Wednesday January 25th, 2012

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Pity David Ferrer. He is an exceptional tennis player, an industrious grinder who strips everything he can from his talent. But he is No. 5 in the ATP rankings and, right now, that's the equivalent of being the best surfer in Iowa.

Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are the Fab Four of tennis. They are the four-man AP class; everyone else is the general student body. They are the Alps; the others are bluffs.

As one of the Aussie TV commentators put it, "It's almost like there are two separate tours." One of the four has won every major, save one, over the last seven years dating to the 2005 Australian Open -- all the more remarkable given that Murray has yet to get on the board. No player outside the quartet has played in a Grand Slam final over the last 18 months (Nadal beat Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon '10). For the second straight major, each of them has made the semifinals.

Federer and Nadal did their parts on Tuesday, setting up the latest installment in their textured rivalry. Their matches were perfect representations of the two: Federer dazzling with peerless skills, Nadal persevering with peerless battling.

On Wednesday. the other two held up their end of the bargain. Blessed by the draw gods this tournament, Murray outclassed young Kei Nishikori of Japan 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. Djokovic elevated his game when he needed to and overcame a breathing issue to battle past Ferrer 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-1.

"Today I found it very difficult after a long time to breathe because I felt the whole day my nose was closed a little bit. I just wasn't able to get enough oxygen," Djokovic said, adding that he doesn't think it'll be an issue going forward. "I'm not concerned about that at all."

It is Djokovic, of course, who is the defending champion, the top-ranked player and dominant force in the game over the last 12 months. Ironically, he's gotten the least attention here. After a two-year drought, Federer is playing as well as ever, treating his matches more as exhibitions than competitive exercises. Nadal, a former winner here, has a rock-'em-sock-'em style that echoes with the locals, and his win over Berdych on Tuesday night stands as the match of the tournament. Murray is thriving in his first big event with his new coach, Ivan Lendl.

As for Djokovic, there's no obvious storyline, no "see-that-mate?" shotmaking, no controversy, no signature matches. He's simply doing what he did last year, mowing down the field with weakness-free tennis. In Wednesday's match, he had answers for all of the various questions posed by Ferrer. He exposed the vast gulf between a No. 1 and a No. 5, winning anything resembling a big point, and even Ferrer admitted that the gap seems impossible to close.

"I think the top four, it's another level," said Ferrer, who has been ranked No. 5 or 6 for all but two weeks in the last 12 months.

Apart from the consistency and reliability, the virtue of the Big Four is this: No matter what happens in the last two rounds, it's significant. Can Murray break through? Can Nadal or Federer beat (or not beat) his longtime rival -- and still have enough in reserve to win two days later? Can Djokovic consolidate his dominance? We'll see which of the AP students aces the final.

And then we'll see again at the French Open.

Surely you jest? Yes, Serena Williams may not be invincible, but that was never on the menu anyway. I think the number of "part-time" Slams she has accumulated speaks for itself. Everyone knows the answer to whether or not she will go "Wozy" on us and compete every week: "Ain't gonna happen." For those of us who admire her game and accomplishments, we'll stick around and see if your opinion holds water or not. I say, your wish regarding Serena's demise may be premature. -- Sonny, Atlanta

• Because we're all friends, I have to confess: Either that wasn't a well executed column or the partisan, polarized Serena opinions have officially sailed out of control. One minute I'd get an email blasting me for being a Williams apologist, delusional to think she's still capable of winning. The next minute I was getting accused of Serena bashing. (Special prize to Sandy of McLean, Va., for being the first to play the race card.)

My point was simply this: There was a time when Williams could go months without playing a match, parachute into a major, play herself into shape and leave with a shiny trophy. That's no longer the case. She's older. Other players are better. In part because it's been 18 months since her last hurrah, her aura isn't what it once was. (And this doesn't just mean more match play; one of Serena's recent hitting partners expressed to me surprise by how little moving she does when she practices.)

