No, really. It's ahard sport, tennis. Maneuvering balls in those Mondrian-style boxes. Conceivingangles and devising strategy. Running sideline to sideline for hours, sometimesin oppressive heat. It's no picnic. ¬∂ It's just that one would never have knownthat from watching the 2007 Australian Open. Roger Federer, the men's champ,cruised to yet another Grand Slam title, failing to drop a solitary set,sweating so little that he could've gotten away with wearing the same shirt forall seven matches. The women's winner, Serena Williams, had played just fivetournaments in the past year and arrived out of shape. But, finally having someclarity of purpose, she dusted off her rackets and then dusted the competition.In different ways Federer and Williams made the job look so easy. Then againthe great ones tend to do that.
Barely two weeksbefore obliterating top-seeded Maria Sharapova in last Saturday's final, the25-year-old Williams was alone running wind sprints in a Tasmanian park. Shehad just lost a match to Sybille Bammer, an Austrian nein-name, in a low-leveltune-up in Hobart. Having missed most of 2006 on account of injury andindifference, Williams entered the Australian ranked a lowly No. 81. "Itwas like a Rocky moment," she says. "I was so mad I lost that match,and I just did the ultimate workout. I think it paid off."
And how. Given nochance to win in Melbourne, Williams got progressively better with each round,the coat of rust dissolving from her game. More important, her resolve was soconspicuous that it sometimes appeared as though her matches doubled as a sortof marketing campaign for competitive fire. In her third match, down a set and3--5 against fifth-seeded Nadia Petrova of Russia, Williams found a way to win.Two points from a quarterfinal defeat to Israel's Shahar Peer, Williams pulledthrough. For as many unforced errors as Williams commits, her accuracy atcritical times is remarkable.
With each win, sheregained more of her old aura of intimidation, always good for a few games eachset when she was at the height of her powers. Her fourth-round opponent,Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, entered the event as one of the hottest players ontour but radiated fear when facing Williams. "I was thinking what wouldhappen if [her serve] came too close to my body, and I couldn't get out of theway and it hit me in the stomach," Jankovic, the 11th seed, said afterward."Would it go through me?''
Theglass-half-empty view: Serena's tear exposed a poverty of both depth andcourage on the WTA Tour. How else to explain how a player so lacking in fitnessand match preparation could swoop in and win the title? Yet this was,ultimately, more about Serena's singular talent than about others'deficiencies. She's a "one-off," as the Aussies would say, a superiorathlete who simply defies conventional tennis wisdom. Plus, it wasn't as thoughshe played poorly. "All of a sudden she was hitting the ball every bit aswell as she did in the good old days," says hitting partner Mark Hlawaty,referring to the phase when Williams won five of six majors. "And she'sprobably serving better now."
Besides, looks candeceive. For all the cracks about her physique, Williams never fatigued, evenwhen playing three-setters in sweltering heat. Nor was her movement lacking."I'm definitely in better shape than I get credit for," she asserted."[It's] just because I have large bosoms and I have a big ass.... I wasjust in the locker room staring at my body, and I'm like, 'Am I really not fit?Or is it just because I have all these extra assets that I look not fit?' Ithink if I were not to eat for two years, I still wouldn't be a size two. We'reliving in the Mary-Kate Olsen world. I'm just not built that way. I'mbootylicious, and that's how it's always going to be." (Yes, that markedthe first time the word bootylicious was uttered at a tennis event.)
Thanks largely toWilliams, the generally uninspired tennis played on the women's side was offsetby riveting drama. The men's draw, by contrast, featured uninspired drama(Federer wins again) offset by riveting tennis. Time and again, even theblowouts were terrifically entertaining by virtue of scintillating shotmakingand high-quality points. And it wasn't only Federer doing the dazzling.
In his first yearson the tour Fernando Gonzalez was tennis's answer to Nuke LaLoosh. In keepingwith his nickname, Gonzo was equally capable of drilling a winner or drillingthe ball into the courtside signage, particularly with his lock-and-loadforehand. And in addition to his sponsor patches, Gonzalez wore his emotions onhis sleeve, never leaving doubt as to his state of mind. Last season, tired ofwhat he calls "all the ups and downs," the flayin' Chilean contactedveteran coach Larry Stefanki--a Californian with a New Age vibe--in search of acalming influence. Under Stefanki the 26-year-old Gonzalez has toned down bothhis on-court emotions and go-for-broke style. In his first six matches inAustralia, a run that included wins over James Blake and second-ranked RafaelNadal, Gonzo hit 307 winners while committing just 130 errors. (Sixty-forty isa good ratio.) "When you play like this," he says, "tennis is somuch more fun."
The fun endedagainst Federer. While the Mighty Fed hadn't lost a match since last August,there was a sense in the locker room that he was ripe for the taking, that asAndy Roddick (among others) suggested, the gap was closing. While Federer neverdirectly admitted it, there were indications that he was rankled by this talk.His semifinal evisceration of Roddick--a 6--4, 6--0, 6--2 masterpiece thatRoddick gamely described as an "absolute beating"--was a forcefulstatement. In the final Federer neutralized Gonzalez with defense and superiorstrategy and prevailed 7--6, 6--4, 6--4.
Federer became thefirst male since Bjorn Borg at the 1980 French Open to win a major withoutdropping a set, all the while playing his typically ornate tennis. Federerdidn't pound winners so much as he swept them and flicked them with a majestythat suggests that brute force is beneath his dignity. As a courtside signread: QUIET: GENIUS AT WORK.¬†"It all came together nicely thistournament," he said. "I felt so relaxed, it was a joke."
This was GrandSlam title number 10 for Federer, who at just 25 years of age remains in thepassing lane as he approaches the intersection of Sampras and Laver. The gapthat separates him from the rest of the field? It's still as vast as theAustralian outback.
If you're lookingfor changes in the balance of power, best to fix your gaze on the women's game.After her victory in Melbourne, Williams is ranked No. 14, and, having stareddown five seeds and then run roughshod over Sharapova in a 6--1, 6--2 win thattook all of 63 minutes, Williams is--just like that--again in rarefied air."Like I always say, when I'm playing well, it doesn't matter who theyare," she says. "It's difficult for anyone to beat me."
By her ownadmission she might have a big caboose. But damn if she isn't back to being theengine.
Get more on the Australian Open from L. Jon Wertheimand ask him your most pressing tennis questions.
ONLY AT SI.COM