Fifty parting thoughts from the Australian Open

Sunday January 26th, 2014

No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 4 Li Na both won their first Australian Open titles.
Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Fifty parting thoughts from the Australian Open, where first-time winners were crowned in both the men's and women's draws ...

All hail Stanislas Wawrinka, 2014 Australian Open men's champion. For 5½ rounds (he won his third-round match in a walkover), Wawrinka played dazzling tennis, upsetting three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals to snap a 14-match losing streak to the Serb, and defeating Tomas Berdych to make his first Grand Slam final. Taking an 0-12 record (and 0-26 deficit in sets) against Rafael Nadal into the final, Wawrinka started with a cold-blooded first set that should be framed and put in a museum. Then, with Nadal injured, Wawrinka simply had to hold on. Put in the unenviable position of beating an injured opponent to win a first major, Wawrinka stumbled but recovered for a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory. For only the second time in nine years, a player outside the Big Four has won one of the four major titles.

WERTHEIM: Confidence carries Wawrinka to title

• In the women's final, Li Na beat Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 6-0 to win her second major title. Apart from hitting the WTA Tour's finest backhand, Li is endowed, of course, with abundant charisma. The women's event felt somewhat depleted after the loss of the top-three seeds before the semifinals. But having a winner who hails from China -- the sport's emerging market -- may make this a significant tournament when we look back.

• Nadal leaves Melbourne with mixed emotions. For a guy whose career was thought to be in jeopardy a year ago, he can be satisfied with a defeat in the final. But he was poised and heavily favored to win his 14th major, and neither his opponent nor body permitted that. The French Open is next on the docket. But he'll likely recall Sunday's match as one that got away.

NGUYEN: Game-by-game analysis of Wawrinka-Nadal | Highlights

• Cibulkova did herself proud in upsetting two top-five players, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska, en route to her first Slam final. She will rise from No. 20 to No. 13, one spot below her career high. Much is made of her height -- 5-foot-3 in heels -- but she's not a defensive scrapper. She positions herself on the baseline and slugs away.

• Even for those less rational and clear-headed than Roger Federer, it's hard to spin a 10-23 record against your main rival. A telling moment after the semifinals came when a reporter started to ask Federer a question about Nadal, "He has a decent record against you ..."

"A good record," Federer interrupted with a smile.

There are no self-delusions going on here. The flip side: Federer is also rational and clear-headed enough to know that he left Melbourne in a radically better place than when he arrived. The racket is working. The aggressive tactics paid off. He is healthier. As a result of it all, the confidence is back. Stung as he surely is by another loss to Nadal, Federer must be pleased overall.

GALLERY: Nadal vs. Federer through the years

• Sara Errani and Robert Vinci won the women's doubles title, beating Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 in the final. The Italians won the last five games to defend their title.

• In a men's doubles draw rife with weirdness -- such as a third-round loss for six-time champions Bob and Mike Bryan and the entry of 41-year-old Pat Rafter alongside Lleyton Hewitt -- Lukasz Kubot and Robert Lindstedt won in their first Grand Slam event as a team. Lindstedt was reduced to tears after the victory in the final over the team that stunned the Bryans brothers, Eric Butorac and Raven Klaasen. And if you want to read something poignant? Check out the winning pair's post-match news conference.

• Daniel Nestor and Kristina Mladenovic cruised past Sania Mirza and Horia Tecau to win the mixed doubles title.

• Alexander Zverev of Germany won the boys' title and Elizaveta Kulichkova of Russia won the girls' title. As always, junior tennis doyenne Colette Lewis is on the case.

• This is usually a very buttoned-up event. But the organizers really blew it by allowing play on those early days when the temperature went well into triple digits and the humidity was oppressive. A lot of you -- spurred by Sharapova and Martina Navratilova -- asked about the tournament's chief medical officer, Tim Wood. I'm not in position to judge his competence, but the more I tried to read about overheating, the more convinced I became that the event was lucky no player suffered anything worse than dizziness, heat stroke and Snoopy hallucinations. (Preempting the point: There's a difference between challenging conditions that implicate fitness and dangerous conditions. This was the latter.) If you're interested in the effect of extreme heat on athletes, read this and this. Then try to reconcile that with the points made during Wood's Day 1 news conference, including the notion that tennis players are not at great risk.

• During that news conference, Wood and tournament referee Wayne McKewen were peppered with questions by one particularly persistent reporter. He happened to be Fox Sports commentator Paul McNamee. The same Paul McNamee who used to run the Australian Open.

• Let's also consider the fans. Never mind the notion that fans come because they want to watch elite athletes play their best, not to stagger around the court, clearly compromised, before cooling off with ice vests during breaks. Permitting play was dangerous to the spectators, too.

