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February 2, 2015 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australian Open Recap 2015
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Every Slam is magnificent, and Australian Open 2015 was no exception. The weather was unseasonably cool, a welcome change from the torrid opening week last year. The new convertible roof over Margaret Court Arena, though scarcely needed under the dry skies that prevailed almost entirely until the final weekend, underlined the ever-improving facilities at Melbourne Park. The marvel of modern electronics made the audience a worldwide one, uniting humankind everywhere in common admiration of the glorious assemblage, especially the athletes and their skills.
 
The Plexicushion hard-surfaced courts were generally said to provide a fast bounce, and the slightly slippery footing also indicated that the surface was especially smooth. The fast courts and the generally light wind during the two weeks of play favored the attacking players and especially the strong servers. Aces came more frequently than in any Australian Open but one since 2006, and the percentages of points and games won by servers were the highest of any year in that period (as measured in the last four rounds of the men's singles). As usual, however, these values remained well below those seen regularly at Wimbledon, about the same as at U.S. Open, higher than those at Garros. The level of play was routinely breathtaking, the stars both male and female dazzling in their power and accuracy and how athletically they moved to intercept an opponent's power.
 
The new champions were familiar ones. It was a fifth triumph at Melbourne for Novak Djokovic, a sixth for Serena Williams. For the hundreds of other aspirants there was drama in every match, for winning or losing often loomed large in careers that represented decades of dedication and sacrifice.
 
THE WOMEN -- EARLY ROUNDS
 
Women from France and U.S.A. gathered attention in the early going. Two risers from France knocked out seeded players -- Kristina Mladenovic, 21, defeated potent Sabine Lisicki, and Caroline Garcia, 21, knocked out Svetlana Kuznetsova. Another French riser, Oceane Dodig, age 18 at height 6-0, won her first-rounder. But the Americans took satisfaction in the twelve first-round wins by U.S. women, well ahead of the Czechs, whose second-best total was eight. Both Serena and Venus Williams looked strong in winning their first matches, and the two entered the doubles as partners but then withdrew before their first match.
 
The two top-seeded women would both face trouble later in the first week. Maria Sharapova was carried to an overtime third set by Russian unseeded qualifier Alexandra Panova, 25. Later Serena Williams found herself unable to dominate Elina Svitolina, 20, from Ukraine. Elina answered Serena's heavy ground game with equal power and placement, taking advantage of a seeming tired Serena to capture the first set, serving well in the close-out game to stop Serena's late surge. But after that Serena weighed in with yet heavier striking, now generally able to dominate matters. For the young player, however, there had been encouragement for future success.
 
With Sharapova and Serena struggling, it seemed that the tournament's strongest striker was the tall lefty Petra Kvitova. Her third-round opponent was American Madison Keys, 19, who proved able to answer Petra's rockets with ones of her own that were even more potent. The margin was close but at the finish it was the teenager's blistering serves and forehands that held up best. Some of Madison's most dazzling forehand blows came when forced wide, opening the way for more forehands cross-court. Petra was somewhat unlucky in many very close misses, but there seemed no doubt that Keys was now playing at Kvitova's high level. Keys d. Kvitova, 64 75.
 
Two former world #1's, both now at prime age, met in another third-rounder. Caroline Wozniacki had reported wrist trouble after a hard-hitting final at Auckland two weeks earlier. Meanwhile Victoria Azarenka had been ineffective in most of 2014 with injury problems. Both now appeared at close to full strength. Caroline brought her upgraded serve, her newly heavier ground-strokes, and her renowned match determination. But the slight edge remained with Azarenka in power and attacking resolve. Azarenka d. Wozniacki,64 62.
 
Early success in singles lifted the women from USA to a large lead in the match tally by nation. Here was the tally after three rounds of singles and two of women's doubles.
 
1. USA, 26.5 matches won
2. Czech Republic, 16.0
3. Russia, 14.0
 
MIDDLE ROUNDS
 
Last-year's runner-up, Dominika Cibulkova, and two-time former tournament champion Victoria Azarenka met in the fourth round. Cibulkova, short on stature but capable of severe and sustained power, did just that, outsizzling her larger opponent through a ferocious first and a climactic third set. Azarenka played well but was able to deny her opponent's relentless power and excellent movement only in the middle stages. Cibulkova d. Azarenka, 62 36 62.
 
