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Steve Flink: Aussie Roundup

1/27/2008 8:42:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The first major event of the 2008 season more than fulfilled my expectations. Novak Djokovic delivered on his great promise of 2007, recording his first Grand Slam championship triumph, becoming the first new men's champion at the elite events since Rafael Nadal took his initial French Open crown in 2005. Maria Sharapova played the most convincing brand of tennis of her career, and came away with a third "Big Four" title, setting herself up for what could well be the defining year of her career. The charismatic and superbly athletic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga burst into the game's upper echelons by reaching his first Grand Slam tournament final, connecting whole-heartedly with the fans as an entertainer of rare dimensions. And Ana Ivanovic proved that her ascent to the top five in the world has been no accident, reaching her second major final and delighting the galleries once more with attractiveness and bright demeanor.

All in all, the Australian Open was an overwhelming success. From the early rounds right through the finals, the tennis sparkled and upsets were registered by players who came to Melbourne prepared to jumpstart their years and enhance their reputations. It all started with Tsonga, the 22-year-old Frenchman who can generate explosive bursts of power off the ground and on serve, along with exquisite touch up at the net. He started his exhilarating run to the championship match by upending No. 9 seed Andy Murray, the player many believed might be ready for the first time to travel deep into an elite event. Murray contributed to his own defeat with some faulty shot selection. He spotted Tsonga a two set lead before taking the third and pushing a tiring Tsonga into a fourth set tie-break. Had Murray not squandered an early mini-break in that crucial sequence, had he taken the contest into a fifth set, he almost surely would have prevailed.

But Tsonga demonstrated right then and there that he could survive under duress, and stare down adversity. He held Murray off in four sets and never looked back, cutting down No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet and No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny to earn a shot at No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the penultimate round. Against Nadal, Tsonga was almost letter perfect in every aspect of the game, dictating entirely from the baseline, moving forward commandingly, displaying instincts on the volley that were almost ineffable. Nadal committed a mere four unforced errors over the first two sets, and played well enough in the third, but still went down 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 to a man possessed.

To be sure, Tsonga was in many ways the showcase player of the event. He will undoubtedly establish a serious presence for himself in the game over the next three years. He is electrifying as both a personality and a player. He almost made a startling rise into the elite circle of Grand Slam tournament champions. He fell narrowly short of that lofty goal, losing a hard fought and high quality four set final to Djokovic. The 20-year-old Serbian had played with unerring consistency in reaching the final without the loss of a set.

For Djokovic, the moment of consequence was his semifinal appointment with Federer. He had beaten Federer for the first time in a gripping skirmish last summer, stopping the world No. 1 in a final set tie-break at Montreal. But Federer had retaliated for that defeat with a straight set win over Djokovic in the U.S. Open final. Djokovic squandered five set points in the first set of that contest and two more set points in the second set, but came up empty. Intriguingly, Djokovic reversed that pattern this time around. From 3-5, 0-30 down in the opening set, he swept nine of the next ten games. Then he saved two set points at 5-6 in the third on his way to a 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5) triumph. That was a big and gratifying victory, but it would have been largely wasted if Djokovic had not accounted for Tsonga in the final. With his come from behind four set win over the Frenchman, Djokovic did himself proud. He has put himself in a position to press Federer hard for the 2008 year-end No. 1 ranking. He has the game, the temperament, the drive and the temerity to reach the top this year, and would be worthy of that honor.

Sharapova is determined herself to be the best player in the world. I don't expect her to overtake Henin for the No. 1 ranking, but she will make a go of it. Her 6-4, 6-0 quarterfinal win over the Belgian was the highlight of the women's event. Sharapova had it all going for her in that match. Her serve was crackling and immensely accurate. Her ground strokes were whistling into the corners. Her intensity was almost palpable. On top of that, she covered the court incredibly well. In her last two victories over Jelena Jankovic and Ivanovic, Sharapova was unable to replicate her immaculate performance against Henin, but she did not lose a set. In fact, she went through the field without losing a set. Sharapova playing tennis with that kind of conviction was nothing short of stupendous.

Meanwhile, others made this Australian Open particularly memorable this time around. Janko Tipsarevic nearly pulled off one of the major upsets of modern times in the third round. The Serbian played solid tennis, took risks at all the right times, made the most of his chances. But the key to his surprisingly effective performance against Federer was his mindset. Unlike too many of his colleagues on the tour who walk on court with Federer in utter awe of the world champion, Tipsarevic believed he could win, and nearly did. In a ferocious battle, Federer came through deservedly 10-8 in the fifth set after trailing two sets to one. But Tipsarevic brought great excitement to the event with his showing.

Another player who captured the imagination of the public was Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber, who knocked out No. 6 seed Andy Roddick in an absorbing five set, third round encounter. Kohlschreiber, who fell in the following round against Jarkko Nieminen, has one of the game's best one-handed backhands. His passing shots off that side were outstanding against Roddick. Kohlschreiber is on his way to another level now, and has the tools to reach the top 15 by the end of the year. But the fact remains that Roddick is now faced by a widening circle of rivals who can beat him on any given day at a major. He competed sedulously on this occasion, as he always does. He has the heart of a champion. But will the 2003 world No. 1 be able to fend off his growing list of potential rivals? Can he ever win another major? Surely he will remain a real threat at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and he could come through in the future at the Australian Open. But I would be more than mildly surprised if he does secure another of the prestigious prizes.

In any case, this Australian Open was just what the game needed at the outset of another campaign. The tennis was frequently excellent on the new Plexicushion surface. The players were primed for the new season, eager to get something substantial done "Down Under" and thus set a tone for the year. In the final analysis, Djokovic and Sharapova were worthy of their top honors, inspiring confidence in their boosters. The way I look at it, 2008 could hardly have commenced on a more positive note. 

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