Report Card: Grading the Aussie Open
The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Here’s our review of the Australian Open.
Stanislas Wawrinka: A-plus. The 28-year-old Swiss relied on an electrifying power game to win his first Grand Slam title and become the first player to defeat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the same major. Yes, Djokovic and Nadal weren't at their best, but how many times have they played a subpar match and come out on top? Wawrinka snapped a 14-match losing streak to Djokovic and a 12-match skid to Nadal in which he had lost all 26 sets. Much like women's champion Li Na, Wawrinka's self-belief carried him to the title and a career-high ranking of No. 3.
Li Na: A-plus. It spoke volumes that Li said this Australian Open title meant more to her than her first major win, the 2011 French Open. Her title in Melbourne capped a difficult two-and-half-year stretch in which she fought to overcome self-doubt and prove that she wasn't a one-Slam wonder. Li had a more favorable draw here than she did at Roland Garros three years ago -- she didn't have to beat a top-20 player to win the Australian Open -- but she displayed her maturity in a 7-6 (3), 6-0 victory over Dominika Cibulkova in the final. She stayed the course in the first set, which could have gone horribly wrong because of her onslaught of unforced errors, and settled down to cruise in the second set. Li charmed everyone with an impromptu victory speech and posed with her trophy with a random smattering of beach goers. She may be the breakthrough champion from the People's Republic of China, but she's also just the people's champion. Flawed, real and honest.
Watch her hilarious winner's speech:
Rafael Nadal: A-minus. It was a spotty two weeks for Nadal, who had up-and-down moments against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov before dominating Roger Federer in the semifinals in his best match of the tournament. A back problem hurt him in the final -- the latest injury to hamper him at the Australian Open -- but credit Nadal for playing through the pain rather than retiring.
Dominika Cibulkova: A-plus. It's easy to forget that the diminutive Cibulkova, 24, is in the same age group as Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki. It seems like she's been on the tour for longer than that, toiling away as one of the WTA's more talented journeywomen. Always prone to letting nerves overcome her, she stood tall (no pun intended) to beat four top-20 players, including No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 6 Radwanska and No. 11 Simona Halep, to become the first player from her small country of Slovakia to make a Grand Slam final.
Roger Federer: A-minus: His high level of play during his semifinal run, which included decisive victories over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray, proved that his game was still there, and now that he's fit again, his confidence is there, too. I'm very intrigued to see how his season plays out. Barring another injury, it definitely won't be a 2013 redux.
Serena Williams: B. Not many players were going to beat Ana Ivanovic the way she was playing when she upset the top-ranked Williams 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the fourth round. Afterward, Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said Serena was struggling with a back injury that nearly led her to withdraw from her third-round match. It's always a tough situation when a top player suffers an injury, loses and then has to explain what happened without coming off as making excuses. I thought Williams handled it perfectly.
Maria Sharapova: B. She battled through ridiculously steamy conditions to beat Karin Knapp 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 in the second round and then, as she should have, blasted the tournament for forcing the players to play in 110-degree heat. Coming into Melbourne, Sharapova had played just six matches since losing in the French Open final last June. So at least it wasn't the shoulder injury that derailed her in Melbourne, where she lost to Cibulkova 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the fourth round and picked up a hip injury along the way. She'll get some time to rest when she joins NBC's coverage of the Sochi Olympics, but that just means she'll be spending minimal time on the court in February. Not ideal.
Victoria Azarenka: B-minus. The two-time defending champion got sliced and diced to death by Radwanska in a 6-1, 5-7, 6-0 loss in the quarterfinals, with Azarenka showing some of the petulance that long dogged her before she ascended to the top of the game in 2012. She's in jeopardy of dropping out of the top two (Li is just 11 points behind her).
Petra Kvitova: D. She fell to No. 88 Luksika Kumkhum in the first round. As Li said, the second Slam is tougher to win than the first. And so we wait once again for this sleeping giant to wake up.
