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Steve Flink: A look back at the Australian Open

1/29/2014 1:00:00 PM






The first major tennis tournament of the year is behind us. It was a compelling fortnight with a good blend of predictability and uncertainty. The overwhelming favorite among the women was stunned in the round of 16, although Serena Williams was hampered by a bad back. The men’s top seed was startled in the final round, missing out on the opportunity of winning a 14th Grand Slam title. Rafael Nadal also was compromised decidedly by a bad back. There were some inspiring performances that gave the tournament life, and there was never really a lull in the proceedings. In the end, both Stan Wawrinka and Li Na were popular and worthy champions, as she secured a second Grand Slam championship and he was victorious for the first time at a major. Let’s examine the tournament through the rear view mirror, which allows us to reflect in a sober manner on what transpired.

MEN’S FINAL

When Nadal walked on court to face Wawrinka, he seemed to have a lot going for him. Nadal was 12-0 against the Swiss stylist, and had never lost a set to the 28-year-old. The Spaniard was trying to become the first man in the Open Era to win every Grand Slam singles title at least twice, hoping to secure a 14th major crown to tie Pete Sampras for second place among the men, and looking to win a “ Big Four” title for the tenth year in a row. He had lost only one set in the tournament, and seemed to have his woes with a blister on his left hand under control. He had just crushed Roger Federer in a straight set semifinal after Federer raised the hopes and expectations of his admirers with back to back victories over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray. Nadal was riding high.

But Wawrinka was magnificent at the outset of the final round clash. The No. 8 seed seemed oblivious to the magnitude of the occasion in the beginning. With Nadal apprehensive, Wawrinka avoided a slow start that could have been catastrophic. Wawrinka was hitting out freely from the beginning and his ground game was immaculate. His once wayward forehand was operating at full efficiency, as was the case all tournament long. And yet, his underrated first serve was not functioning well. He missed ten of 12 first serves in his first two service games, and he was under 40% for the set. But Nadal was not up to par on his second serve returns, and he could not contain Wawrinka in the rallies because he was not getting enough depth off either side from the baseline.

Compounding Nadal’s problems was a bad service game he played at 1-2 in the first set. On the first point of that game, he got a very short return from Wawrinka and should have gone for an aggressive forehand for a possible winner. Instead, he released an abysmal drop shot that sat up, allowing Wawrinka to easily drive a backhand winner crosscourt. Nadal got back to 15-15 and then double faulted. He then failed to stick his backhand volley down the line and Wawrinka exploited that opening to win the point. Wawrinka forced an error from Nadal at 15-40, but the Spaniard had lost three of the four points through his own mistakes and miscalculations.

Wawrinka served for that first set at 5-3 and was down 0-40, but Nadal squandered three break points in a row with errant second serve returns. That was shocking. Wawrinka held on to take the set, and then played a magnificent game to break Nadal in the opening game of the second set.

Nadal was serving at 0-2 in the second set when his back acted up badly. He had felt something in his back during the warm-up but now the problem became more serious. Serving in that third game, Nadal hit a serve but looked uncomfortable. At 40-15, he sent an easy forehand into the net. Something was obviously wrong. He grimaced and then signaled umpire Carlos Ramos that he needed the trainer. Eventually, Nadal held for 1-2 and then left the court for treatment in the locker room.

The injury/medical timeout lasted about seven minutes. While he was gone, Wawrinka vented on Ramos, wanting to know why Nadal had left the court and for what reason. He later explained he wanted to know the nature of the injury. Ramos stood his ground. He is a very experienced umpire who was explicitly following the rules. He was not obligated to answer Wawrinka, who was uncharacteristically out of control. When Nadal returned to the court, he was booed by a good many fans.