Serena Williams lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open for the second time in three years.
Chris Hyde/Getty Images

• The Yarra was the River Styx for so many high seeds. No upset loomed larger than that of Serena Williams, who again came to Melbourne as the favorite and again left with no title. From the "people evolve" file, Williams could not have been more gracious after her fourth-round loss. Anyone else have their fingers crossed that she stays like this for the rest of her career? She has reached the point where she no longer polarizes and only the most hate-filled of the haters can summon the energy not to like her.

• Minor point, but here's something else that struck me about Williams: In her post-match postmortem, she was asked her opinion about the pending Li-Flavia Pennetta match. What the what? Five years ago, Williams -- not unreasonably -- would have glared at the questioner and answered curtly. Subtext: "I just lost a match at a major. Think I give a %&$ about Flavia Pennetta?"

Here was her response: "I think Li Na is always a favorite, but I don't think anyone, as we can see, can underestimate Pennetta, because she was in the semifinals of U.S. Open just recently and she's obviously backed that up with the minimum of a quarterfinal here." It was revealing that she responded at all; it was revealing that she responded thoughtfully and, it turned out, correctly (Li won 6-2, 6-2.). And Williams knows Pennetta's recent Grand Slam history? I found that revealing regarding her commitment level and priorities.

• It was surprising, in a pleasant way, to see Williams put her name on the BNP Paribas Open entry list. This doesn't mean that she's breaking what amounts to a 12-year boycott and playing the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., in March. Still, it's worth noting that her name hasn't been on the list in the past, and Venus is not currently entered. And, let's be honest, given the delicacy of this situation, if Serena were adamantly declining to play, there's no way that press release goes out.

Same rules as always here: If she plays, great. I'm sure it will be seen as a welcome bit of détente by the overwhelming majority of fans. If she doesn't play, you have to respect to decision and move on.

GALLERY: Fans at the Australian Open

• What a strange event for Radwanska. She upset two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals in a show-stopping display of nuance, shot making and wit. Then she came out as flat as Kansas and mustered three games against Cibulkova. (Consider: Radwanska beat Cibulkova 6-0, 6-0 in an Australian Open tune-up tournament last year.) At two of the last three Slams, the draw opened magically for Radwanska and, heading into the semis, she had a real chance to win her first major. In both instances, including Wimbledon last year, she failed to reach the final.

• Welcome to the upper echelon, Grigor Dimitrov. We knew the breakout was a question of "when," not "if," and when has arrived. The 22-year-old Bulgarian made the quarterfinals after failing to advance past the third round in his previous 13 Slam appearances, and there's an unmistakable sense that more is to come. The emotional maturity has caught up to the skills. Between the one-handed backhand, comportment on the court and amiable demeanor, there's an awful lot to like here. He emerged as one of the event's big winners.

• His female analog was first-time major semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard, who made abundantly clear that she is a legitimate top-10 talent. (The 19-year-old Canadian entered the tournament ranked No. 31.) Apart from the strokes and the deceptive power, there is her attitude. She projected the clear message: "I am not remotely awed or surprised by any of this."

• I addressed this a little bit the other day, but what are we to make of Djokovic? You can't expect a guy to win every time out. And he entered the quarterfinals with a 28-match winning streak. So spare your tears and fears. Let's not overdramatize this. Nevertheless, something ain't quite right. He's now lost at eight of the last nine majors (and the Olympics singles), sometimes retreating from the pressure. Not unlike his botched overheads in the 2013 French Open semifinals against Nadal, those last two points against Wawrinka were simply mystifying misses.

• The biggest non-story this side of Nadal's blister: the superstar coaches. Stefan Edberg appears to be part of Federer's uptick. Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray remain together. Boris Becker was present for Djokovic but hardly hogged the limelight. Nothing outrageous happened. No incendiary quotes. The focus is on 2014, not 1984. Which is at it should be.

• When, a decade ago, the Australian Open began branding itself as "the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific," some people -- and by "some people," I mean "I" -- saw this as a cynical marketing gimmick and a cynical attempt to fend off a challenge from China to become a Grand Slam host. Here we are in 2014, and it was a brilliant play. The event really does seem to represent Asia, the sport's obvious growth sector. From the Chinese characters on the courtside signage to the pockets of fans to Li's annual deep runs, it's all working.

• It was nice to see No. 11 Simona Halep play up to her seeding and reach the quarterfinals. She is set to become the third Romanian woman to crack the top 10. It was a shame, though, that she had to answer personal questions about a medical procedure.

Maria Sharapova lost to Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

• I put Murray and Sharapova in a similar category. They didn't dazzle; they didn't really disappoint either. They're both coming back from injury and expectations were minimal. They got in some matches and started to shake off the rust. Let's see where they go from here.

