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Steve Flink: Australian Open Retrospective

2/2/2010 4:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

They go about their business in different ways, with contrasting dispositions, without ever compromising in their pursuit of victory. They are a remarkable pair of 28-year-old champions who share an enduring desire to succeed on the premier stages of their sport, to make the most of every chance they have to strike gold at the majors, to be certain that they have left no stones unturned whenever they turn up at a Grand Slam event. They are Roger Federer and Serena Williams, and it is no accident that they have captured the first of the “Big Four” tournaments this year with triumphs at the Australian Open. Federer and Williams are champions of a rare class, unflinching players who seem to relish the opportunity to confront pressure, front line competitors with the largest possible distaste for losing.

It has been a long time since Federer has secured one of the majors with such utter dominance. Across the fortnight in Melbourne, he conceded only two sets in seven matches, a feat he last realized at the 2007 U.S. Open. Considering that Federer had not won a tournament since Cincinnati last August, that was an extraordinary achievement. In the opening round, Federer was clearly vulnerable against the Russian Igor Andreev, the same man who had pushed him to five sets at the 2008 U.S. Open. Andreev took the first set, lost the second, and then rallied from 5-3 down in the third to lead 6-5 with three set points on his own serve. Andreev’s explosive forehand---- the shot that had carried him that far--- let him down flagrantly on all of the set points. Federer recognized that his adversary might self destruct at that crucial juncture, and that is precisely what happened.

Federer tucked that match away 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (2), 6-0. The only other set he dropped was against Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals. Davydenko was obliterating the top seed with a breathtaking display off both sides, covering the court magnificently, striking the ball with good pace and astonishing precision, leaving Federer bewildered in the process. The Russian had lost his first 12 career confrontations before upending his Swiss rival in their last two meetings at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals late last year, and again in Doha at the start of 2010.

He seemed more than capable of making it three triumphs in a row over Federer when he took the first set 6-2. Davydenko was almost unconscious as he moved ahead 3-1, 15-40 in the second set. In that critical game, he had three break points for a second service break. Had he converted, Davydenko would almost surely have taken a two sets to love lead, and he might well have ended Federer’s streak of reaching at least the semifinals in 22 majors in a row. But it did not happen. Davydenko missed a routine two-hander on the first break point. On the second, he had Federer in a bind. The top seed flicked a topspin backhand with no depth down the middle of the court. His shot was sitting up near the service line. Davydenko could have done almost anything he wanted, but he drove a feeble backhand into the net. Federer then saved another break point with a patented play, serving wide to the backhand to elicit open up the court for a crosscourt forehand that was too good.

Federer held on for 2-3 and never really looked back as Davydenko thoroughly lost his range.
Federer won 19 of the next 22 points, and 31 of the next 37 after surviving that last break point in the pivotal fifth game of the second set. He then glided through the third and went ahead 2-0 in the fourth set, having won 13 consecutive games in that stretch. Davydenko had a brief resurgence, and made a go of that fourth set. Federer was serving at 3-4, 0-40 in the fourth set, but he worked his way out of that corner with some of his best clutch play of the tournament.

The Swiss connected with five consecutive first serves and the Russian could not return any of them. Federer served for the match at 5-4 and did not close it out, but two games later he was safely home, winning 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5 in a bizarre match. Davydenko had been playing the best tennis of his life, and had won three of his last four tournaments heading into Melbourne. He was beating Federer to the punch repeatedly and was thoroughly outplaying his rival from the baseline. This was his chance to prove that his recent exploits could carry over into a major. But Davydenko reverted to his old ways, and Federer struck back boldly once he realized his opponent had travelled rapidly from near indestructibility to flagrant vulnerability.

