Assessing Oz

by: Steve Tignor | February 02, 2015

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Venus and Vika had encouraging runs in Melbourne, unlike Roger and Rafa. (AP Photos)

The 2015 Australian Open was the first Grand Slam in two years in which the top seeds in both draws ended up holding the winner’s trophies. The unusually cool fortnight Down Under produced its share of drama and surprise, and gave us a few glimpses into the future along the way. But when it was over, the old order, in the form of the four finalists—Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray—had held firm, and the guard hadn’t changed. Meet the new bosses; same as the old bosses.

Here’s a day-after assessment of how those bosses and their fellow tennis laborers did in Melbourne. Two reminders: Losing a match doesn’t earn a player an F, and I don’t include everyone. If you see someone missing, add your own grade to the comments below.

*****

Novak Djokovic

In winning his fifth Australian Open in eight years, the ATP’s top player did everything asked of him, which is never as easy as it might sound, and never as easy as he makes it look when he’s at his efficient best. Djokovic took the biggest of the young guns, Milos Raonic, and brushed his vaunted serve aside. He split four sets of sub-par tennis with the defending champion, Stan Wawrinka, before gritting out six straight games when he needed them. And he sprinted past his old friend and rival Andy Murray in the final, closing with some of his strongest hitting of the tournament. By the end, Djokovic had reduced Murray’s forehand to a hopeless flail. The medium-paced courts in Melbourne have long been called the “fairest” at the Slams, so it makes sense that this perennial No. 1 would dominate there. The surface was a little faster this time, yet Djokovic covered it as thoroughly as ever. Is he, at 27, with eight major titles already in the books, just entering his prime? That’s an ominous thought for the rest of the tour. A+

Serena Williams

When the event started, I didn’t pick Serena to win it. That was partly because picking her has become too predictable, and partly because, while she had dominated everywhere else over the last three years, she hadn’t won in Melbourne since 2010. That qualifies as a desert-like drought in Serena’s world—one that she ended in her own vintage, highly personal style. There were a couple of slow starts and early hiccups, against Vera Zvonareva and Elina Svitolina. There was a motivating opportunity for revenge, against Garbine Muguruza. There was the chance to put the next generation in its place, against Madison Keys. And then there was another whack, literally, at Maria Sharapova. At 33, Serena may have lost half a step somewhere along the way, but it's hard to identify it when you watch her. Her superiority, as athlete and player, over the world’s second-best player made me wonder if she’s farther ahead of the field than ever. A+

Maria Sharapova

Like Serena, she struggled early and clamped down late. Her full-swing match-point saves in the second round were another memorable example of Maria being Maria—she lives and dies, flaws and all, by her own sword. In reaching her first Aussie final in three years, the 27-year-old let us know that, even with a dozen years of the tour grind behind her, she’s not going anywhere. Unfortunately for her, she’s also not getting any closer to the one woman who’s ranked above her, either. A

Madison Keys

The most exciting shots of the tournament, both aurally and visually, were the forehand winners that Keys belted past Petra Kvitova in the third round and Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, and which she continued to belt against Serena in the first set of their semifinal. Here, in this 19-year-old’s very live arm, was something new: Power that even Serena had to admit had taken her by surprise. Under her new coaches, Lindsay Davenport and Jon Leach, her shot weren't just fast; each one came with a purpose as well. For the moment, Keys is the future of the WTA. There have been other futures recently: Sloane Stephens and Genie Bouchard both reached the semis in Oz at the same age, and neither was as good there this year. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the next step that Keys takes will be a retrenchment—in other words, she’s still going to be erratic, and she’s still going to have bad days. But now we know how good the good days can be. A

Tim Smyczek

By November, we’ll look back and ask, “Did that Smyczek thing happen this year?” But now that its viral life has ended, let’s try not to forget the American’s show of sportsmanship in his five-set, second-round loss to Rafael Nadal. Smyczek gave Rafa a first serve, and the rest of us a reason to feel good about being tennis fans. A

Andy Murray 

For the fourth time, we saw what appeared to be a “new,” more assertive Murray over the course of his first six matches in Melbourne. And for the fourth time a more familiar, less certain, Murray re-emerged in the seventh match. On the whole, progress was made over the last two weeks. This was Murray’s first trip to a Slam final since Wimbledon in 2013; he put himself back into the Top 4 and possibly back into the Big 4; and he did it by weaving the many threads of his game together as seamlessly as he ever has. When it came to his coach, Amelie Mauresmo, Murray had something to prove, and he proved it. (More on his new role as a “feminist icon” in another post.) Which only made it more surprising in the final to see Murray, the man who started the tournament complaining about being called a “drama queen,” ending it by...complaining about his opponent, Novak Djokovic, being a drama queen. Worse, Murray admitted, he let it distract him. There are other, better reasons that he’s lost eight of his last nine matches to his old friend and rival. A-

