Readers who enjoyed the article counting down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half may enjoy this sequel on the women. As with the men, these matches do not necessarily feature the best tennis from an aesthetic perspective. (In fact, some of them produced quite atrocious tennis for long stretches.) What they did produce was meaningful results linked to broader trends that stretched across the first half.
7) Laura Robson d. Petra Kvitova, Australian Open 2R, 2-6 6-3 11-9
The most accomplished lefty in women’s tennis met the most promising lefty in women’s tennis earlier in a draw than either would have wished. Whereas Kvitova needed to turn a new leaf after a disastrous 2012, Robson sought to build upon a second-week appearance at the US Open. Nerves defined much of their contest, not on this list for the quality of its tennis. By the middle of the third set, however, it became clear that Robson could master her nerves better than the former Wimbledon champion could. Unable to serve out the match the first time, she slammed the door at love on her second opportunity. The encouraging resilience from Robson signaled her progress this season, which has included a victory over Agnieszka Radwanska and a second-week appearance at Wimbledon. For Kvitova, the painful loss hinted that 2013 would look more than 2012 than 2011, as it has so far.
6) Sabine Lisicki d. Serena Williams, Wimbledon 4R, 6-2 1-6 6-4
On the surface friendliest to the serve stood the two most formidable servers currently in the women’s game. But grass specialist Lisicki trailed Serena 16-0 in major titles and 142-0 in weeks at No. 1. By the logic of this Wimbledon, one should have guessed from the start that the underdog would prevail. When Serena rallied from losing seven of the first nine games to win nine of the next ten, though, the writing seemed etched on the wall. Nobody finds a way back against her from 0-3 in a final set at Wimbledon, or from 2-4, or from triple break point at 3-4. Lisicki did all of those things and even survived the nerve-jangling finish as she served for the match, saving a break point with an ace and converting match point with a clean winner. The victory ended Serena’s career-best winning streak, which had begun in March, and propelled Lisicki toward her first major final. It marked her sixth victory over a major champion and third over a world No. 1 in just five Wimbledon appearances. Even when the top three dominate, others still can spring surprises.
Honorable mention: Lisicki’s semifinal epic against world No. 4 Radwanska bore several striking similarities to her victory over Serena.
5) Serena Williams d. Anabel Medina Garrigues, Madrid QF, 6-3 0-6 7-5
Raise your hand if you would have expected Medina Garrigues to appear on this type of list when the 2013 campaign began. No, I thought not. And yet she posed Serena’s most formidable challenge of a clay season during which the world No. 1 went undefeated from wire to wire. To be fair, Medina Garrigues received considerable assistance from across the net in becoming the first woman to bagel Serena since 2008. The American spent much of the match showing us why she had not won a title on red clay in a decade, struggling to stay focused, patient, and disciplined against a grinder fond of the surface. Then the last few games showed us why this year would be different. Serena bent but did not break, rallying from within two points of defeat rather than letting her frustrations overcome her. She would lose just one more set in the rest of the clay season, strewing 14 bagels and breadsticks across Madrid, Rome, and Paris. Medina Garrigues, who lost 6-1 6-1 to Dinah Pfizenmaier this week, gave Serena the wake-up call that she needed to reconquer her least favorite surface.
4) Victoria Azarenka d. Serena Williams, Doha F, 7-6(6) 2-6 6-3
When 2012 ended, only one woman looked like a realistic threat to Serena’s stranglehold over the WTA. But that woman, Victoria Azarenka, had just absorbed her ninth consecutive loss in their rivalry. As competitive as some of those losses were, such as last year’s US Open final, Azarenka needed to stop the skid to bolster her confidence. The Australian Open champion had started slowly in most of her matches against Serena, finding her rhythm only in the second set. Always at her best early in the season, Azarenka started with more determination in Doha and won that crucial first set in a tight tiebreak. She weathered the inevitable response from Serena in the second set and did what she could not do in New York, serving out the match comfortably in the third. Azarenka still has not defeated the world No. 1 at a major, or when fully healthy, so much remains for her to prove. (And Serena won a Premier Five final rematch convincingly in Rome.) All the same, the victory in Doha confirmed suspicions that something like a rivalry might develop here, sometime.
3) Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova, Miami F, 4-6 6-3 6-0
Six weeks after the previous match on this list, Serena’s dominance over her other key rivalry threatened to falter as well. Not since 2004 had she lost to Maria Sharapova, thoroughly stifling the Russian in most of their recent meetings. Disappointment at the Australian Open and the Doha loss to Azarenka blunted Serena’s momentum heading to Miami, her home tournament, but most still ranked her a heavy favorite against Sharapova based on history. For the first half of their final, history took it on the chin as the underdog methodically built a set-and-break lead. But Serena vindicated history in the end, using a handful of long games late in the second set to reverse the momentum. Once she regrouped, neither Sharapova nor anyone else could have done much to stem the torrent of blistering serves and forehands that flowed from her racket. Miami marked the first of Serena’s five consecutive titles this spring and laid a cornerstone of confidence without which her winning streak might not have taken flight. She extended her reacquired dominance over Sharapova in two straight-sets finals on clay.
2) Maria Sharapova d. Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros SF, 6-1 2-6 6-4
With Serena firmly entrenched on the WTA throne, the rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova loomed ever larger. Azarenka had won their two most significant meetings in 2012, an Australian Open final and a US Open semifinal. Holding a surface advantage over the younger blonde on clay, Sharapova struck back at Roland Garros to recapture the edge in their rivalry. A barrage of pinpoint returns and forehands swept the first set into her ledger, but Azarenka exploited an erratic passage of play to level the match. At that stage, parallels linked this match with their US Open semifinal, which Sharapova had started in torrid form before steadily fading. There would be no déjà vu on this day when the two rivals contested their second 6-4 final set in three majors. Sharapova built a commanding lead in the third set, only to throw Azarenka a lifeline as she squandered a handful of match points. The ear-shattering shrieks and ball-shattering blows from both competitors escalated with the mounting drama. When a bullet ace streaked down the center stripe, Sharapova reasserted herself as the best of the rest—for now.
1) Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na, Australian Open F, 4-6 6-4 6-3
Never a fan favorite, Azarenka has endured a discordant relationship with media and many fans throughout her tenure at the top. The simmering turbulence there boiled into the open after she took a dubious medical timeout near the end of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens. When Azarenka took the court against Li with her title defense at stake, the air in Rod Laver Arena felt heavier with hostility than humidity. The Chinese star emerged the less battered of the two from a rollercoaster first set, high on tension and low on holds of serve. Steady returning and unsteady emotions extended into the second set, when Li added a plot twist of her own by sustaining successive injuries. Made of tenacious stuff, she gallantly returned to the fray after striking her head on the court. But Azarenka’s head had grown clearer while Li’s head had grown cloudier, allowing the former to claw her way to an impressive title defense. With almost nobody in her corner for one of the biggest matches of her career, Azarenka showed how she needs nobody but herself. She echoed fellow world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in her ability to thrive on animosity and turn it defiantly to her advantage.
Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall. This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half. Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.
7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3
During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite. First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively. Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo. Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1. When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled. Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished. Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris. (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)
6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)
Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club. An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals. That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10. Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday. Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better. Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.
5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2
Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back. He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized. Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set. A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth. All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently. Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013. Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.
4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5
Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012. Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years. Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition. To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset. But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges. He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.
3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3
Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications. Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why. Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic. Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation. We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.
2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10
Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year. The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent. Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began. Or so we thought. A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment. Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return. The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt. Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments. Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.
1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7
The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line. One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced. Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth. Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line. Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph. While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb. Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.
Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.
by James A. Crabtree
Normality has been restored, with the exploits of Janowicz, Darcis, Del Potro, Stakhovsky, Brown, Kubot and Verdasco disappearing into the vault named Wimbledon folklore.
After all the hiccups throughout the draw the number one and two ranked players meet in the final. Wimbledon 2013, like 33 of the last 34 Slams will be won by one of the Big Four.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, currently the best hard-court players tour, know each other’s games well. Too well, having played18 times, with Djokovic leading 11–7. This tally includes three Grand Slam finals. The 2011 and 2013 Australian Opens, won by Djokovic and the 2012 US Open, won by Murray.
