Nadal has tools, fortitude to beat Djokovic; more Aussie thoughts
Forget the critics, Rafael Nadal has the willpower and tools to beat Novak Djokovic
Another lackluster women's final shouldn't bury the historic results of the semis
Tomas Berdych overreacting to getting hit by a shot overshadowed his results
Some assorted thoughts and observations in the wake of a stirring, unforgettable Australian Open:
Seldom has so much been gained in defeat. Nadal may have lost his last seven matches to Novak Djokovic, but I don't agree with the conventional wisdom that he "lacks the weapons" to unseat the world No. 1. Not when Nadal takes a 4-2 lead in the fifth set of a match setting the highest standards of physical and mental prowess.
Nadal has taken tremendous strides in this regard. Over that hellish 0-6 stretch last year, we saw him casting looks of hopelessness toward his box, bending over in exhaustion after marathon points, and being remarkably candid in addressing Djokovic's unsettling dominance.
There was none of that on Sunday night. Nadal's performance radiated sheer belief, particularly in the latter stages, and he thrilled the crowd with his exuberance and resilience. How often does a player sink to his knees in triumph with a set still to play? I can't recall an instance, but that was Nadal after the fourth set, knowing he had crossed a very significant barrier in this matchup.
The truth is, Nadal did have enough to win this match. He did have the answers. He absorbed every blow from Djokovic, summoned that legendary resolve, and kept fighting. You won't find him this week on the psychiatrist's couch, an image that came so quickly to mind after last year's Wimbledon. More likely, he's replaying some key points that were on his racket, notably that "sitter" backhand passing shot -- too fine, just wide -- that would have given him a 40-15 lead at 4-2 in the fifth. It was the execution of his own shots that failed him, not some of sort of impenetrable barrier, and I'll throw out a prediction right now: If they meet at the French Open, Nadal will break all the way through.
Similarly, Andy Murray absorbed a loss that proved inspirational to himself, new coach Ivan Lendl and the ever-skeptical British press. "Andy's greatest defeat," wrote the Telegraph's Mark Hodgkinson on his website, typical of the sympathetic reaction back home. "One of the oldest caricatures in tennis is the brave British loser, (but) Murray is in a wholly different category. He lost, but he showed that he has what it takes -- both in terms of talent and mental fortitude -- to win a Grand Slam."
Speaking of backhand misses: In his mind, Murray will forever replay the routine baseline shot that settled horribly into the net against Djokovic on a break point at 5-5 in the fifth. He needed that point in the worst way. But it was the positive energy from Murray, evident at most every turn, that showed the makings of a new man.
Not so great in defeat: Serena Williams, who lost rather tamely to Ekaterina Makarova, 6-2, 6-3. There were howls of derision before the tournament when Serena said she didn't "love" tennis, but on this day, from her performance to her press conference afterward, she really looked the part.
Critics jumped all over Mardy Fish for his surly attitude during a second-round loss to Alejandro Falla, Martina Navratilova claiming on Tennis Channel that "there's a difference between whining and just being angry, and Mardy's whining right now." He was probably a bit too cranky for his own good, but Fish can't stand gamesmanship, particularly Falla's brand: getting constant treatment for cramping, then racing through points as if he'd never felt better. "I don't enjoy that at all," Fish said later. "I have a hard time calling for the trainer, period, for anything."
Fish must have loved that men's final, a titanic struggle between two men who never called a medical timeout, raced off to the bathroom or took any more than the designated time during changeovers. Strategic "breaks" are pathetically transparent, nearly 100 percent of the time, and a blight on the modern game. Barring a truly serious injury, the moment you stop play for medical treatment or leave the court in an effort to change the momentum, you've exposed yourself as a competitive weakling.
For those in attendance, as well as television viewers around the world, the instant reaction to Djokovic-Nadal was "best match ever." I have a feeling, though, that as time goes on, the consensus will lean toward those two Wimbledon classics: Borg-McEnroe in 1980 and Nadal-Federer in 2008, each for specific episodes locked solidly in the memory bank.
Good to hear, by the way, that noted historian Steve Flink will make a last-minute insert of Djokovic-Nadal into his new book, "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time," scheduled for release in June. This figures to be Flink at his thorough, analytical best, a worthy sequel to his collectors' gem, "The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century."
I watch a lot of television via DVR, catching up with shows later on tape, and this proved to be a crucial tool throughout the Australian with its 16-hour time difference (19 hours on the West Coast). I'll bet I'm not the only DVR veteran who had an overnight crisis in the men's final: I didn't tape ESPN2 long enough to catch the entire match. Are you with me on this one? And did you use Tennis Channel as a life-saver?
