Tuesday’s lineup at the Australian Open was promising: Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer vs. Tomas Berdych, Novak Djokovic vs. Kei Nishikori, and Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Carla Suarez Navarro as the undercard.
If you were looking for competitive matches, though, the session failed to deliver. Each match ended in straight sets, and only one of those sets went to a tiebreaker.
But if you came for brilliance, the winners delivered more than their share, and in the process showed the varieties of individual excellence that tennis can contain on any given day. Here’s a look at four strokes of genius from Radwanska, Williams, Federer, and Djokovic.
After a near-loss experience in the fourth round against Anna-Lena Friedsam, who cramped after leading 5-2 in the third set, Radwanska said she was looser and more relaxed for her quarterfinal—she was playing, you might say, on borrowed time. It showed: She cruised, in her cannily instinctive way, to a 6-1, 3-1 lead. That’s where Suarez Navarro chose to make her stand, and brought the score back to 3-3. And that’s where the two played the best point of the match, a long and winding rally that sent both women up and back and corner to corner. Somewhere near the end of it, Radwanska hit the most memorable shot of the match for me: Running hard along the baseline, toward her backhand side, she flipped up what for most people would have been a desperation lob. Aga, of course, has too much self-control to ever seem desperate. She sent the ball up toward the hole in Rod Laver Arena’s roof, and over Suarez Navarro's head. It eventually touched down in the opposite corner of the court, a couple of feet inside both the sideline and the baseline. This was as far and high as you can hit a ball on a court, but Radwanska made it look as if she had placed it exactly where she wanted it to go, down to the millimeter, the way the rest of us might place a drop shot if we had all the time in the world to hit it.
Winning a Battle, Losing the War
Williams and Sharapova were tied at 3-3 in the first set. Serena had started out overhitting, and she fell behind 0-2. By the sixth game, though, she was well on her way to finding her range. At 30-15, she hit a hard serve to Sharapova’s backhand, but it came back even harder for a clean return winner. Sharapova let out a louder-than-normal “Come on!” as Serena tried and failed to catch up to her shot. Maria must have known that the Williams train was gathering steam, and that she had to keep it from leaving her behind at the station. Unfortunately for her, hitting a winner past Serena is not the best way to beat her in the long run; usually, you pay a price. As soon as Serena straightened back up, I thought, “She's going to hit an ace.” A few seconds later, she reached back and slammed down one of her hardest serves of the day, a 122-m.p.h screamer up the T. All Sharapova could do was challenge the in call; Hawk-Eye confirmed that Serena hadn’t just put the ball on the center service line, she had put it on an outside centimeter of that line. If that’s what you get for hitting a winner against Serena, what else can you do? Sharapova has spent 12 years looking for the answer.
The Maestro Plays it Safe, Until He Doesn’t
Federer was up a set and 2-1 against Berdych, but he was down 15-30 on his serve. On the next point, he began to rally with Berdych, but rather than open up the court right way, as is his wont, Federer kept the ball safely within the lines; an error meant that the score would be 15-40, and Berdych would have hope again. Unlike everyone else who plays it safe, though, Federer was still able to control the point. He curled a soft forehand at a sharp angle crosscourt to Berdych’s forehand. Then he sent another forehand, very conservatively, down the line to Berdych’s backhand. After that, he sliced an off-pace, side-spinning backhand to Berdych’s forehand. At that stage, Berdych tried to open things up with a crosscourt forehand. But he didn’t open them up quite enough. Federer, sensing an opportunity, streaked forward and cracked a crosscourt forehand winner. Had Federer the thinker set the whole thing up from the start of the rally? Or did Federer the shotmaker grow tired of playing it safe and decide to take his chance when he saw it? Can both things be true?
The Best Offense is a Good Defense
Djokovic and Nishikori were on serve in the first set. Djokovic, as he so often does, had bounced back from a pancake-flat performance against Gilles Simon in his last match by coming out with an upbeat, aggressive edge in this one. Still, Nishikori seemed ready for the challenge. Up 40-0 on his serve, he hit a good crosscourt backhand that looked for a second to have won him the point. Except that it didn’t. Djokovic quickly closed the distance by skidding across the baseline and, with his back turned away from the net, blocking a backhand deep and crosscourt. Nishikori, forced to win the point again, tried a risky down-the-line backhand. The ball ended up in the net, and the wind went out of his sails. Nishikori slumped his shoulders: How did I lose that point? He went on to lose the next four, and was broken. As the match progressed, Djokovic's willingness and ability to play offense and defense—to do everything he could—was a big part of what separated him from his opponent. Nishikori can run and hit with Djokovic, but, as ESPN’s Brad Gilbert pointed out, he loves to attack much more than he loves to defend. Djokovic is happy to do both, and while running an extra inch and playing an extra shot may not mean much in the moment, it adds up. Djokovic wins because he goes the extra inch, and the extra mile.