Serena meanwhile faced rising newcomer Garbine Muguruza, 21. Tall and strong, the Venezuelan-born Spanish player matched Serena in power and mobility, and for the first set or so was far superior in keeping her big shots inside the lines. It was one of those torpid starts for Serena, where her reactions seemed sluggish, her shots badly off form. But Serena managed her difficulties well, and as she gradually found her heavier game, Garbine slipped slowly backward on the scoreboard. It had been scripted like many in Serena's long career. S. Williams d. Muguruz,a 26 63 62.
 
Two days later Serena, coughing badly both before and afterwards, showed no effects during her quick victory over Cibulkova. From the start, Serena played with full resolve and energy, showing none of the slowness and laggard play seen sometimes of late. Her blistering first-serving (15 aces) far exceeded the returning ability of her opponent, who was just 5-4 tall. Many rallies were severe and often extended, but Serena's power generally equaled or exceeded Dominika's, comfortably overcoming Dominika's excellent defensive movement and 15 placement winners. S. Williams d. Cibulkova, 62 62.
 
Meanwhile Venus Williams continued what had become a magnificent run, defeating Agnieszka Radwanska. That set up a quarter-final meeting with Madison Keys. The scoreboard showed a close and tight affair. But the larger message was in the power stroking of the younger American. It was stunning to see Venus so consistently and so fully outpowered by lightning bolts from Madison's racket. A left-thigh injury led to several stretches of caution and error-making by Madison that coincided with surges by Venus in her own often-uncertain shot-making. But after falling behind by a service break early in set three, Madison ignored her injury amid an unleashing of highly forcing rockets that Venus could not withstand. For Madison, it was a straight-ahead run to the finish. Keys d. V. Williams, 63 46 64.
 
Two Russian women completed the tournament's final four, both winning in straight sets. The firm and accurate stroking and lefty serve of tall Ekaterina Makarova made surprisingly easy work of dismissing Simona Halep, the high-seeded player in this quarter of the draw. Meanwhile the relentless power and attacking of Maria Sharapova comfortably overcame Eugenie Bouchard. Eugenie's power and movement seemed comparable to Maria's, but Eugenie's strikes far too often failed to find Maria's court.
 
SEMIS AND FINAL
 
There was little Ekaterina Makarova could do to change matters. She could extend points, often well, but as long as Maria Sharapova kept her rocketry inside the lines, sooner or later most points ended in her favor. If Ekaterina occasionally held the initiative, Maria's excellent mobility in the defense often restored matters to her favor. A moderate wind coming from one end helped Makarova win two games when serving with the wind. But otherwise the day was almost all Sharapova -- a comfortable tune-up for the final. Sharapova d. Makarova, 63 62.
 
It was a struggle featuring big serves and big strikes by two of the game's most powerful women. Newcomer Madison Keys was the less restrained, seldom using less than full force. For the young American it was high-risk tennis, played at full power and energy. Her opponent, Serena Williams, answered with a more careful application of her artillery, more patience in the pace and placement of her blows. But there was none of the tiredness or languor sometimes shown by Serena, instead some extreme defensive efforts were made by Serena in order to reach Madison's thunderbolts. For Keys, there were too many misses to go with the successes, turning the first set finally to Serena. Still, Keys's firepower produced two consecutive aces late in the set-ending tiebreaker that threatened briefly to equalize the tiebreak score. But a flurry of errors by Keys gave Serena an early service break in set two. With Serena now opening up her offensive weapons and defending often spectacularly against Madison's high-risk bombs, the eventual outcome soon came into view.
 
Still, the final two games brought the crowd to life once again as the two warriors showed what might become the future of women's tennis. During that stretch both women unlimbered rocketing first-serve aces. Both -- especially Serena -- showed some magnificent defensive athleticism. And both -- especially Serena -- punished her opponent's second serves. Net attacks and ripostes abounded in that final Armageddon. When it ended the crowd sank in exhaustion and delight. Official stats revealed the essence of the match: for Serena there were 19 winners, 16 unforced errors, for Keys 27 winners, 39 unforced errors. S. Williams d. Keys, 76 62.
 
The Saturday evening final was a tense affair, played with the Laver roof closed after a shower midway in the first set. Maria Sharapova started dismally, yielding several unforced errors and a double-fault in surrendering a service break in the opening game. Maria would never equalize matters on the scoreboard. She did, however, find her big game in time to contend closely many games and points.
 
The targets for Maria's artillery shifted early from down-the-center to the corners. But Serena Williams was ready to answer with energetic and superb defensive play, often countering with artillery of her own. By early in set two, both players were playing with full abandon, both unleashing screamers to the sides regularly, both tallying winners more often than unforced errors. Neither had much interest in coming to net in the face of her opponent's power. Maria, who was playing the more aggressively, probably should have forged ahead except for one factor.
 