I make a habit of taping a channel long after the scheduled broadcast time of a sporting event, and for Djokovic-Nadal, I had ESPN2 set for midnight (Pacific time) to 5:30 a.m. That allowed for some pre-match chatter and a solid five hours of tennis.
No such luck. The match was in the early stages of the fifth set when time ran out. If it weren't for Tennis Channel, with its tape-delayed telecast on Monday afternoon, I would have been completely out of luck. And what a strange transition: After all that time, in full appreciation of Chris Fowler, Patrick McEnroe, Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert on the ESPN crew, I suddenly had the Bill Macatee-Martina Navratilova call. Not that it was a problem; both networks handled the match with proper reverence and restraint.
Additional tennis note: The roles will be reversed at the French Open. Tennis Channel will be the primary rights holder, with a much larger crew (including Mary Carillo, John McEnroe and Ted Robinson) and the most valued air time.
Thanks to Tennis.com's Steve Tignor for this gem, as he caught some of the Australian tennis coverage: "This was Greg Rusedski's quote, about Djoko-Rafa, and the unique challenge of this game:
'I mean, what other sport do you play almost six hours of tennis in?'
"Thanks for narrowing it down for us, Greg."
The Australian Open has become known for its disappointing women's finals in recent years, and Saturday's was no exception: Victoria Azarenka's 6-3, 6-0 rout of Maria Sharapova. But don't underestimate the historical relevance of the women's semifinals: Azarenka's 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 win over Kim Clijsters, and Sharapova 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 over Petra Kvitova.
Here were four of the game's greatest players contesting three-set semifinals, with sufficient drama right to the end -- a stunningly rare event in the history of Grand Slam events.
Using the criteria of elite players, lofty reputations at stake and third sets as least as close as 6-3, this has never happened at Wimbledon or the French Open since the Open Era began in 1968.
The Australian had a classic in 1969 -- Billie Jean King over third-seeded Ann Haydon Jones, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, and Margaret Court over fourth-seeded Kerry Melville, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 -- but nothing since. And the U.S. Open has matched this level only twice:
1991: Martina Navratilova over Steffi Graf, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, and Monica Seles over Jennifer Capriati, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6.
1999: Martina Hingis over Venus Williams, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, and Serena Williams over Lindsay Davenport, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.
So it was a highly significant tournament in that regard, and let's face it, the women's Tour could use the boost. Especially in light of ...
The shrieking controversy. In the realm of inexcusable noise, what could be worse than a Sharapova-Azarenka final?
Listen, we've all grown tired of this issue, largely because it gets a ton of press and the WTA is traditionally indifferent. Why cover the same old ground when no apparent change is forthcoming? Because there is talk, finally, of enforcement at the youth/junior levels. It's quite obvious that nobody's going to change the habits of Sharapova, Azarenka, the Williams sisters or any other high-profile offenders. But if officials can talk some sense into the kids, perhaps a new day is at hand.
In the meantime: Keep pounding. Whether it's the Australian newspapers, the big U.S. outlets, Conan O'Brien, empty seats, angry letters, hooting fans or fellow players (good to hear Agnieszka Radwanska and Svetlana Kuznetsova join the critics' chorus), the drumbeat of outrage must continue. Corporate types will eventually buckle to the onslaught of embarrassment and humiliation. Television interests can't be thrilled that fans by the thousands are turning down the sound, right through the commercials. On-court shrieking is unnecessary, it's cheating, it bugs the hell out of people, and it must be stopped.
A number of observers felt Tomas Berdych got off the hook, in terms of his reputation, when he played such an entertaining quarterfinal against Nadal. I'm not so sure. I think the first image in everyone's mind will be Berdych getting hit by a tennis ball, acting as if he'd been shot, then refusing to shake Nicolas Almagro's hand after their fourth-round match.
Let's be clear that Almagro's shot was well within the realm of reason. Sure, he had other options, but what's more effective than a shot to the body, almost impossible to return with anything beyond a desperation block? It happens constantly in doubles, where players generally accept the strategy. "The Williams sisters usually tag you," Carillo noted last year. "You'll have a couple bruises after the match. You know what I say: It's a tennis ball, not a hockey puck. Unless you get hit in the face, it's really not an uncomfortable situation. It's more about ego than anything else."
Exactly, and if you're out there having fun, without a trace of ego, it's an essential part of the game. Time and again on recreational courts, particularly involving good athletes from other sports, you'll find that the highlight of a match, and the source of uproarious laughter, is a guy getting absolutely drilled by someone who intended to do exactly that.
"We've got to get tougher as tennis players," John McEnroe told ESPN in the wake of the Berdych incident, and he's so right. No wimps allowed.