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Steve Flink: 2009 Aussie Review

2/4/2009 1:05:00 PM

by Steve Flink

With the passage of time and the making of more history, Grand Slam tennis events can sometimes fade in our collective memories. But there are clearly exceptions to that rule. The epic collision between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the final of Wimbledon last year will live irrevocably in all of our hearts and minds. It may well have been the greatest tennis match ever played at a tournament that has always been nothing less than a landmark event.

In any case I would not place the 2009 Australian Open in a category with the Wimbledon of 2008. And yet, I am certain it was the standout tournament played "Down Under" of the Open Era. To be sure, there have been some riveting Australian Open's over the years. Rod Laver won the first Australian Open in 1969, and went on to record a second career Grand Slam later in the season. His 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 semifinal victory over Tony Roche is an essential part of Australian lore. John Newcombe toppling the heavily favored Jimmy Connors for the 1975 crown was a remarkably well crafted piece of business.

When the tournament changed surfaces from grass to hard courts in 1988, the Australian Pat Cash pushed Sweden's cagey Mats Wilander to his limits in the final before Wilander secured the title in five exhilarating sets. In 1995, Pete Sampras staged two stirring comebacks from two sets to love down on his way to the final, including an emotionally wrenching quarterfinal triumph over countryman Jim Courier. Tim Gullikson--- who had coached Sampras since 1992 and was a close friend--- had been sent home with brain tumors and Sampras needed to serve aces through his tears in the fifth set to survive that rigorous test of his character. Andre Agassi won that tournament over Sampras in a terrific final in his first appearance at the event.

There have been other Australian Open tournaments I would consider enduringly significant, most notably the 1981 and 1982 women's events when Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert met in a pair of enthralling three set finals, with Martina prevailing in the former and Chris gaining the victory in the latter. But consider how the 2009 event ended. Rafael Nadal spent five hours and 14 minutes battling nobly against an inspired and obstinate Fernando Verdasco before coming away with a hard fought five set victory in the semifinals. That match was worthy of a final, played at a remarkably high level, providing the fans with suspenseful theater and the most physical kind of tennis featuring one astounding and brutal rally after another.

Everyone speculated about whether or not Nadal could recover in time to deal with his great rival Federer after only one day off. Nadal himself seemed genuinely concerned about the size of that challenge. He had, after all, played the longest match ever at the Australian Open with Verdasco, and the amount of court he had covered in that bruising encounter was almost inhumanly demanding. So what did Nadal do for an encore? He went out against Federer and competed for another four hours and 23 minutes, overcoming his determined adversary in another five set classic, capturing his third Grand Slam tournament of the last four played, completing an extraordinary three surface sweep of Federer in major finals by adding this hard court win to the victories he had already secured on the clay at Roland Garros and the grass courts of Wimbledon. He elevated his record against Federer in major finals to 5-2.

Remarkably, this was the third time in their last four meetings at the majors that Nadal and Federer have gone the distance and stretched each other to five sets. It was a ferociously contested match, and the tennis across the first four sets was often breathtaking. It was also atypical of most Nadal-Federer contests because there were so many service breaks. Nadal broke Federer seven times in the match but lost his own delivery on six occasions.

Why was that the case? Federer surely contributed to his own problems by connecting with only 52% of his first serves, while Nadal was also below his normal standard with 64%. But what must not be overlooked was the essential fairness of the Plexipave hard court surface. It is the most neutral surface they have played on in one of their head-to-head showdowns, and that was a major factor in all of the service breaks. Unquestionably, Federer lacked his normal rhythm and his toss looked slightly off and too low on frequent occasions.

But Nadal kept his returns off both first and second serves strikingly deep. Nadal was not locating his serve as effectively as usual, allowing Federer to get some better looks and take some bigger cuts at his returns. But all of those breaks made it an even more compelling battle, and the rallies were dazzling. The relatively slow hard court gave both men the best possible chance to succeed. In the end, my feeling is that Nadal made Federer work so hard in the baseline exchanges that the Swiss maestro was worn down in the fifth set with little left to offer.

In that fifth set, Nadal made only two or three unforced errors while Federer was guilty of 14. Nadal simply wasn't missing, his serve was more biting and better placed, and his philosophy was to give nothing away and force Federer to come up with the goods. Federer was not up to the task. The guess here is that he was much more tired than most people realized, and that caused the fundamental breakdown in his game. Nadal wisely kept directing his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt up high to the Federer backhand, and Federer faltered badly on that side.

Another reason why Federer may have been so weary was that Nadal made him play so many arduous running forehands throughout the match. That really took its toll. Federer has always liked setting the tempo, stepping well inside the court to exploit his forehand and end points quickly, dictating as much as he can. Nadal did an excellent job of not only breaking down Federer's backhand but also took every opportunity to use his flatter inside-out forehand to keep his adversary off guard and on the run. I believe that is why Federer fell apart toward the end of his 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 loss. He had to do so much scrambling and defending on his forehand side that it ultimately cost him the match.

Nadal's feat of winning back to back five setters in the semifinals and final for a total of nine hours and 37 minutes was one of the most astonishing feats in the history of tennis. I believe his decision to skip the Tennis Masters Cup and Davis Cup Final last November was one of the chief reasons why he was so ready for the long grind in Australia. He made it to the penultimate round without losing a set and then had the strength, tenacity, and courage to survive the two exhausting struggles at the end. He needed that longer off season to mend his body after a debilitating campaign in 2008, and now he has put himself in a commanding position to maintain his status as the No. 1 ranked player in the world--- at least through 2009.

