Monday February 1st, 2010

Cleaning out the Australian Open notebook, a "G Moment" if ever there were one...

• Your 2010 Australian Open winner Roger Federer takes Major No. 16 with a gem of a performance in the final. As we discussed yesterday -- with Rafael Nadal in iffy condition, with his mastery the other contenders in Grand Slams, with his game back at a nose-bleedingly high level -- is it so far-fetched to speculate that this might be the year Federer wins all four majors?

Serena Williams wins Grand Slam No.12 and moves a step closer to Evert-Graf-Navratilova-ville. "Refuse to lose," is dusty sports cliché. But how better to describe what she does?

Andy Murray was beaten by the better player in Sunday's final. To what extent does he leave Melbourne satisfied to have reached another major final? To what extent does he leave with his confidence punctured after losing the final in straight sets?

• Welcome back Justine Henin, who looked an awful lot like the "old Justine" in Melbourne -- only more aggressive on the court and more Serena-like off of it. There were still some timing and synchronicity issues, some kinks in need of ironing, starting with the second serve. But when the gears really start working in a next few months -- by French Open time -- look out.

• Can this be right: More Chinese watched the Li Na-Serena match than there are American citizens? Bravo to Serena-Henin and Federer-Murray. But ultimately this may be recalled as the tournament the Chinese players broke through.

• Nice tournament for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, reaching the semis. But what a weirdly hollow performance against Roger Federer, winning just seven games.

• That sound you heard was a mass exhaling when Rafael Nadal revealed that his knee injury wasn't as serious as first thought and he'll only miss four weeks. Still, there's real cause for concern. If Nadal is already banged up this early in the season, it doesn't bode well for an extended stretch of hard-court and clay-court matches. And even if he's back on the court, will he have full trust in his body given the way his knees have betrayed him lately? (Aside: Think this guy couldn't give Federer a run in a popularity contest? Read this.)

• The Williams sisters won the doubles title. It's pretty simple: When they're in the draw, everyone else is playing for second. And if this math is right, Serena is now ranked No. 1 in both singles and doubles.

• The Bryans -- Bob and Mike -- get back on the board at a major, beating their rivals, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, to take the doubles title.

• I thought, given its new Olympic status, the mixed doubles draw would have generated a bit more buzz. Cara Black and Leander Paes won the trophy.

• Federer setting the agenda for the ATP: 1) Get a sponsor. 2) Pare back the schedule. 3) Improve the television deals. Sounds about right. But here's still another appeal to consider the health of the players. Nadal injures his knee. Del Potro's wrist hurts. Soderling's wrist hurts. Roddick's shoulder and knee hurts. Yes, injuries are part of sports. But there are way too many banged up players, especially a month into the season.

Marin Cilic is now in the top 10. And there's no reason to think the ride up is stopping there. Slam after Slam, Patrick McEnroe hammers this point: Part of winning a major is what you do the first 10 days. If Cilic hadn't played back-to-back five-setters, he gives himself a much better chance.

• Hard not to be happy for Nikolay Davydenko, who introduced himself -- at age 28 -- and, wouldn't you know it, is a charming and funny guy. Also, notwithstanding Nadal on clay, I've never seen someone play so well against Federer for a set and a half. Davydenko, of course, couldn't sustain it, losing in four sets. But overall a strong start to 2010.

• I remember talking to a colleague at Wimbledon a few years back about how guarded Li Na had been in an interview, deferring to her translator for even the most innocuous question. In Australia, liberated from the Chinese Federation -- which now siphons "only" 12 percent of her winnings, not 60 -- Li showed off a tattoo, a dyed red hairdo ("my husband not likes") and a charmingly outspoken personality. Compare this with this. Is this a representation of what happens when a society opens up?

Kim Clijsters bows out. Juan Martin del Potro, the winner of the previous major, tweaks his wrist and loses in round four. Nadal, the defending champ, can't finish his match. The takeaway: As much as it's discussed, Federer's streak of reaching the semis of 23 straight majors is still underrated.

• Li Na cracked the top ten. If China could even come close to approximating this success on the men's side, the dimension of the entire sport could change. (Aside: Li and Jheng are both married and in their late 20s. Calling them "the Chinese girls" is maybe not so appropriate.)

Novak Djokovic moved up in the rankings but took a step back, losing to Tsonga when he became ill on account of indigestion. Stuff (or vomit) happens. But Djokovic's track record is cause for concern.

