More Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (ATP)

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Djokovic gets cozy with an old flame. Should Jelena Ristic be jealous?

 

Having completed the recap of the WTA field at the Australian Open, we issue report cards for the ATP.  As before, grading reflects not just results but expectations, quality of opposition, and other factors. 

Djokovic:  The master of Melbourne like none before him, the Serb became the first man in the Open era to finish on top Down Under three straight years.  That record span of dominance over a tournament that famously has eluded dominance came with a satisfying serving (note the word choice) of revenge over Murray, who had defeated him in the US Open final.  Consolidating his current control over what looks like the ATP’s next marquee rivalry, Djokovic won his third straight match in it after losing the first set in all of them.  Vital to his success was the series of 44 consecutive holds with which he ended the tournament, strangling two of the game’s best returners in Ferrer and Murray.  Those top-five opponents managed break points in just two of Djokovic’s service games through the semifinal and final as he repeatedly won 30-30 and deuce points throughout the tournament—with one notable exception in his epic against Wawrinka.  The undisputed world #1 survived and then thrived in running his winning streak over top-eight opponents to eleven.  Overpowering Ferrer and outlasting Murray, Djokovic showed that he can—and will—do virtually anything to win.  A+

Murray:  The US Open champion came closer than many anticipated to becoming the first man to win his second major on the next opportunity after his first.  Murray admittedly benefited from a puff pastry of a pre-semifinal draw, which allowed him to conserve energy for that five-setter against Federer.  Threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the end of the fourth set in that match, he showed remarkable resilience by bouncing back to claim an early lead in the fifth and close out the man who had tormented him at majors.  Murray maintained a nearly impenetrable rhythm on serve throughout that match, and his forehand continued its maturation into a real weapon.  He will rue the three break points that he let escape early in the second set of the final, which could have unfolded entirely differently otherwise.  But Murray was right to consider the tournament an important consolidation of last year’s success.  A

Federer:  Handed the most difficult draw of the top three, he showed just how well his game can silence players who rely heavily on their serves in ousting Tomic and then Raonic.  Federer defended crisply and moved as alertly as he has in years past during the five-set quarterfinal with Tsonga that followed, which unveiled the full range of his weapons from the explosive to the delicate.  But his struggles to break serve caught up with him against Murray, whom he could not crack for three and a half sets even as his own serve came under frequent pressure.  Probably drained by the Tsonga epic, Federer faded in the fifth set despite mounting an impressive surge to swipe the fourth.  He finished the tournament by winning all six of his tiebreaks, a sure sign that he remains one of the sport’s best competitors under pressure.  A

Ferrer:  Never looking his best during the fortnight, he backed into the #4 ranking rather than charging into it with confidence.  Ferrer probably should have lost to Almagro in the fourth round, outplayed for most of the first four sets and kept alive only by his compatriot’s shocking inability to deliver the coup de grace.  Thoroughly exposed by Djokovic in the semifinals, he suffered his second humiliating defeat at that stage of a major over the last twelve months as he offered little better than batting practice for the Serb’s weaponry.  Ferrer said consistently this fortnight that he considers himself a clear level below the Big Four, and his results against them on grand stages continue to make his point for him.  B

Tsonga:  The Frenchman slipped to 13 straight losses against top-eight opponents here, but the manner in which he did contained kernels of hope for the season.  Not folding meekly to Federer as he had in an earlier Australian Open, Tsonga regrouped from losing the first set in a tiebreak to win the second and regrouped from losing the third set in a tiebreak to win the fourth.  He even spared no effort in battling Federer down to the finish in a fifth set tenser than the scoreline showed.  Also likely to please new coach Roger Rasheed was his greater efficiency in closing out overmatched opponents in the previous four rounds.  Docked a notch for his Neanderthal-like comments about women’s tennis.  B+

Almagro:  As the percipient Steve Tignor of Tennis.com noted, sometimes a player’s greatest achievement can turn into his greatest catastrophe within a handful of points.  Jerking Ferrer around the court for two and a half sets, Almagro astonished audiences by his newfound courage against an opponent who had won all 12 of their previous meetings.  He will remember his first quarterfinal at a hard-court major for the wrong reasons, though, once he failed to serve it out three times across the third and fourth sets before succumbing to cramps as well as the crushing weight of his disappointment in the fifth.  B-

Chardy:  Not only did he upset Del Potro with inspired attacking tennis, but he followed up that five-set victory by grinding out a four-setter against the recently dangerous Seppi.  The Frenchman came from nowhere to reach his first major quarterfinal and in the process showed considerable courage. Chardy almost pulled off an Almagro against the Tower of Tandil, gagging on triple break point midway through the third set when he had won the first two.  Unlike the Spaniard, he mustered one last surge in the fifth with an unexpected fearlessness to finish what he had started.  A-

