Australian Open report card: top marks for Novak Djokovic, Sloane Stephens
Novak Djokovic: A. Craig Tiley might as well hand the keys to Melbourne Park to Djokovic, who completed his Australian Open three-peat with equal parts dominance, grit, belief and just plain quality. He survived a fourth-round scare from Stanislas Wawrinka (12-10 in the fifth), embarrassed No. 4 David Ferrer (6-2, 6-2, 6-1) in the semifinals and refused to be moved against Andy Murray (6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2) in the final. Djokovic is the perfect mascot for this tournament that has gone from the red-headed stepchild of the Grand Slams to equal footing, putting pressure on the rest to step up. That sounds a lot like Djokovic, too.
Victoria Azarenka: B+. If Djokovic is the Iron Man, Azarenka may be the female counterpart. Nothing can prepare you for stepping onto a stage where most of a crowd of 15,000 (and millions watching around the globe) hope you fail. Her ability to defend her title under those conditions with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Li Na solidified her as the best competitor on the WTA. Sorry, Maria. Apologies, Serena. But it's true.
The win came at a price. Time will tell whether the medical timeout criticized around the world defines Azarenka rather than her steely performance in the final. People still remember "The Hand Incident" at the 2003 French Open between Justine Henin and Serena Williams. Henin went on to win that tournament as well, but her reputation for winning at all costs -- in the media, among fans and within the locker room -- followed her. Azarenka said her takeaway from last week was to be better about explaining herself. That's fine, but here's hoping she also learned not to put herself in that position in the first place.
The Bryan brothers: A. With their 13th major, Bob and Mike Bryan are the most decorated doubles team in Grand Slam history. So how come the Aussie Open couldn't give them a bigger trophy?
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci: A. I get a sick pleasure at yelling "Grande! Grande!" to no one in particular when the pint-sized Italian duo wins. The size differential was comical when they shook hands with the Williams sisters after ousting them in three sets in the quarterfinals, and they went on to win the title. Want to talk about a deserved No. 1 team? In a doubles game built for upsets and surprises, Errani and Vinci have won three of the last four Slams.
Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden: A. The Aussie duo gave the home team something to cheer about, taking the mixed doubles title.
Roger Federer: B+. He put the kids (Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic) in place in the first week and used his veteran wiles to steal a match from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and physically cripple Murray for the final. Stop the hand-wringing. The GOAT is not done. #humble
Andy Murray: A. It's hard to criticize Murray for anything over the last two weeks. He didn't drop a set heading into the semifinals, where he played one of the best matches of his career to beat Federer, and he had his chances against Djokovic in the final until the four hours on court against Federer caught up to his legs (and blistered foot). One could argue he shouldn't have let Federer force five sets, but Federer's taking two tiebreakers was more a testament to his fight than Murray's failure.
Li Na: A-. The overwhelming crowd favorite in the final, Li rolled her ankle after taking a one-set lead. Then, after taking a break lead in the third, she blacked out for a few seconds, smashing her head on the court after another fall. Li still could have beaten Azarenka but converted only seven of 18 break points. Nevertheless, Li walked away from Melbourne a winner. With Kim Clijsters' retirement, Li may be Melbourne's new favorite adopted daughter.
Sloane Stephens: A. The 19-year-old was a class act on and off the court en route to her first Slam semifinal, but what impressed me most was her ability to win matches she was supposed to win. Stephens benefited from a soft early draw -- she didn't face a seed until Serena Williams in the quarterfinals -- and kept her focus. She has been known for mid-match lapses when she's playing on outer courts, but her straight-set win over Laura Robson with a crowd against her showed great maturity. A strong player on hard courts and clay, a top-10 ranking at the end of the year isn't far-fetched.
Serena Williams: C+. Serena was dealt a cruel hand in Melbourne. There's no denying that. An ankle sprain in her first match compounded by a back injury during a doubles loss damaged her title hopes, which were so high before the tournament. That said, she should have beaten Stephens in the quarterfinals but couldn't move past her own panic. She had a break point on Stephens' serve that would have given her a chance to serve out the match in the second set. She was broken easily for the match in the third after hitting four listless errors.
Maria Sharapova: C+: After sailing through her first five matches, Sharapova was once again exposed for lack of a B-game by Li, losing 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals.
Juan Martin del Potro: C-. Are we sure Del Potro was in Melbourne? My draw sheet says he lost to unseeded Jeremy Chardy in the third round, but that can't possibly be right.
Stanislas Wawrinka: A+. The Swiss No. 2 has never been known for his fight. But he came out on fire in the fourth round, blitzing Djokovic 6-1 in the first set. Wawrinka not only made you believe that he could beat Djokovic, but that he should. Four and a half hours later, Djokovic was shredding his shirt and Wawrinka walked off the court to an ovation he'd never received, losing 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10. It was the performance of the tournament and, for my money, the best tennis match I've seen since the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Melbourne weather: B+: A couple of steamy days aside, you couldn't have asked for better conditions over the fortnight. Not bad considering the extreme temperatures that hit the country the week before.