• For such a pleasant tournament, does any sporting event have bigger problems with a few unpleasant/criminal/sociopathic fans than the Australian Open? In recent years, a boy was allegedly molested in a bathroom, rioting Serbs and Croats required pepper-spray, and Greeks and Cypriots have fought. This year, there were Croatian neo-Nazis, a sexual assault during an Andy Murray practice session, and anti-racist protestors wearing mock KKK regalia. And there was still another case of a jackass spectator managing to storm the court, this time to shake Cilic's hand. Presumably related, this is only tennis event I know where leaflets are distributed detailing the fine for public drunkenness. (It's $13,000 by the way.) Who knew the Aussie fans felt so strongly about Tiger Woods?

• If one player deserves a rest, it's Yanina Wickmayer. Apart from being on the Jelena Jankovic/ Caroline Wozniacki (over-)playing schedule, she had to deal with a stressful suspension and appeal. She's an impressive player with an impressive game, but after losing to Henin in round four, she earned a week at Canyon Ranch.

• One the stranger results we've seen in a long time: Nadia Petrova's absolute destruction of Clijsters in round three. Keep in mind that two weeks earlier Petrova lost to Henin, who lost to Clijsters. Stranger, too, was Clijsters' reaction afterward, lacking as it did in her customary grace. The conspiracy theories were flying, but I think you just chalk this up to the unpredictability of sports. Sometimes you return from motherhood and win the U.S. Open. Sometimes you go out there and lay an egg. That's one reason we watch.

Taylor Dent has battled injury for most of his career. He risked another one when he returned home. Asked by ESPN's (quite excellent) Chris McKendry about possibly missing the birth of his first child, Dent replied: "There's a part of me that's glad I'm not gonna be there, that's for sure! I don't want to see that!" Dent, however, made it home on time for the birth of his son and -- wait for it -- Tweeted the experience.

• Some of you roasted me for this, but I tried to stay away from the ridiculous "underwear controversy." Venus deserves better. Say this: If there's one player with too much dignity/modesty for tawdry publicity, it's Venus.

• Is Venus washed up at age 30, as many of you suggested? If she wins another major on a surface other than grass, I'd be surprised. But she played well for four rounds and should have reached the semis. Besides, how can you kick a seven-time Grand Slam champ to the curb so quickly?

Bernard (A)Tomic has undeniable talent. He came within a few points of knocking off Cilic, no small feat. But, man, could this guy use an image consultant -- as well as some distance from a father who's fast becoming a notorious figure on the circuit. When his match with Cilic went past midnight, Tomic became the first teenager in history to complain the adults were keeping him up past his bedtime. Then his dad charged the office of tournament director Craig Tiley and threatened to relocate the kid to Croatia. You'd think Lleyton Hewitt might practice with kid and then pull him aside and ... oh, wait they tried that already? Never mind.

• Trivia: When George Bastl upset Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2002 -- one the great tennis upsets -- who was his coach? Answer: Craig Tiley.

John Isner lived up to his status as the second-best American, rolling to the fourth round before running into Andy Murray. The top 20 ought to be within his sights, especially given that he'll be doing less defending than the Arizona Cardinals secondary for the next few months.

• Ran into Ricky Hatton who is "on holiday" in Australia and popped in to watch Murray. Say, Ricky, what do you make of the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao debacle? "I hope it comes off. It's a shame what happened. It would be a mouth-watering fight. The rumors are how Manny, all of a sudden, got very strong and powerful and big. The rumors in boxing, that's what they are. And he doesn't look good when he say, 'No, I'm not going to do certain tests.' It doesn't look good does it? Let's put it that way." Note to self: Cover more boxing.

Alisa Kleybanova moves up a ranking point for each pound she loses. Lots of game but that physique will keep her from fulfilling her potential.

• The ITF meted out 17 fines for code violations, a relatively low number. The big culprit was the heavily inked-up Austrian Daniel Koellerer, who was fined three times for a total of $4,000. Watch this guy if you can. He is, in a word, intense.

• Hard to believe that a year ago, with on-court temperatures exceeding 120 degrees, the ice vest was the trendy fashion accessory in Melbourne. You wonder how many players thought to themselves: "If I knew I'd be playing in 60-degree weather every day, I would have enjoyed my scant offseason a bit more!"

• We still say the impromptu "Hit for Haiti" was one of the cooler demonstrations in recent memory. They aired the full show on television here and it's terrifically entertaining. One snapshot: Nadal executes a slam dunk over then chest-bumps his partner, Djokovic, so hard that his headset snaps. Someone needs to sell this as a video. You can still contribute here.