If Williams wants to win Slams again -- and we should all sincerely hope she does -- she needs wholehearted commitment. That she was measured and sensible about her disappointing Australian Open suggests that she knows this. That's all.

You had a question from someone asking how he could watch the Australian Open without ESPN. I hope you realize that the Australian Open site offers free LIVE streaming on SIX courts to most countries, bar Australia, Europe, New Zealand and Japan. This means that viewers in America can have high-definition streaming absolutely free. On another note, this is an absolutely fantastic move by the Australian Open, which I have always considered the most evolved Slam. Good luck that this happens for the U.S. Open, which is always the last Slam to enter into any action when the other three have already been there, done that. -- Jason, Singapore

• I've tossed in the towel on listings. I'll write: "Now airing on Channel XYZ..." and the response is, "Yeah, but you need to have Fios, a ISDN line and a bag a cilantro-and-lime Pop Chips in your left hand for that to work." I noted the live streaming of the Doha event a few weeks back, but a lot of you claimed you were barred. If someone can create a reader-friendly chart that enumerates what coverage is available and under what circumstances, you would have the eternal gratitude of the Republic of Tennis.

What is your take on the officiating with double hits, body shots, etc.? You have stated how the unwritten rule is to let it all play out, things will even out, etc. Yet we have had two very-high profile instances (U.S. Open men's doubles final and the women's doubles match at the Australian Open) that have turned quite ugly over these type of calls. -- Josh, Denver

• I think those are different cases. In one case you're talking about an official making a line call; in another case it's "on you" to make the honorable call. But here's what I don't understand: If replay exists, why not rely on it to ascertain what really happened? If everyone at home can see that Liezel Huber's shot bounced twice or that the ball hit Phil Petzschner -- your eyes don't deceive you, those are indeed six consecutive consonant letters! -- shouldn't the competitors have the same benefit?

Until then, I would encourage players to be truthful. Or, if they're uncertain, concede a replaying of the point. At some level, I realize these are split-second decisions getting made in the heat of battle. But the players who don't take the high road have these lapses of judgment/ethics follow them for years.

I didn't watch the Kim Clijsters-Caroline Wozniacki match, but from her other matches I've watched, I have to disagree with you and say that Wozniacki's backhand is definitely better than her forehand. Other than that, I agree -- Wozniacki lacks the firepower. It's kind of like in the level of Francesca Schiavone's, in my opinion, which is interesting because Schiavone's won a Grand Slam tournament. Hmm... -- Paul, Manila

• Wozniacki had one backhand winner in the match, in the last game. As far as consistency, I'd say her backhand is better. As far as using the stroke to finish off a point, I'd say forehand. Again, I get the criticism, but I feel for Wozniacki. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Thanks for your insightful coverage during this year's AO. Can you please clarify a minor point of tennis etiquette for the pros during warmups. I noticed (Petra Kvitova vs. Sara Errani) that the women have been returning at full pace their opponent's warmup serves. I cannot recall seeing this habit before. The USTA website indicates for rec players: "Generally, you should not return serves during the warmup, unless you ask your opponent for permission." Is this something new and/or appreciated by the server warming up? Thank you. -- Heidi, Ottawa, Ontario

• I think it's an individual thing. I saw Djokovic do this a few years ago and made a big production about how this was an intimidation tactic -- "This is what I'm going to do all night, bub," he seemed to be saying -- and told a friend to watch for this breach of decorum. Then the next match, he did no such thing. The broader moral: For all the tennis rituals and habits and routine some players (starting with Nadal) indulge, I think others do a lot of things unwittingly. Stuff happens. And there's no deeper meaning.

It's time to talk about grade inflation. Sam Stosur got a "C" in your midterm grades. A C?! The reigning U.S. Open champion loses in the first round of her home major? I won just as many matches in the Australian Open as she did, and I've never been to Australia. -- Emma, Cleveland, Ohio

• Really, you should visit. As for Stosur, I had her at a "D" and she successfully grade-grubbed me.