Magnus Norman: A. For all the talk about the celebrity coaching pairings heading into Melbourne, we leave tipping our cap to an overlooked former top player turned coach. Norman, an ex-ATP No. 2, coached Robin Soderling to his shocking win over Nadal at the 2009 French Open, which remains the Spaniard's only loss at Roland Garros in 60 matches, and on Sunday his current charge, Wawrinka, spoiled Nadal's quest to become the first man in the Open era to win all four majors twice.
Novak Djokovic: B. His three-year reign in Melbourne ended with a horribly botched forehand volley:
And with that, his streak of surprising Slam performances continues. The 26-year-old Serb has won one of the last eight majors and none outside Melbourne since 2011.
Ana Ivanovic: A-minus. Her 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 loss to Eugenie Bouchard in the quarterfinals was disappointing, but Ivanovic's run will be remembered for her stunning form in upsetting Williams one round earlier. That was the best match she's played since winning the 2008 French Open and arguably the best match of her career. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.
Eugenie Bouchard: A. The 19-year-old was this year's Sloane Stephens, but where Stephens charmed the crowd with her natural charisma, Bouchard did it with her no-nonsense attitude and gutsy play. Unfazed by her breakout run, Bouchard repeatedly backed herself. No, she wasn't surprised she made the semifinals less than two years after winning junior Wimbledon. No, she doesn't think success has come too quickly. And, yes, she thinks Justin Bieber is awesome. Deal with it.
Agnieszka Radwanska: B. You have to wonder if the crafty Radwanska is built to win seven times over two weeks. She has to work so hard just to win matches that by the time the business end of tournaments rolls around, she's wiped. It happened to her last year at Wimbledon, where she lost to Sabine Lisicki in the semifinals as the highest-seeded player left in the draw. This year she put on a clinic in beating Azarenka, only to fold easily to Cibulkova in the semifinals. Oh, well. At least we'll always have these highlights to look back on.
Tomas Berdych: B-plus. With five straightforward victories, he became the only active man outside the Big Four to reach the semifinals at all four Slams. If he only he had played the final two tiebreakers better in a semifinal loss to Wawrinka.
David Ferrer: C-minus. I just don't get Ferrer. He said at the end of last season that he made a mistake by playing seven straight tournaments and was burned out for the ATP World Tour Finals (where he went 0-3). Then he started this season by playing back-to-back tournaments in Qatar and New Zealand that led him straight into the Australian Open, where he lost to Berdych in the quarterfinals. Oh, and he pushed a line judge and said it was no big deal. He should have been fined.
Gilles Simon: B-plus. On crutches on the Saturday before the tournament because of a sprained ankle, Simon wasn't even sure if he was going to be able to take the court. He decided to give it a go and won two back-to-back five-setters, outlasting Daniel Brands 6-7 (4), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 16-14 in the first round and Marin Cilic 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-2 in the second. That's some effort.
Andy Murray: B. The expectations were pretty low for Murray, who came in with little match play after back surgery in September. But he made it through his easy draw -- he faced just one top-100 player in his first four matches -- to earn a good test against Federer, who beat him 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3. By my eye, he's much closer to being 100 percent fit than I thought he'd be.
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci: B. Lose in the first round of singles, successfully defend their doubles title. Honestly, I think they'll take that swap.
Flavia Pennetta: B-plus. A year ago, she was on the couch recuperating from career-threatening wrist surgery. A year later, she's contesting her second Grand Slam quarterfinal in a row. Not bad for a soon-to-be 32-year-old.
Simona Halep: B-plus. The Romanian made good on her promise to perform better at the Slams this year, making her first quarterfinal before a poor performance against Cibulkova. As a result, she made her top-10 debut on Monday and is well positioned to climb even higher than No. 10 between now and the clay season.
Garbine Muguruza: B. There's lots to like about this big-hitting 20-year-old from Spain who plays her best tennis on hard courts. Her 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki in the third round was a fine display of her easy power.
Sloane Stephens: B. Another Slam, another second-week appearance for Stephens, who recorded comeback wins over Yaroslava Shvedova, Ajla Tomljanovic and Elina Svitolina in the early rounds. She was no match again for Azarenka in the fourth round, though, and that inability to bring her best against the game's elite still eludes her. Stephens is 1-11 against top-20 opponents since beating Williams at last year's Australian Open, and the one win came against an injured Sharapova at the Western & Southern Open in August.