For Murray to win this one he will have to find influence from a multitude of sources. He is coming off a tough fight back victory against Verdasco, and a solid win against Janowicz. There is no reason to believe he has peaked. Also, he has beaten his rival on the big stage but also on the same court, one year ago during the Olympic semi-final. He knows he can’t rely on just rallying out his opponent. He needs surprise attacks, rather than just the passive get backs. Somehow he needs to persuade the Serb to over hit his backhand and question the serve that can get tight under pressure. He needs to keep Novak guessing, find a way into his brain while keeping his own mind unruffled. Conversely, the Serb will be looking to play the very same mind games, and very similar tactics to the Scot.
Wimbledon 2013 will serve to either even the score for Murray or push Djokovic past the tallies of Becker and Edberg with six total slams and onto seven to equal Wilander and McEnroe.
Novak has reached this level by shaking the old label as someone who would quit and crumble. These days he doesn’t merely tolerate tough battles, in truth they galvanize him, not that he has had many this Wimbledon. When he is pushed to the brink he screams, dives, slides, rips and fights to the bitter end better than no man. A tennis machine, possibly inspired by Nikola Tesla, is always dangerous even when he is playing badly; he is always in the game. Novak carries the air of invincibility. He doesn’t miss an easy shot. His serve is rarely broken. He doesn’t make unforced errors. He chases down balls that most players wouldn’t have even attempted. The only real worry is the fact he has only been pushed once all tournament, in that absurdly good semi-final against Del Potro. But is it foolhardy to question someone who has been good?
If Novak claims his second Wimbledon crown he will further cement his name as a legend, all round good guy, great player on all surfaces and poster boy for the new Serbia. If Murray wins his first Wimbledon crown, and the countries first in seventy-seven years, the Scot will enter the realms if immortality. Murray hysteria will abound. Aside from all his extra million dollar deals will be surely be a Knighthood, statue at the All England Club, a new Column in Trafalgar square opposite Nelson and likely divinization.
(June 29, 2013) Twelve. That’s how many times 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens has used the phrase “play hard” in her last two press conferences at Wimbledon this week.
After her turbulent season on the WTA Tour since debuting in the top 20 for the first time in January, that’s all Stephens can focus on – playing hard.
Now through to the fourth round after a rollercoaster of a match against qualifier Petra Cetkovska, Stephens is rebuilding the confidence she lost earlier in the year.
Combined with her fourth round appearance last month at Roland Garros, which she called “pretty good … after not having that many great results over the year,” Stephens said that run helped her “build a lot of confidence.” Now, she comes into Wimbledon “feeling (even) better.”
After becoming an instant celebrity with her surprise win over an injured Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Stephens is now third at odds, according to ESPN, to win Wimbledon behind Williams and 2011 titlist Petra Kvitova. That’s a pretty tall task for a player who has never been past the fourth round of Wimbledon and has yet to even reach a Slam final.
Stephens’ main draw debut at a Slam occurred in 2011 on her favorite surface, the red clay of Roland Garros. And since then, she has gone a respectable 21-8 during her young career. Despite her rather quick ascension up the Slam ranks, she jokes about still being a relative newcomer.
“Even though I played a lot slams, I feel like it’s all new,” Stephens said on Monday. “I came (to Wimbledon) and I … didn’t even know how to get to the locker room.”
Stephens’ young career on court has been an inspiring one, but her off-court presence has quickly outshone her well-crafted style. With many seeds now out from Wimbledon, it’s another opportunity for the young American to revert attention back to her game.
At age 17, Stephens finished 2010 ranked world No. 198, followed it up with a top 100 debut just nine months later and ended the year as the youngest player in the top 100. In July of 2012, she broke into the top 50 for the first time after reaching the third round at Wimbledon, then a left abdominal injury derailed her and she missed the last four months of the season.
Then, the tournament that made her a household name occurred.
Stephens came into the 2013 Australian Open already ranked a proper 25th in the world, but many had still never seen much from the budding 20-year-old. She was carefree, energetic and youthful, and was flying under the radar as she defeated then-world No. 3 Serena Williams on her way to the semifinals.
Then came the media downfall. Clouded by her own words and misrepresentations from some members of the press, Stephens had to combat against comments that she said her and Williams being “besties” and that the elder American was a “mentor.” Though the media blew Stephens’ comments out of proportion, she did little initially to put out the fire.
Another well-timed release of a two-month old interview for ESPN just last month caused an additional stir. In the article, Stephens blasted Williams for being cold to her after her Australian Open win, and Stephens quickly commented that the statements were taken out of context and that she had already sorted it out with Williams directly.
