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Steve Flink: Australian Open Preview

1/7/2014 4:00:00 PM

The best players in the world of tennis have barely recovered from the rigors of a debilitating 2013 campaign, but back they are in the land “Down Under”, ready to contest the first major championship of 2014, hoping they can peak propitiously despite having so little time to prepare for the ever prestigious Australian Open, knowing that it will be no simple task to survive a demanding summer fortnight on the hard courts of Melbourne Park. For the players, there is something fundamentally unfair about being asked to step into such an important arena so early in the year, but for the fans the upcoming festivities will be a treat.

No one will be more eager or confident about this kickoff Grand Slam event than Novak Djokovic, and with good reason. The 26-year-old Serbian has secured four of his six major titles in Melbourne, taking his first back in 2008. He is searching for a fourth straight crown in surroundings that he finds enticing, inspiring and comfortable. He has not lost a match since bowing against a top of the line Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open final last September.

Since then, a purposeful and highly charged Djokovic has played some of the finest tennis of his career, winning four tournaments in a row, capturing 24 consecutive matches, rebuilding his self-conviction substantially in the process. Djokovic had endured a seven tournament losing streak in the middle of 2013 before that surge, but he heads into this major in the best possible state of mind. Clearly, Djokovic is the man to beat in Melbourne, but that does make him the overwhelming favorite. Keep these statistics in mind: Djokovic is 4-0 in Australian Open finals but his overall record in Grand Slam finals is only 6-6, including a surprising 1-4 title round record at the U.S. Open. For a player of his stature, a .500 record in major finals is unacceptable; Pete Sampras was 14-4, Federer is 17-7, and Nadal is 13-5.

2009 Australian Open victor Nadal has a very good chance to wrestle the title away from the man who ousted him in a five hour, 53 minute, five set, final round epic two years ago. Nadal was stupendous a year ago after returning from a more than seven month absence from the sport. Between February and September, he collected no fewer than ten tournament titles, including his eighth French Open and his second United States Open. He bested Djokovic in a semifinal epic at Roland Garros and again in the title round match at Flushing Meadows.

Although Nadal lost his last two meetings with Djokovic in the autumn of 2013 as the Serbian evened their head-to-head record for the year at 3-3, the fact remains that the Spaniard had already spent most of his emotional energy over the spring and through the summer; Djokovic was insatiable during the fall while Nadal had realized nearly all of his largest dreams. Remarkably, Nadal finished 2013 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world, the third time in his illustrious career that he had realized the difficult feat of concluding a season at the top.  

But Nadal will be revitalized as he returns to a Grand Slam championship he missed a year ago. Moreover, the world No. 1 will be boosted by the run he put together last week in Doha. Nadal was victorious at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, and so for the first time in his career he opened the season with a tournament triumph. That in itself was significant, but I believe it was more important that he secured his first title since the U.S. Open. Nadal had played some remarkable tennis since ruling in New York, but he had lost a pair of semifinals to Juan Martin Del Potro and David Ferrer, and a pair of finals to Djokovic, including a setback at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London.

That is why his Doha triumph was so timely and encouraging. Nadal had not practiced all that much recently in the off season, resting his body and clearing his mind. He made up for that in Doha, working assiduously to win all five of his matches. Three times he was stretched to three sets. He was seldom at his very best, yet he kept plugging away with typical temerity and persistence. In the final, he upended Gael Monfils, the enigmatic Frenchman who was in good form all week. Nadal owned an 8-2 career winning record over Monfils, and yet both losses had occurred in Doha (2009 and 2012). Nadal needed to topple his athletic adversary this time around because a final round loss against a rival he should beat would have been jarring on the eve of a major.

In the end, Nadal came through 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2 with a largely sterling performance. Nadal’s ball striking, depth and court positioning in this contest were exemplary. He exploited an apprehensive Monfils in the opening set before playing his only bad game on serve in the second game of the second set. Monfils came vibrantly alive, raced to a 3-0 lead before Nadal caught him at 4-4, and then outplayed the Spaniard in the tie-break. The Frenchman was disciplined and determined, and did not lose a point on his serve in that sequence. He served beautifully throughout the second set. But Nadal captured five of the last six games from 1-1 in the third set, finishing strong, wearing down his opponent with his physicality, reminding himself how gratifying it is to win a tournament of any kind. Nadal now has garnered 61 career singles championships on the ATP World Tour, and he moves past Andre Agassi to No. 8 on the Open Era list of title leaders among the men.

