Breaking the Curve
MELBOURNE—Once this year's Australian Open climbed out of its swampy first days, it was a tournament to cheer, with a new surprise in store each day of the second week. If its two singles finals were underwhelming and unfortunate, in that order, its champions were anything but. Li Na and Stanislas Wawrinka gave tennis a collective breath of fresh air to start the season, and they lead off my report cards from two weeks in Oz. As always, I can’t review everyone; if you see someone or something missing, please give us your grade in the comments.
American sportswriter Frank DeFord once named Billie Jean King the “most important athlete of the 20th century.” Could Li Na be the same for the 21st? It’s just a thought for now, and probably a stretch, but her international profile rose higher than ever with her on-court and on-stage performances in Melbourne. Li’s draw wasn’t hard—she didn’t face anyone in the Top 20—but that gave her a chance to show she could win as the favorite, never an easy task for anyone. She’s still inconsistent enough to have nearly gone out to Lucie Safarova in the third round, but this wasn’t a fluke title, either. With the help of Carlos Rodriguez, she has steadied her results remarkably over the last six months. As she said afterward, “Age is nothing.” At a month short of 32, she proved it.
People love her sense of humor, but what they really love, I think, is how real Li is. Her husband snores, her boss (Rodriguez) is overbearing, she wishes she could quit her job, and she wants to be rich—I'm guessing all of us can relate to at least one of those things. I hope to hear her accepting more trophies in the near future. Li Na gives tennis a very different, and very good, name. A+
Why Stan? Why not Jo or Tomas or Ferrer or Delpo this time around? It’s hard to say, really; as Wawrinka mentioned over and over last night, he never seriously believed winning a major was possible until it happened. And for good reason; the man now known as the Stanimal has never even won a Masters title, and before this tournament he was 3-44 against the Big 3. Now he’s 5-44.
Last year Wawrinka hooked up with a good coach in Magnus Norman, and began by improving physically. Then, as his new “fail better” tattoo instructed him, he took his lumps and bided his time. Wawrinka says the fact that no one was challenging the big guns made his failures easier to bear; there was nothing to do but lose and “go back to the court.” But while a major title is indeed a stunner, Wawrinka's rise in the rankings isn’t. When he came up in 2005-2006, his name was right next to Novak Djokovic’s among the sure-shot prospects for the future. Stan's potential—the heavy shots, the rifle forehand, the much-lauded backhand—has been obvious for years, but it took him until he was 28 to realize it. The fact that he was the younger countryman of Roger Federer may have kept him from asserting himself in the past—talk about a Fedipal Complex—but Federer’s support and belief inspired him last night. Wawrinka won a physical battle with Djokovic in the quarters, and a psychological one with Nadal—and himself—in the final. He earned it.
Even better, while Wawrinka won big for the first time, he acted like he had done it all before. He’s learned his lessons from the top names well, as a player and a comrade. It will make the tour a more interesting and likable place if he can join them at the top. A+
Rafa is snake-bitten in Australia. He's had to skip the tournament with injuries at least twice, he lost a final here from 4-2 up in the fifth, and this is the third time he has hurt himself in a losing effort Down Under. The last two weeks were especially painful—first there was the blister you could see from Mars, then there was the back that brought him to a tearful standstill and got him booed in Rod Laver Arena. It was a tough end for Rafa, who could have tied Pete Sampras in career Slam titles, and become the only man in the Open era to win each major twice—a big accomplishment.
Still, if he can forget the ending, Nadal had his moments to remember. He won without his best against Nishikori and Dimitrov, and then won with his very best against Federer. Perhaps more memorable was the way he lost. Nadal played on in pain, and, when the pain lessened, even gave himself a decent chance to win.
Afterward, his words to describe his disappointment were eloquent: “Is tough to see yourself during the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and arrives the moment and you feel that you are not able to play your best.”
And so were his words for the fans who booed him when he left the court for a medical timeout: “They paid ticket to watch the best match possible, and I was not able to offer that to them for moments. You won't hear me say anything bad about the crowd here.”
We expect Nadal to win, but when he doesn’t, we expect him to accept defeat with grace and perspective. In the end, while he wasn’t the champion, Rafa didn’t disappoint. A
She punched far above her weight and height for two weeks, and at 24 delivered the best tournament of her career. Cibulkova says her high spirits are “my gift,” and anyone who has seen her laser a forehand in victory or flash her smile in defeat understands what she means. Hopefully she can keep giving it. A
The future is, ever slow slowly, getting here. Last year 19-year-old Sloane Stephens made her mark in Melbourne; this time it was the 19-year-old Bouchard’s turn. The Canadian’s subtly versatile backhand rewards repeated viewings, and it’s a pleasure to see put her shots and thoughts together to create a whole game that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The fact that this Grace Kelly-with-a-Babolat wants to date Justin Bieber is not the worst thing in the world. It reminds us that she’s young, and we should be able to watch her for a while. A-
There’s substance beneath the style, a backhand that can hold up under duress, and a young man who is able to hit and move with anyone. Dimitrov is Eastern European, but he's already a Nike-sponsored, celebrity-dating citizen of the world, and in that sense he could be a transformative star. But while he’s working hard at leaving the Baby Fed nickname behind, the parallels never seem to go away. Dimitrov left Melbourne the way his stylistic father once did, in tears after losing to Nadal. A-
The Aussie teen has the spring and hop of the basketball player he was going to become, and he already knows how to put on a show. The climb up the rankings may take a few years, but he has tennis’ version of the X factor: Kyrios plays without fear, he acts like he owns the court, and he puts chair umpires in their places. A-
It’s getting to be a January tradition. Federer comes to the Aussie open, blows away a few solid opponents, and has us wondering if it's 2006 again. Then time-travel stops and reality sets in again in the semifinals—in 2011 Federer lost to Djokovic there; it 2012 it was to Nadal; in 2013 it was to Murray; in 2014, it was to Nadal again, all in the semis. Federer's old supreme confidence and mastery can be summoned against the second-tier, but he can't sustain it against the game's fastest, most consistent players—they ask him questions he can't find the answers to. Still, this tournament has to be seen as a positive for Federer. He played great tennis for five rounds, he executed an attacking game, he had success with a new racquet, and he said he felt fully healthy again. Plus, he made a lot of people happy by bringing Stefan Edberg back to the sport. He hasn’t solved Rafa, but Federer appears to have turned the page on 2013. B+
Who had Ivanovic beating Serena Williams in their bracket? Anyone? Ivanovic, gripping and ripping like the teen phenom she once was, gave us flashbacks with her three-set wins over Stosur and Serena, and reminded us of what a ball-striker she can be. Her all-Serb team is getting more out of her, for the moment. Judging by the reaction in Laver Arena to her run, fans hope the moment lasts. B+
Talk about a tradition. The Birdman may have played the best tennis of anyone on the men’s side into the semifinals—then he tightened up at all the wrong times against Wawrinka. At 28, he’s still improving and maturing, but whether that’s actually getting him closer to an important title seems doubtful. There’s a lot to his game, but there’s always something missing.