That was a terrible injustice. Did the crowd react that way because they sensed Wawrinka was questioning Nadal’s motives for leaving the court? I doubt it. The television audience could hear what Wawrinka was saying to Ramos but the audience was largely in the dark. Inexplicably, the fans did doubt the legitimacy of Nadal’s injury. Some fans on this site have suggested that Nadal fakes a lot of injuries, but I fundamentally disagree. That is ludicrous. He is a great sportsman, a man of integrity. The crowd was simply allowing their worst instincts to prevail. By the time the match was over, they knew full well that Nadal was genuinely hurt, and they applauded the Spaniard effusively during the presentation ceremony.

In any event, Nadal was barely able to move and hardly capable of doing more than pushing the serve in for the rest of the second set after the resumption. It seemed entirely possible at any moment during that stretch that he might retire, but he played on gamely. Wawrinka took the second set 6-2. Gradually, Nadal was able to increase the velocity on his serve and he regained limited mobility going side to side. He managed to win the third set on one service break, 6-3, by taking risks off the ground and controlling the middle of the court. Wawrinka froze mentally, not knowing what to do. He should have opened up the court more and thrown in a few drop shots, but he did not explore those options. And he missed a lot of returns off softer serves from Nadal because he did not adjust to the reduced pace.

In the fourth set, Nadal, who had been visited by the trainer on court for more help with his back, battled on but surely recognized he could not win. Wawrinka started creating openings again and served well, building a 4-2 lead by breaking Nadal in the sixth game. Nadal broke back at love for 3-4 but won only one more point in the last two games as Wawrinka closed out a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 triumph for his first major title. Wawrinka was gracious when it was over, consoling Nadal at the net, making kind remarks about his “good friend” in the ceremony. The crowd applauded Nadal loudly after he made some dignified remarks.

In my view, it was all regrettable. Nadal is the most ferocious and best competitor I have ever seen. He never fails to give the maximum effort, and then some. So why would the fans be so cynical? He always gives them everything he has. To be sure, he is injury prone, and that makes him ultra-sensitive to what is happening with his body at any given time. The huge blister on his left hand that required a large bandage during his fourth round and quarterfinal matches against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov was driving him crazy, and he needed the trainer in those matches to help him readjust. The bottom line is that those who have followed him closely know that he does not win through devious means.

Wawrinka understands that better than anyone. They both alluded to their friendship. He knew Nadal was not going to use a manufactured medical timeout to throw him off during a final.

Be that as it may, Wawrinka must be admired for his stirring title run. This was his 36th Grand Slam tournament and his first final, and yet he came through. He became the first man since Sergi Bruguera at the 1993 French Open to beat the two top ranked players in the world at a major. Wawrinka has moved up to No. 3 in the world. Nadal had lost to only two men in Grand Slam tournaments, bowing three times against Djokovic and twice versus Federer. Wawrinka is the third player ever to topple the Spaniard in a major final. Nadal is 13-6 in finals at Grand Slam events.

In many ways, Wawrinka has been transformed as a competitor, and his old fragility is essentially gone. We will never know if he would have beaten a healthy Nadal, but we do know this: Wawrinka was in the right state of mind to display his best tennis that day, and he would have fought hard under any circumstances. He is to be congratulated heartily; after all, this was only the sixth tournament he has ever captured. The formidable foursome of Nadal (13), Federer (13), Djokovic (6) and Murray (2) had won 34 of the previous 35 majors; the only other man to capture a Grand Slam event in that span was Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009 at the U.S, Open.

Will Wawrinka win another? That is tough to say. I have my doubts, but fully expect him back in more semifinals and perhaps the occasional final. He will have trouble remaining at No. 3 if Murray starts regaining his form, and Ferrer and Del Potro will be right in that chase as well, with Federer trying to make his own move back to the top five. But Wawrinka should be admired deeply for a fortnight he will remember for the rest of his life.

WOMEN’S FINAL

She had been in the finals of the Australian Open twice, falling against Kim Clijsters in the 2011 championship match and losing to Victoria Azarenka in the 2013 title round clash. Both times, Li Na won the first set before bowing against better match players. Meanwhile, she had won the French Open in 2011, so the Chinese competitor knows her way around the latter stages of Grand Slam championships very well. This time around, she confronted No. 20 seed Dominika Cibulkova in the final. Li, of course, had rallied from match point down in the third round against the appealing left-hander Lucie Safarova. She arrived in the final having found her best form, primed for the occasion, ready to claim the crown.