But gone was the lovable interviewee in her post-match press conferences, and her match play during much of this time suffered as well. She again came under heavy scrutiny and she admitted that all of the media attention became too overwhelming for her.
By the first week of May, Stephens’ win-to-loss record on the season outside of the Slams had dropped to 3-6, including five opening round losses.
But looking deeper into Stephens’ results, this statistic shouldn’t be that alarming. She has, for some reason, always performed better at Slams than at WTA-level events.
In 2011, Stephens’ best results came in Carlsbad where she reached the quarterfinals, and the US Open where she reached the third round. Outside of that, she failed to even qualify for seven other WTA events, and additionally lost in the first round of a lower-ranked ITF event to a player outside of the top 400.
In 2012, Stephens reached the third round or better in three of the four Slams, but failed once again to even qualify for three WTA events, though she did reach two semifinals in lower-ranked WTA events.
In 2013 so far, Stephens has reached the fourth round of a Slam twice and the semifinal once, but outside of that, her best showing was once again the semifinal of a lower-ranked WTA event.
All things considered, Stephens has yet to appear past a WTA Premier-level quarterfinal or International-level semifinal, and has only won one ITF title in 2011, yet she is making the fourth rounds of Slams without too much difficulty.
So the question begs to be asked: Why does Stephens perform considerably better at Slams than at WTA-level events?
Well, if you’re looking to Stephens to answer the puzzle, you’ll be disappointed.
“I don’t know,” says Stephens when asked about her Slam performance consistency compared to the rest of her WTA results. “Maybe it’s the food I eat. I’m not really sure.”
Analyzing Stephens’ Slam and Premier events statistics, particularly in three-set matches, from May 2011 to present day, as well as a breakdown of the last twelve months gives some interesting insights.
- When winning the first set in a three-set match at Slams, Stephens has won 85.7% of the time, or 6 out of 7 matches. Compare that to Premier events during the same timeframe where she only won 28.6% of the time, or 2 out of 7 matches.
- In three-set matches won over the last two years, Stephens holds a record of 8-2 at Slams, and 7-8 at Premier events. Over the last twelve months, her Slam record is 7-2 and 3-7 at Premier events.
- Over the last twelve months, the average ranking to which she lost to in three-sets at a Slam was 14, and at Premier events was 38.
- Over the past twelve months, Stephens holds a 15-4 win-to-loss record in all Slam matches, compared to an 11-13 record for all Premier event matches.
- In all Slam losses over the past twelve months, the average ranking of her opponent was 8. Compare that to a ranking of 35 at Premier events during the same time frame.
The statistics breakdown of her matches could continue, but the conclusion is clear: Stephens, whether consciously or not, exerts more into her Slam performances to secure those three-set wins, in particular. Stephens tends to win and lose straight set matches in rather similar ratios across Slam and Premier events – it’s only the three-set matches that show any marked difference.
This week in Wimbledon, after easily getting by her first round opponent Jamie Hampton in straight sets, Stephens was tested with back-to-back three set matches against first Andrea Petkovic then Petra Cetkovska. After winning both first sets in a tiebreak, she had uncharacteristically poor middle sets (6-2 and 6-0, respectively), before bouncing back and winning both nail-biting matches in the third.
Perhaps her confidence at Slams is still somewhat wavering given her results the past few months, but she would be wise to keep that elevated focus and translate it into the other WTA events, and not just at Slams. A few bad draws at a couple of Slams or another injury, and she could see her confidence and ranking faltering. She needs to find a way to win those three-set matches which are being played on smaller stages, and build a proper foundation.
In other words, she needs to take her own advice for every event she enters, and simply “play hard.”
by James A. Crabtree
Arguably the most hated Australian tennis player since a young Lleyton Hewitt, life isn’t easy for Bernard Tomic.
In fact Bernie has almost gone in search of bad press. There was the turning down of Lleyton Hewitt as a practice partner. The allegations he was going to quit Australia at his father’s behest and play for Croatia. In the 2012 Miami Masters he asked the chair umpire to remove his own father. During last years US Open John McEnroe accused Tomic of tanking a loss to Andy Roddick. Following all that he angered the old guard of Australian tennis with apparent refusal to play Davis Cup. And then we have the numerous driving issues, too numerous to mention.
