50 thoughts from wild Aussie Open
Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka reached new levels with contrasting wins
Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray moved closer to ditching the monkeys on their backs
Serena Williams will need to re-commit herself to tennis to dominate again
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Cleaning out the notebook from a ripper of an Aussie Open. Please forgive any typos. We were going to run spell check but ran out of challenges ...
Novak Djokovic defends as champion, but that's the least of it. Winning two titanic battles in succession -- one over Andy Murray, and the absolute epic against Rafael Nadal -- completely re-frames his entire career. We keep talking about this golden age in men's tennis. What do we say about the man who has won four of the last five major events in this unparalleled era?
Victoria Azarenka is not just your women's winner and new WTA No. 1. She is now your best bet to fill the vacuum. New rule: any player who shows up for her first major final and surrenders only three games to one of the WTA's firecest competitors gets her certification into the VIP room.
Like so many other players (see below), Maria Sharapova leaves Melbourne with a chance to test her powers of positive thinking. Will she be proud of another fine run to the final, a courageous defeat of Kvitova in the semis -- avenging her loss in the Wimbledon final? Can she stay positive and note the progress coming back from a major shoulder surgery -- a procedure that has derailed careers of plenty of other players? Or will that weirdly absent performance in the final stick in her craw?
Spare a thought for Rafael Nadal, who is getting closer and closer to cracking the Djokovic riddle. He worked on his serve to the body, his court positioning, his slice backhand, all in hopes of surmounting Djokovic. Whoever thought it would come down to a staring contest and, at nearly six hours, Nadal would blink first? Great quote from Jim Courier: "He's a delicate player, Rafa. When he's confident, he's the king of the world, but he vacillates. He reminds me of some other players in the past like myself and Roddick that believed more in the work, than he does in his talent. As good as he is, he should never question that."
If you're Andy Murray, do you leave encouraged by your fitness, by coming so close against the World No. 1? Or do doubts come screaming back, coming this close to a signature victory in a major and not closing the deal? If nothing else, his stock is a lot higher than it was after the U.S. Open.
I suspect the topic of Roger Federer, the status of his career, the chances of him winning another major and his dismal record against Nadal will be discussed liberally in the coming weeks and months. Given his form over both the last five months and his previous five matches, his offseason fitness, and his finite ration of remaining opportunities, that loss had to be gutting. But let's put a moratorium on the GOAT ramifications. Says here: the head-to-head record against his rival is, indisputably, a scratch on his escutcheon, a blot on his record. But it does not disqualify him.
Interesting tournament for Petra Kvitova. She clearly is increasingly comfortable in her role as a budding star. She won some matches authoritatively. Others she had to fight through. She had her chances against Maria Sharapova in the semis and while she didn't choke, there's a bit of work to be done in the "battle" department.
To the delight of the Russian Olympic movement, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva won the women's doubles. Leander Peas and Radek Stepanek upset the Bryans to win the men's event.
Here's a cut-and-paste about grunting: "I'm getting a bit hoarse discussing this. But the WTA fiddled and dismissed the base and lost control of the message -- and now they're getting drilled. I guarantee you there's been more (mocking and unflattering) coverage of the grunting, than the tennis this week. In the U.S. everyone from Conan O'Brien to Diane Sawyer has had a good laugh. This should be a case study in a public relations class. Ironically the tipping point may have come with the Wozniacki-Clijsters YouTube clip or the remarks the other day from Aggie Radwanska. The WTA's fallback had been "The players haven't complained." (This, of course, was terribly tone deaf to all the affronted fans.) Now, that's clearly not the case. I spoke with Svetlana Kuznetsova today and add her as another player who claims grunting is both a distraction and in need of legislating."