After easily casting aside a debilitated Jo Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals---- the Frenchman had survived back to back five set matches against Nicolas Almagro and Novak Djokovic and offered only token resistance against the world No. 1—Federer took on Andy Murray in the championship match, and played his finest Grand Slam final since overcoming Rafael Nadal in a five set 2007 Wimbledon final. Federer halted Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11). He was as reliable off the ground as I have seen him over the last few years, measuring his forehand awfully well and waiting for precisely the right opportunities to go for winners, mixing up his backhand artfully with a brilliant combination of slice and topspin shots, and serving well when he needed to against arguably the best returner in the game. Murray had lost only one set over the fortnight, and had played tremendously to beat defending champion Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Nadal was down 6-3, 7-6 (2), 3-0 when he had to retire with a knee injury, but he played his best tennis since the spring of 2009.

Federer admitted after the final with Murray that “the first set could have gone either way.” After Murray had lost his serve to fall behind 2-0, he broke right back and reached 2-2. The fifth game was the most significant of the set. Federer was down 15-40, in danger of losing his serve for the second time in a row. The top seed missed his first serve, but Murray was off the mark with a crosscourt backhand, guilty of a bad miss at the wrong time. Federer promptly responded, releasing a service winner wide to Murray’s backhand at 30-40, and eventually closing out that game with consecutive aces.

At 3-4, Murray lost his serve again. A linesman called his second serve out on the first point of that game, but a television replay confirmed that the call was wrong. Murray did not challenge and that was a very big point. Federer went to work with higher intensity, and got the break for 5-3 with some inspired play. He drove a penetrating forehand down Murray’s forehand sideline, and Murray was put on the defensive. Federer then stepped in and laced a vintage inside-out forehand winner. He served out the set, and then took his game to a commanding level in the second set while an apprehensive Murray struggled inordinately.

Federer won that set comfortably (6-4) on one service break, but could well have taken it more decisively. At 1-3, Murray held on from 15-40 and at 2-4 he recovered from 0-40. He was far too cautious in that phase of the match. Federer swiftly advanced to a two sets to love lead. Murray managed to move past his inhibition in the third set, opening up a 5-2 lead, serving for the set at 5-3. He put in six out of eight first serves in that game, but Federer kept making difficult blocked returns, and he broke back. On they went to a tie-break, which produced the most exhilarating tennis of the match. Five times Murray reached set point, but he was stymied by an adversary who kept making him play. Murray was unlucky in some ways to lose that tie-break, but I had the feeling Federer would have regained the upper hand and prevailed no matter what. He seemed to have a lot of energy in reserve.

For Murray, losing to Federer for the second time in a Grand Slam final was a jarring experience, and a mean blow to his considerable pride. He had not been ready in 2008 when Federer cut him down in New York at the U.S. Open. This time around, he was older and wiser, determined to exploit his match playing prowess, and much stronger physically. He seemed to like his chances. His many British boosters thought he was going to become the first male champion at a major since Fred Perry captured the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills in 1936. But despite his failure to gain the triumph, his time will come. He will be in the hunt at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open later this year. Ivan Lendl was 24 when he won his first major at Roland Garros in 1984; by then he had lost four major finals. Andre Agassi was 22 when he took his first Grand Slam event at Wimbledon in 1992; he had been beaten in three major finals before the breakthrough.

In any case, while Federer’s 16th triumph in 22 Grand Slam tournament finals was the essential story of the men’s event, there were other large sidebars. Tsonga--- the surprise finalist at Melbourne in 2008--- had his best major since then and got his season off to a very good start. He had never played a five set match before he held off a tenacious Almagro. Then he followed with a five set triumph over Djokovic. That was not the way to approach a physically challenging test against Federer, and Tsonga looked spent. He will, however, make his presence known later in the year at the majors.

Tsonga was impressive, but Marin Cilic earned even higher marks for his semifinal showing in Melbourne. Cilic overcame No. 4 seed and U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in another five set collision. Del Potro may well have been beleaguered after a string of tough matches, including a five set scrape with a revitalized James Blake. But Cilic played a first rate match to beat Del Potro. The key to the outcome of that contest was the third set. At 5-4, Del Potro served for the set but he was broken there and again at 5-6. The set was gone. Despite surging back in the fourth set, Del Potro was outplayed by a sharper Cilic from the baseline. The No. 14 seed came through 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3.