That factor was the magnificent serving prowess of Serena. Again and again, it seemed, Serena at critical moments produced aces or near-aces -- unreturned offerings at 120 mph or more, carrying severe overspin or slice, placed deceptively to spots with accuracy. At the finish Serena's ace count exceeded Maria's 18-5. Nearly all of Serena's aces came in the tight second set. That Serena was the better player this date could not be questioned. S. Williams d. Sharapova, 63 76.
 
It was Serena's 19th career Slam in singles, placing her five behind the all-time leader Margaret Smith Court, three behind Steffi Graf, and tied with Helen Wills Moody. She now moved ahead of Martina Navratilova, who shared the stage at Serena's trophy award. Serena continues to hold the world #1 ranking. She surely has thoughts of yet greater glory.
 
MEN'S SINGLES -- EARLY ROUNDS
 
Surprises were fewer than usual among the men. For example, only five males seeded in the top sixteen failed to win their first three matches and thus reach the tournament's final sixteen. That was one fewer than the average seen in the last fourteen Australian Opens, continuing a trend where Melbourne Park has been the most predictable of the Slams.
 
But one massive shock came on first Friday. The conqueror of Roger Federer, second seeded, was Italian warhorse Andreas Seppi, age 30 and height 6-3, whose current world rank was #46. Roger had won all ten past meetings with Andreas. But Andreas on this day seldom wavered in his crisp serving and stroking, which defanged Roger's attacking and made for many extended points.
 
Roger played with obvious determination, served reasonably well, and reacted and moved strongly, but with more errors than he could afford. In the final set, Roger's attacking bids were regularly spoiled either by a close miss by Roger or by an accurate passing rocket by Andreas. Andreas weakened slightly toward the finish, flubbing a few nervous strokes, and in the closing tiebreaker Roger bid strongly to force a fifth set, twice leading by a minibreak. But the tall Italian remained relentless, claiming the last point with yet another forehand pass. Seppi d. Federer, 64 76 46 76.
 
Third-seeded Rafael Nadal escaped Roger's fate only narrowly, grinding away to overcome his own tiredness amid a spell of usually high humidity, defeating American qualifier Tim Smyczek, 27, in five sets. Smyczek played solidly and often held the initiative. Rafa was clearly not at full strength in recovering from appendicitis surgery back in November.
 
Of wide interest were the doings of Australia's rising sensations Nick Kygios, 20, and Thanasi Kokkinakis, 19 -- the current gems of today's Tennis Generation Future. Kyrgios became one of the five outsiders to penetrate the final sixteen at Melbourne Park, losing only one set in his three victories. (That happened against heavy-serving Karlovic, a dangerous opponent for even top-tier players.) Meanwhile Kokkinakis knocked out Ernests Gulbis, seeded #11, in a five-setter. (Kokkinakis lost his next match in five sets.) The future of Australian men's tennis looked brighter than in many years.
 
Strength in doubles lifted the Aussies to a strong second place in the men's count of matches won to date. The first-place nation, Spain, placed Nadal, Ferrer, F. Lopez, and Garcia-Lopez in the tournament's final sixteen. Here was the tally after three rounds of men's singles and two of men's doubles.
 
1. Spain, 19.5 match-wins
2. Australia, 18.0
3. France, 12.5
 
MIDDLE ROUNDS
 
Middle Sunday brought two entertaining battles. Nick Kyrgios, the Aussie teenager, defeated the firm-stroking Italian Andreas Seppi, conqueror of Federer. All five sets were superbly competitive, filled with many examples of stellar tennis by both men. Seppi won the first two sets and indeed held a match point in set four. Kyrgios took the last three, his elastic energy strong until the end. Meanwhile Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov warred away for four sets, Andy winning after coming from behind in the fourth set by capturing the last five games. Throughout, Andy showed the easier power, along with excellent foot speed and racket control in coming forward to answer Grigor's many angled or drop volleys. Murray d. Dimitrov, 64 67 63 75.
 
The heavy striking of Tomas Berdych allowed the erstwhile Czech star to easily dominate on the scoreboard against a Rafael Nadal far below his best. Rafa recovered in their third set while showing some of his familiar forehand sting, but Tomas took a 5-1 lead in the tiebreak game and managed to stave off Rafa's late rally. Rafa never broke the Berdych serve. It was Tomas's first win over Rafa in their eighteen meetings. Berdych d. Nadal, 62 60 76.
 
