Kenin's subtle skills; Muguruza's mission; Djokovic, tiebreak master

Kenin's subtle skills; Muguruza's mission; Djokovic, tiebreak master

Three of this year's Australian Open finalists showed off their best stuff in straight-set semifinal victories.

“It’s surreal.”

Sofia Kenin said this after her 7-6 (6), 7-5 win over No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty on Thursday, and her word choice couldn’t have been more apt. “Surreal” captures the 21-year-old’s run to the Australian Open perfectly. We’ve seen other surprise Grand Slam champions and finalists on the women’s side recently: Bianca Andreescu, Naomi Osaka, Marketa Vondrousova, even Barty herself. But Kenin’s run may have come from the deepest part of left field of all of them.

That may be because, coming in, she was ranked just 15th, and has never been in the Top 10. It may be because, before this week, she had never reached the quarterfinals—let alone the semis, let alone the final—of a major. It may be because she’s just 5’7”. It may be because, at first glance, she doesn’t seem to do anything particularly special with the ball. She’s consistent and she competes, but so do a lot of other tennis players.

In that sense, Kenin’s win over Barty was a good chance for us to see her subtler skills. While Barty possesses an all-court game and a slick one-handed backhand, it was Kenin who was more effective around the net. When she got Barty on the run, she ghosted forward rather than hanging back. At net, she used her two-handed backhand drop shot to bring Barty in; it wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it worked. And when Barty came to net, Kenin had a pass or a lob ready. From angles to drops to lobs to passes, there’s nothing she can’t do with her backhand.

And at the end of each set, it was Kenin, rather than the home favorite, who rose to meet the occasion. She saved set points in each set, and came back from 3-5 down in the second.

“I’m speechless,” Kenin said. And then she proved it, by saying those same two words over and over.

The crowd was speechless, too, as it watched Barty walk off defeated. As always, she was upbeat in her press conference afterward, showing up with her infant niece in her lap and a smile still on her face.

“It’s been a hell of a summer,” said Barty, who won a tune-up tournament in Adelaide. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”

 

When she was asked if she was disappointed by her defeat, and by how close she had come, Barty didn’t take the bait.

“Sometimes it falls your way,” she said. “That’s sport, and that’s life.”

That’s certainly a healthy attitude, and one that the legends of Australian tennis lore would approve of. But as Barty was unraveling at the end of the second set, I couldn’t help wishing that she would show a little more emotion, a little more disbelief, a little more anger, a little more defiance—something that would remind her of the stakes at hand, and get the crowd involved.

But that’s not how Barty rolls. She can win lots of different ways, but winning angry will probably never be one of them.


"I was hanging in there with all the energy I had.”

If the fans in Rod Laver Arena wanted more passion, those who stuck around for the second women’s semifinal were amply rewarded. Normally, 100-degree weather saps players of energy and depresses the level of play. That wasn’t the case with Garbiñe Muguruza and Simona Halep—not on this day, not when the reward was a chance to play Sofia Kenin for a Grand Slam title. Muguruza and Halep both know the joy and satisfaction that comes with winning a major first-hand, and they both know that opportunities like this one are few and far between, even for players of their stature. Halep let one slip away in the Australian Open final in 2018, and Muguruza hasn’t been in the contender conversation at a big event for more than two years.

The result was, point for point and thermometer degree for thermometer degree, the best match of the tournament. Muguruza grunted with each swing, and Halep grunted back. Muguruza clubbed the ball and followed it forward; Halep, swinging from her heels, gave as good as she got. Muguruza, known for her offense, won with scrambling defense; Halep, known for her defense, wasn’t afraid to go on the offensive. Muguruza built an early lead in the first set and Halep answered; Halep built an early lead in the second set and Muguruza answered. Halep earned 13 break points and Muguruza saved 10 of them; Muguruza earned 14 break points and Halep saved 10 of those. Halep had set points in the first-set tiebreaker, and she served for the second set, but Muguruza lifted her game each time. Muguruza made 29 unforced errors in the first set, and 44 for the match, but she won because she never stopped pushing forward.

 

“I believe in myself that I have what it takes to play these kinds of matches and to be in this stage,” Muguruza said after her 7-6 (8), 7-5 win. “You just try and stay calm.”

Muguruza stayed calm all the way through her surprisingly muted celebration. That may have been prudent in the heat, but it’s clear that this woman, who just scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro, knows she has another hill to climb.

“The mission is to get away from here with a big trophy,” Muguruza said.

For Halep, there was no way around the disappointment.

“To lose like this hurts more, definitely,” she said. “I’m in pain now, I have to admit.”

A winner determined to do more; a loser feeling bitter regret; both of them walking a tightrope together, with no emotional net to catch them. The bleachers weren’t full in Rod Laver Arena by the time this match began, but they should have been. It’s why we watch Grand Slam tennis.


"It was important to win that first set.”

By now, Novak Djokovic must feel like, if he can force a set to a tiebreaker, it’s going to be his. Coming into his semifinal with Roger Federer, he had won 15 of 16 breakers. The three most famous, of course, came in his win over Federer last summer, in the Wimbledon final.

That day Djokovic was perfect, literally, in all three tiebreakers—no double faults, no unforced errors. How do you top perfection? Djokovic did his best in the first-set tiebreaker against Federer in Melbourne. His game had been loose and distracted up to that point; he said he was watching to see if Federer was injured rather than concentrating on his own shots. But once the breaker began, Djokovic had what we might call an extended moment of clarity.

He started by taking a hard serve and firing back a return that handcuffed Federer. Then he moved in and flicked a backhand crosscourt winner that was past Federer before he knew which way it was going. Djokovic won the next point with a strong forehand, snapped off an ace into the far corner in the ad court to make it 5-1, carved under a delicate re-drop that Federer couldn’t reach for 6-1, and closed the set with a backhand return winner.

The last one wasn’t even close to the sideline, but it was still far from Federer’s racquet. That, in a nutshell, is Djokovic at his best.

Drucker: Djokovic adds more Australian Open numbers as an ailing Federer wilts, 7-6 (1), 6-4, 6-3