Nevertheless Tomic is also the man with the best chance of restoring Australian tennis fortunes.
It must be tough for him. Most people find young men in their late teens and early twenties irritating to the say the least. Unless you are a fifteen year old girl chances are you also find Justin Bieber and One Direction intolerable.
Another difficulty for Tomic is the daddy dilemma as Bernard is not the person with the biggest ego among his entourage.
What on earth is young Bernie supposed to you?
The youngest Wimbledon quarterfinalist since Boris Becker in 1985 Tomic started 2013 well. He won all three of his singles Hopman Cup matches against none other than Tommy Haas, Novak Djokovic and Andreas Seppi. He then went onto win Sydney. There he beat Marinko Matosevic, Florian Mayer, Jarkko Nieminen, Andreas Seppi (again), and Kevin Anderson for his tenth win in a row and his first career singles title.
Quickly Tomic went from being loathed to loved.
The following week at the Australian Open, Leonardo Mayer and Daniel Brands fell victim. By this time the whole of Australia was in a flutter and Tomic was not only invincible, but was displaying the sort of ego not seen since Clubber Lang.
Then there was the rumoured incident before the big Australian Open 3rd round match. On the practice court where John Tomic is notoriously hot headed Bernie sat after practice, his dad stood behind and berated him incessantly for ten minutes. Eventually Bernie walked off shaking his head. Not the best possible way to get a sense of Zen before a match?
Bernie went on to lose the match, and hasn’t won more than two matches in a row since. Of course his drop in form went unnoticed until dad John reportedly beat up Bernie’s hitting partner Thomas Drouet. Complications have heightened further since Drouet has come forward with other incidences.
What is Bernie supposed to do?
Judy Murray once commented that talent got her son, Andy Murray, within the top 100, but it was hard work and determination that propelled him to the heights he now knows. Compare the 2013 Andy Murray with the 2005 version of himself and we could be looking at a different athlete.
It is obvious that Bernard could administer similar changes.
This poses the question, who would be the perfect person to guide arguably the most naturally talented youngster on tour? Tennis Australia are already trying to help solve the crisis, and undoubtedly all the familiar names will arise such as Tony Roche, Pat Rafter and Scott Draper. Again akin to the LTA Brad Gilbert hiring for Andy Murray perhaps the best coach for the player is not one made by a committee. And besides, Bernie has had more than his fair share of runs with a number of high profile Australian coaches during Davis Cup play already. Perhaps he needs someone with an old school work hard mentality similar to Ivan Lendl or someone who can understand the games intricate details such as Andy Roddick’s old coach Larry Stefanki.
Sacking the only coach you have ever known would be difficult enough, now imagine starting that ordeal with the word ‘Dad’. Bernard obviously needs a new coach, but probably deep down worries about what his father will do without him.
If a match is played on a side court and no one is around to watch it, does the result matter?
British sensation Laura Robson would prefer they didn’t, but a sub-par American hard court season following the Australian Open has shown few signs of letting up as the Tour transitions to European red clay. Robson had been amassing a coterie of big match wins, most recently a gutsy (if aesthetically displeasing) win over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. But the losses for the young Brit have begun to pile up in quickly, as she has failed to win two consecutive matches since January. Off the court, times have been equally trying for the teenager, who suffered the theft of her jewelry and, after an incident of cyber-bullying following a loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai, a brief deactivation of her twitter account.
The former Wimbledon girls’ champion may be one of the last true tennis prodigies; she won her home Slam at the age of 14, famously inviting Marat Safin to accompany her to the Champion’s Ball. Reaching two more junior finals after that, Robson was under a microscope for most of her junior development. Making the transition to the senior tour, Robson showed promise when she reached the Hopman Cup finals with compatriot Andy Murray in 2011 and won the silver medal in at the Olympic mixed doubles event last summer.
But it was her summer hard court swing last year that truly turned heads; not long after hiring the controversial Zeljko Krajan (former coach of Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova), Robson made a splash at the US Open, ending Kim Clijsters’ singles career in emphatic fashion and following that up with a decisive win over an in-form Li Na. In the fall, she continued to impress with a run to the finals of Guangzhou and it seemed she was coming into her own as 2013 got underway with the aforementioned Kvitova victory.