In the quarterfinals, Cilic won the most absorbing match of the tournament from Andy Roddick. With Cilic serving at 4-5 in the first set, he was down set point and missed his first serve. Roddick should have gone after his return, but he timidly chipped the forehand back and allowed Cilic to take control of the point. Cilic took that set in a tie-break, but Roddick called for trainer. He had a nerve problem which ran from his neck into the shoulder and down into his fingers. He still went up a break at 2-1, but Cilic took five of the next six games to win the set.

Gradually, Roddick found his range in the third, and he seemed less bothered by his injury. In the fourth set, he was ripping flat service returns off both sides for winners, letting it all fly freely off his racket. He broke Cilic three times in a row for 5-0 and should have closed out the set 6-0. But he lost his serve at 5-0. Two games later, Roddick did serve it out.

Roddick had all kinds of momentum heading into the fifth set. In the opening game, he had Cilic at 0-40 but the 6’6” Croatian has one of the calmest temperaments of all the leading players. He kept his composure, held on to his serve, and held back Roddick 7-6 (4) 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3. Cilic displayed the kind of mental toughness that only great players can exhibit. He reached his first quarterfinal at a major last year in New York; he has now advanced to his first semifinal. It won’t be long before he gets his name on the champion’s board at a Grand Slam event. As for Roddick, he said after the match that he had played “high risk” tennis during his spirited comeback against Cilic. He ought to take those high risks a lot more.

Let’s return to the subject of Serena Williams. Her history of nearly impossible escapes at the Australian Open is nothing short of staggering. In 2003, she rallied from 1-5 down in the final set against Kim Clijsters in the semifinals, saving two match points to win that match, and then took her first title over her sister Venus in three hard fought sets. Two years later, Serena was getting destroyed by an inspired Maria Sharapova, losing the first set badly. Sharapova served for the match in the second set, served for the match again in the third set, and had three match points altogether. Williams somehow won that match and beat Lindsay Davenport in the final.

In 2007, the drama continued. That year, she came into the tournament ranked No. 81 in the world and proceeded to oust six seeds on her way to a third title. Nadia Petrova took a 6-1, 5-3 lead over Serena but Williams came back to get the victory. In the final, she routed Sharapova 6-1, 6-2. Last year, Svetlana Kuznetsova served for the match against Williams in the second set of a quarterfinal with Serena, who recouped for a three set win. She took that title for the fourth time, routing Dinara Safina in the championship match.

This time around, Williams was untouchable through the first four rounds of the tournament. Not once did she lose her serve in eight sets. But then she faced the No. 7 seed Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka was blasting the ball with immense power and depth, going for the most audacious of returns, essentially beating Serena at her own game. Azarenka was up 6-4, 4-0, on the verge of an emphatic victory over the best woman player in the world. Once more, Williams turned extreme adversity into another opportunity to demonstrate why she is among the most indefatigable players ever to step on a tennis court.

She quickly and irreversibly took the initiative and an instant role reversal took place. Azarenka was now on her heels and forced to react to the power and intensity of Williams. Serena released a cavalcade of winners and spectacularly potent and accurate shots. Williams made it back to 4-4 in a hurry. Azarenka kept her composure, made it into a tie-break, and took a 3-1 lead in that sequence. Williams answered the alarm bell again, winning six of the next seven points to reach one set all. She came through 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, and then served terrifically in a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) win over Na Li.

Waiting for her in the championship match was none other than Justine Henin. Henin was competing in only her second tournament back after a 20 month break from the game. She had lost narrowly in a third set tie-break to Clijsters in Brisbane in her comeback event, and then had worked hard to make it to the championship match in Melbourne. Her 7-5, 7-6 (6) second round win over No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva was the women’s match of the tournament up until the final. Henin was then in jeopardy at 3-6, 1-3 against No. 27 seed Alisa Kleybanova of Russia in the third round. She was down break points, but battled back for a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 triumph. She then had tough matches with Yanina Wickmayer and Petrova before routing Jie Zheng 6-1, 6-0 in the semifinals.