I was shocked to hear Serena Williams even hint she was thinking about picking up Indian Wells on her schedule after her loss at the Australian Open. I, for one, think it's high time she and Venus put the whole "incident" that happened in 2001 to rest by returning there, especially now that their careers appear to be sunsetting. This could be a signature moment for both players, and great for tennis too, if they come back to Indian Wells. Would you mind helping me get this change.org petition out to your readers and get the ball rolling? I think the Williamses would respond if we show them what it would mean to us, and maybe even them. -- Chris, Seattle

• Yes and no. I'll publicize your petition, as I think your sentiment is well-placed and your intentions are honorable. But I wouldn't be inclined to sign. I think you need to respect the sisters' decision, respect that they clearly feel strongly about this, and move on.

Have you mentioned the teen rom-com-ish movie Sixteen Love? IMDB says it will be released on Jan. 20. Saw a "making-of" segment on Tennis Channel, and it looks cute. It made me think about my favorite tennis scenes in movies. The Royal Tenenbaums is up there. You? -- Megan Fernandez, Indianapolis

• Got me. Anyone know anything?

Five observations from Wednesday:

1) Maria Sharapova looked like a potential champion as she was barely tested by Ekaterina Makarova. Afterward, she was not pleased to hear reports that Aggie Radwanska had complained about her grunting. "Isn't she back in Poland already? ... I've heard it a few times over my career," Sharapova said. "You've watched me grow up, you've watched me play tennis. I've been the same over the course of my career. No one important enough has told me to change or do something different. I've answered it many times before. I'm sure I'll answer it many more times ahead. I'm OK with that."

2) Some of these doubles matches that fill sessions and draw fans by happenstance make for great viewing. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva beating Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina 6-4 in the third set was Wednesday's highlight.

3) The WTA anoints a new No. 1 and the grunting issue has clearly reached a tipping point. Surprising that the Tour's CEO is not here.

4) Andy Murray has now reached five consecutive major semis and NINE overall. The pessimist will say it's a failure he's never won. The optimist will say that's admirable consistency.

5) Walked by Tomas Berdych on an outside court. He seemed to be working on his backhand volley.

• Vijay Kalpathi of Houston: OK, adding words to Urban Dictionary seems to be all the rage these days, so here are a few of my tennis-based contributions, inspired by events in this Aussie Open:

"Carolysis": A sudden bout of mental paralysis resulting in complete inability to hit a winner, even when your opponent is a sitting duck (a la dame Caroline). Usage: "According to spectators, Li Na was struck by Carolysis when up 6-2 with 4 match points in hand, and totally flubbed her last match point when Kim was a sitting duck on the other end."

"Lendlophobia": Fear of approaching the net due to mental trauma caused by extreme pain from a previous visit. Usage: "Dude, did you see the Berdman shank all his volleys against Rafa? Looks like Almagro put the Lendlophobia in him real good!!"

"Shazarenka!": A continuous up and down wailing sound, similar to a police siren, when two female grunters are engaged in a tennis rally. The sound results from each player's extended scream overlapping the other's. Usage: "Hide your plants bro!! The Cops are here....yo just chill man! It's just the Shazarenka!! I'm watching some tennis between Maria and Vika."

• The Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic is set for its 23rd showing on Saturday, Oct. 27, and Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Delray Beach Tennis Center in Delray Beach, Fla.

• Are you sitting down? Vera Zvonareva is entering Charleston.

• Richard Hinds on WTA deci-belles.

• An unsolicited tip to all publicists: Put a link to your product/event in the first sentence of your release so the recipient can copy, paste and tweet it. Otherwise, it gets lost.

• Here's a Serena column from Brett Haber.

• Andre Agassi doing his thing.

• Alex Gorbounov of Cary, N.C., has long-lost siblings: Petra Kvitova and Mary Pierce.

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