From that steady progress, it would appear Robson has done a complete about-face, but what has caused this slump? Unlike rival Sloane Stephens, who endured an uncomfortable homecoming after her Australian Open heroics, Robson has been decidedly under the radar, starting (and swiftly ending) most tournaments away from the glare of a TV camera.
Though a tennis match has few literary properties, that stops a precious few of us from analyzing them as if they were texts (the day a win or a loss means nothing more than a strict binary is the day journalism dies). A cursory look at Robson’s results reveal a string of five three-set losses, four 6-1 final sets, and three losses from a set up. Robson’s apparent inability to close ostensibly winnable matches against players outside the top 30 is startling given both her talent and the matches that made her relevant.
An even closer look, this time at the stats of Robson’s losses, most recently a two-set defeat to Japan’s Ayumi Morita, shows an ever-increasing amount of double faults (she served 10 against Morita). Coach Krajan’s former students had their own histories of serving woes before hiring the Croatian former pro, but his habit of tweaking his charges’ serve motions to be more side-arm have often done more harm than good, Robson appearing the latest victim of “the yips.”
Now playing in Europe for the first time since asserting her presence among the Tour’s upper echelon, the roles between Stephens and Robson will reverse; playing away from home, the young American will have a chance to work out her shaken confidence on both a surface she prefers and those outer courts Robson has called home for much of the season. By contrast, Robson, who probably anticipated making more inroads on a faster surface, will be asked to play under increasing scrutiny leading up to Wimbledon, literally a stone’s throw from her actual home.
How either player copes with the change of scenery cannot yet be predicted, but at least for Robson, the troubling start to the clay season may mean it gets worse before it gets better.
As the ATP tour descends with wrathful inevitability upon the clay of southern Europe and elsewhere – indeed the WTA has already made the switch – the time seems appropriate to look back at the prolonged hardcourt season just ended, the one that began in Atlanta last July, and concluded just a few days ago in Miami.
It is a useful way to view the tennis season: as a near-perpetual hardcourt marathon punctuated by those brief fevered months on the traditional courts of the Old World, with the year-end break merely the longest of several afforded to worn players. A wider perspective is always a useful thing to maintain, provided one can resist the persuasive distortions of the panorama.
This period incorporates the US Summer, the Asian swing, the European indoors, Australia, and the disparate events in February that culminate in the US Spring Masters, and therefore includes two Majors, six Masters 1000, the World Tour Finals, and a multitude of 250 and 500 events.†
Table 1. Hardcourt Leaders
This shows the hardcourt season leaders, including their number of points, titles, and win/loss.
It surely comes as a surprise to no one that Djokovic tops this list, across all three categories, or, presumably, that Murray sits in clear second place. After all, between them they won both Majors, and three of the six Masters events. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Ferrer numerically out-performed Federer, at the Majors, the Masters and at 500 and 250 level. It’s interesting to note that Berdych accrued more points than del Potro, despite having a worse winning percentage and winning fewer titles. However, the Czech did play more matches than anyone else in this period.
Table 2. Points Gain
This table shows which players gained the most points. It will consequently favour the top players heavily.
How about that? Gasquet has gained the most hardcourt points since last July. His biggest hauls came in Montreal, Miami, and three 250 level titles in Montpellier, Doha and Bangkok. It’s more proof that he’s headed in the right direction. I am hopeful that this trend will continue for a while yet. These numbers merely add more wonder to the late career resurgence of Haas. Ferrer, meanwhile, feasted on his elevated seeding to gain excellent results in Paris, New York, Melbourne and Miami.‡
Del Potro made a substantial gain despite a dismal Australian Open loss, and he has gradually returned to an appropriate spot in the rankings. Djokovic gained points despite failing to defend titles at the US Open and Miami, mainly because he picked up titles in Shanghai and at the Tour Finals.
Table 3. Points Loss
This table shows which players lost the most points. Once again, top players are inevitably featured.
It’s hardly surprising that Nadal tops this list, given that he contested only one hardcourt tournament in this period (Indian Wells), though he did win it.Ψ Federer, on the other hand, has fallen away sharply, as the fistful of titles he claimed in 2011/12 to regain the No.1 spot have gone sadly undefended. Seeing these two atop this list does rather support the idea that we’ve seen the last of the ‘Fedal’ era, for better or for worse.
