Li Na and Andy Murray on the Cusp of Breakthrough — The Friday Five

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By Maud Watson

Thrice as Nice

They call it the “Happy Slam,” and no one seems happier to compete in Oz than Novak Djokovic. The Serb became the first man in the Open Era to win three consecutive Australian Open singles titles, with his latest coming over Andy Murray. It was a classic match from Djokovic. He bounced back from the disappointment of losing a tight first set, scraped by in the second, and then found the confidence to play top-flight tennis to win the next two with relative ease and secure his sixth major singles title. As he did last year, Djokovic has announced his goal is to capture that elusive singles crown at Roland Garros, and just as was the case in 2012, his win in Melbourne has given him the perfect start to mount such a campaign. But unlike last season, he doesn’t have the 41-match win streak to defend, nor does he have the pressure of trying to maintain an undefeated streak against Nadal. He should be able to play with less pressure, which arguably makes 2013 his best chance yet to win Roland Garros. It may be months away, but many, perhaps none more so than Djokovic, are already gearing up for springtime in Paris!

Unsettling

That’s one of the ways to describe the feel of the Australian Open women’s final and ending result, as Victoria Azarenka defeated Li Na to successfully defend her 2012 crown. The crowd was always going to be in Li’s corner, but at after the controversy that followed Azarenka’s win in the semis, they were firmly entrenched in the Li camp. They let Azarenka know it, too. She entered the stadium to a chorus of boos, and the crowd was quick to jump on her if she so much as put a toe out of line. Ironically and fittingly, Azarenka also had to endure three delays – one for fireworks and two for medical timeouts for Li. But Azarenka overcame it all, and as she won the final point, she broke down in tears. The dream was realized, the nightmare over. She’ll likely never be a fan favorite, but the way she was made to earn that final victory helped with damage control. Many were impressed that she didn’t crumble under the media frenzy or lose her way after the extended breaks, and there was no denying that she had handled the bigger moments better than Li. Her genuine tears were also a nice touch. For her part, Azarenka stated she would always remember the court and hinted that she, too, had learned an important lesson that fortnight. Hopefully she does take away more than just a trophy from Melbourne and we can look forward to better things from the WTA No. 1.

Andy Murray

On the Cusp

They both fell short at the final hurdle, but Murray’s and Li’s deep runs in Australia bode well for their chances in 2013. Playing in his first slam since becoming a major champion, Murray handled the added pressure and expectations admirably. In the final, it was evident that Djokovic still has the edge in the mental department, but the days of Murray turning into a shrinking violet in the biggest matches are over. He’s firmly a member of the Big 4, and with the current landscape of the ATP, is also looking more and more likely to be the Serb’s chief rival for the sport’s grandest prizes. A trip to the Aussie Open championship match represented an even bigger breakthrough for Li, as it’s the first time she’s reached a slam final since winning at Roland Garros in 2011. She’s still struggling to play clutch tennis when it matters most, but with her fitness, game, and overall consistency improving since bringing Rodriguez onboard, it’s only a matter of time before she catches up in the mental toughness department, too. Another major title looks well within the realm of possibility for the endearing woman from China.

Double the Pleasure

It got overshadowed by the singles, but the doubles competition in Oz provided plenty of feel-good and historical moments. The wildcard pairing of Gajdosova and Ebden pulled off a string of upsets to give the home crowd something to cheer about by taking the mixed doubles crown, and the crafty Italian duo of Vinci and Errani blazed a path to the final – one that included a win over the Williams Sisters – to take their third major championship as a team. But the biggest story belonged to the Bryan Brothers. They defeated the unseeded pairing of Haase and Sijsling for their 13th major to break the tie they shared with Newcombe and Roche and become the most successful men’s doubles team in Grand Slam history. With the twin Americans announcing that they hope to play until Rio in 2016, it would be a stunner if we didn’t see them continue to add to their legacy.

Matters of the Heart

Tennis fans, and particularly American tennis fans, have anxiously been awaiting the return of Mardy Fish to the ATP circuit. Unfortunately Fish, who was supposed to compete in San Jose, has been forced to withdraw with the same heart issues that have kept him sidelined since he pulled out of his Round of 16 clash with Roger Federer at last year’s US Open. At age 30, Fish doesn’t have a lot of time left, but he also needs to exercise plenty of caution. Hearts issues are obviously more serious than blisters or joint pain. Hopefully his withdrawal turns out to be nothing more than a short, temporary setback, but if is something more, Fish may be forced to make his absence from the ATP World Tour into a permanent one.

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