Tiago Fernandes of Brazil wins the boys' title beating Sean Berman of (kind of, sort of) Australia. Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic won the girls' title, beating Britain's Laura Robson. I have seen the future of men's tennis, though, and his name is Gianni Mina.

• And speaking of the juniors, the top three Americans in the ITF rankings -- including Mitchell Frank, who made the round of 16 in the boys draw -- train not in Florida or California but in Maryland, specifically at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park.

• Unconfirmed rumor: In the spirit of unity, several parties considered the lineswoman involved in Serena-gate to be a part of the "Hit for Haiti" festivities. She was here, by the way, back working matches (and, understandably I suppose, refusing interview requests).

Ana Ivanovic has replaced Elena Dementieva for "shakiest serve" honors. To borrow from John McEnroe: She has excellent footwork -- on her toss.

• Nice tournament for Donald Young, who qualified and won a round. Realistically, he's unlikely ever to compete for Slams. But the kid could have a nice top 50 career.

• New reality TV show idea: coach swap. Vera Zvonareva split with Sam Sumyk and is now officially being coached by Antonio Van Grichen. Victoria Azarenka was coached by Van Grichen and is now with Sumyk. Azarenka beat Zvonareva in three sets in the fourth round.

• There are lucky losers, but consider the luck of Lukasz Kubot. Ranked 82nd, he won his first match against Robby Ginepri. He then took out unknown Santiago Giraldo in round two. His third-round opponent, Mikhail Youzhny, withdrew with a wrist injury. Suddenly he's won just six sets of tennis against marginal opponents but is in the fourth round of a major. There, he got tuned by Djokovic, but still walked away with $80,000 or so.

Fabrice Santoro, 37, has taken "unretirement" to a new extreme, returning before he even missed a tournament. Given that he's a shoo-in to get a wild card, who'd be surprised if he shows up at the French Open?

• Pity the chair umpire assigned to work the doubles match between Wozniaki/Sally Peers and Wozniak/Shahar Peer.

• Trivia: Which former White House press secretary has been doing media consulting work for the WTA Tour? Answer: Ari Fleischer.

• Listening to the newly-engaged Jim Courier on Australian television makes one wish he worked more often in the U.S. Good insight without the clichés. It was never crunch time, hammer time, prime time or closing time. (Plus, he should be paid double for having to work with Henri Leconte.) And Courier was better still interviewing players as they left the court.

• I suspect most of you saw more of the ESPN's coverage than I did, but I thought it was quite good. Much looser and more free-spirited than it is at the other Slams; which fits the vibe down here. Chris Fowler and Brad Gilbert is starting to remind me of ... Chris Fowler and Lee Corso.

• One Australian commentator noted that Svetlana Kuznetsova "can get a little bit laxadaisy." Remarked a press room wit: "It's some sort of flower that promotes regularity, one imagines."

• With Larry Ellison taking over ownership of the tournament, the ATP All-Star extravaganza, scheduled to be held in conjunction with the Indian Wells BNP Paribas event, has been put on hold.

• This should be a question on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." The Donald Young-Christophe Rochus match was interrupted when.

A) Rochus complained that the reflection from Young's earring was blinding him.

B) A ballboy wet this pants, soiling the court.

C) The umpire mistakenly believed there was a rule prohibiting two players under six feet tall from meeting in the first round of a major.

D) Young became so excited thinking about the iPad that he began hyperventilating.

Answer, B: "The ball kid peed on himself. It was unfortunate," Young said. "It took a while to replace him. Then they had to put the sawdust down, or whatever you put down when somebody throws up. Then they had to use the blower (to dry the court) but the blower had no gas in it, so that took even more time."

• The Williams sisters will not be playing Fed Cup. The sisters' explanation for their absence: The competition coincides with their "mandatory" NFL owners meetings. Whew, good thing the meetings weren't held a week earlier or, presumably, they would have missed this tournament.

• In other shocking news, the WTA now officially permits appearance fees. Which is great because now -- finally -- players can be compensated simply for committing to a tournament and earning income in addition to prize money. On a related note, fire is now officially hot. Water is officially wet and ...

• They're putting a roof over Margaret Court Arena in time for next year's event. For those scoring at home: Australian Open, three covered courts. U.S. Open; zero.

• We see it every year and we'll say it again. If there's a more spirited, affordable, and convenient big-time sporting event, we haven't been to it.

Have a good week everyone!

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