Monday January 30th, 2012

New No. 1 Victoria Azarenka broke through while Novak Djokovic continued his dominance. (EPA)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Novak Djokovic remains in beast mode. Victoria Azarenka announces her arrival on the big stage. Maria Sharapova continues to come up a bit short. Roger Federer's Rafa problem persists. And the Americans are still waiting for a hero.

Those are just a few of the takeaways from the Australian Open. Let's have a closer look at the first Grand Slam tournament of the year with some grades:

Champions and No. 1s

Novak Djokovic: A-plus. Djokovic's reputation as a player of questionable fitness and, yes, heart, has been well-documented. But after his record five-hour, 53-minute performance in the final, which came a mere two days after a four-hour, 50-minute battle in the semifinals, I think it's time we put all those old notes in the circular file.

In the past, when Djokovic has mounted unthinkable comebacks, most notably his two five-set rallies from match points down against Roger Federer at the U.S. Open, he has done so less by grinding down his opponent and more by having the courage (or stupidity, depending on whom you ask) to go for his biggest shots in the tightest of moments and leave the rest up to the fate.

There was no such thing against Rafael Nadal on Sunday. Djokovic trailed 2-4 in the fifth set and his engine was sputtering. Instead of trying to hit his way out of a jam, he knuckled down and fought to physically, mentally and tactically stay in each point in hopes that the match would break back his way. It did, thanks in part to a key backhand miss from Nadal, and Djokovic matched the Spaniard's competitiveness and grit the rest of the way.

Just when we thought the book had been written on Djokovic, he unveils a new chapter. We learned a lot about the 24-year-old Serb during the weekend, but I suspect he learned a heck of a lot more.

Victoria Azarenka: A. Azarenka supplanted Caroline Wozniacki as the WTA Tour's No. 1 player by trouncing Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the final. Credit Azarenka for settling her nerves after a shaky start to stand toe-to-toe with Sharapova and make the most of her first appearance in a major final. She bullied the Russian with her steady hitting, absorbing everything Sharapova threw at her.

And lest anyone think Azarenka had an easy road to the title, let's not forget her heady three-set win over Kim Clijsters in the semifinals. I kept waiting for the moment and the stakes to get to the 22-year-old Azarenka, but she played like a veteran. Vika the Veteran. Who knew?


Rafael Nadal: A-minus. Nadal showed that he has made progress in trying to figure out Djokovic, who has won seven consecutive meetings. The world No. 2 leaves Melbourne Park knowing that his tactics, on the whole, were the right ones. He knows now that he can serve effectively against Djokovic (hello, body serve, nice to meet you) and that he can succeed by asserting himself more quickly in the rallies. Just as important, Nadal said his mind was right.

"I didn’t have mental problems against him," Nadal said. "I had, in 2011, all these mental problems.  I competed [Sunday] with normal conditions against him, so that’s another positive thing."

Maria Sharapova was overmatched in the final against Victoria Azarenka (Icon SMI)

Maria Sharapova: B. Sharapova, for her second straight Grand Slam championship match, came in with good form only to get manhandled by an upstart who was playing her first major final. The 24-year-old did well to avenge her Wimbledon loss to Petra Kvitova in the semifinals here, but against the consistency from Azarenka, Sharapova had no answers. Fighting for the top ranking and her first Slam title in four years, Sharapova didn't even look like she belonged during an 82-minute drubbing.

Still, Sharapova, now ranked third behind Azarenka and Kvitova, remained upbeat after a humiliating loss. Sharapova did get all the way to the final despite not playing any tune-up matches as she returned from an ankle injury.

"It's frustrating, but I have a pretty good head on my shoulders in terms of having a good perspective on sport and life," Sharapova said. "And as hard as it is, and as much as you want to be the champion, there's only one. That's why the feeling is so special when you do achieve that.  That's why the work is so hard and extreme.  That's why the pleasure that you get and the excitement is what you work for, because you know how special it is.

"I don't regret the work that I put in at all.  Getting to [this] stage is great for me, especially not having played matches for three months.  I honestly didn't know what to expect health‑wise and game‑wise."

Odd men out

Roger Federer: B-minus. His form was exemplary through five rounds, punctuated by his dismantling of Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals. But the Swiss fell to 2-8 against Nadal in Grand Slam events with his semifinal loss -- a statistic that Federer downplayed.

