Fifty thoughts from dramatic Australian Open
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Emptying the files from the 2013 Australian Open ...
? All hail Novak Djokovic, who wins the men's title for an unprecedented third consecutive time -- and fourth overall -- defeating Andy Murray 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2 in the final. How do you beat a guy who has no weakness, the best return in tennis and doesn't tire? No one had an answer this tournament.
? Regardless of how you might feel about Victoria Azarenka personally, regardless of how much penance you'd like to see her pay, it's impossible not to respect her mental toughness. Under the most difficult circumstances imaginable -- yes, some of them her own -- she defended both her title and her top ranking. Takes an extraordinary level of ... something? Tenacity? Self-deception? Focus? ...to do that. (And when it makes its inevitable debut, watch the post-match interview with Azarenka and the ubiquitous Redfoo in which he explains the word pianist.)
? Andy Murray is long past the point of settling for moral victories. But between his first-vear Grand Slam win over Roger Federer and his play in the final before a blister compromised his movement, he did a convincing impersonation of a man who's hardly done winning majors.
? Li Na leaves Australia with a level of popularity to rival Nicole Kidman. She won over the crowd with her recovery from injury and her winsome sense of humor. But let's not overlook her tennis. With an improved serve and forehand and disposition, she thoroughly outplayed Agnieszka Radwanska, Maria Sharapova and Azarenka for a set. She said her goal for the year was top three. Suddenly, that seems modest.
? We're all -- or at least we should be -- pretty talked out Azarenkagate and her questionable medical timeout during the semis. She is not an innocent victim, but wasn't the first player to bend the rules like this. She chose the wrong time. And, yes, the wrong opponent. (If she pulls this against, say, Angelique Kerber and not a young, bottomlessly charming American in whom many have a personal stake, is the reaction half as severe?) She won the match and then the title but hardly got away with it, as her reputation was shredded. She did her time, as it were; there was retribution. There is now a deterrent in effect for other players. The fans and media did what administrators do not and challenged bad behavior by players that violated the spirit of the law. The system worked.
Some of you suggested that we do away with mid-match timeouts entirely. But in the finals, we got a vivid illustration of why we need them. If Li doesn't get time to address her ankle and head injuries, she retires, the crowd leaves unhappy, TV is ill-served and any victory feels hollow.
? Sloane Stephens was the breakout star of the event, reaching the semifinals and cracking the top 20. Part of the excitement and optimism comes from the results: staring down Serena Williams in a Grand Slam quarterfinal is noteworthy. Part of it comes from her cork-popping personality. And part comes from how far she is from maximizing her potential.
? I know this will be met with disagreement, but I still don't come away despairing for Roger Federer, who, of course, lost to Murray in that five-set semifinal. He is No. 2 in the world and, indisputably, one of the Big Four. I think this is far more a case of the field catching up rather than him regressing. At 31, he can still win five-setters, still hang in matches when his serve is betraying him, still cover acres of court over the course of a match and still bring the magic. Is he the player he was in his mid-20s? No. Does a lot have to go right for him to win another major? Yes. Should he quit now before he -- all together now -- tarnishes his legacy? I don't get this for the life of me ...
? Bob and Mike Bryan won the men's doubles title, their 13th major (breaking their tie with John Newcombe and Tony Roche for most majors won by a men's pair). Rev up the GOAT talk, the bleating as it were. Your women's doubles winners: Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who beat the Aussie team of Ashleigh Barty and Casey (Liberty Leading the People) Dellacqua. The Italians have now won three of the last four majors. And Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden won the mixed.
? Nick Kyrgios of Australia won the boys event. Ana Konjuh of Croatia won the girls. All your junior results are here.
? Can we please kill the Serena-is-Sloane-Stephens' "idol/hero" blather before it metastasizes into one of the those "Serbs practicing in the swimming pool" stories? A) It's not so. Stephens doesn't even follow Serena on Twitter. B) The racial assumptions are ugly.
? Serena Williams' last five Grand Slams? She has won two of them and lost at the others to Ekatarina Makarova, Virginie Razzano (who failed to qualify for this event) and Stephens. Her defeat here clearly had a physical component, but it had a mental component, too. All part of the twisting tale. She won't win the Grand Slam this year, as so many speculated she might. But you have to be expecting a bounce-back eventually.
