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Steve Flink: 2011 Australian Open Retrospective

2/1/2011 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Tip your hat to Kim Clijsters and Novak Djokovic, a distinguished pair of singles champions at the 2011 Australian Open, and two competitors who stood out from the pack as they rightfully claimed the first major of the new season. Admire Clijsters for her ongoing exploits during her so-called “second career”, and appreciate Djokovic not simply for being such a formidable hard court player but also because he seems to have reached a new level of maturity, dedication and professionalism. It was their fortnight, their time of triumph, their showcase. Both the immensely popular Belgian and the endlessly fascinating Serbian swept through their respective fields at the cost of only one set in seven matches. They worked hard and played well. They conducted their business purposefully and efficiently. In the end, they achieved exactly what they deserved.

Let’s start with Djokovic. Most striking about his final round dismissal of old rival Andy Murray was the calmness of his demeanor and the quiet self conviction with which he carried himself from beginning to end. Djokovic was absolutely determined to capture his second career major, and his first Grand Slam event since the 2008 Australian Open. This was his 12th appearance at a Grand Slam event since his breakthrough victory in Melbourne three years ago, and only Marat Safin (14 appearances) had waited longer between first and second major tournament triumphs. In many ways, Djokovic was in the same competitive boat as Murray, who has yet to claim a “Big Four” title. The Serbian was in search of validation, in pursuit of a reaffirmation that he belonged authentically among the elite. The last thing he wanted was to keep his membership in the “One Slam Wonder” club; he knew in his heart that he was much better than that.

So Djokovic showed up for his final round appointment with Murray seemingly convinced that he was going to win. He played from the outset with utterly controlled aggression from the backcourt. He served the way he had done in 2007 and 2008, when his first delivery was clearly one of his primary strengths. The straight arm is now gone, the bent elbow is back, the fluidity of the motion once more a beautiful sight to behold. His match with Murray seemed always to be largely in his hands, and the contest was played just about entirely on his terms. Djokovic seized the initiative from early on, took control of the rallies, and rattled Murray with the weight of his shots and his superior depth. Murray survived a taxing five deuce game to hold on for 1-1 in the opening set, but Djokovic realized that he was playing a better brand of tennis.

In the tenth game of that opening set, Djokovic and Murray went at each other full force, throwing everything they had in their arsenals at each other during a critical exchange, using every inch of the court between them. Murray was serving at 4-5, 15-30. He could not afford to lose this gripping rally, and he fully understood that. The point lasted no less than 39 strokes, and Djokovic made it abundantly clear that no ball would be beyond his reach, thwarting Murray with an astonishing combination of defense and offense. Djokovic took advantage of a deep crosscourt forehand, got a short ball, and came in on Murray’s forehand. The approach was not great, but Murray was under duress. He netted the pass. It was 15-40, and one point later Djokovic had sealed the set.

Little did we know it then, but Djokovic had broken Murray’s spirit. The Serbian raced to a 5-0 lead in the second set, winning 22 of 28 points in the process. By then, he had swept seven games in a row. Djokovic moved inexorably to an emphatic 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 victory for his second triumph in four career major finals, leaving Murray with an unenviable 0-3 record in finals at the Grand Slam events. And Djokovic left Murray with something else to ponder: the British No. 1 and world No. 5 has still not won a set in a major final. To be sure, Djokovic must be applauded for the caliber of his game, for his ceaselessly penetrating ground strokes, for his uncannily accurate and strategic serving. He was first rate across the board, and under any circumstances he was going to be awfully difficult to beat on that day. This was the best sustained tennis that Djokovic has ever played at any major in his career. In retrospect, when he crushed Tomas Berdych 6-1, 7-6 (5), 6-1 with sweeping assurance in the quarterfinals, the die was cast.

The fact remains that Murray surrendered tamely in that critical second set. When you are down a set in a Grand Slam final, you are a long way from defeat. This was the time Murray needed to fight with every fiber of his being, to treat the second set as if his life depended on the outcome of it, to recognize that he had no alternative but to compete with all out intensity—or not at all. Murray sadly and inexplicably chose the latter. He essentially quit in that second set, playing with little or no resolve. He remained mired in a defensive posture, going to the sliced backhand too frequently, failing to drive his two-hander hard and flat both crosscourt and down the line in an attempt to put his destiny back in his own hands. His forehand never had the depth he needed on it, and his serve was abysmal. Murray won only 32% of his second serve points, and his first serve was surprisingly predictable.