The quarter-final between Andy Murray and Nick Kyrgios pitted top representatives of tennis's Generation Now and Generation Future. In three close sets, Murray closed out the fabulous run of Kyrgios, continuing what now seemed Andy's clear road to the final. In the first set Andy's ability to turn difficult defensive situations to his own advantage largely defanged Kyrgios's relentless and potent offense. Set two was dead even, where the crowd's involvement seemed to lift the young Australian's attacking. Murray won the set-ending tiebreaker thanks to two splendid overspin lobs untouched by Kyrgios. Set three saw Kyrgios perhaps fading slightly in his net play. Matters were decided at the finish by Murray's defensive and countering ability and several fine passing shots by Andy. Still, there was no doubt that the newcomer's arrival in the sport's upper tier was authentic. Murray d. Kyrgios, 63 76 63.
 
Many observers guessed that Kei Nishikori, the younger player, would defeat Stan Wawrinka, based on Kei's strong play in the second half of 2014 despite injuries. But all three sets went to the Swiss star behind his superior power in serving and striking. Nishikori answered well throughout, however, and toward the end came to net regularly and often brilliantly. In the final tiebreaker, Kei lost six of the first seven points in the tiebreaker, then equalized at six points each. But a horrible drop-shot bid by the Japanese star and Wawrinka's 18th ace then closed out matters. But it had been the magnificent backhand of Wawrinka that, point after point throughout the match, battered Kei to defeat. Wawrinka d. Nishikori, 63 64 76.
 
There were no surprises as the respective strengths and patterns of dominance unfolded in the Raonic-Djokovic match-up. As expected, Raonic's edge lay in his severe serving and the potent firepower used by the tall Canadian in claiming the upper hand during rallies. But Djokovic offered a repertoire of skills for countering an opponent's superior power -- in returning serve, in turning around extended rallies, in his remarkable ability to stretch in returning difficult shots. Both Raonic and Djokovic held service through the first set, and the interplay of their respective strengths then turned to favor Djokovic narrowly in the first-set tiebreaker. After the first set, Novak's confidence and dominance grew, most notably in his regular reversing of extended back-court rallies to his favor. Novak faced no adverse break points during the match. Djokovic d. Raonic, 76 64 62.
 
SEMIS AND FINAL
 
Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych began the men's semis on a chilly and windy Second Thursday evening. At first Berdych was the more aggressive player, the heavier hitter, regularly forcing his way to net. Murray managed to carry the set into a tiebreaker, won by Berdych after reaching six points each. The bad blood that seemed to mark the affair became pronounced.
 
But a snarling Murray then turned up his forcefulness, outdriving and outmaneuvering his opponent in a one-sided second set. Murray's edge narrowed thereafter but Andy stayed in front. Tomas battled well in the last set but yielded three unforced errors and a double-fault in gifting away the final service break in game 11. Murray's average serving velocities were about 10 mph slower than Berdych's, but Andy registered 15 aces to Tomas's 5, confirming that ace-serving entails more than pace. Murray d. Berdych, 67 60 63 75.
 
The second men's semi proved a disconnected affair. Neither last year's champion Stan Wawrinka nor the four-time past champion Novak Djokovic could establish an enduring dominance, and the level of play by both men went up and down throughout. Wawrinka, of the wonderful backhand, was generally the aggressor, striking more firmly and targeting more closely the lines and corners. Djokovic answered with excellent resistance tempered sometimes with attacking ploys, which included a very good ratio of success in coming to net.
 
Novak suffered an extended spell of ineffectiveness throughout the fourth set, recording zero winners and fourteen unforced errors. But at two-sets-all, Wawrinka narrowly failed to break to open set five. That was the high water mark for the defending champion. Both men seemed tired thereafter, but it was Stan whose final let-down included many missed bids for telling strikes. Djokovic d. Wawrinka, 76 36 64 46 60.
 
The Sunday evening final was a brutal affair both physically and emotionally. It was the third time that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray met in a final at Australian Open, Novak having won in 2011 and 2013. This time the outcome stayed unclear for many hours.
 
Murray was generally the heavier striker, the more aggressive in forcing play with strikes close to the corners and lines. Andy generally stood in almost atop the baseline during rallies, far more aggressively than in past years. But as Djokovic had shown all week, no one was better than Novak in resisting heavy pressure, in attacking second serves, in abruptly attacking during rallies.
 