The first set was enjoyable. Li had chances early on to take control of the match. She was up 2-0 and had two break points in the third game. She should have converted on the first. Her return was deep into the forehand corner of Cibulkova, who could barely get it back. Li had a short ball on her backhand that she could have driven crosscourt for a likely winner, or at least set up an easy volley. But Li played it safe, approaching down the middle. Cibulkova was a formidable counter-attacker. She sent a low backhand passing shot crosscourt that forced a weak volley from Li, and Cibulkova was all set up for a forehand passing shot winner driven cleanly down the line. Cibulkova rallied to hold before Li advanced to 3-1.

But Li began fretting about her racket tension and she lost her range off the forehand. Cibulkova took 12 of 16 points to lead 4-3. Li promptly reasserted herself to hold for 4-4. Both players held to make it 5-5 before Li broke in the eleventh game. She had a set point at 6-5 but Cibulkova broke back. They would settle that set in a tie-break. That sequence was the highlight of the match for me. Li opened with down the line winners off both sides before Cibulkova answered with a forehand down the line winner of her own. Li now produced a forehand swing volley winner for 3-1 and soon moved to 4-1. She would not be looking back.

Li made it to 5-1, then lost the next two points. A deep return down the middle from Li provoked an error from Cibulkova, and Li had three set points at her disposal. At 6-3, she wrapped up the set with a penetrating backhand crosscourt that Cibulkova could not handle. Set to Li 7-6, 7-3 in the tie-break. The second set was never in doubt. Li won 24 of 36 points, dictating the tempo almost entirely, playing a brand of tennis reserved only for champions.

Li nearly quit tennis in the middle of 2013, but now she is going strong. She is the third ranked woman in the world behind Williams and Azarenka. She is capable of adding a major or two to her resume in the years ahead. She is almost certainly going to end up in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Li has made some modifications in her game that could make a difference over the next two years. She has restructured her forehand for more reliability, adding topspin to it, creating a better safety net. Her two-hander is now a versatile and crackling shot because she has propensity to hit winners either down the line or sharp crosscourt. Her coach Carlos Rodriguez has done a terrific job with Li. She will be a big factor at the next seven majors.

MEN’S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT

Irrefutably, the highlight of this event was the Wawrinka quarterfinal clash with three time defending champion Novak Djokovic. Djokovic had not lost since the final of the U.S. Open against Nadal last September. He had won 28 matches in a row since then, and had won 25 in a row at the Australian Open. Moreover, he had won 14 consecutive times against Wawrinka. With numbers like those, it was hard to bet against him.

But the fact remained that Wawrinka had played a stupendous match against Djokovic on the same court in Melbourne a year ago, stretching the champion to his absolute limit  before losing 12-10 in the fifth set after being within two points of a towering triumph. Wawrinka also had a two sets to one lead at the U.S. Open before Djokovic upended him in a five set semifinal.

And yet, Djokovic had handled Wawrinka easily in a pair of straight set victories indoors last autumn. I figured he would probably take this contest in four sets. A year ago, Wawrinka was up 6-1, 5-2 before Djokovic struck back to take the second set and eventually won the match. This time, Djokovic was solid and largely unerring in the first set while Wawrinka was struggling to get his teeth into the battle. From 2-2 in that opening set, Djokovic won four games in a row.

He was ahead by a set. Djokovic had a 472-21 career record after winning the first set. Whether a match is best of five or best of three, it makes little difference; Djokovic is the premier front runner of his time, and one of the best of all time. He simply does not let his guard down and he seems to open up off both wings and start pounding opponents into utter submission. But this time, it was different. Very different. He did struggle early in the second set, falling behind 0-40 at 1-1. But he still managed to hold on for 2-1, and he served a love game to hold for 3-2. But a critical turning point occurred at 3-3. Down break point, Djokovic had a 26 shot rally with Wawrinka, the kind of point you expect him to win.