But his defeat came down to much more than simply tactics and execution; it was largely about attitude. He did not want this match nearly as much as did Djokovic. He virtually gave away that second set when so much was riding on it. He did not compete with extreme urgency at this time of consequence. He fell apart and hardly tried. Murray owed himself more than that, owed the game a much greater effort, and owed his fans a gigantic and unrelenting campaign for victory. I am sure he was somewhat drained from his rugged four set contests in the quarterfinals and semifinals against Alexandr Dolgopolov and David Ferrer. But that does not explain why he could not reach down a lot deeper within himself to find a way to give his all to win one of the biggest matches in his career. Frankly, I found what he did disgraceful, and I have been one of his most ardent admirers in the media. My feeling is that he will still win a major, but not before he does some considerable soul searching to figure out how and why he could allow himself to be so unprofessional on such a large occasion.

In any event, the men’s match of the tournament in my view was Djokovic against four time and defending Australian Open champion Roger Federer in the penultimate round. This was tennis played at a high level from beginning to end. It was worthy of a final. Both men were primed from the outset. Djokovic was apprehensive only in the very beginning, double faulting twice in a row to fall behind 30-40 in the opening game of the match. But he defended ably to get out of that game. Thereafter, both men held relatively easily to set up a tie-break. Federer conceded only six points in six impeccably orchestrated service games, and Djokovic did not face another break point. That tie-break was crucial to the cause of both players.

Djokovic was ready for it. He connected with all five of his first serves, and lost only one of those points. He made only one unforced error. Federer never really had a chance in that sequence, and he was missing with both his sliced and topspin backhands. Djokovic took the tie-break comfortably 7-3 for a one set lead, and then got the first service break of the match for a 2-1 second set lead. The 23-year-old Serbian appeared to be in command.

But then Federer fought back gamely. He broke back for 2-2 by putting a larger safety net on his shots and giving Djokovic an opportunity to miss. Federer held at love for 3-2. Federer was flowing through this stretch. An elegant backhand topspin winner down the line took the Swiss to 0-40 in the sixth game, and he broke at 15 for 4-2 with some of his most disciplined shot making and remarkable ball control. In the seventh game, Federer saved one break point but Djokovic was off target with a forehand return, and cast aside a second break point by using a backhand drop shot to draw Djokovic in, enabling the Swiss to move forward for a backhand lob volley winner. Federer eventually held for 5-2, and a one set all deadlock seemed certain.

Djokovic didn’t see it that way. He held easily at 15 to close the gap to 5-3. Federer served for the set in the ninth game, the pivotal moment of the match. He seemed to have the first point in hand when he moved forward in a commanding position, but Djokovic threw up an excellent defensive lob. Federer backed up and had to let the ball bounce, electing to play his overhead safely down the middle without much on it. Eventually, Federer shanked a backhand. At 0-15, Federer approached again, going down the middle. Djokovic wisely sent his passing shot low without any angle, and Federer netted a difficult backhand volley. Federer rallied to 15-30 with an ace but a resolute Djokovic caught the world No. 2 totally off guard with a forehand down the line winner. Federer got back to 30-40 but was broken on the next point as Djokovic easily anticipated a forehand drop shot from Federer, moving in swiftly to roll a forehand passing shot down the line and into the clear.

Djokovic was soaring now. At 4-5, 40-30, he chased down a beautifully executed low forehand drop shot from Federer, and passed his opponent cleanly with a one-handed chipped backhand crosscourt. That was a spectacular piece of athleticism. It was 5-5. In the eleventh game, Federer recovered from 0-40 to 30-40 but sliced a backhand into the net on the third break point. Djokovic then held confidently at love for the set. He had taken five games in a row to secure a two set lead, and Federer was none too pleased. He left the court for a bathroom break, but that did not unsettle the Serbian, who saved three break points to hold for 1-1 in the third set, and then broke the Swiss in the following game by going to Federer’s unstable backhand again on break point.