? Not to be outdone, Sharapova won the French Open. But note her other Slam losses over the last year. Terrific ballstriker and usually a ferocious competitor. But she gets made to pay for her lack of a B game.
? Stat of the day: Federer has 17 majors. Djokovic, Murray and Nadal have 18 among them.
? We admire David Ferrer's work ethic. Here's a guy who was laying bricks on a construction crew before deciding to give tennis one last chance. He is now ranked No. 4. That said, you cannot "grub" wins against the Big Four. You cannot grind them down or beat them by attrition. You need to stand and slug, as players have done for sets (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stan Wawrinka) and others have done for an entire match (Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych.) Unless Ferrer adds weapons, unlikely at this stage, hard to see him cracking the glass ceiling. For that matter, for all the talk of breakthroughs, the drop-off after the Big Four is as precipitous as ever.
? We'll say it again: accrued good will matters. Tsonga attributes the instability in women's tennis to "hormones," ridiculous for all sorts of reasons. (Here's one: there were 16 players fined for various offenses this event. Four were women, including Serena for the racket smash. Who has the problems throttling emotion?) He got off easy, though, because he is known to be a good, honorable guy. From her shrieking to her treatment of others, Azarenka is widely known for her imperious nature. When she, ahem, bends the rules, she gets no mercy.
? As always, the "tough loss" questions. Does Wawrinka recall this event for his classic match against Djokovic (and absolutely lights-out first set)? Or for a potential career-defining win that got away? Does Nicolas Almagro recall this for his unrivaled serving -- most aces in the tournament through the first four rounds -- and coming a few points from the semis against David Ferrer? Or for squandering three opportunities to serve out the match?
? You thought the endless loop of the Melbourne ads was annoying?("I wanna know; I wanna know; why couldn't sell these 30-second spots.") Here in Australia, during innumerable changeovers we got this.
? Dear karma: can you cut Brian Baker some slack? The Tennis-seein injured his knee in the second round, underwent surgery on his right meniscus last week and is in a brace for the next six weeks. Hope we see him back soon.
? Storyline to follow: Has Bernard Tomic finally grown up? He has the misfortune of finding himself in a PR battle with Pat Rafter. (Which is like being in a baseline rally with Djokovic; you just ain't going to win that one.) And his father is still a problematic presence. But the kid acquitted himself awfully well in Melbourne overall. And his game, filled with variety and quirk, is easy to like.
? On the second day of the tournament, Andy Roddick took a swipe at a certain someone in particular, tweeting, "Love tennis commentary "be aggressive take cuts". Then they miss.... " he needs to be patient and work the point" Easy game right?" There are so many places to go with this, but I'll take it here: If Roddick wanted to go into the booth tomorrow, he would put someone out of a job. I'm hoping this dig doesn't mean he's burning bridges with a certain network.
? Milos Raonic is the latest player to take a residence in Monte Carlo. Still not quite sure what to make of Raonic. Tons of game. Bright, well-adjusted kid. But the big results are still elusive. We're not selling. But we've told our broker to stop buying.
? Thoughts are with ATP president Brad Drewett. It's easy to lapse into trite observation here, but this puts into sharp perspective the "tournament-versus-players" and "the legitimacy of a U.S. Open boycott" and the usual petty politics.
? More unpleasant news. Former ATP doubles player Andrew Florent could use your help.
? If Jamie Hampton's back doesn't seize up, she has a real shot of beating Azarenka in the third round. She lost in three sets but had to be thrilled with how she met the moment. At 23, Hampton may lack Madison Keys' youth and power. She may lack Stephens' speed and relentlessly outgoing personality. But there's an awful lot to like here.
? Want to get dizzy? Follow Errani's results at majors. At the French Open, she reached the final, a breakthrough result. She not only lost early at Wimbledon, but got the business end of a golden set. (Yes, a top-10 player went a set without winning a single point. On grass.) For good measure, she lost in the first round of the Olympics. She recovered at the U.S. Open and reached the semis, picking up almost $500,000 in the process. And won the doubles. Then in Australia, seeded seventh, she was bounced in round one by Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro. But she won the doubles again.
