Australian Open 2013

Novak Djokovic Wins Fourth Australian Open

The last time Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic met at tour level – as opposed to the social level – was at the World Tour Finals in London, while the time before that was the final of the Shanghai Masters, in a terrific match that fell barely shy of being adjudged a classic. The time before that was the US Open final, a match that rearranged history as we know it, even if the raw tennis itself, addled and marred by hurricane-force winds, languished somewhere shy of perfection. Theirs’ is, we’re told often, the defining rivalry of the era. Tonight’s final, in the azure vault of Rod Laver Arena, was therefore anyone’s match.

It is, it must be said, not the most dynamic of rivalries at a point-by-point level. It is very often an example of what happens when an immovable object meets an immovable object. It is rare for a winner to be struck before every other possible option has been exhausted. Indeed, exhausted is the operative word. Shanghai essentially ended when Murray’s legs gave out. In New York the reverse occurred. It turns out even the sturdiest pins in the game will give way if you pound at them for long enough. So it proved tonight.

All the same, whether it was the absent gale or the fresh locale, the first set of tonight’s final featured plenty of short points. It kicked off with three quick winners. Mercifully, the rallying pace was more Shanghai than New York. Djokovic created more chances – an entire handful of break points – but in failing to take them he did little more than frustrate himself. This bore strange fruit in the tiebreak, which the world No.1 commenced with a double fault, and went downhill from there. Murray, solid, took it 7-2, his first set in an Australian Open final from three attempts.

The Scot maintained his momentum into the second set, and gained three indecisive break points early on, although he looked rather nonplussed, and handed them back. The tiebreak was still another eight games away, but it never felt as though it wouldn’t arrive. It did.

Then, in a moment that will live long in infamy, the match turned. A small seagull feather fluttered past Murray as he prepared to deliver a second serve. He paused, doubtless reflecting on the transience of all things and that we humans are, ultimately, but dust and shadow. Then he double faulted. Djokovic ran away with the breaker, levelling the match.

The feather was a tiny moment of beauty, but definitive contrast arrived when Murray called a medical timeout, so that his wrecked foot might be rebound and anointed (apparently with mustard). The foot was not attractive. Nor, it transpired, was it entirely functional. Murray looked decidedly hobbled as he returned to the court. Djokovic, ostensibly a good friend of the court, was justifiably less than sympathetic.

Games continued on serve until 3/4 on Murray’s serve, whereupon he collapsed to 0-40. Two break points were saved, but not a third. It ended (at 31) the longest sequence of holds to commence a Major final in history. If Djokovic was impressed he didn’t show it, and served out the set with ease.

The breaking commenced earlier in the third set, with the visibly struggling Scot losing his serve at 1-1, and again at 4-1. Djokovic came around to serve out the championship at 5-2. He was so confident that he began to rush the net behind double-fisted drive volleys, which didn’t work out well. A rather lucky and rare drop-smash righted things however, and he thereafter lost no more points, claiming his fourth Australian Open title when a last weary Murray backhand found the net. The final score was 6-7 (2) 7-6 (3) 6-3 6-2.

Novak Djokovic is now the only man in the Open Era to win three consecutive Australian Opens. Afterwards he was ecstatic (believe it or not), but unlike last year’s final and this year’s fourth round he opted not to shred his clothes. It hadn’t been that kind of match. Still, his smile was endless, and deserved.

Both players delivered appropriately warm speeches at the trophy presentation, taking special care to endorse Craig Tiley’s stewardship of the event, echoing the broader sentiments of the player-bases. Probed later about the feather that blew open the second set, Djokovic laughed, conceded that momentum had indeed shifted at that moment, but suggested that his opponent might have more to say on the matter.

In all, it was a decent final, even if it won’t go down as a great one. For sheer drama it probably needed a fifth set (plus a roof closure and a fireworks display). But this wasn’t to be, thanks to Djokovic’s sporadic but timely brilliance, Murray’s damaged and weary body, and – if we believe the British journalists – one rogue feather. It is Djokovic’s sixth Major title, and there is almost no chance it will be his last.

Zheng Jie: Earning Her Day in the Sun

A lot of people are going to publish articles about Samantha Stosur in the next few hours.

About how she lost early in Australia again. About how she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and how she once again crumbled under the pressure of playing at home. How she choked and let her undersized opponent back into the match. About how she is a talented player with a big serve and forehand, how she has won a Grand Slam title, and how mysterious it is that she cannot string together wins in her home country.

This will not be one of those articles.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Zheng Jie. A player without the Slam title but arguably twice the talent with flat strokes that belie her size. A pioneer for Chinese tennis, the first Chinese woman to reach a major semifinal at Wimbledon. A courageous competitor who took Serena Williams to 9-7 in the third on the London lawns a year ago and beat Stosur herself two weeks ago in a three grueling sets.

The winner of her second round match, defeating Stosur 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.

Zheng took the court understandably full of belief; her opponent’s struggles in Australia are as notorious as they are well documented. Combine those external circumstances with the inconvenient truth that Zheng’s flat, on the rise groundstrokes match up well against Stosur’s more mechanical, time-dependent game style and the unseeded Chinesewoman was the overwhelming favorite.

She certainly played like the favorite for most of the first set. Taking precious time away from Stosur, Zheng dominated the No. 9 seed from the back of the court, showing the partisan crowd why she has been ranked as high as 15 in the world. Despite a late wobble, she closed on her eighth set point and looked set to be Stosur’s yearly Melbourne conqueror.

For the next set and a half, things began to change. Stosur stopped missing, and Zheng’s laser-like shots lost their pinpoint accuracy. The crowd got involved and for a moment, Stosur forgot she was playing in Australia. As the Chinesewoman fell behind a double break in the third set she struck a disconsolate figure, out of energy and out of ideas.

In a manner reminiscent of everywhere (not just Australia), Stosur began to pull back. The embarrassing shanks that haunted her throughout the first set were coming in streams. Despite a jittery finish, she still found herself within two points of the third round.

Enter “JZ.” Like a boss.

Using her veteran sensibility, Zheng took full advantage of the shorter ball she was now getting. She stepped up and into the court, outfoxing Stosur from the baseline and passing her at the net. Breaking the Aussie twice to level, the rest of the match appeared only a formality. Stosur had retreated, Zheng had advanced; there would be no more violent shifts in momentum.

Almost three days into the first week, this match was one of the best the tournament had to offer. The first match on Rod Laver Arena to go the distance, it exhibited breathtaking rallies, intelligent shotmaking, and a very tense ending. But it was not a match that Sam Stosur lost.

This was a match that Zheng Jie won.

It was a hard-earned victory, one that does not deserved to be sullied by the insinuation that she benefited from a choke. Stosur may have left the door open on her way to the round of 32, but it was up to Zheng to walk through and kick the Aussie out.

Kick she did, and she was rewarded with a day in the sun.