Tsonga is a worrying case, since there isn’t much evidence that his poor form is due to pick up. He still has tremendous weeks, such as Marseilles, but he also has too many stinkers. Fish’s health issues have been amply discussed, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to the top ten. Monfils has also suffered a dispiriting run of injuries (he’s prone to it, of course), and has tumbled outside the top hundred. It’s worth mentioning that John Isner sits just off this list at No.6. Like Tsonga, but more so, it’s hard to find much hope that his current slide has bottomed out.
Table 4. Rankings Gain
This table shows who made the biggest rankings leap into the top 100 since last July.
This reveals a mixture of seasoned professionals returning - Blake, Robredo - and youngsters on the make. De Bakker and Berankis were ranked unusually low, due to injury, and it’s good to see them reascend to a level more commensurate with their abilities, although I’d hazard that the Lithuanian is more likely to keep climbing much higher. I cannot see de Bakker breaking into the top 50, but a ranking around 70-90 seems not unreasonable. The same could be said of Donskoy. I suspect he’s ranked right at the limits of his current ability. His numbers attest to hard toil at the challenger level, and a nice run to the third round in Melbourne.
Table 5. Top 100 Entries
I include this list, and the one that follows, purely for the sake of curiosity. They show entry into and exit out of the top 100. Given the relatively modest number of points shared between these players, these figures are undeniably skewed by clay results in South America and elsewhere. Zeballos is a perfect example of this.
As with the previous list, as well as a few (too few) youngsters, there is a healthy number of veterans making late-career stands: Robredo, Blake, Hewitt, Tursunov, Mathieu, Becker.
Everyone was on Rosol’s case when he didn’t follow up on his upset of Nadal at Wimbledon with more astounding feats. But it should be noted that he has risen some 44 places, which is a pretty good effort (there are a couple of clay results mixed in there). It wasn’t all roses, though: he did get bagelled by Paolo Lorenzi.
Zemlja is also a pretty interesting case, leading the current Slovenian charge in men’s tennis, along with Bedene and Blaz Kavcic. His standouts were the run through qualifying to the third round of the US Open, and through qualifying to the Vienna final, defeating Haas and Tipsarevic en route.
The average age of these 22 players, incidentally, is 26.59 years. Make of that what you will.
Table 6. Top 100 Exits
Roddick, Ferrero and Chela have of course retired, and so their departures from the top 100 hardly merit further discussion. Excluding those three, the average age of the departed is 28.32 years. This number is dragged down slightly by the 26-year-old Monfils, who tops this list courtesy of a run of injuries, owing to bad luck and a playing style tailored perfectly towards crippling oneself. Assuming he can regain his health – never a safe assumption – he’ll be back in the top 20 before too long. Perhaps.
There is certainly a decent number of tour veterans who one suspects the race is overtaking: Karlovic, Phau, Andreev, Volandri, Mahut and Ramirez-Hidalgo. I hesitate to include Nalbandian on this list, but doing so has become increasingly hard to justify. His low ranking and poor results still somehow feel like a mistake that will one day be rectified, even though I know deep down it won’t be. Hope springs eternal, though Nalbandian clearly doesn’t.
Ebden, Stebe, Bogomolov and Young are excellent examples of that rankings quirk around this level, wherein one or two strong results will buy a journeyman twelve months in the big time, but no longer. Once that year is up, they inevitably subside. My apologies to those readers still hoping for big thing from Young, but I cannot see it happening. Of course, a return to the top hundred isn’t out of the question for any of these guys, but it will always feel like borrowed time.
† This period also of course includes the Golden Swing in South America. Where this has affected the figures I have made a note of it.
‡ Ferrer’s current points total includes 550 points from the Golden Swing.
Ψ Nadal’s current points total includes 750 points from the Golden Swing.
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.
Roger Federer: 17-time Grand Slam champion, 6-time Year-End Championships winner, 21-time ATP Masters 1000 champion (he holds the record amount of titles alongside Spaniard, Rafael Nadal), Olympic silver medalist and Olympic gold medalist in the doubles with compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka. Overall, he has won 76 career singles titles in total, but why am I collating a list of his outstanding career achievements? Well, it is because Roger Federer made it to the semifinals of a Grand Slam and for many tennis players that would be a dream come true, for Federer’s critics, it’s simply not good enough.