? Speaking of Suarez Navarro, you have to like a woman who's unafraid to dive on cement.
? Five players to watch this year in addition to Stephens and Laura Robson: Keys, Ricardas Berankis, Donna Vekic, Heather Watson and Tomic.
? Back to the dispiriting topics, hearing the crowd "sympathy cheer" Venus Williams when she was down 1-6, 1-3 to Sharapova was rough. In both her singles and doubles losses, Venus was unrecognizable from the player she was in late summer. Much less the seven-time major champ. Here's hoping her year improves.
? Caroline Wozniacki has been evicted from the top 10. Amazing that a year ago, she came to Australia ranked No.1. And Ana Ivanovic, who can still get to the middle weekend of majors but doesn't have the power she possessed as a teenager.
? Great to see Gael Monfils back. Like the coaches always say: you haven't lived until you've seen a 71-shot rally.
? From the nice-work-if-you-can-get-it drawer ... You won as many games this tournament as Edina Gallovits-Hall and Olga Puchkova. Combined. Yet they left town with $30,000 in prize money.
? Raise your hand if you're worried about Petra Kvitova, who lost a tight match to Laura Robson in round two. An exceptionally nice person. But she seems to lack a certain something as a tennis player.
? As does Del Potro. Again, nicest guy in the world. But something's missing. Here, he fell in the middle Saturday to unseeded Frenchman Jeremy Chardy.
? This might be the favorite tweets we've seen issued by an official outlet:
"@AustralianOpen: .@Blaz_Kavcic was treated for cramping by #AusOpen medical team & given an appropriate muscle relaxant, not morphine as he suggested." Glad we cleared that up.....
? And here's one of our favorites from an unofficial outlet. @judmoo "Loving Venus's dress.....but it kinda look like she's been paint-balling." I'm sure Venus is okay with this. She just wears the clothes. It's not as though she designs them herself. Oh, wait. Never mind.
? We've seen players appeal to the chair and ask whether to expend a challenge. But never to the opponent. Third set of Almagro-Ferrer quarterfinal, a ball is close. Almagro looks over the net and asks Ferrer about the call. "Nah, it was out; don't waste your challenge," Ferrer responded. That was good enough for Almagro, who kept playing. Few games later Almagro hit a ball long. Ferrer looked over the net as if to say, "This one? This you should challenge."
? Tim Smyczek got bounced from qualifying and was something less than pleased. But John Isner pulled out of the main draw with his knee injury, and suddenly a lucky loser slot opened. As one of the four highest-ranked players who did not qualify, Smyczek was eligible to have his name drawn from the lucky loser pool. When his name was picked, he was pitted against Ivo Karlovic and won handily. He lost his next match to Ferrer but won a set and acquitted himself admirably. He also picked up $50,000. One of his first purchases when he returns: he'll take his roommate out to a steak dinner. Smyczek, you see, lives with ... John Isner.
? Kimiko Date-Krumm came into the interview room last week, and while she talked about reaching the middle weekend of a major at age 42, it didn't take long before reporters got down to the truly important issues at hand.
"What do you think of Agnieszka Radwanska's tennis?"
Date-Krumm was ready: "She's not tall, she doesn't have so much power, so for Japanese it's good to watch. She has variation. She doesn't have a big sa-pong like this. Last year she's top level, so it's important for us to watch."
? We should all have big sa-pongs.
? There's something poetic about the fact that Lleyton Hewitt was bounced in the first round and then traded his player pass for a media pass. He worked -- with exceptional skill -- as an analyst for Australian TV.
? This will fall on deaf ears. It always does. But at some point a responsible, unconflicted adult (anyone? anyone?) will address injury-mania. The year is less than a month old, and the litany of injuries is already growing. Nadal -- knee/illness. Andrea Petkovic -- knee. Isner -- knee. Robson -- back injury. Hampton -- back. Kerber -- back. Kevin Anderson -- elbow. Baker -- knee. Serena -- ankle. The women's final resembled a UFC cagefight. This doesn't include the welter of players (including juniors) you see marching through the tunnels, bandaged and swathed in ice. After his interminable third-round match, Gilles Simon wasn't able to get from the court to the locker room under his own power. And he won!