He did not. Wawrinka drove a backhand down the line/inside out behind Djokovic. He had the break for 4-3. Down 15-30 in the following game, Wawrinka out-dueled Djokovic in another long backcourt exchange, winning a 30 stroke rally this time. Wawrinka forced an error from Djokovic on the forehand side. He eventually held on for 5-3. Serving for the set at 5-4, Wawrinka got only one of five first serves in but Djokovic was having unusual problems on his second serve returns. Wawrinka held at 15 to make it one set all.

At 1-1 in the third, Wawrinka broke a seemingly distracted Djokovic as the Serbian made a routine error off his normally impenetrable backhand. Wawrinka broke again for 4-1 as Djokovic missed with an inside out forehand on the 17th stroke of the rally. Wawrinka sealed the set 6-2. He had broken his rival three times over the last two sets without losing his own delivery. The turnaround after the opening set was astounding; Djokovic performed indifferently while Wawrinka was terrific. Serving at 3-4 in the fourth set, Wawrinka was up 40-0 before Djokovic struck gold off the forehand to bring himself back to deuce. At deuce, Djokovic made a spectacular stab, full stretch forehand return down the line that landed in the corner, and he won that point. At break point, Djokovic blocked a first serve return back and Wawrinka produced one of his few wildly errant forehands of the match, missing by a big margin going inside out.

Djokovic was euphoric. Yet he had to save two break points in the following game. Wawrinka made a bad error off the backhand on the first but Djokovic released an ace on the second. Djokovic held for the set with another ace, sending that serve out wide in the ad court. Djokovic was surging, level at two sets all, looking confident and exhilarated.

At break point in the third game of the fifth set, Djokovic coaxed an error from Wawrinka. On the 20th stroke of that exchange, Djokovic angled a forehand crosscourt sharply, drawing an error from Wawrinka on the stretch.  He had the break for 2-1 in the final set. How could Djokovic lose now? Inexplicably, he made two atrocious errors to trail 0-30 in the fourth game. Another glaring unforced error off the forehand put Djokovic behind 15-40. Then Djokovic missed again off the forehand off a fine return from Wawrinka. With that unexpected display of vulnerability, Djokovic had handed Wawrinka the break back for 2-2. That was a very dangerous thing to do against a player as capable as Wawrinka.

In the fifth game, Wawrinka was down break point but once more he was magnificent in a long rally of 31 strokes. Djokovic blinked, netting a forehand. Wawrinka got the advantage and then served an ace down the T to hold on for 3-2. After Djokovic held at love for 3-3, he had another break point, but Wawrinka erased it with an ace down the T. Still, Djokovic was now holding easily. After losing his serve so curiously in the fourth game, Djokovic won 20 of 23 points on his delivery to reach 7-7. Serving to stay in the match three times during that stretch, Djokovic was inscrutable, sweeping 12 of 13 points.

But Wawrinka’s mental toughness was also strikingly apparent. He played a clutch game at 7-7 on his serve, starting with two unstoppable service winners, adding two forehand winners. He held at 15. Serving at 7-8, Djokovic was ahead 30-15 but he made a forehand unforced error. At 30-30, he produced a perfect body serve to the backhand, and Wawrinka’s backhand return was framed. It somehow got over the net, very short, just inside the forehand sideline of Djokovic and also inside the service line. Djokovic attempted a shot he often makes, sending a forehand chip sharply crosscourt. He missed it wide. Suddenly, the champion was down match point. For only the second time in the match, he served-and-volleyed. The backhand return came back nice and high. Djokovic had the easy forehand first volley he wanted. But he punched it wide. Wawrinka had rallied valiantly for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 victory.

Djokovic had gambled by going to the serve-and-volley. Some would say he had panicked. And yet, if he had made the volley, he would have looked like a genius. Wawrinka got a little lucky in the end, but he was gritty and deserved some good fortune after so many bad breaks in last years’ match with Djokovic. As for Djokovic, he was due to lose a match after his long winning streak.