Djokovic moved to 3-1 and then to 4-2. He was closing in on a straight set victory. At 4-3, Djokovic had two game points on serve but Federer—fighting with customary resolve and steely determination—erased those opportunities. Federer then implemented a superbly crafted short backhand slice to pull Djokovic in. Djokovic went for the two-hander down the line but caught the net tape. The ball hung in the air invitingly for Federer, who easily hit the winner into the open court. It was 4-4, and Federer was still alive. But he knew what he was up against as he confronted the unwavering Djokovic. On the first point of the ninth game, Federer overanxiously bungled a forehand approach into the net. He drifted to 0-40, got back to 30-40 but lost his serve with a netted backhand crosscourt on the 15th stroke of an absorbing exchange.

That was the fatal blow. When Djokovic served for the match at 5-4, he surged to 40-15, double match point, before Federer made it back safely to deuce.  At a moment like this, Djokovic might have panicked a bit in the past, but not now. He served an ace out wide in the deuce court, and then drew an errant forehand return from a Federer who had tried in vain to salvage a losing cause. And so Djokovic had toppled Federer 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-4 for the second straight time in a semifinal at a Grand Slam event, following up on his five set victory over the Swiss at the U.S. Open last September. Djokovic beat Federer to the punch across the board in Australia: forehand to forehand, he had the edge. Backhand to backhand, Djokovic was decidedly better. His inside-out forehand was more damaging than Federer’s. He served with more precision and authority over the last two sets, and his return was a bigger weapon than Federer’s. In plain and simple terms, Djokovic outplayed Federer.

It was the second time Djokovic had upended his adversary in the semifinals of the Australian Open, as he added this triumph to the straight set win he recorded in the semifinals of the 2008 edition in Melbourne. Although Djokovic still trails 13-7 in the rivalry overall—and is down 4-3 altogether at the Grand Slam events—the fact remains that the Serbian (despite three losses in a row against Federer leading up to Melbourne) has demonstrated that he now has what it takes to compete with Federer, and the feeling grows that he will become an increasingly difficult man for Federer to bring down in the months and years ahead.

It must also be said that Federer has arrived at another crucial juncture in his career. This was the fourth consecutive time that he has not reached a Grand Slam tournament final; not since winning the 2010 Australian Open has he been in the title round at a major. Since Federer captured his first major back in 2003 at Wimbledon, he had never gone through four majors without capturing a Grand Slam event. Heading into the 2010 French Open, he had been at least in the final in 18 of the previous 19 majors. But since that 2010 Roland Garros, Federer has lost in two quarterfinals followed by two semifinals on the grandest stages. That fact can’t be ignored. He is a player of enduring greatness, but is more vulnerable in the crunch, and less feared by his primary adversaries.

What made this loss perhaps even more significant was the fact that Federer had won four of his last six tournaments as he headed with a full head of steam into Melbourne, including a season-opening triumph in Doha. But from the time he was pushed precariously into a fifth set by Gilles Simon at the Australian Open in the second round, Federer seemed decidedly less sure of himself than he was at the tail end of 2010.

Meanwhile, there were other substantial developments in Melbourne. Rafael Nadal went there hoping to secure a fourth major in a row, a feat last achieved by Rod Laver when he won a second Grand Slam in 1969. Nadal made it to the quarters without the loss of a set but was ushered out of the tournament in straight sets by countryman David Ferrer 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. In the first couple of games of the match, Nadal suffered what appeared to be a hamstring injury (it was later diagnosed as a muscle tear) and his mobility was seriously restricted. He played on against a top of the line Ferrer, who took it to Nadal every step of the way. Even a healthy Nadal would have been required to work exceedingly hard to beat Ferrer, but his handicap was severe. At one changeover, the gracious Spaniard was reduced to tears because this was one of those rare occasions when he knew there was no way out. And yet, when it was over, he refused to harp on the injury and only heaped praise on Ferrer; that was a display of class and character befitting of the man.

