Now that the smoke has cleared over Melbourne, let’s take a look back at some of the happenings or developments that resonate even after the last ball has been struck and the respective champions declared. This is a valuable inquiry at the end of the first Grand Slam tournament of the season, because it may prefigure the year to come—in good ways for some people and ideas, not so good for others.
But the results and themes of Australian Open can also fool us, and set us up for surprise. Who would have confidently predicted an explosive Serena Williams resurgence after she failed to get past the quarterfinals in her first two tournaments in 2012, the latter a fourth-round loss to Ekaterina Makarova in Melbourne? Yet there stood Serena last December, 58-4 with two major titles, a 7-0 record against the two women who finished the year ranked ahead of her (Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova), clearly the best female tennis player in the world.
I bring this up because it has special relevance to the aftershocks that can still be felt, and may continue to be felt, after the Australian Open. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. More on that later.
ARE COURTS GETTING FASTER?
The court speed at the Australian Open this year was faster than ever, which raises an interesting point. We know that those Sampras vs. Ivanisevic and Becker vs. Edberg serving contests at Wimbledon and elsewhere during the late 1980s and into the 1990s led to a backlash, with promoters worldwide scrambling to slow courts down. They feared that the public would lose interest in one-dimensional, serve-and-volley or error-based tennis, as was summed up by that immortal headline heralding a Sampras win in one London Tabloid: “It’s Samprasszzzzzzzz. . .”
But just as the courts were dramatically slowed, they can also be made quicker again—and not just to keep Roger Federer, everyone’s favorite tennis superhero, flush and happy. Four- and five-hour baseline marathons may not be any more appealing to the broad constituency of fans the game is always trying to attract than were those 90-minute rock fights.
Given that the faster courts Down Under still produced a few marathons, but on the whole encouraged a more exciting, aggressive brand of tennis, it seems entirely possible that last year’s five-hour plus final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will be remembered as the tipping point in a gradual trend back toward faster courts. Personally, I think it would be great step, based on the shot-making we just recently watched.
DROP SHOT RISING
Remember how, back in the day, Federer disdained hitting the drop shot, all but declaring it a stroke for weenies? Did you also notice how often Federer went to the drop shot in his semifinal loss to Andy Murray?
Okay, so Federer’s drop shots against Murray were woeful; I can remember only one which helped him win a point. But the significant takeaway is that Federer now has a drop shot he uses freely—as do so many ATP and WTA pros.
Chris Evert really nailed it on ESPN during (I believe) the match between Agnieszka Radwanska and Ana Ivanovic, saying that the drop shot is emerging as one of the main antidotes to the brutal, straight-ahead, power-baseline game that is so popular today. I think Radwanska, a prolific drop-shotter, as well as Murray and others as diverse as Jerzy Janowicz and Svetlana Kuznetsova might agree. Janowicze, the lumbering ace machine, hits nearly as many drop shots as service winners.
Are we truly on the cusp of the Golden Age of the Drop Shot?
YOU WANT THE TRUTH? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga looks to me like the player most likely to break the logjam created at the top by the Big Four, even though he’s ranked No. 8 behind David Ferrer (No. 4), Nadal (who’s down to No. 5, but clearly still part of the Big Four), Tomas Berdych (No. 6), and Juan Martin del Potro (No. 7).
Thus far, Tsonga has lacked the intensity and killer instinct needed to win a major, but he’s still making steady progress. Remember, this the guy who lost the Australian Open final to Djokovic in a 2008 battle of first-time Grand Slam finalists. Djokovic has since shown that he’s pretty good on those Melbourne Park courts. As for Tsonga, he came back from two sets down to beat Federer at Wimbledon (in 2011), and had match points against Djokovic last year at the French Open. He took his chances and just barely fell short.
Now working with Roger Rasheed, Tsonga is developing greater gravitas. And I think he has the ideal attitude. After losing a five-set quarterfinal to Federer in Oz, he swept aside suggestions that he and a handful of his talented peers are failing to live up to their “potential” with what seems to me a realistic and accurate appraisal of the current situation in the game:
“In tennis, you know, you cannot lie. You cannot lie. If they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, it’s because they deserve it and because they are the best players at the moment. That’s it.”
When Tsonga was asked in a follow-up just why he isn’t among that group (the question belabored the obvious, but there’s nothing new in that), he replied: “To be honest, I have no idea. You know, if you have some advice for me, I will take them because I don’t know. I don’t know what is the difference. I’m just working hard. I do my best. I mean, that’s it. Maybe I’m less talented for the moment. That’s it.”
I sense that things are going from the sublime to the ridiculous in the obsession with statistics, many of which are of dubious value in tennis. (Some potentially valuable ones don’t seem to exist; for example, I’d rather know how many service winners a player hit than number of aces. It’s a far more relevant stat and it automatically includes those untouched aces.)
A number of times during the Australian Open, ESPN flashed an IBM statistic that went something like this: When Novak Djokovic wins at least 38 percent of the rallies that last longer than 20 strokes during the first set, he wins the second set 94 percent of the time.
Okay, my example is a bit of an exaggeration—but not by much. Half the time, I didn’t even understand the point, much less find any way to apply it as I watched. IBM is a great sponsor, and tennis ought to do everything to make the company happy, but only if the feature really brings something to the table, and makes the overall experience better for all concerned. I’m drowning in statistics, somebody please help!
If you were asked on the eve of the tournament to choose a “surprise semifinalist,” how many of you would have picked Sloane Stephens, knowing she was in the same quarter of the draw as Serena? My feeling is that most people would have gone with a Kei Nishikori or a Milos Raonic, maybe a Mona Barthel or Laura Robson.
No matter how you cut it, Stephens’ win over Serena was a shocker, and she was one of only two semifinalists who were not Grand Slam champions (Ferrer was the other).
Stephens’ breakout was all the more impressive for two big reasons: First, this year’s tournament was hostile to feel-good, “promising newcomer” stories, which are getting scarce at all majors these days. Second, Stephens had to beat Serena to earn her honor. It was the match most likely to make people shout “What???” and spill their morning coffee upon picking up the newspaper.
That brings us full circle. Will Serena surprise us again, as she did from the mid-terms at Wimbledon on through the fall? Time will tell; who knows what plot twists lie in store?