In any case, what a spectacle this was!

WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT

There may well have been better matches played over the fortnight among the women, but none resonated quite like the Serena Williams meeting with Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic came out on court with a clear and uncompromising gameplan. She would stand inside the baseline and take her returns as early as possible, and go after every second return with full conviction. She would not back off. She was determined to play this match on her terms, with supreme aggression and unbridled enthusiasm. Ivanovic had never beaten Serena before in four attempts, and had yet to take a set off the world No. 1, but this time she was better prepared than ever before to make amends.

At 2-2 in the first set, Ivanovic made her first bold move. Williams reached 30-30 but Ivanovic drilled a forehand return winner off a wide slice first serve in the deuce court. Ivanovic took the next point with another scorching first serve return that Williams could not answer. Ivanovic had the break for 3-2. But she double faulted her serve away in the following game, and Williams broke again in a long game to seal the set, 6-4. It was not convincing, but Williams had survived from a break down.

Ivanovic did not despair. At 2-2 in the second set, Ivanovic broke Serena again. She returned brilliantly that entire game and came in on her last return. Ivanovic made a forehand volley crosscourt that was not hit with too much authority, but the mere fact that she was at the net provoked an error from Williams. This time, Ivanovic held for 4-2. She nearly broke Serena again in the seventh game, reaching 15-40 with a devastating backhand return. Williams somehow held on, but Ivanovic held at love for 5-3 and then broke Williams a second time to get the set. Williams rallied from 15-40 to reach game point but Ivanovic would not relent. She came forward at set point behind her return and drove a forehand up the line for a winner. It was one set all.

In the second game of the third set, Ivanovic broke Williams at love. The Serbian played a phenomenal game, starting with a forehand return winner off a body serve, then forcing a passing shot error from Serena for 0-30. A searing backhand return made it 0-40, and then a stupendous forehand inside-in return off a first serve gave Ivanovic the break. That was a whale of a game for Ivanovic, who moved to 2-0. The set went with serve the rest of the way as Ivanovic surged to leads of 3-0, 4-1 and 5-2. With Williams serving to stay in the match in the eighth game, Ivanovic had a match point that she bungled. She set herself up for a forehand down the line but drove that ball into the net. Williams held for 3-5. Ivanovic, however, did not panic, holding at love to complete a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory.

To be sure, Williams was not on her game. Her footwork was below par off the backhand and she miss-hit an alarming number of shots off that side. Her first serve lacked its normal velocity most of the time and her second serve—even allowing for Ivanovic’s unrelenting returns—was not up to her normal standards. She did not have her usual bite on that second delivery. No one should be able to make penetrating returns that consistently against Williams, who has one of the great second serves of all time.

When it was over, Williams tried to be gracious and give full marks to Ivanovic, but the questions kept centering on Serena’s back. There was widespread speculation that she and her sister Venus had defaulted in the doubles because Serena was protecting her back. But the most surprising thing was that Patrick Mouratoglou—the coach of Williams—chose to reveal that she had considered defaulting the match because of her back. Williams had no way to avoid all of the questions surrounding her back, and Ivanovic did not get the credit she deserved. The blame must go to Mouratoglou, and not Serena. She has frequently been a sore loser in the past, but in the last few years has been far better in that department. Why could Mouratoglou not tell the reporters after the match that Ivanovic had been too good, and simply leave it at that?

In any case, this was the third year in a row that Williams has suffered a surprise defeat “ Down Under” at a tournament she has won five times. Two years ago, she lost to Ekaterina Makarova. Last year, she was beaten by Sloane Stephens. And now this. All three years, Williams was the big favorite to win the tournament. She will have to wait until Roland Garros for the chance to tie Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 Grand Slam titles.

FEDERER LOSES TO NADAL AFTER GOOD RUN

 Heading into this tournament, no one quite knew what to expect from Roger Federer. He had won only one tournament in all of 2013. His ranking had slipped to No. 6 in the world. In his last two majors of 2013, he had not made it beyond the fourth round. He had played reasonably well in Brisbane at the start of his 2014 campaign, but then performed badly in the final against Lleyton Hewitt, especially in the first set.

