This has been quite a tournament for the ethics of motivation. While a number of men have departed the Australian Open with their dignity in tatters, Venus Williams defined herself as never before.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with a mid-match bailout. The king of passion, Rafael Nadal, retired against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals of last year's Australian with Murray up two sets and 3-0 in the third. Nadal was deeply concerned about a long-standing knee problem, it was flaring up to the point of alarm, and it was just too early in the year for him to risk a major aggravation.
Does anyone even remember that? Nadal has forged such a mighty reputation, it's as if the unfortunate event didn't occur. Some of the retirements in Melbourne, though, will be more difficult to live down.
Murray was just eight points away from a straight-set, first-round victory when his opponent, Karol Beck, decided he'd had enough. "Pulled the ripcord," said a disgusted Brad Gilbert on ESPN. Fellow analyst Darren Cahill was so appalled by Marcos Daniel's vanishing act -- pulling out while down 6-0, 5-0 to Nadal -- he suggested that the tournament withdraw prize money from such players, saying they have no business in a major event at the expense of a healthy "lucky loser."
Gael Monfils might have become the first player in Grand Slam history to feel utterly confident, a victory clearly in sight, while trailing two sets and 4-2. That was his predicament against Thiemo de Bakker, who actually got up 5-2 but could hardly conceal his nervousness and anxiety. The match was turning right then, even as it seemed so close to conclusion. Once the set got away from him, De Bakker curled up in an emotional ball and let Monfils simply trample him in the last two sets.
Then there was Janko Tipsarevic, that likeable eccentric who gained plenty of acclaim over the past few months by (a) taking down Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open and (b) helping Serbia defeat France in the Davis Cup final. Clever, mysterious, gutsy and bearded, often dressed in black, Tipsarevic strikes people as a particularly difficult opponent and the Davis Cup episode seemed to signal a new level in his play.
In the fourth set of his second-round match against Fernando Verdasco, Tipsarevic had three match points on his serve, none of which worked out too well. He seemed distraught that he'd choked them away. It went into a tiebreaker, which Verdasco swept in a 7-0 tempest, and as a discouraged Tipsarevic crumbled in a swirl of desultory effort, Verdasco ran away with the fifth, 6-0.
Nobody quite knew what to make of David Nalbandian, one of the tour's most noted grinders, when he retired against 95th-ranked Ricardas Berankis. He was clearly worn down by a victory lasting nearly five hours against Lleyton Hewitt, but Nalbandian has made a career out of endurance tests. He claimed to be dizzy as he walked off the court in the third set, but some weren't so sure. Steve Tignor, whose high-quality writing graces the pages of Tennis.com, felt that Nalbandian's retirement was "due to annoyance, it seemed, as much as anything else."
Nobody likes to see a player give up in a tennis match, particularly at a major. It's not like a team-sport player limping to the sidelines and letting a substitute take over. Tennis exposes every glimpse of a player's strength and vulnerability. If there's no sign of a major injury -- and that was the case in all the examples listed above -- it makes the fans feel cheated. It's also an insult to the opponent, deprived of finishing off a convincing victory in style. People still lament Justine Henin's dubious exit from the 2006 Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo, who badly needed that match-point glory and harbored deep resentment toward Henin for months.
All of which brings us to Venus, who found herself in a titanic second-round struggle against Sandra Zahlavova. It should be mentioned that from an audio standpoint, this was a godawful affair, two players shrieking for effect as loud as they could. You'd think a player of Venus' stature would be past this nonsense, trying to intimidate someone with horror-film noise after playing in complete silence for several games (Serena, the younger sister, proved to be a very quick study). And it was inexcusable for Zahlavova to respond in kind. There were many stretches, including a sublime 17-shot point in the second set, in which neither player made a sound. Zahlovova basically seemed to be howling as a response, as if to tell Venus, "You think that's loud? Get a load of this caterwauling."
Unable to stand it, I had the TV volume turned down to a minimum when Venus made a distinctly different noise -- one of excruciating pain. She'd strained her right hip flexor and said later it was "the most acute injury I've ever had." After a lengthy treatment, she returned to the court, composed herself and scored a tremendously self-satisfying win without the benefit of her all-court range.
By the time Venus took the court for her third-round match against Andrea Petkovic, she knew her tournament was over. The pain had only intensified when she attempted to run, and she lasted only seven points before surrender. It was the first time in 258 career Grand Slam matches that she had retired, a number that speaks to class, professionalism, and respect for the sport. One can only hope this injury isn't a portent for 2011, and that we haven't seen the last of Venus on the majors' grand stage.