Novak hurt his right hand in falling near net in the first set, and his striking velocities were thereafter reduced. During the first-set tiebreaker he twice overcame minibreaks to squeeze ahead, to Andy's noisy chagrin. A fired-up Andy took the early lead in set two, then contributed a dismal spell, but came through strongly to win the match's second tiebreaker, exploiting his own superior striking velocities and moderate aggressiveness.
 
Novak's bothersome thumb injury now became a less-apparent concern than Novak's seeming discomfort in his legs -- perhaps a sign of cramping given Novak's unending gyrations in response to Andy's blows. But half-way through set three Andy too began to look tired. The momentum shift in favor of Djokovic was more evident on the scoreboard than in watching the play. But Djokovic won the last nine games of the match. A large factor was Novak's punishment of Andy's second serve, producing indirect damage to Andy's confidence as well as the immediate point rewards. For the full match, Djokovic won an amazing 63% of Andy's second-serve points. Andy won only 34% of Djokovic's. Djokovic d. Murray, 67 76 63 60.
 
By winning his eighth Slam Djokovic joins the likes of Connors, Lendl, Agassi, and Rosewall in the all-time rank order. (Federer is tops with 17 Slams.) Novak will surely work hard this spring looking to Garros -- the only Slam he has never won -- with thought of completing his career Grand Slam.
 
MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL
 
The top-seeded pair in men's doubles, the Bryan brothers, had been knocked out in the third round. But the final match offered interesting dimensions. The Italian pair Bolelli-Fognini wedded themselves almost entirely to the one-up/one-back formation, relying mainly on (1) the serving and ground-stroke power of Bolelli and (2) the general support and occasional bursts of flair of his colorful partner Fognini. Meanwhile the French pair Herbert-Mahut generally followed serves to net, skillfully varying their positioning and shot-making tactics. The French twosome seemed the better balanced, but Bolelli adjusted well to the ups and downs that came with his volatile partner. Bolelli-Fognini were highly experienced in top-level doubles and as partners, while Herbert at age 23 seemed less comfortable, and it was his service games that proved the more vulnerable.
 
At first the French seemed the solider twosome, but they tended to play poorly when break-point opportunities arose. The dominating weapon of the day was unquestionably the power serving and stroking of Bolelli, which the Italians well knew how to apply with effect. Bolelli was also excellent in moving quickly in forecourt. Bolelli-Fognini d. Herbert-Mahut 64 64.
 
OTHER HONORS
 
Bethanie Mattek-Sands of USA and Lucie Safarova of Czech Republic won the women's doubles, and Martina Hingis and Leander Paes won the mixed.
 
The tournament's overachievers in singles were two young risers. Unseeded Madison Keys reached the women's semi-finals, losing to Serena, thus penetrating the tournament's final 32, 16, 8, and 4. That equated to four levels of overachievement. The leader among the males was unseeded Nick Kyrgios, who reached the final eight, or three levels of overachievement.
 
Once again no player came close to the classic triple -- winning the singles, doubles, and mixed, all three. Two women came closest by being on the winning side in a total of eight matches. Barbara Mattek-Sands won two matches in singles and six matches in capturing the women's doubles crown. Ekaterina Makarova won five matches in singles and three in women's doubles. Meanwhile two males each won in seven matches. Simone Bolelli won six times in men's doubles and once in singles, and Novak Djokovic won seven times in singles.
 
Among the women, the nation atop the tally of match-wins by nation was USA. The Americans were lifted by early-round depth in singles along with the successes of Serena Williams and Madison Keys in singles and Mattek-Sands in doubles. It was the second consecutive success at Melbourne for the U.S. women, who in 2014 broke a long run by the Russkayas. Meanwhile Spain led among the males, breaking two years of success by France. Australia, which finished outside the top three at Melbourne Park in every year since 2006, was a close second.
 
Women
1. USA, 37.5 match-wins
2.Russia, 20.0
2.Czech Republic, 20.0
4. Germany, 10.5
 
Men
1. Spain, 22.0
2. Australia, 21.0
3. France, 16.0
4. USA, 10.0
 
How the game is played at highest levels continues to evolve. Australian Open 2015 showed the importance of punishing opponent's second serve and protecting one's own, the role of pace and variety in rallying and using them to preempt opponent's attacking, positioning oneself for aggressive play, footwork in both offense and defense, the mental aspects, and what has been the unchanging aspect of playing tennis from the beginning -- the avoidance of excessive errors, at whatever level.
 
-- Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, USA
 

 

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

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