In any event, the view here is that Djokovic and Nadal will collide for the seventh time in a Grand Slam tournament final; they stand majestically at the moment as the two greatest players in the game of tennis, and it will take a first rate performance over the best of five sets from anyone to strike them down in Melbourne. But while the two stalwarts seem to tower above the rest of the field this year, there are three other men in my mind who have the next best chance to take the title: 2011 and 2013 finalist Andy Murray, four time winner Roger Federer, and 2009 U.S. Open champion Del Potro.

All three of these men are viable contenders, immensely capable in different ways, champions with large aspirations, competitors who know how to navigate their way through a tumultuous fortnight. But each member of that trio will be hard pressed to succeed. Murray, of course, did not play after the U.S. Open last year and he had back surgery in the autumn. Against Florian Mayer in Doha last week, playing his second official match since the Open, Murray won the first set and built a 3-0 second set lead but did not close the account. He needs time to get re-acclimated with top level competition. Murray needs more matches. He must get in better match playing condition.

To be sure, the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon champion will be dangerous in Melbourne if he somehow survives the early rounds and plays his way into form. He reached the final in 2011, lost a crackling five set semifinal in 2012 and last year fell again in the final. On all three occasions, Djokovic was his superior. The conditions on the hard courts suit Murray well, but it is hard to imagine him peaking so soon into his comeback. If he advances as far as the penultimate round, that would be a job well done.

Del Potro has been gradually rebuilding his game after wrist surgery kept him out of tennis for most of 2010. He managed to rise to No. 11 in the world at the end of 2011, moved up to No. 7 for 2012 and concluded last year at No. 5, the same status he held in 2009 when he prevailed at the U.S. Open. Del Potro’s best showing at a major recently was at Wimbledon last year, when he fell in five captivating sets against Djokovic on the Centre Court. The 25-year-old Argentine is a better player on hard courts than he is on grass.

He could beat any of the leading players on a given day, but I have my doubts that he could account for Nadal and Djokovic back to back at the end of the tournament. I don’t trust his stamina in best of five set matches against those two supreme and superbly conditioned competitors, and yet he is a fearsome performer from the back of the court with the most explosive forehand in tennis. Moreover, he is strong-willed and a more versatile player than he was when he took the U.S. Open so long ago.

What about Federer? He has played magnificently in Melbourne across the years. Not only has he claimed the crown four times, but he has been a semifinalist or better for ten consecutive years. And yet, even his biggest boosters now have cause for consternation. Federer did finish 2013 with a good run indoors, reaching the final in Basel, going to the semifinals in Paris, making it to the semifinals in London. Last week, using a larger headed racket for the first time since a trial run last summer, Federer got to the final in Brisbane, confronting Lleyton Hewitt in the title round. He had halted the tenacious Australian 15 times in a row at one stage before losing a final to his accomplished rival in 2010 on the grass at Halle. Federer won their next encounter, and was the clear favorite this time around.

Federer had played well in his three matches leading up to the final, but he was abysmal in the opening set against Hewitt, spraying his groundstrokes wildly out of court, serving poorly by his own lofty standards, covering the court without his usual alacrity. Hewitt won that set 6-1 and had a break point for 5-3 in the second before Federer held on. At 4-4, Hewitt wasted a 40-0 lead and Federer sealed the set essentially on willpower. But his ground strokes remained unreliable. Hewitt kept fending off break points all through the third set (in three different service games), but saved them all. Meanwhile, he broke Federer for 3-1 and made it count, winning the match deservedly by flattening out his forehand and driving through it unhesitatingly, serving intelligently, passing brilliantly and producing some stupendous backhand topspin lobs. He won 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 with grit and gumption, but as much as he won the match, the fact remained that Federer beat himself as well.

That was surely a considerable blow to Federer’s pride. He won only one tournament in all of 2013 at Halle, and could have used a triumph at Brisbane as a springboard toward a reawakening in 2014. He will give it his all as always at the Australian Open, and crowd sentiment will be unabashedly on his side. But let’s examine Federer’s record at the majors over the last four years, through 16 appearances at the Grand Slam events. He won the Australian Open at the start of 2010 but then his astounding record of 23 consecutive semifinal appearances at the majors came to an end when he lost in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros to Robin Soderling. Tomas Berdych beat him in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon before Djokovic saved two match points to defeat the Swiss in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

The pattern continued. Federer made it to only one final at a Grand Slam event in 2011 at Roland Garros, but did not win one of the premier prizes. In 2012, he took his seventh Wimbledon singles title in style with wins over Djokovic and Murray, but did not make it to another final. And then last year, Federer lost to Murray in a five set Australian Open semifinal, fell against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, bowed out in startling fashion against Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of Wimbledon, and hit another low point when he lost in the round of 16 against Tommy Robredo at the US. Open. The bottom line is this: since he won his last Australian Open in 2010, Federer has captured only one more major.