But Federer rounded into good form after an easy draw through the first three rounds, taking apart Tsonga in a straight set round of 16 meeting; a year ago, he went five against Tsonga in the quarters before losing a five set semifinal to Andy Murray, and then was beaten by the dynamic Tsonga in the quarterfinals of the French Open. In the quarterfinals at Melbourne, Federer stopped Andy Murray in four sets. He moved like a gazelle in that match, defended remarkably well, and approached the net at all the right times with impeccable instincts. His only flaw in that contest was not serving out the match at 5-4 in the third, and squandering two match points in the third set tie-break. But he played a first rate match overall, and gave his boosters a lot of encouragement as he approached his semifinal appointment with Nadal.

And yet, Nadal took Federer apart 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3  for his ninth victory in eleven meetings at the majors against the Swiss, raising his record overall against Federer to 23-10. Nadal was in an early jam at 1-2, 0-30. Federer came forward and played a solid backhand volley down the line, but the Spaniard countered spectacularly with a backhand passing shot winner down the line. Nadal was taken to deuce but held on for 2-2. At 3-3, Federer trailed 15-40 but he attacked his way out of that corner confidently, and held. Federer fought off another break point at 4-4 by disguising a forehand and going behind Nadal to the backhand, forcing an off balance error from the Spaniard.

Both men were creating opportunities. At 4-5, 30-30, Nadal was two points from losing the set but a solid backhand crosscourt drew a forehand down the line well long from Federer. He then aced the Swiss short and wide in the ad court to make it 5-5. They went to a tie-break. Federer was serving at 1-2 when he lost his footing slightly moving forward for a forehand volley, and then missed it. Nadal surged to 5-1, lost three points in a row, but closed it out on serve. He served wide to the forehand to set up an unanswerable inside-out forehand and that made it 6-4. Then Nadal played a smart point, not too aggressive yet not too cautious. Federer missed with a backhand down the line. Set to Nadal, 7-4 in the tie-break.

From 2-2 in the second set, Nadal won four of the next five games, breaking Federer for the first time to lead 4-2. In a 20 stroke rally, Nadal waited patiently for his opening, and drove an inside out forehand into the clear for a timely winner. Serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal was down 0-30. With the crowd in a frenzy, Nadal approached off the forehand to Federer’s forehand, and Federer lobbed. Nadal could not put away his smash but then he punched a backhand volley crosscourt and Federer netted a forehand pass. The next point was a beauty, a 21 stroke rally. At the end of the exchange, Federer drove a backhand crosscourt with as much pace as he could muster, and Nadal retaliated with a majestic down the line forehand winner.

It was 30-30, and Federer was deflated. He netted a forehand inside-in and then rolled a backhand return off a second serve into the net. Nadal had held on a run of four straight points for a two set lead.  He broke for a 2-1 third set lead before losing his own serve for the first and only time. It did not matter. From 2-3, Nadal collected four games in a row, breaking two more times.

Nadal played a great match, while Federer played one fine set. Federer had lost his serve only twice in five matches on his way to the showdown with Nadal, but the Spaniard broke him four times. In the match, Nadal won 73% of his first serve points and 73% of his second serve points as well. He never had to vary his pattern of serving to the Federer backhand in both the deuce and ad courts. He won a bundle of free points with that pattern. Many observers felt that Federer was playing much better tennis with his new 98 square inch racket, but in the semifinal against Nadal he looked as vulnerable as ever.

Federer will surely have a better season in 2014 than he did a year ago, despite slipping to No. 8 in the world after this loss. I don’t see more of those early round losses at the majors. But once he reaches the semifinals at any of the big tournaments, there will be a Djokovic or a Nadal almost inevitably waiting for him. Federer will remain a force and keep delighting the galleries, but will he come through at a Grand Slam event? His best chance will be at Wimbledon, and even there he has his work cut out for him.
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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.