While it was saddening to see Nadal bow out on “Australia Day” with an injury (just as he did on the same occasion in the same round a year ago against Murray), there were a number of storylines that were decidedly more upbeat. Ferrer followed up on his victory over Nadal by pushing Murray to the hilt, and the Spaniard even had a set point for a two sets to love lead before Murray stymied him with a bristling first serve down the T and went on to win in four sets. The 28-year-old Spaniard finished 2007 at No. 4 in the world but he is a better player now, much bolder in his thinking, more aggressive from all parts of the court, better able to assert himself instead of always relying on counter-attacking.

Dolgopolov was a revelation in many ways. The 22-year-old won a tumultuous match from No. 4 seed Robin Soderling with some extraordinary shot making, recouping from a set and a break down to prevail in five sets. The Swede lost his early, big hitting rhythm and was at a loss to figure out how to keep Dolgopolov from stinging him time and again with sparkling returns and unexpected winners during the rallies. Soderling lost his big serve nine times in that pendulum swinging clash. Dolgopolov then took on Murray in the quarters, and played an impressive match. He came from 1-4 and break point down before losing the opening set to the No. 5 seed 7-5. Dolgopolov has a very fast service action with a low toss. He can be tough to read, but Murray adjusted, taking away the wide serve in both the deuce and ad courts by moving over to cut off the angle. Murray took the second set easily and went up a break in the third before Dolgopolov made another run at him to extend the match into a fourth set. But Dolgopolov had spent most of his emotional capitol, and Murray raced to a 4-0 fourth set lead, coming through 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3. Dolgopolov is vulnerable to high balls on both sides. He can hit some rough patches and miss some routine shots, but his strong showing in Australia was no accident.

The other standout player in the men’s draw was clearly the Canadian upstart Milos Raonic. He cut down Mikhail Youzhny in four sets and then took the first set off Ferrer before losing to the Spaniard in the round of 16. But Raonic is a tremendous prospect. He attacks forcefully and persistently, volleys with force and panache off both sides, and is a big server. He will be fascinating to follow for the rest of the year; however unpredictable his results may be, he will make a lot of leading players uncomfortable with his ultra aggressive style and his fearless brand of attack. How about a quick nod in the direction of the 18-year-old Australian Bernard Tomic? This quietly cocky player got to the third round, played a good match against Nadal, and signaled that he is the future of Australian men’s tennis.

Before we get back to Clijsters, space must be reserved for the history making match between Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova. The latter stages of this marathon match were nothing short of stupendous on both sides of the net. Here was the two-time major champion Kuznetsova facing the 2010 Roland Garros victor Schiavone, and what a stirring performance they put on! The first two sets were not out of the ordinary, but the final set featured both players at their best. Let’s pick it up with Schiavone serving at 7-8 in the third and final set. The demonstrative Italian fell behind 0-40, triple match point. She swung a terrific first serve wide in the deuce court, and the Russian erred on the return. At 15-40, Schiavone put in another first serve and then ripped an inside-out forehand winner. Two match points had been saved by the Italian, but she faced another. Kuznetsova had Schiavone in serious jeopardy but the Italian somehow escaped, as Kuznetsova pressed on a two-hander and drove it long.

Schiavone held on for 8-8. Now Kuznetsova trailed 0-40 at 8-8 but she collected five points in a row and held with a well executed backhand winner down the line. Schiavone served to stay in the match again at 8-9, and here she erased three more match points. Schiavone saved the first with another unstoppable slice serve wide in the deuce court, the second with a scorching inside-out forehand that was too good, and then erased the third with astounding persistence. Kuznetsova approached but was forced to retreat to the backcourt by an excellent sliced backhand lob from the Italian. The Russian tried to come forward again later in the point but her backhand approach floated long.