Upped half a grade for daring to go with H&M’s Jail-Berd blue-striped shirt, and defending it even after the reviews were in. B
From the ritz to the rubble. Radwanska blew up the Twitter tennis world with her masterful third-set dismantling of her nemesis, Victoria Azarenka. Is there such a thing as “witty tennis?” If so, Aga played it against Vika. Then, the next day, she played two of the worst, most dispiriting sets of her career to lose to Cibulkova. As she did after her semifinal loss at Wimbledon last year, Radwanska blamed the loss on her previous three-set matches, and the lack of a rest day. Fair enough. But winning Grand Slams means managing your way around those obstacles, and managing your game and schedule to peak for those moments. B
Strictly from the perspective of scores, he didn't do much worse than last year. In 2013, Djokovic beat Stan Wawrinka 12-10 in the fifth set; in 2014 he lost to Wawrinka 9-7 in the fifth. And the three-time defending champion seemed to recognize he isn't going to win all of those types of ultra-close marathons, or every Aussie Open. The problem is that he hasn't been winning the biggest matches for some time now. Djokovic's only Slam wins since his No. 1 year of 2011 are his 2012 and 2013 titles in Melbourne. Whether this will motivate him to replace it with another major, or hurt his confidence against other lower-ranked players remains to be seen. Boris Becker or no Boris Becker, the extremely high level Djokovic reached at the end of last year won't vanish forever. B
I didn’t see much of her this time, but it’s worth noting that so far she has avoided a sophomore slump after her breakout 2013. Halep reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in Oz; being seeded in the Top 16 really does help. Then Cibulkova crushed her. I’ll focus on the positive for now. B
With her win over Caroline Wozniacki, another face of the WTA’s future finally shook off injury and showed what her heavy-hitting game can do. B
The two-time defending champion looked ready to bagel Radwanska in the third-set of their quarterfinal; she ended up eating one instead. This is usually Vika’s time of year, but like her fellow past champions here, Serena and Sharapova, she didn’t have it in Oz this time. B-
Sloane is good at two things: Making the middle rounds of majors, and keeping her youthful peers under her thumb. She did both in Melbourne, reaching the fourth round and snuffing out 19-year-old Elina Svitolina along the way. What she isn't good at is beating Top 10 players—she has only one win over one of them since she beat Serena Williams here in 2013. Her rematch with another, Victoria Azarenka, fizzled as Vika showed Stephens what aggressive, purposeful, positive tennis looks like. With that loss Sloane dropped five places in the rankings, to No. 18; meanwhile, Bouchard jumped 12 places, to No. 19. Stephens may not be able to keep her under her thumb for long. B-
Judging by their near-parallel results over the last year, whatever Serena can do, Rafa can do, too. In 2013, they both dominated the tour; at the 2014 Aussie Open, they both went out with a back injuries. Serena was slowed by hers, but like Rafa, she was also beaten by a hot-hitting player in Ivanovic.
And as with Rafa, this tournament has become a jinx for Serena, an enemy of her game and her health. Do the two of them train too much, or too little, in the off-season? Do they need more matches to prepare their big-swinging styles for the rigors of a hard-court Slam? We may never know. One thing we do know is that losing here didn’t hurt Serena much for the rest of 2012 and 2013. C+
After sleepwalking through through the first set and losing the second to Federer, Jo had a fit late in the third. Only then did he play with any kind of aggressive energy. As I wrote at the time, Tsonga might want to get the sluggish warm-up and enraged reaction out of the way before the match in the future. C-
It was a rough tournament for Bernie. Rather than being the toast of the town, as he has been here for the last three years, he was the has-been prodigy, an underachiever spurned by Aussie tennis fans in favor of the younger and hungrier Special Ks, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis. Tomic wasn't wrong to stop playing against Nadal, but his "obviously, I was right" press conference the following day was overkill. C-
Dr. Tim Wood
When the Australian Open wanted to justify keeping players on court in 110-degree heat, it had Wood, its medical officer, explain why. The move backfired. Wood’s comments about ancient antelopes running through Africa in similar conditions sounded painfully irrelevant to what was going on in Melbourne Park. The upside, hopefully, is that all of the criticism will spur the tournament to review its heat policy next year. Or get a new wet bulb for a spokesman. F