Mouratoglou Academy: B+. They say winning begets winning, so maybe Serena's presence at the Paris academy paid off. Its No. 1 guy, Chardy, made his first Slam quarterfinal; two young teenagers in Yulia Putintseva and Daria Gavrilova -- both coached by Martina Hingis, by the way -- scored their first Slam wins; and Serena made the quarterfinals despite a horror show of bad luck. The only blemish: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Russian had a great lead-up, making the Brisbane final, but crashed out in the first round to a qualifier.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: B. Tsonga outplayed Federer for four sets in the quarterfinals, but he couldn't hold his nerve in the tiebreakers and finally ran out of steam. Then he went into the press room and made bigger headlines. So if women have hormone issues, what's Tsonga's excuse for his up-and-down play?
Venus Williams: C-. In most of her bad losses in 2012, Venus looked like a woman dealing with Sjogren's syndrome. That was understandable. But in her loss to Sharapova and in doubles, Venus didn't look ill. She looked old.
David Ferrer: B. In five Slam semifinals, Ferrer has won two sets. And for all the talk about equal prize money, Ferrer went down to Djokovic in three sets faster than Sharapova or Stephens lost in two. Ferrer is a very good player and has earned his new No. 4 ranking, but his presence deep at a Slam isn't going to shift the tennis landscape.
French men: D. Tsonga's successful run aside, the rest of the French Fleet was headache-inducing, if not cruelly entertaining. We talked up Benoit Paire's first-round match against Federer, only to see Paire make a mockery of the term "professional." Gael Monfils played a thoroughly entertaining first-round match against Alexandr Dolgopolov that he won in four sets, only to play an infurating match against Gilles Simon in the third round, where a hobbled Simon, with the aid of a chocolate bar, somehow beat him 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 1-6, 8-6. That's not even mentioning Monfils' second-round win against Rendy Lu; Monfils hit 23 double faults, four of which came on match points in the fifth set. And then there's Richard Gasquet, who extended his disastrous record in the round of 16 to 1-14 at Slams. Even Victor Hugo is shaking his head.
Bernard Tomic: A. For all his talk, which I would describe as "aloof" rather than "brash," Tomic brought the goods. I don't think Tomic could have hit the ball any better against Federer in the third round. He played with a focus and intensity that made me wonder how that "Tomic the Tank Engine" thing got started in the first place.
WTA teenagers: A. Generation Sloane finally had its breakout Slam. The teenagers dominated the first-week headlines. Stephens, Robson and Madison Keys all justified their hype, while Putintseva, Gavrilova, Donna Vekic and Garbine Muguruza got their first main-draw wins at a Slam.
ESPN: B. It was a solid two weeks, thorough in both live coverage and replays. By all accounts, fans loved being able to see different courts online. Darren Cahill continues to be the best analyst in the game, and Chris Evert, in her fourth Slam with the network, showed a better grasp of the modern game and familiarity with the current crop of players. Her unabashed Federer fandom is still wholly inappropriate and not as charming as producers might think.
The network deserves heat for its treatment of the Azarenka fiasco. It was awkward listening to Patrick McEnroe and Mary Joe Fernandez act as the lead critiques of Azarenka's controversial win over American darling Stephens when McEnroe is the head of USTA Player Development and Fernandez is the U.S. Fed Cup captain. With the slew of analysts at ESPN's disposal, those two didn't need to be the ones expressing their opinions.
Finally, please ESPN, do away with these two uncomfortable narratives: stop trying to draw parallels or connections between Serena and Stephens. The mentor-protege story doesn't actually hold water, and the racial undertones reek. Similarly, stop implying (or explicitly stating, as it did in one video clip) that Li is different from a typical Chinese woman because she has a sense of humor. Let's not even go there.
Jerzy Janowicz: B. Apart from giving us the viral video of the first week -- don't tell me you didn't yell, "HOW MANY TIMES???" just to amuse yourself at some point during the tournament -- Janowicz gave us reason to believe that his run to the Paris Masters final wasn't a fluke. With the big serve and feathery touch, he'll be one to watch this year.
Kimiko Date-Krumm: A. No story brought a bigger smile than that of Date-Krumm, who at 42 made the third round of the Australian Open for the first time since 1995. Need a frame of reference? Madison Keys wasn't alive.
Kevin Spacey: B. He flew all the way to Melbourne to cheer on Murray and then palled around with Djokovic and partied with Azarenka. Is there no loyalty anymore? Sean Connery would never.
Brian Baker: B-. Tennis' resident Job was struck down. Again. And we're all left wondering why. Again. After winning his first career match at the Australian Open, Baker went a set up on Sam Querrey before tearing the meniscus in his knee and getting wheeled off the court.
Redfoo: B. The No. 1's No. 1 fan was everywhere. You couldn't miss him if you tried. If the guy gets more people who wouldn't otherwise care about tennis to tune in, then he can keep shufflin' away. I'm already looking forward to his arrival at the All England Club. Wimbledon does a lot of things. Party rock, it does not.
The 2013 Australian Open: B. Aside from the Djokovic-Wawrinka match, this tournament won't be remembered for the tennis, which wasn't great overall. The women's tournament was marred by controversy and injuries, while the men's final, the crown jewel of every Slam in recent years, won't be getting a rewatch anytime soon. Sure, a few breakout performances by the younger generation added excitement in the first week, but when the champagne settled we didn't learn anything new. The Australian Open is still "The Happy Wacky Slam." Winning a Slam involves just as much luck as skill and hard work. And Djokovic and Azarenka are still the most reliable bets on hard courts. Watch List: Djokovic to Davis Cup; WTA to Paris