• I joined many of you in chuckling/cringing over the Melbourne Age describing Dimitrov as "Maria Sharapova's Bulgarian handbag." (Hat tip to the reader who riposted, "Well, he is clutch.") After years of trophy wives and arm candy, I suppose it's progress that it's the male who is the objectified appendage.

• Curious where you stand on the "issue" -- such as it is -- of players wearing headphones onto the court. It always struck me as unobjectionable, a sign that these were serious athletes primed for battle entering their "space" before combat. (Plus, some players, including Azarenka, pick up some extra coin from headphones endorsements.) A top player, though, is adamant that headphones during the court entrance be banned because it's disrespectful to the crowd and shows disengagement.

• We all know the Aussie shibboleth: If you play, you're fit; if you're fit, you play. But it rings a little simplistic. What do you do when you're clearly not 100 percent, when any casual fan can see that your movement is inhibited? You don't want to blatantly lie about the injury when asked. At the same time, acknowledging injury sounds like a manufactured excuse and has the effect of undermining your opponent's achievement. We all hate excuses and scant credit given to the opponent. But there's no sense flat-out lying and saying, "I'm fine, the injury had zero effect and we're all a little dinged up" when that wasn't the case.

NGUYEN: Australian Open fashion hits | Misses

• If you're sick of this sermon, skip to the next point. But again: Something is desperately wrong with this sport when -- in the first major of the year, no less -- so many players are already dinged up and the physios practically need to re-sole their shoes, what with all the medical timeouts requested. Here's what I wrote on this topic recently:

I don't pretend to know the cause. Maybe it is too much tennis. Maybe it's equipment that encourages overhitting. Maybe it's playing four hours in 108-degree heat. Maybe it's overtraining. But player after player is getting injured -- ruining draws, ruining the rhythm of a season, causing financial harm in a sport without contracts. The variety of injury is alarming. (Heads, shoulders, knees and toes.) So are the ages of the injured. (Ana Konjuh, 16, is off to Zagreb for surgery on her arm.) The indifference that this triggers is alarming as well.

The tours don't appear to be particularly bothered. Neither do the management agencies, nor the federations or even the players themselves. If they were half as interested in whether their coaches get extra meal allowance as they were in the injury-fest that will greatly diminish their earnings potential, we might get some answers and, thus, some meaningful ways to address what I consider to be a bona fide crisis.

• These Australians are too honest. First, any conspiracy of draw-rigging went out the window when two of the top Aussie prospects, Ashleigh Barty and Bernard Tomic, drew Serena Williams and Nadal, respectively, in the first round. Then, when the heat wave hit, the tournament posted attendance figures that showed a dramatic drop-off from the previous year.

First rule of American sports: Attendance is measured by seats sold, not fans through the turnstiles. ("Tickets sold, not surrendered" is the mantra.) Paper the town with tickets if you must; you never announce an attendance decline. Tennis Australia, you have zero hope running Madison Square Garden. (Attendance picked up and the event again came close to hitting the 700,000 benchmark.)

• Walking around the grounds, I was struck by how many fans wear sports apparel. Jerseys from Aussie Rules football, the English Premier League and the NBA dominate the sartorial landscape. Why is there is no Nadal jersey or Serena ball cap? Tennis misses out in a huge way on the merchandising game.

• The Australian Open gave rise to the welcome tradition of the candid post-match interview on the court. There's a line, though, between fun and engaging questions and inappropriate ones. When Bouchard was asked about her dream date, it elicited cringes. (Those cringes were reprised when she answered Justin Bieber. That was pre-arrest.) This smacked of sexism. Except that after Nadal's first-round match, he was asked to address the whereabouts of his girlfriend.

• Hewitt is slowly but surely clawing back some good will. Not least because he is absolutely exceptional as a commentator. In his prime, though, he was polarizing because of the perception that he was too intense. Contrast this with Tomic, who is polarizing (and that's charitable) because he is insufficiently intense.

• There were more players in the men's and women's singles draws from Kazakhstan than Sweden, South Africa and the United Kingdom combined. Oh, globalization, you are a rascal.

• Is there a more aptly named player than Fabio Fognini? There is something murky and vaporous about the guy. All the talent in the world, but what a head case.

• We're a game into the match and Kei Nishikori requires a thorough toweling off. After the exertion of getting aced? Speed it up, boys.

• An unsolicited marketing tip for the folks in television: What's to prevent you from selling sponsorship to a particular round? "In our first Morgan Stanley quarterfinal, Azarenka will play Radwanska for a shot at the Beef 'O' Brady's semifinals."