Berdych:  Drawn against the top seed in a quarterfinal for the second straight major, he could not find the same thunderbolts that he had hurled at the US Open.  Or perhaps Berdych simply matches up more effectively to Federer than to Djokovic, who has won all eleven of their hard-court meetings.  Before that relatively tame four-set loss, however, he recorded four straight-sets victories that bode well for his consistency, always the main question for him.  He leaves the Australian Open as the man outside the Big Four most likely to win a major this year, although he will need some help to do so.  B+

Del Potro:  Through the first two rounds, the Tower of Tandil looked not only sturdy but downright terrifying.  Just when people began to take him seriously as a dark horse title threat, Del Potro turned into the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he tottered to the exit in a strangely enervated effort.  That five-set loss to Chardy at the end of the first week marked a setback in a surge that started with his bronze-medal victory at the Olympics, departing from his recent steadiness against opponents outside the top ten.  F

Tipsarevic:  He looked every inch a top-eight seed in dismantling sentimental favorite Hewitt before his home crowd on Rod Laver Arena, where the Aussie had wrought so many miracles before.  Striking winners down both lines with abandon, Tipsarevic appeared to make an imposing statement.  Then he wobbled through two five-setters and retired against Almagro, not a surprising result for a man who has completed a career Golden Slam of retirements.  C

ATP young guns:  Heralded with enthusiasm when the tournament began, none of these prodigies left a meaningful impact on the tournament.  Brisbane finalist Dimitrov became the first man to exit Melbourne, failing to win a set in his opener, and Raonic succumbed to Federer much more routinely than he had in their three meetings last year.  Tomic produced a stronger effort against the Swiss star than he did last year but still lost in straight sets after struggling mightily with a qualifier in the previous round.  And American fans need not have watched Harrison’s ignominious loss to Djokovic for long to realize how far this alleged future star must improve before mounting a credible threat.  Last but not least, Paris finalist Jerzy Janowicz narrowly avoided a second-round implosion over a dubious line call and rallied to win after losing the first two sets—sets that he should not have lost in the first place.  Janowicz did at least progress as far as his seed projected, and many of these young men received difficult draws, but the breakthrough of young stars that many expected here happened almost entirely on the women’s side.  C+

Bryan brothers:  At their most productive major, they closed within four major titles of Federer by comfortably winning the final after some close scrapes earlier in the fortnight.  The Bryans have earned some of their most consistent success in Australia, where they have reached nine finals and five consecutively.  Djokovic still has some work to do before he can approach the numbers of these twins whose talents never seem to fade.  A

Djokovic vs. Wawrinka:  Undoubtedly the match of the tournament, it represented the high point of Wawrinka’s career to date.  The Swiss #2 basked in the spotlight while cracking his exquisite one-handed backhands to all corners of the court and taking control of rallies with his penetrating cross-court forehand.  Wawrinka even served at Federer-like heights for much of the match, outside a predictable stumble when he approached a two-set lead.  Stunned by the brio of his opponent, Djokovic needed a set and a half to settle into the match.  The underdog then needed about a set and a half to regroup from the favorite’s charge, at which point the fourth and fifth sets featured spellbinding tennis all the more remarkable for the ability of both men to sustain their quality.  Fittingly, the match ended only after Wawrinka had saved two match points with breathtaking shot-making and only with a rally that forced both men to pull out nearly every weapon in their arsenals.  A+

Simon vs. Monfils:  Not much shorter than Djokovic vs. Wawrinka in terms of time, it felt considerably longer to watch.  This mindless war of attrition featured rally after rally of the sort that one more commonly finds on practice courts, including a 71-shot meander to nowhere that contributed to the inevitable cramping suffered by both men late in the match.  If the previous epic offered an argument to keep the best-of-five format, this match argued just as eloquently for its abandonment.  Simon, the winner, had no chance of recovering in time for his next match, nor would Monfils if he had won.  C-

Men’s final:  Not a classic by any means, it compared poorly both to the women’s melodrama on the previous night and to the marathon of the 2012 men’s final.  The 2013 edition illustrated some troubling reasons why the Djokovic-Murray rivalry never may capture the imagination to the extent of Federer-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Nadal.  Presenting no contrast in styles, these two men played essentially the same games in a match of mirror images that came down to execution in any given situation—interesting but not exactly stimulating to watch.  Moreover, they continued to bring out the passivity in each other by showing so much respect for each other’s defense that many rallies featured sequence after sequence of cautious, low-risk shots designed to coax errors rather than force the issue.  These tactics worked perfectly for Djokovic, just as they worked for Murray at last year’s US Open, but they left fans waiting for a spark that never came in a match that trudged towards anticlimax.  B-

And that is a wrap of the 2013 Australian Open!  Up next is a look ahead to the first round in Davis Cup World Group action:  all eight ties previewed and predicted.

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