Henin vs. Williams figured to be a compelling final, and it was just that. Here was Henin, in full pursuit of an eighth Grand Slam singles championship. Across the net stood Williams, hoping she could capture a 12th major. They had met on 13 previous occasions, with Serena holding a narrow 7-6 lead in the series. And yet, surprisingly, this was their first ever meeting in the final of a Grand Slam event. There could have been no better way to start the season in the women’s game than to have these two all time greats doing battle on a big occasion.

From the outset, Henin was creating good opportunities to break. She had Serena down 15-40 in the opening game of the match before Serena held after four deuces. At 1-1, Williams had to endure five deuces and needed to save another break point before holding on again. She broke Henin for 3-1, held for 4-1, and seemed well stationed to win the set. Henin, however, was not giving up. She got back to 4-4, but that only seemed to make Serena refocus. Williams held at love, then broke Henin in the following game for the set.

In the second set, Williams had a break point for 4-2, only to make an abysmal unforced error off the forehand, spraying the ball wildly out of court. Henin gamely held on for 3-3. In the seventh game, Williams was up 30-0, but double faulted alarmingly long, well beyond the service line. Henin eventually broke for 4-3 and took the next two games at love for the set. The Belgian held at love for 1-0 in the third and won the first point of the next game. She had won 15 points in a row. Williams seemed to have lost her way, while Henin was clicking on all fronts. Henin had 15-40 for a 2-0 lead in the third. She was on the verge of winning six games in a row.

Williams stepped up largely at this juncture, releasing a 122 MPH ace down the T and then a gutsy forehand swing volley winner behind Henin. Williams held on for 1-1, broke in the following game, but lost her serve again for 2-2. The fifth game was pivotal. Henin led 30-15, double faulted for 30-30, and then stood helplessly as Williams drove a devastatingly potent and precise flat two-handed backhand return into the corner for a winner. A shaken Henin made an unforced error to drop that game, and never really recovered.

At 3-2, 40-30, Williams sent a second serve ace down the T. Henin won only one point in the following game, and Williams ended the account in style. Serving for the match at 5-2, she released a pair of aces on her way to 40-0, and finished it all off on her second match point with a backhand winner crosscourt set up by a wide serve. Serena had collected 15 of the last 19 points for the triumph.

Henin played a fine match, but perhaps she needs to reconsider how she wants to play the game from this point forward. In the old days, she relied heavily on her excellent ground game, using her brilliant and inimitable one-handed backhand to set up aggressive forehands, relying on depth, angles, and consistency to carry her through matches. She has clearly decided in the early stages of her comeback to alter a lot of things. She goes for more off the forehand with a shorter backswing. She has changed her backhand slightly, has tinkered with her serve, and has attempted to reshape her game and become much more committed to moving forward and taking command at the net.

Overall, the strategy was largely successful over the fortnight in Melbourne, and she gave herself a good chance to win against Williams. But at times she seems too rigid in her approach. Against Serena, she was constantly trying to roll the backhand return and get to the net behind it. She was also going in down the middle. The problem was that she could not get enough bite on those returns and Williams was able to counter-attack effectively and make Henin play difficult low volleys. At times she was able to pass Henin outright. Henin would do well to think about staying back behind more returns and driving them, waiting for a better opportunity to get to the net. Later in the match she did try that. She might also want to consider chipping more of those backhand returns when she is planning to approach the net, keeping the ball low and making her opponent work harder to pass her.

The fact remains that Henin is back, and she is going to be a serious contender at every major championship this year. As for Williams, this was her 12th triumph in 15 major finals across a sterling career. Only two players have beaten her in Grand Slam title round matches. Venus Williams stopped Serena in the finals of the 2001 U.S. Open and the 2008 Wimbledon. Sharapova surprised Williams in the final of Wimbledon in 2004. Being a majestic big match player is something else Serena Williams has in common with Roger Federer. In his 22 major finals, he has suffered only 6 defeats, and he has also lost to only two players in “Big Four” finals: Rafael Nadal five times (at the 2006, 2007 and 2008 French Opens, the 2008 Wimbledon and the 2009 Australian Open), and Del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open. At 28, neither Williams nor Federer will collect more major titles forever, but they are going to be around for quite a long time.           

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