No, really. It's a
hard sport, tennis. Maneuvering balls in those Mondrian-style boxes. Conceiving
angles and devising strategy. Running sideline to sideline for hours, sometimes
in oppressive heat. It's no picnic. � It's just that one would never have known
that from watching the 2007 Australian Open. Roger Federer, the men's champ,
cruised to yet another Grand Slam title, failing to drop a solitary set,
sweating so little that he could've gotten away with wearing the same shirt for
all seven matches. The women's winner, Serena Williams, had played just five
tournaments in the past year and arrived out of shape. But, finally having some
clarity of purpose, she dusted off her rackets and then dusted the competition.
In different ways Federer and Williams made the job look so easy. Then again
the great ones tend to do that.
Barely two weeks
before obliterating top-seeded Maria Sharapova in last Saturday's final, the
25-year-old Williams was alone running wind sprints in a Tasmanian park. She
had just lost a match to Sybille Bammer, an Austrian nein-name, in a low-level
tune-up in Hobart. Having missed most of 2006 on account of injury and
indifference, Williams entered the Australian ranked a lowly No. 81. "It
was like a Rocky moment," she says. "I was so mad I lost that match,
and I just did the ultimate workout. I think it paid off."
And how. Given no
chance to win in Melbourne, Williams got progressively better with each round,
the coat of rust dissolving from her game. More important, her resolve was so
conspicuous that it sometimes appeared as though her matches doubled as a sort
of marketing campaign for competitive fire. In her third match, down a set and
3--5 against fifth-seeded Nadia Petrova of Russia, Williams found a way to win.
Two points from a quarterfinal defeat to Israel's Shahar Peer, Williams pulled
through. For as many unforced errors as Williams commits, her accuracy at
critical times is remarkable.
With each win, she
regained more of her old aura of intimidation, always good for a few games each
set when she was at the height of her powers. Her fourth-round opponent,
Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, entered the event as one of the hottest players on
tour but radiated fear when facing Williams. "I was thinking what would
happen if [her serve] came too close to my body, and I couldn't get out of the
way and it hit me in the stomach," Jankovic, the 11th seed, said afterward.
"Would it go through me?''
glass-half-empty view: Serena's tear exposed a poverty of both depth and
courage on the WTA Tour. How else to explain how a player so lacking in fitness
and match preparation could swoop in and win the title? Yet this was,
ultimately, more about Serena's singular talent than about others'
deficiencies. She's a "one-off," as the Aussies would say, a superior
athlete who simply defies conventional tennis wisdom. Plus, it wasn't as though
she played poorly. "All of a sudden she was hitting the ball every bit as
well as she did in the good old days," says hitting partner Mark Hlawaty,
referring to the phase when Williams won five of six majors. "And she's
probably serving better now."
Besides, looks can
deceive. For all the cracks about her physique, Williams never fatigued, even
when playing three-setters in sweltering heat. Nor was her movement lacking.
"I'm definitely in better shape than I get credit for," she asserted.
"[It's] just because I have large bosoms and I have a big ass.... I was
just in the locker room staring at my body, and I'm like, 'Am I really not fit?
Or is it just because I have all these extra assets that I look not fit?' I
think if I were not to eat for two years, I still wouldn't be a size two. We're
living in the Mary-Kate Olsen world. I'm just not built that way. I'm
bootylicious, and that's how it's always going to be." (Yes, that marked
the first time the word bootylicious was uttered at a tennis event.)
Thanks largely to
Williams, the generally uninspired tennis played on the women's side was offset
by riveting drama. The men's draw, by contrast, featured uninspired drama
(Federer wins again) offset by riveting tennis. Time and again, even the
blowouts were terrifically entertaining by virtue of scintillating shotmaking
and high-quality points. And it wasn't only Federer doing the dazzling.
In his first years
on the tour Fernando Gonzalez was tennis's answer to Nuke LaLoosh. In keeping
with his nickname, Gonzo was equally capable of drilling a winner or drilling
the ball into the courtside signage, particularly with his lock-and-load
forehand. And in addition to his sponsor patches, Gonzalez wore his emotions on
his sleeve, never leaving doubt as to his state of mind. Last season, tired of
what he calls "all the ups and downs," the flayin' Chilean contacted
veteran coach Larry Stefanki--a Californian with a New Age vibe--in search of a
calming influence. Under Stefanki the 26-year-old Gonzalez has toned down both
his on-court emotions and go-for-broke style. In his first six matches in
Australia, a run that included wins over James Blake and second-ranked Rafael
Nadal, Gonzo hit 307 winners while committing just 130 errors. (Sixty-forty is
a good ratio.) "When you play like this," he says, "tennis is so
much more fun."
The fun ended
against Federer. While the Mighty Fed hadn't lost a match since last August,
there was a sense in the locker room that he was ripe for the taking, that as
Andy Roddick (among others) suggested, the gap was closing. While Federer never
directly admitted it, there were indications that he was rankled by this talk.
His semifinal evisceration of Roddick--a 6--4, 6--0, 6--2 masterpiece that
Roddick gamely described as an "absolute beating"--was a forceful
statement. In the final Federer neutralized Gonzalez with defense and superior
strategy and prevailed 7--6, 6--4, 6--4.
Federer became the
first male since Bjorn Borg at the 1980 French Open to win a major without
dropping a set, all the while playing his typically ornate tennis. Federer
didn't pound winners so much as he swept them and flicked them with a majesty
that suggests that brute force is beneath his dignity. As a courtside sign
read: QUIET: GENIUS AT WORK.�"It all came together nicely this
tournament," he said. "I felt so relaxed, it was a joke."