But let's examine some of the other individuals who made the 2009 Australian Open such an extraordinary fortnight. First and foremost, Verdasco was a new man in many ways. He trained hard in the off season with Gil Reyes, and was in the best of shape for the first major of 2009. Surely, his major contribution to Spain's win in the Davis Cup Final over Argentina gave him a deeper sense of inner belief. But so did his admirable 2008 campaign. At one stage in July he reached No. 11 in the world; he concluded the year at No. 16.For a player who had finished the previous four years between No. 26 and No. 36, this was a big step to take.

And yet, no one was quite prepared for what he did in Melbourne. He set a record for fewest games lost in the first three rounds of the men's tournament during the Open Era (he lost 12 games in nine nearly impeccable sets) and then upended No. 4 seed Andy Murray in a five set, fourth round confrontation. Verdasco, the No. 14 seed, fought back valiantly to prevail over the British No. 1 2-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. First coming back from a set down, then rallying to force a fifth set was impressive. But his fifth set performance was magnificent.

Serving at 2-3 in that final set, he was twice down break point. Had Murray broken there and then served his way to a 5-2 lead, the match would have been essentially over. But Verdasco saved one break point with an ace and the other with a brilliantly executed point from the baseline. He held, broke Murray in the next game, and took control to win. Then he took apart 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo Wilfried Tsonga in four sets, and that set up his appointment with Nadal.

Verdasco had taken only one set off Nadal in six previous matches, but then again he had never beaten Murray either. From the outset against Nadal, he was taking well calculated risks, ripping the cover off the ball, but never unrestrainedly. Nadal was on his heels repeatedly and he looked tight from the outset. His service returns lacked depth all through the contest. In the end, it took all of Nadal's substantial willpower and his indefatigable spirit to pull him through 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4. Verdasco blasted 95 winners and still lost to his fellow Spaniard and fellow left-hander, but he has now arrived in the world's top ten and that is a place where he belongs. I expect him to make his presence known at all three remaining majors this season, and he will push hard for a place in the top five by the end of 2009.

Andy Roddick displayed his exceptional fitness on a scorching day in defeating defending champion Novak Djokovic (6-7 (3) 6-4, 6-2, 2-1 ret.). Unable to deal with the intense heat, Djokovic was a spent force by early in the second set. That is not the way it should be for a player ranked No. 3 in the world who has aspirations to make it to the top. I still believe he will make it back to the latter stages of some majors this year, but his physical and emotional frailty might keep getting in his way. As for Roddick, he was taken apart comprehensively 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 by Federer. He played much better in the last two sets, but how could he not hold on one more time in each set and at least make it into tie-breaks?

Imagine Pete Sampras in the same situations. It is hard to envision him not holding at 5-5 in the second and third sets of a match like that. If you pride yourself on your capacity to hold serve more successfully than anyone else as Roddick did in 2008, you can't allow that to happen. Roddick's one and only hope was to squeeze out some tie-break wins, as he did the two times he has defeated his old nemesis. To be sure, Federer was a class above his American rival across the board in that match, but Roddick was disappointing when it counted.

As for the women, it was a job exceedingly well done by Serena Williams as she captured her tenth Grand Slam championship. Her 6-0, 6-3 final round triumph over Dinara Safina was one of the cleanest big matches I have ever seen her play. Hitting the ball as big as she was off both sides and making so few mistakes was a tribute to her brilliance on the day. She clipped 23 winners, committed just 7 unforced errors, and lost her serve only once. That was first rate stuff.

Serena has a chance now to win two majors in a year for the first time since 2003. I expect her to do just that. But she will need to keep her mind on her business and dedicate herself almost entirely to tennis this year. She must recognize that this is an all consuming game that requires a fuller commitment from the beginning of a year right up to the end. And she will have to avoid injuries, which may be her biggest obstacle. If all of that falls into place, this is going to be a great year for Serena Williams.

Despite her lopsided loss in the final, Safina is setting high standards. This was her second final at a major. She will get more chances. So will Elena Dementieva, who lost to Serena in a straight set semifinal. She will be a big threat at all of the majors this year. But a number of women demonstrated in Australia that they are moving swiftly toward the upper echelons of the game. Safina was on the brink of defeat against No. 15 seed Alize Cornet in the fourth round, saving two match points before prevailing. Cornet will be a top ten player soon. Victoria Azarenka--- the No. 13 seed--- was looking entirely capable of ousting Serena Williams in their round of 16 clash. She took the first set before dizziness compromised her chances. With Serena ahead 4-2 in the second, Azarenka retired. But I see her as a player who will be in the thick of things at majors in the not too distant future.

So, all in all, the women had an intriguing tournament. The men, of course, had a blockbuster of an event, capped off by Nadal's heroics at the end. Nadal has set himself up for a scintillating 2009. He is going to be primed for Roland Garros, and should be able to secure a fifth consecutive crown in Paris. Thereafter, I expect him to win one of the remaining two majors at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Murray is poised to win a big one this year as well.

So where does that leave Federer? He will surely make his presence known in both London and New York, and after reaching three straight Roland Garros finals I would not count him out there. But he will have his work cut out for him to win more than one major in 2009, and he might not capture any at all. Losing three major finals to Nadal in less than eight months has scarred his psyche. Not only must he worry about Nadal, but Murray has toppled him five of the last six times they have met.

Moreover, other stars are emerging. Federer is not afraid to take on the new breed of players, as he demonstrated in a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 whitewash of Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals of Melbourne. The fact remains that Federer--- at least for the time being--- is deflated. It will be fascinating to see if he can navigate his way through the most precarious stretch of his illustrious career. This is much is certain: winning a 14th Grand Slam title to establish a tie with Pete Sampras for the record will be difficult, and garnering a 15 major will be an even more demanding task.

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