Venus Williams

We know Venus loves the sport, now we’ve seen the result: The 34-year-old’s first appearance in the round of 16 at a Grand Slam since she announced she had Sjogren’s syndrome in 2010. Venus also outlasted two, much younger players, Camila Giorgi and Agneiszka Radwanska, to get there. A-

Tomas Berdych

A fresh pair of coaching eyes led to a fresh start, but it was Berdych’s ability to execute when he has traditionally struggled to execute—in a tiebreaker—that gave him his first win over Rafael Nadal in nine years and 18 meetings. Finally, an old tennis player had learned some new tricks. Until he forgot them again. In his next round, against Murray, Berdych again played well in the first-set breaker. But did his new confidence lead to an uncharacteristic moment of bluster? Berdych roused Murray with three words of trash talk after the breaker, and promptly lost the next six games. He can, it seems, learn to play with the best. Can he ever learn to compete with them? A-

Ekaterina Makarova

She was so far under the radar in her wins, and even more invisible in her loss, that it’s hard to know what to say about Makarova’s second straight run to a Grand Slam semi. The Russian has made herself a consistent big-event player, with a peskiness that frustrates her betters. This time she was savvy enough to let Simona Halep destroy herself in the quarters. Then Makarova faced Sharapova, who doesn’t find her pesky at all. B+

Nick Kyrgios

There was more flash and dash than ever, right down to his eyebrows. But there was also more substance. The teenager had the patience to wait out Ivo Karlovic, and the grit to save match point and beat Andreas Seppi 8-6 in the fifth—that’s pro stuff. But by hitting hard at Kyrgios's extra-long forehand, Murray showed there’s work for the young Aussie to do, and that the other players are watching him now. B+

Stan Wawrinka

He expelled one of the upstarts, Kei Nishikori, in straights, but he showed little of his Slam-winning form from 2014 in his semifinal against Djokovic. Stan said he was “mentally completely dead” and had “no battery,” in part because of the strain of winning the Davis Cup last November, and having a shorter off-season because of it. Winning more, and resting less: Welcome to the top players’ world. B

Rafael Nadal

He lost to Berdych for the first time since 2006, but Nadal said he was happy to make the quarters in his first Slam since Wimbledon. Still, with Roger Federer already out of his half, more was possible in Melbourne. B

Kei Nishikori

Here’s what we’ll remember from Kei’s Aussie Open: Down 1-6 in a third-set tiebreaker against Wawrinka in the quarters, he was facing five match points. With some of his best hitting of the tournament, he saved them all. Instead of continuing to hit, though, he tried a drop shot at 6-6; it caught the tape. It was the wrong shot at the wrong time, and his coach, Michael Chang, knew it as he slumped in despair. We’ll see what Nishikori learns from this brain freeze; hopefully he’ll trust his ground strokes, which are as good as anyone’s. But while his quarterfinal run was a disappointment, I liked the fact that Kei knew it. “I mean, I could do better,” he said. He’s right. B-

Milos Raonic

I missed most of his matches, but after watching him nearly beat Federer in Brisbane, I expected more than a five-set win over Feliciano Lopez and a straight-set loss to Djokovic. B-

Eugenie Bouchard

Was her near-no-show against Sharapova in the quarters a one-off loss to a strong opponent, or was it a sign that the next steps up the ranking ladder for the world No. 7 are going to be long and arduous ones? I’m thinking the latter. B-

Victoria Azarenka

She was her old self for two sets against Caroline Wozniacki, and for one set against Dominika Cibulkova. Bonus points for giving us the match of the tournament with Domi. B- 

Simona Halep

When she goes bad, she goes bad fast. Last year, the Romanian lost 6-3, 6-0 to Cibulkova in the quarters; this year she lost 6-4, 6-0 to Makarova in the same round. When she's frustrated, Halep speeds up instead of slowing down. It can get her to the exit quickly, and make you wonder how she ever got to the quarterfinals in the first place. C+

Agnieszka Radwanska

Of the two new super-coaching arrangements on the WTA side, Aga and Martina obviously made less immediate progress than Madison and Lindsay. Radwanska showed that she may need to improve her volleys if she wants to follow Navratilova's advice and attack more. When she lost to Venus, Martina questioned Aga's emotional investment in the match. It's early, but hopefully it gets better. C+

Roger Federer

Even in victory, he didn’t have it in Oz this year. Federer lost a set to Italian Simone Bolelli in the second round before losing three to his countryman Seppi in the third round. Federer offered no excuses; he said he “wasn’t playing shocking or feeling shocking”—he just wasn’t in rhythm, and he lost to a guy who played well. We may have been shocked at his earliest exit from Australia since 2001, but the more amazing fact is that it took this long to happen. C

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