Australia's Luke Saville won the boys event over Filip Peliwo of Canada. And some good news on the U.S. tennis front: the girls singles winner was Taylor Townsend, who is not merely an American. She is a volleying-American -- who also won the girls doubles with 15-year-old Gabrielle Andrews of Pomona, Calif. She's also African-American and this is as good a spot as any to note that a decade after the emergence of Venus and Serena Williams, three U.S. prospects -- Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend -- are African American.
Let's start with some perspective here. Every sport grapples with officiating issues. Tennis' umpires and lines-folk do a tremendous job overall. Hawk-Eye is a force of good, an innovation that goes a long way toward the ultimate goal of accuracy and fairness. But this was a brutal tournament from an officiating standpoint. (One of you joked that the U.S. Open enlisted a ballgirl with a prosthetic leg; the Aussie Open went a step further in hiring visually impaired linespeople and chair umps.) The tennis czars and czarinas need to have an off-site meeting and return with enhanced policies. Here's where to start: 1) Do away with challenges and simply use the tools at your disposal. To her great credit, Mary Carillo saw this coming years ago, asserting there was something ridiculous about turning accuracy into a game show. If a call is wrong, it's wrong. It shouldn't be incumbent on the players to trigger Hawk-Eye with a judicious exercise of a "challenge." Unlike the NFL, replay justice in tennis is swift -- and fan-friendly; so if Hawk-eye is used, say, eight times a set instead of the current four, so what?
2) Likewise, use technology for other disputes. In a women's doubles match, Elena Vesnina and Sania Mirza contended the ball bounced twice before Liezel Huber hit it. Fans watching at home saw the replay immediately, confirming the double-bounce. Yet the players on the court -- i.e. the four people most affected by the decision -- had no clarity. 3) We need a "shot clock" between points. At one point, the Australian television posted a graphic that Djokovic took 33 seconds between points. In other words, his AVERAGE time between points constituted a violation. (And Nadal, of course, is no better.) This is getting silly. Get a sponsor, put a clock in the corner. Simultaneously, you speed up play and do away with subjective, inconsistent rules enforcement.
Serena Williams went out in the fourth round. (Though a linesperson called her "in." Ka-boom!) It's always hard to discuss the complex Serena in abbreviated form. But, again, it seems to me, the current irony is that her intermittent commitment is why she's still around, why she hasn't burnt out, why she hasn't retired and unretired. She is to be commended, not condemned, for declining to play tennis at the expense of all else. But at this point in her career, she now needs to commit herself fully. At age 30, the parachute approach won't work.
Surprise quarterfinalist Kei Nishikori has some work to do, starting with adding wattage to his serve. But between his footwork and his backhand, there's serious top-10 potential. And for all the concern about his work ethic, consider this: concerned with his bodily breakdowns, he spent most of December in Chicago, working with this guy. His results in Australia? Not the worst testimonial.
Here's a short Sunday sermon. ... Asked about her grunting, Sharapova responded: "No one important enough has told me to change." (What's worse: the clear suggestion that the WTA is indifferent to this issue, or the revelation that she classifies people as "important" and "unimportant.") Asked whether she would enter the Acapulco tournament next month in pursuit of additional match play, Serena Williams laughed, "I'm not that desperate" (a slap not just to the WTA, a sponsor and a promoter -- a promoter who paid Venus a sizable appearance fee for deigning to play the same event -- but to the dozens of other players who are sufficiently "desperate" to enter that event.)
Last week, the excellent Sydney Morning Herald columnist Richard Hinds noted Azarenka's poor reputation among drivers and locker-room attendants while Josh Eagle (a commentator and husband of former player Barbara Schett) talked on the radio about sneering contempt Victoria Azarenka has for those not named Victoria Azarenka. The remarks and anecdotes don't define the players -- I could give counterexamples of each acting graciously and admirably -- but they are part of the record factor when the public opinion is formed.
Sports are ultimately about winning and losing; but they are also about personalities. As an observer, I think Nadal and Djokovic's pace of play is more offensive than grunting than shrieking. But I also think people are more inclined to minimize or even rationalize bad acts when they feel affection for the culprit.