No. 119 Stephane Robert made the fourth round as a lucky loser.
Mal Fairclough/AFP/Getty Images

• Quite a tournament for Stephane Robert. The 33-year-old Frenchman failed to qualify and hung around waiting for a lucky loser spot. He thought he might replace countryman Giles Simon, who was on crutches the weekend before the event. Instead, Simon not only played but also won his first match 16-14 in the fifth set and won another five-setter in the second round.

Robert was asked to practice with Federer on the first day of the tournament. (This was also the day Edberg arrived in town, so the court was wreathed with cameras.) Finally, nine minutes before his court call, Robert got a lucky loser spot when Philipp Kohlschreiber pulled out. Robert, ranked No. 119, made the most of it. He won three matches and took a set off Murray. In a truly awesome scene, he celebrated as if he had won, soaking up every bit of adulation from the crowd and delaying the on-court interview of Murray, who laughed bemusedly.

This record stayed intact: No lucky loser has ever reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Nevertheless, Robert left town with $135,000. Oh, and with enough ranking points to avoid this fate at the next major.

• Dear Bunnings Warehouse ("lowest prices are just the beginning!"): You win. Congratulations. Your earworm of a jingle is now permanently embedded in my consciousness.

• Speaking of commercials, for a guy who needed a wild card to get into the main draw, good for Sam Groth for landing a Kia spot.

• We all agree: Gael Monfils is Superfantastic. His matches are invariably great fun. But his decision-making remains baffling -- and we're not just talking about during play. Monfils beat Jack Sock in a second-round match punctuated by a solid dozen have-gotta-be-joking circus shots. But late in the third set, Monfils rolled his ankle. He tied his shoes extra tight and recovered to win. Nadal awaited. How did Monfils spend the day in between? Playing doubles. In the guts of the triple-digit heat. Monfils and his partner, Dustin Brown, lost. The next day, Monfils offered little resistance against the top seed.

Read this. Just read this.

• On a related note, from Camila Giorgi to Casey Dellacqua, the topic of "middle-class struggles" surfaced throughout the first week. The labor economics are fascinating. Federer and Nadal will make more than some Hollywood A-listers. Some of their opponents can barely subsidize their careers.

• On the other hand, what do we make of Polona Hercog retiring after one game in her first-round match? She won one of the six points played and pocketed $30,000. Hey, she earned her main-draw spot and is entitled to the plunder. You can't begrudge her that. But it's not cool (or professional) to enter an event you're unfit to play, depriving a colleague of a spot and cheating the fans out of a competitive match.

• Always enjoy talking to the stringers at these events. Marginalia: Filippo Volandri strings his racket lower than any other player, a trampoline-like 27.5 pounds. (Can that be right?) Nadal never changes his string tension, regardless of condition or night/day. With Serena making the move to a mix of gut/polyester in 2012, no singles player uses all gut.

• Spoke with a longtime volunteer driver who has chauffeured "loads" of players.

Me: "Who's the most courteous player you've ever driven?"

Her: "Probably Federer or Nadal."

Me: "What about out of all the players, not just the stars?"

Her: "This is out of the players."

• Quick thoughts on television:

A) With the usual full disclosure that I was part of Tennis Channel's coverage, let the record reflect that the network's ratings were up dramatically at this event.

B) ESPN covers the heck out of this event, too. And it had the best seat in the house.

C) Here's hoping that whatever happens with Chris Fowler on his college football assignments, he stays in tennis.

D) Jim Courier and Hewitt are sensational together.

E) This will achieve the feat of sounding sanctimonious and cheesy at the same time, but if tennis alphabet soup organizations displayed the same spirit of cooperation that exists in the broadcast compound, the sport would be better off.

• Some players I have not yet mentioned who leave with enhanced regards: Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis (the Aussie Special K's), Roberto Bautista Agut, Garbine Muruzuga, Kevin Anderson (who needs to stay away from Berdych in draws), Vasek Pospisil (who needs better health), Ana Ivanovic, Belinda Bencic and Luksika Kumkhum.

David Ferrer is liked and admired. But this was weak. He made contact with an official during his quarterfinal match, a huge no-no in sports, and yet he wasn't fined.

• If you're fortunate enough to attend a Slam in person, consider this strong encouragement to watch the wheelchair tennis. And not simply as a kind and supportive gesture. These matches feature some of the best shot making you'll see during the tournaments.

• Wawrinka was asked how he planned to celebrate his title. "There's a big chance I get drunk tonight," he said, "but we'll see." Fair enough.

• Thanks, everyone, for the emails and tweets. That was good fun. Nothing like geeking out on tennis for two weeks. Back to my day job now, but we'll do it again soon.

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