World No.2, Roger Federer, was bundled out of the semifinals of the Australian Open by eventual finalist Andy Murray after 5 gruelling sets against the world No.3, not too dissimilar to his Australian Open achievements last year.
At the start of 2012 after Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in four sets during the semifinals of the first Grand Slam of the year, some began to question his future in tennis and if it would be the beginning of his career decline due to his age, after starting a family and having other players emerging and dominating in the major tournaments.
Last year in Rotterdam during the press conferences I heard the former world No.1 being questioned about his career and possible retirement (he went on to win the title in Rotterdam), whether he would ever win another Slam again (Wimbledon 2012 anybody?) and if he believed he would regain his place at the top of the rankings again (on July 16th 2012 he tied Pete Sampras’ record of 286 weeks at No.1 after taking back the top spot once more). Prior to these achievements, Roger Federer had been written off in the minds of some people, but in 2013, write him off at your own peril.
After his 2012 semifinal Australian Open defeat, Federer went on to win consecutive titles in Rotterdam (where he defeated Del Potro), Dubai (where he beat Murray) and Indian Wells (once again beating the then-ranked No. 9 Del Potro, No. 2 Nadal and No. 11 Isner, all in straight sets).
His success continued back in Europe where he was successful in the final against Tomas Berdych on the controversial blue clay in Madrid and won a record 5th Cincinnati title against world No.1 Novak Djokovic. His victories continued on his beloved grass courts of Wimbledon where he was crowned champion for the seventh time against Andy Murray and two weeks later he was avenged by the Brit in the final of the Olympics where he was awarded the Olympic silver medal.
His 2012 season did not end too badly either with back-to-back final appearances in hometown Basel and at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the 02 Arena in London.
There is no doubt that current world No.1 Novak Djokovic and world No.3 Andy Murray are a formidable force on the tennis court and the ‘Novandy’ battles could serve up a rivalry lasting several more years, but whilst Roger Federer is around, he still has the ability to beat the top players – after all he is still one of them. If Federer remains healthy, he may go on to win another major, let’s remember what he achieved last year. Could 2013 be a bit of history repeating? For many Federer fans, they are hoping so and they never give up on their hero.
Ahead of the Australian Open, Federer had not played a tournament going into the first Grand Slam of the year and by his own admission, he was pleased to reach the semis with very little match practice prior to the tournament:
“So I go from here with a good feeling for the year. I didn’t play a tournament leading in, so now obviously I know where my level is at.”
Murray may have knocked Federer out of the semifinals, but has that knocked his confidence or willingness to improve? Of course not…
“I have even more time to work on my game, work on my fitness this year. It’s something I’m excited about.”
With Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray frequently taking centre stage in Grand Slam finals and with the imminent return of Rafael Nadal after his lengthy injury battle with his knee, domination is something which Roger Federer will have to fight for, but he is a sportsman and losing is a learning experience that teaches you to work harder.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion is often referred to as arguably one of the greatest of all time (GOAT) players and as long as the Swiss maestro has the desire to continue playing, he will endure fighting amongst the greatest for more Grand Slam glory and to continue making history. For this reason I would not write him off for future success, after all, he is Roger Federer.
After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open. Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.
Azarenka: The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many. What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her. Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times. Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price. She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it. When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all. A
Li: Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court. She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title. The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets. Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here. When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness. Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel. And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile. A+
Sharapova: Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week. We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning. That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility. Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance. Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right. B+
Serena: As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena. She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could. One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then. Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon. Incomplete
Stephens: Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens. Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third. Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win. Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1. A
Radwanska: Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most. Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw. She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments. It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right. B
Makarova: As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne. Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber. Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise. Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway. B+
Kuznetsova: One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion. Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past. Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA. B+
Kerber: Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense. She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012. That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her. B-
WTA #7-9: This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse. Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points. Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown. Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads. At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point. F
Wozniacki: Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round. Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches. Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova. (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.) Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery. C+
Pavlyuchenkova: Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round. What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it? Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it. C
WTA young guns: From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne. The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst. A
Kvitova vs. Robson: Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka. The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd. It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night. B
Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams: Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors. After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills. This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter. A-
Women’s final: Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament: fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies. As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time. Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final. A
Enjoy this tournament review? Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.