Still marveling at Sam Stosur's first-round upset. You win the U.S. Open, return to your home Slam as the star attraction for the event ... and then flame out in your first match, nervous almost to the point of incapacitation. Such a mental sport, this tennis.
Lots of you asked about the backlash from Margaret Court's remarks condemning homosexuality and gay marriage. Honestly, there wasn't much. With the exception of Laura Robson wearing a rainbow hair thingy when she played in Margaret Court Arena and Martina Navratilova writing this poignant letter, the players and officials were largely mute. So was the television commentary. I thought your interpretations were interesting. Some of you were discouraged and saw this as everyone ran screaming from controversy. Others were encouraged and felt as though silence meant that Court was seen as someone far in the margins, unworthy of a response. A few thought the opposite: maybe this was an indication that perhaps her views are more widely held than media types assumed.
One of the more fascinating players in tennis is Li Na. How long before she forgets those four squandered match points against Kim Clijsters in the fourth round?
If I try to explain the Olympic eligibility regulations, your head will explode. But suffice it to say, we're headed for a potentially ugly situation regarding the U.S. women's team. Venus (kinda, sorta) fulfilled her requirements to play, but may not be ranked sufficiently high to make the London Games, at least not in singles. Serena was supposed to play two years of Fed Cup since the Beijing Games but will be making her "debut" next weekend in Massachusetts. The ITF tells me that if Serena is to make the team, she will need a special exemption. We assume she'll get it.
The Olympic teams will consist of six players maximum, four in singles, two in doubles. You figure that Serena makes the team, as does Christina McHale (No. 42) and Vania King (65) and maybe Bethanie Mattek-Sands (No. 67). If Venus wants to play doubles, there's a chance that Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond, currently No. 1 and No. 4 in the world, won't make the team. Stay tuned...
Vania King caught the short end of the handle, and nobody had her back. In her third-round match against Ana Ivanovic -- a televised match on a show court -- King was robbed when the chair umpire got the score wrong and awarded Ivanovic a point inadvertently. Though there were probably 10,000 fans in the stands, no one said anything. Oh, the omission bias, the bystander effect, the diffusion of responsibility!
For those into karma ... Nice to see Nicolas Mahut advance to round three, pick up more than $50,000 and a batch of ranking points. Once there -- on his 30th birthday, no less -- he lost to Djokovic, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1. ... Karma chameleons might also note that after Andy Roddick mocked Novak Djokovic for his various ailments it is Roddick who has been a regular on tennis' disabled list.
I didn't catch much of the television, but as usual your opinions were passionate, scattered and contradictory. You guys loved Chris Evert; except for those of you who want to deny her re-entry into the U.S. You (like me) who think so highly of Pat McEnroe and would like to see him branch out into sports; except for those of you who find him objectionable. (The one commentator who gets unanimous approval seems to be Darren Cahill.) From the full disclosure department: I worked for Tennis Channel here, so I have conflicts that probably undermine objectivity and credibility in this case. It's great the viewers have options and access to hundreds of hours of coverage. Let's move on ...
From the bio of Sara Errani, a surprise quarterfinalist: "Mother, Fulvia, is a pharmacist; father, Giorgio, sells fruit and vegetables." Don't you hate those pampered, elitist tennis players? Likewise, my respect for Azarenka went up when she noted BOTH of her parents worked two jobs to support her tennis talents. (And you wonder why she might play with more urgency than other players.)
As always, the variance of the "tennis coaching" workforce was remarkable last week. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has no coach and doesn't seem particularly eager to get one. Nadal has his uncle; Serena has her mom; Federer has a whole workforce; Azarenka has her agent's husband. The reduction ad absurdum may have come in the fourth round when Andy Murray faced Mikhail Kukushkin. This was a fierce tactical battle between Ivan Lendl, decorated Hall of Famer and ... Anastasia Ulikhina, Mikhail's wife.
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