Lucky Losers: A. France's Stephane Robert, ranked No. 119, lost in the final round of qualifying but got into the tournament after Philipp Kohlschreiber withdrew. The 33-year-old made the fourth round without facing a top-60 player (two of his opponents were ranked outside the top 100) and then took a set off Murray in an entertaining 6-1, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-2 loss. He jumped 41 spots, to No. 78, in this week's rankings and will probably be able to get direct entry into the majors. That's a huge swing of luck and a financial game-changer.
On the women's side, Irina Falconi, who was added to the main draw after Jamie Hampton pulled out, made the second round with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Anabel Medina Garrigues.
Roberto Bautista Agut: B-plus. The 25-year-old Spaniard painted lines in his 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 win over Del Potro in the second round, clinching his best result at a Slam. He followed that up with a straight-set win over No. 28 Benoit Paire before losing to Dimitrov.
Donald Young: B. Believe it or not, he was the last American standing, scoring a solid 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 win over No. 25 Andreas Seppi in the second round. He ran out of gas against Kei Nishikori in the third round, but after falling out of the top 200 a year ago, the 24-year-old Young is back up to No. 79.
Grigor Dimitrov: A. His much-anticipated Slam breakthrough finally came. "Showtime" made the second week of a major for the first time, highlighted by a third-round victory in an intragenerational derby with No. 11 Milos Raonic in the third round. The 22-year-old Bulgarian came within one point (and an errant forehand) from taking a two-sets-to-one lead on Nadal in the quarterfinals but lost 3-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (7), 6-2. I liked Dimitrov's tearful reaction to the defeat: He wanted to win, he believed he could win and he was heartbroken to lose. That's the hunger you want to see in a young player.
Casey Dellacqua: A. It was the 120th-ranked Dellacqua, not Bernard Tomic or Lleyton Hewitt or Sam Stosur, who gave the home crowd something to cheer for in the second week. One of the few players to embrace the sizzling first-week temperatures (she grew up in Western Australia and was accustomed to the searing heat), she blasted three opponents off the court before losing to Bouchard in three sets.
Dr. Tim Wood: D: When triple-digit temperatures are forecast for your tournament, you don't want to march out your chief medical officer and say (1) tennis players are at low risk playing in extreme heat, (2) no tennis player has ever died of dehydration on the court and (3) our ancestors hunted antelope in Africa and they survived. You especially don't want all these quotes hitting the papers next to pictures of one of sports' most marketable athletes wearing an ice vest with an ice bag on her head. Whether Wood was factually accurate or not, this was a PR disaster.
Bernard Tomic: C. It was hard not to have some sympathy for Tomic after he retired one set into his marquee first-round match against Nadal because of a groin injury. The Aussie crowd booed him and the headlines the next day weren't any kinder. But that's what's happens when you have a reputation for not giving 100 percent consistently. This should be a lesson for Tomic: You can't "cram" for a Slam. He reportedly put in long training days in the two weeks leading up to the tournament, and that's simply not how it works.
The Special Ks: A. There's a lot to be excited about in Australia's two young talents, 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios and 17-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis. Both made the second round and both put on a very good show once they got there.
Kei Nishikori: B-plus. He played one of the best matches of his career in a 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (3) loss to Nadal. That's progress.
The Australian Open: B-plus. The heat drama hijacked the first week, and the tournament could have done a much better job protecting players and fans from the dangerous weather. The fact that Sharapova and Knapp had to play for 45 minutes to complete a set in progress after the Extreme Heat Policy had stopped play on other courts was a joke. But we also leave Melbourne with first-time Australian Open champions and a number of compelling questions as the season rams up. Is what transpired over the last two weeks a sign of an impending shake-up on both the ATP and WTA, or just a one-off? Is the next generation of stars now ready to challenge the establishment? Will ongoing injuries plague the season? Buckle up. I have a feeling that 2014 is going to be a nutty year.