Yes, injuries are part of sports. Yes, it's a physical endeavor. But something is seriously wrong when, four weeks into the season, the players are already yelling "medic!" Is it hard courts? Is it the polyester strings? Is it runaway racket technology? Is it the lack of standardized balls? Is it the rigor of five sets, which, I still maintain is both anachronistic and sadistic? Is it overtraining?
I don't know. But I know this: if I were in a position of power, I'd be a lot more concerned about the work conditions than the current leaders, such as they are, appear to be. And if I were an athlete competing without a guaranteed contract, I'd be more concerned with work conditions than per diems and courtesy cars.
? On a related note, the ATP quietly released its 2014 calendar, and the season is, unaccountably, a week longer than it is this year. Has it gotten to the point where we should just end the charade and play 12 months? Think of the marketing! "The sport that never quits!" "Offseasons are for wimps!" "Our HMO coverage is awesome!"
? It's still early. But this is not shaping up as The Year of the American Men. Inventory: Andy Roddick is retired. Mardy Fish is out due to illness. Isner injured his knee. So did Baker. James Blake lost in qualifying to Donald Young. Young then lost his next match. Jesse Levine defected, just as Alex Bogomolov did the previous year. (What's up Kevin Anderson?) Ryan Harrison is still a work in progress. For all this talk of "Where is the next Sampras/Agassi?" the reality is that the U.S. would be thrilled with the next Todd Martin or David Wheaton or Mal Washington.
? Full disclosure: I worked for Tennis Channel at this event. And I saw little of the ESPN coverage. But I was heartened to hear Cliff Drysdale getting some minutes off the bench and Chris McKendry bring her pleasant delivery to bear. (And unless you have glowing things to say about Chris Evert and Pam Shriver, I don't want to hear it!)
? Consider this a distress signal for Sabine Lisicki. She might have the best serve in the women's game this side of Serena. But life is going to be tough for her if she doesn't keep the ball in play. A player on the cusp of the top 10 not that long ago, Lisicki is now outside the top 40. Unseeded here, she drew Wozniacki in round one. She committed a ghastly 57 unforced errors and lost in three sets. David Taylor, Sam Stosur's coach, asserted that Lisicki plays risky tennis, gunning for the line at maximum velocity. But a lot of these misses weren't even close to the lines.
? Many of you noted the absence of the indomitable Esther Vergeer in the wheelchair division. Vergeer, of course, is that player who loses roughly as often as the sun sets in the east. She hasn't played since the Paralympics. Hope we see her again. Here are the wheelchair results.
? We said it at the U.S. Open, and we'll say it again: these events feel not quite whole without the presence of Rafael Nadal. Hoping we don't have to write this line again for a few years. Others we missed: Petkovic, Robin Soderling, Fish, Isner, Bud Collins, Flavia Pennetta, Mary Carillo, Ubi Scanagatta.
? I know a lot of you are down on Harrison, but I urge you to consider the treatment he's gotten from the draw gods. The young American is still looking for his big breakthrough and no wonder. Look at his last five majors:
2013 Australian Open: Djokovic (R2) 2012 U.S. Open: Del Potro (R2) 2012 Wimbledon: Djokovic (R2) 2012 French Open: Simon (R1) 2012 Australian Open: Murray (R1)
? Rivalry to watch this spring: the Big Four versus the USTA. Top players -- none of them American -- are not pleased about the U.S. Open's Monday final, the prize money or the respect they fell they get relative to the four majors. They are also unmoved by claims of the USTA's non-profit status. (So let me get this straight: I'm supposed to take less than market value so you can make money to buy rackets in Topeka or subsidize Sloane Stephens' training?) The USTA feels as though it's already made financial concessions, elevating prize and doing away with Super Saturday. If they give in here, a precedent will be set. Stay tuned. Good seats still available.
? Good thing they're building a THIRD roofed stadium here. Not a drop of rain -- and precious few brutally hot days -- over the two weeks.
We say it every year: if there is a more spirited, fun, and generally affordable (grounds pass: $34) global sporting event we haven't seen it.