NOTES: Sounds as if every tennis fan in Melbourne is anticipating Nadal's third-round match against Bernard Tomic, the 18-year-old future of Australian men's tennis. To say the least, this talented Aussie won't remind anyone of Laver, Rosewall or Newcombe. He was born in Germany to Croatian parents, who moved to Australia when he was a child. He sounds thoroughly Australian when he speaks, but his game comes from . . . who knows, some other planet? Wearing the comically loud sunglasses of a rowdy snowboarder, Tomic is all about touch, slice, deception and a knack for irritating everyone he plays. The Aussie writers consider him a bit of a brat, with a pain-in-the-butt father who has long been at odds with the country's tennis hierarchy. The kid once said he doesn't like to play night matches because he tends to turn in early. Well, now he's got Nadal at night, and he made a number of comments suggesting he can win. "My strength," he says, "is that I can find players' weaknesses really quickly." If he finds something in Nadal's game, and makes something of it, he'll make some earth-shaking news Down Under . . . Todd Woodbridge picked the wrong person (Rennae Stubbs) to send a text suggesting that Kim Clijsters might be pregnant. Stubbs, as Richard Evans wrote on FOXSports.com, "is not the sort of person who keeps much to herself." It was a potentially awkward scene when Woodbridge interviewed Clijsters on court, but it's amazing what Clijsters pulled off. First, she good-naturedly busted Woodbridge for such a lame observation. Then she took him off the hook with her laughter and oh-what-the-hell remarks. Brilliant. . . . With Henin out, having lost to the mentally rejuvenated Svetlana Kuznetsova (no gag jobs this time), Clijsters has to feel good about winning the tournament . . . Good show by John Isner after appearing to be outclassed by Radek Stepanek in the first set. Looking to break with a 5-4 lead in the second, Isner went up 15-0 by winning a point-blank exchange of volleys -- long considered his weakness. At 30-all, he came in behind a solid cross-court forehand and finished it off with a crisp backhand volley, setting up a break point won. Now even at a set apiece, his confidence restored, Isner never looked back. "I should hit and come in more, and I do like my forehand a lot," Isner said, "and sometimes I fall in love with it too much."
The latest top player out of Serbia, Bojana Jovanovski, may have lost the battle of nerves to Vera Zvonareva, but wow, can this 19-year-old lash bullets down the line -- from both wings. Already, she has some of the best raw power on tour . . . Signpost in the age of maturity: Jovanovski is the youngest player in the WTA's top 100 . . . When Novak Djokovic played Ivan Dodig, there was more than the usual Serbia-vs.-Croatia intrigue. Dodig has two backhands -- one-handed slice, two-handed flat -- that he uses with complete confidence at any time, often alternating them within a point. Too bad more players don't craft such an extension of their repertoire . . . Note to Agnieszka Radwanska: It wasn't that much of a shocker when you cranked up a shot and your racket split clean in half. That can happen if you keep pounding it on the court in anger . . . Good for Wozniacki: With a number of media types claiming her press conferences were dull, stilted and reflecting the pressure of being No. 1, she disarmed everyone after beating Dominika Cibulikova in the third round, preparing a list of questions and cheerfully asking them of herself. "A bit different," she said of the session. "A bit more fun." . . . Coco Vandeweghe is a pretty fair athlete from a family of noted sportsmen, but if she becomes an elite player, I'll eat a can of Wilsons . . . Speaking of which: All right, we get it, the American women had a bad tournament. Over the course of the first two days, a 14-woman U.S. contingent was down to two (Venus and Vania King, who then lost to Wozniacki). But can't we at least get a glimpse of some of these players? We know about Oudin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and 17-year-old Laura Davis got some exposure by playing Samantha Stosur in the first round, but ESPN should have made an effort to show the likes of Christina McHale, Alison Riske, Irina Falconi and Jamie Hampton in action, dissecting their games, recent performances and their prospects for the future. Attach a bit of visual to the names . . . The sensation of last year's U.S. Open, Beatrice Capra, is currently ranked No. 224 and did not qualify for Melbourne.
Lastly, that was one dreadful outfit Venus fashioned in the second round. Just a ghastly assortment of terrible ideas. She says it was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and the notion of surprise, "because when Alice goes down the rabbit hole, she finds all these things that are so surprising." Actually, I was thinking more of "The Caucus Race" lyrics:
Forward, backward, inward, outwardStarted it tomorrowBut will finish yesterday
Yes, that's it exactly.