNAMENT

Serving at 6-1, 5-3 in the semifinals against Stephens, Azarenka seemed certain to close out a comfortable triumph and take her place in the final. But her forehand betrayed her badly in that game and she was broken. At the changeover, Azarenka spoke with the tournament doctor and trainer and was allowed to go to the locker room for what was essentially a double timeout, lasting about ten minutes. When she returned, a much calmer Azarenka broke Stephens to complete a 6-1, 6-4 triumph. Asked in television interviews about what had happened, Azarenka did not refer to injuries, but spoke instead of how it was “almost the choke of the year”. Azarenka explained that she was having serious problems breathing because of her nerves. Later, in her media interview, she added more about the problems with her body and not just her mind.

Clearly, the primary reason Azarenka left the court was to regain her composure and her emotional equilibrium. That was fundamentally unfair to Stephens, and an abuse of the rules. It was dishonest, reflecting badly on Azarenka’s character. That she fought from behind to stop Li Na in the final after her meltdown in the semifinals was to her credit, but the hope here is that she never resorts to this kind of gamesmanship again.

DEL POTRO BOWS OUT TAMELY

Heading into the tournament, many authorities believed that Juan Martin Del Potro--- the No.6 seed—stood the best chance of anyone outside the renowned top three of winning the tournament. Del Potro, of course, already has a major in his collection, having won the 2009 U.S. Open. He had a tough time in 2010 recovering from wrist surgery, made impressive strides in 2011, and then had a good year in 2012 to finish at No. 7 in the world. I thought he would at least reach his expected place in the quarterfinals and earn a meeting with Murray in Melbourne, but Del Potro inexplicably lost in five sets to the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy.

For two sets, Del Potro seemed to be almost sleepwalking. He woke up in the third set and powered his way into a fifth set. He had a break point early on in that final set but it slipped away. In the end, Del Potro was ushered out of the event by Chardy 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 3-6, 6-3 in the third round. From where I sit, that was the most disappointing moment of the tournament. He is so much better than he demonstrated in that match. The time has come for the big and imposing Argentine to buckle down and play the way he can at a major.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.