Improbably, Schiavone was at 9-9. Altogether, she had saved six match points. She broke Kuznetsova for 10-9, went to 30-0 in the following game, and was two points from victory. But Kuznetsova went to work boldly with her heavy forehand and broke back for 10-10. Schiavone retaliated quickly, broke for 11-10, but could not serve it out. Kuznetsova held on for 12-11 and moved within two points of victory again, but Schiavone fended her off. Until 14-14, both players held, but then Kuznetsova was broken again as both players challenged each other at the net. Schiavone lunged for a forehand volley winner that she punched past Kuznetsova, and surged to 15-14 with that startling play. Down 0-30 in the final game, Schiavone came through after Kuznetsova saved two match points. Schiavone had triumphed in the longest women’s match ever at a major, winning 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 in four hours and 44 minutes.

This was much more than a marathon match, as was the case with the eleven hour, 5 minute battle between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year. Schiavone and Kuznetsova produced scintillating tennis. This was a great match because it was about more than the numbers. It was a sparkling encounter between two women who were playing spirited all court tennis, and played it with everything they had. This was a spectator’s match for those who love the sport and appreciate versatile and crafty shot making.

In any case, Schiavone returned two days later and put up surprising and admirable resistance before losing to top seeded Caroline Wozniacki. Schiavone led by a set and 3-1 before she lost in three tough sets. That set the stage for Wozniacki to take on Li Na in the semifinals. Wozniacki should have been a straight set winner in her meeting with Li, but she choked in the latter stages of the second set when a comfortable victory was well within reach. Wozniacki took the first set 6-3 and led 4-2 and 0-30 on Li’s serve in the second set. She wasted that chance, but then went ahead 40-0 on her own serve at 4-3. Once more, Wozniacki succumbed to nerves and was broken.

Yet she managed to break right back, and then served for the match at 5-4 in that second set. The top seed got to match point but Li laced a forehand down the line that the 20-year-old Dane could not counter. Li had been the aggressor from the outset, but was missing with her flat forehand alarmingly often over the first set-and-a-half. But she found her range to close out the second set, and then withstood one last surge from Wozniacki in the third to record a 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory. Once more, Wozniacki was justifiably criticized for her excessive caution off the ground. She had played nearly well enough to win but did not have the punch in her game to get across the finish line. Wozniacki has believed until now that her defense—the best in the women’s game—has been her largest strength and she has been reluctant to alter her match playing ways. She needs to rethink that philosophy now, or her dream to win a first major will not become a reality. She can afford to take more risks without tearing into the fabric of her consistency. It is high time for her to do just that.

Be that as it may, Li Na was a worthy finalist, and she played an impressive first set against Clijsters.  After Clijsters rolled to 2-0 without losing a point and then held a game point for 3-0, Li boldly and methodically grabbed six of the next seven games to take the opening set. Li was ahead 3-2 on serve in the second set, but Clijsters had the upper hand the rest of the way and prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. Once Clijsters turned the contest away from a slugfest and began employing changes of pace and tactical variations, she was in control of her own destiny. Li self destructed frequently at the end, but her appearance in the final was an enormous boost for Chinese tennis, and her own aspirations.

Clijsters has been remarkably productive and driven since her comeback in the summer of 2009. She has been victorious in three of her last five appearances at the majors since that time, and now has won four consecutive finals at the Grand Slam championships after losing the first four she played. With seven times major champion Justine Henin apparently retiring for good now after losing to Kuznetsova in the third round, Clijsters just might catch her countrywoman as she chases more crowns at the biggest venues. She has the adaptability in her game to win on any surface, so I would not put it beyond Clijsters to complete a career Grand Slam. To do that, she needs to garner the French Open and Wimbledon crowns; twice in her career she has made it to the final of Roland Garros, and she has gone to the semifinals of Wimbledon twice.

As for Djokovic, he has much to look forward to as well. At the moment, he just might be the second best clay court player in the world behind Nadal, and he has twice been to the semifinals of Roland Garros. He also has been in two Wimbledon semifinals and two U.S. Open finals. So there is no reason he should not be in the thick of things at every major for the rest of this year, and well beyond. He turns 24 in May, and seems to be moving right smack into the middle of his prime. If he can remain as composed as he was in Melbourne, if he can avoid some of the histrionics that plagued him in the past, if he can keep channeling his energy toward making the most of his chances at the biggest tournaments, then Novak Djokovic is going to win at least two or three more Grand Slam titles before his career concludes.

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