Undoubtedly, Federer has made strides since his agonizing summer of 2013, but his vulnerability remains apparent. He can’t take any match for granted anymore, and the players who face him in the early rounds are not as daunted as they once were. How he plays from round to round is no longer predictable. If Federer manages to make it through to the quarterfinals or semifinals, he will surely be tested physically in a comprehensive way. Then he would have to find a way to eclipse a Nadal or a Djokovic, and perhaps both. It is probably more than he can handle at this juncture of his career as a 32-year-old.

In my view, Serena Williams is the prohibitive favorite among the women. The 32-year-old has garnered 5 of her 17 Grand Slam titles in Melbourne. She did not fare well the last two years, falling in the fourth round in 2012 against Ekaterina Makarova and losing a quarterfinal to Sloane Stephens in 2013. She was compromised physically in both of those matches, although her adversaries played outstanding tennis. This year, Serena heads into the first major in sparkling form. At Brisbane, she took the title with successive victories over her two chief rivals—Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. Williams was impressive in both wins. Against a rejuvenated Sharapova, Williams took a 6-2 opening set that was much closer than the score would indicate, and then was broken three times in the second set by an unwavering and perspicacious Sharapova. The Russian was going toe to toe with Williams from the baseline in rally after furiously contested rally.

They travelled to a tie-break. Improbably, Williams served consecutive double faults into the net to trail 5-4, but Sharapova then double faulted herself to make it 5-5. Williams eventually came through to win the tie-break 11-9. In the final, she faced similar opposition from Azarenka, who has ironed out the wrinkles in her service motion that burdened her so frequently in 2013. Serena trailed 4-5, 0-30 in the second set and was fortunate to get out of that game as Azarenka missed a few returns that were well within her range. At 5-5, Azarenka had a game point, only to miss a forehand down the line by the narrowest of margins. Williams stepped up ably to claim a 6-4, 7-5 victory for the title.

Serena has not lost a match since Azarenka beat her in the final of Cincinnati last summer, winning 22 contests in a row, sweeping four straight tournaments in that span. She won 78 of 82 matches last year and eleven of fifteen tournaments. No one will beat her if she is at or even near her best in Melbourne.

Azarenka is seeking a third straight Australian Open title this year. A year ago, she stopped La Ni in the final. In 2012, she routed Sharapova in the final round. Having reached the last two U. S. Open finals before losing to Williams, Azarenka has demonstrated that she must be regarded as the second best hard court player in the world. Both losses to Williams in New York were three set confrontations. Azarenka is the most consistent of all the women on the return of serve and her backcourt game is tailor made for the hard courts in Australia. She had two hard court wins over Serena in 2013. This is one formidable and seasoned competitor.

Sharapova was out of the game for a long while after her loss to Stephens last summer in Cincinnati, dealing with an ailing shoulder. And yet, she played terrific tennis in Brisbane against Williams. She won the Australian Open in 2008 and has always played great tennis in Melbourne. The ferocity of her returns is a trademark, but will her serve become strength again?  That could be her primary problem in Melbourne, but the fact remains that she is great big occasion player who has already recorded a career Grand Slam. She is the third leading candidate to take the title this year. Count her out at your own peril.

Li Na must be taken seriously. The exuberant 31-year-old Chinese player won the French Open in 2011, but she has also reached two finals “Down Under”, losing to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and to Azarenka a year ago. Her flat ground strokes can be piercing on the hard courts, and she is a perennial crowd favorite in Melbourne. She has the mindset to win the tournament, and could do so if the draw opens up for her. But it would be a tall task for her to pull it off.

The last woman with an outside shot to come through in Melbourne is the often exasperating yet always entertaining Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion. This mercurial left-hander can be a shotmaking genius but she can also shoot herself in the foot with inexplicable unforced errors. And yet, she is one of the few women who on a dazzling day could have the gumption to topple the mighty Williams.

In the end, though, I pick Serena Williams without hesitation to win the women’s title and set herself up for perhaps her best year yet. At long last, she is on a sustained historical mission, and a triumph in Melbourne would place Williams in a tie with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18 Grand Slam singles championships. Serena would then be only one title behind Helen Wills Moody, and four shy of Steffi Graf, who stands in second place behind the best Australian woman player of all time—Margaret Smith Court. Court holds the record with 24 singles majors. Williams will be hard pressed to tie or surpass Court, but I believe she will at least equal Graf.

As for the men, it should all come down to another stirring showdown between Djokovic and Nadal. Two years ago, Nadal was ahead of his primary rival 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth set before steering a backhand passing shot wide with a big opening down the line. A resolute Djokovic rallied to win. This time, I expect another five set masterpiece between the two gladiators, but my pick is the unshakable Rafael Nadal.

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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.