"I respect it.  I think he's doing great against me.  It is what it is," Federer said. "At the end I care about my titles, if I'm happy or not as a person. Head-to-heads, for me, are not the most important. If I beat Andre [Agassi] 10 times in a row or Lleyton [Hewitt] many times in a row, at the end of the day, I don't care. I remember the matches on that given day, that I played well against them or not, and I don't remember the head-to-head that much. All I know is that we've played many times, and it either comes my way or his way. Rallies have gone a little bit more his way, obviously."

Andy Murray: B-plus. New coach, new attitude, better result against Djokovic, who crushed Murray in last year's Australian Open final but barely edged him in the semifinals this year. The Scot was one break point away from serving for the match in the fifth set. He was aggressive and relatively calm. The increased willingness to punch, rather than counterpunch, will serve him well. Ivan Lendl's charge made progress here.

More grades

Kim Clijsters: B. Clijsters came back from match points down on a bum ankle to beat Li Na in the fourth round and followed that up by defeating No. 1 Wozniacki in straight sets. And yet, I still think she had a subpar tournament. When you're a part-time player whose A-game is better than almost everyone else's, the expectations are high, if not unfairly cruel. Azarenka played well in their semifinal, but my sense walking out of that match was that Clijsters lost rather than Azarenka won. That's not particularly relevant at the end of the day, but Clijsters had a tremendous opportunity to defend her title. She just couldn't find her best when it counted.

The Americans: D-plus. Notwithstanding Taylor Townsend's run to the girls' singles and doubles titles and Bethanie Mattek-Sands' mixed doubles win, this was a forgettable fortnight for Team America. The Americans were hit with hard luck in injuries (Andy Roddick) and difficult draws (Ryan Harrison and John Isner), as well as untimely dips in form (Serena Williams and Mardy Fish). It's a tough time for U.S. tennis, as the old guard is, well, getting older, and the young guard needs time to develop (Sloane Stephens, 18, again demonstrated great promise in a losing effort, falling to two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in a tight second-round match). For now, the positives are hard to come by.

The Aussies: B-minus. The Aussies owned the first week, both in headlines (man, you Aussies are awfully easy to excite) and in form. Heck, even injury-plagued wild card Casey Dellacqua reached the second round, just the third time she's done that in nine appearances. Bernard Tomic and Lleyton Hewitt made everyone forget about Sam Stosur's first-round loss and held court on Rod Laver Arena night after night, making those incessant "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!" cheers a little more relevant than they have been in the past. By the end of the tournament the world was back on its axis, with Hewitt in the Channel 7 commentary booth and Tomic in a tiff with local police. But those early rounds were fun.

Kim Sears (left) and Jelena Ristic were fired up watching their boyfriends. (Getty Images; Reuters)

The WAGs: B-plus: If you ever want to know how much these matches mean to the top men, just look at their significant others. Djokovic's girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, was living and dying with every point. Kim Sears, Murray's normally calm companion, was fist-pumping and face-palming. Even Mirka Federer was in fine form, setting aside her gum and BlackBerry and showing a strained look of concern as her hubby took on Nadal. And then there was the introduction of a new WAG, Tomic's girlfriend Donay Meijer, whose face was all over the Aussie tabloids faster than Tomic can rev the engine in his orange BMW M3.

The officiating: F. Let's not pretend that being an official is easy. We can all gripe, but we never sit in that chair or monitor that line to know how difficult it can be, in that moment, to get a call right. But I'm reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, Wet Hot American Summer, where a kid at summer camp informs a lifeguard that he can't find his swimming buddy. Andy the lifeguard, played by Paul Rudd, dismisses his concern. "It's your job to make sure kids don't drown!" the kid responds. I feel like the kid in this scenario. It's the officials' job to get these calls right. From David Nalbandian's disallowed challenge, to a failure to keep the right score in the Ana Ivanovic-Vania King match, to the numerous missed line calls, this tournament was an officiating embarrassment.

Caroline Wozniacki: C-minus. Granted, she had the reputation of a paper No. 1, but much like her quiet loss to Serena Williams at last year's U.S. Open, Wozniacki was outclassed by Clijsters. Facing an opponent who plays a similar style (I use "similar" very loosely here), Wozniacki looked a few significant notches inferior in every facet of her game.

David Ferrer: C. The world No. 5, unfortunately, has become the poster child for the gap that exists between the top four and the rest of the field.

Juan Martin del Potro: B. It's hard to criticize Del Potro's run. He dropped only one set on his way to the quarterfinals, where he ran into a surgically precise Federer. And yet, even in that match, he had his chances. A positive start to the year for the Argentine, who is back in the top 10 for the first time since September 2010.

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