by Pete Bodo
Yesterday, fans of the Australian Open saw Serena Williams and Roger Federer deliver great lessons in the art of taking charge. We also witnessed an equally enlightening tutorial on what happens if you don't, can't, or won't -- and that's why Serena and Roger are nicely positioned to win the singles titles.
Leading up to yesterday's clash between Serena and Slammin' Sammy Stosur, everyone in Australian had been force-fed the fact that the Australian half of the equation won the last match: Stosur beat Williams at Stanford, during last summer's U.S. hardcourt season. And Stosur, with her big serve and athletic, attacking game, is one of a select handful of players who, all things being equal, actually has a game to take to Serena.
It was a propitious moment for Serena to take charge. To show Stosur who the boss is (Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as some hoary old rocker once said). To inform all those green-and-yeller clad dreamers: I'm Serena Williams, and she's not.
BTW, does anyone else think it's a gloomy omen that there's so much yellow on display when those festive-minded Aussies parade their patriotism? Note to all you wallabies: Play up the green -- yellow just doesn't send the right message. Besides, green is the new black, right?
Anyway. . .
You couldn't fault Stosur for lack of courage; just lack of game. But that says more about Serena than it does about Sam. The match lasted a mere 1:05; where did Serena find the time to club 10 aces? It was more than 50 percent better than Stosur's output and she's a proficient dealer of aces herself. And how about 30 winners to a mere eight by Stosur? Serena never seems to tire of making statement matches, although there's a real chance that by the time Saturday rolls around, she'll be wrapped in more bandages that Queen Nefertiti.
Afterward, Serena said: “It's important when you're playing a local girl to not let the crowd get too involved or else they'll kill you,” Williams explained (Uh-oh, there she goes again!). “That was the plan: to not let them (the Aussie faithful) get involved."
And let's not forget the more placid Roger Federer. All he does is win tennis matches. Contrary to what you might suspect, people like me didn't give people like Lleyton Hewitt a shot at winning that fourth-round tussle because we "hate" Roger, or have nothing to better to do with our lives than sit around waiting for Roger to lose.
Hewitt embarked on this Australian Open with a good vibe. He was healthy, he looked sharp, and he's always played pretty well in Melbourne, coming close to a title a bunch of times, including one final. He's been on a terrible skid against Federer, but he's a player of quality, vast experience, signature determination and cool nerve. Hewitt putting together a Cinderella run in Melbourne would make a hail of a story, because the best stories of all are the ones that have just enough internal logic to end up making you think: Well, I might have seen that coming. . .
I sympathized with Brad Gilbert when Cliff Drysdale put him on the spot, and Gilbert stuck to his guns: Hewitt, he said, had a "puncher's chance."
Okay, I'll admit it. We have nothing better to do with our lives than sit around waiting for Roger to lose.
Both men served right around the 60 percent mark, which is nothing to write home about. But Federer averaged a 70 percent winning rate on the points he served (both first and second), while Hewitt managed just a shade over 50 per cent. That's the number of a guy on the run, not that Hewitt hasn't lived that way in the past with considerable success. And Federer's tally of winners nearly tripled those produced by Hewitt. Those numbers add up to one word: mastery.
By contrast, Tsonga dominated Nicolas Almagro -- not the worst guy you can draw in the fourth-round of a major -- but took his foot off the gas and then brain-cramped. As a result, he ended up going five hard sets and into overtime (he won, 9-7 in the fifth). It's always unnerving to fall asleep at the wheel. Even if you're saved by the guard rail, the rest of your drive isn't exactly going to be a relaxed journey. Tsonga will pay a price in the legs as well when he meets Novak Djokovic, who, in the same situation as Tsonga, kept his eyes open and on the striped line, turning Lukasz Kubot into road kill.
And Davydenko? Well, he's a speedy, durable little fella. But there were times in the third and fourth sets yesterday when Fernando Verdasco might just as well have slipped on that punk-rock era T-shirt that said: Will Somebody Please Kill Me? You know it had to be pretty bad when a guy as shy of confrontation as Davydenko speaks this plainly about an opponent: “He's strong physically, but not mentally ... I know he have power in the fifth set, but he can make mistake.”
But not mentally...In tennis, those are fighting words; Verdasco's huge appetite for competition kind of makes up for his inability to navigate its mental demands.
Verdasco hit one serve that landed on the wrong (his) side of the net yesterday, and enough double faults to earn an honorable membership in the WTA (Not to be outdone, Davydenko almost blew off his big toe with an easy smash). It was that kind of match, but I'll say this much for Verdasco: you've got to smile when he whacks a big, ugly shot -- and then going for another one on the next point. It's not the worst of mind sets in today's game.
When a Verdasco is begging you to take the lunch off his place and all you do is nick a french fry or two, someone with more of a possessive streak is going to leave you hungry. Davydenko will be under less pressure when he meets Federer; he clearly enjoys playing David to tenniss Goliath, and never moreso than in the past few months. But I think we're going to see a very different Goliath, come Wednesday.
Big arenas are for big players, as Serena and Roger demonstrated yesterday.