Merciless heat at the outset was followed by extended rainfall badly needed
by the island continent. Temperate conditions followed, but for the top players
the tournament often resembled an indoor one, staged largely in the
convertible Laver or Vodafone arenas. Overall, it was hard to see that the game of
tennis--men's as well as women's--had ever been played as well.
The ultimate high points in the men's and women's singles were (1) the
supreme magnificence of Roger Federer and (2) the return to past greatness of
Serena Williams. Several older players showed significant leaps of improvement,
among them Gonzalez, Roddick, Clijsters, and to a lesser degree also Fish, Haas,
Zvonareva, and Hingis. There was ample evidence that wonderful things lay
ahead for the current teenaged contingent, both male and female.
The Rebound Ace surface made for excellence in play at seemingly little
penalty in terms of player injury. It was again evident that pro singles is today
played mainly from backcourt--that unless opponent is severely forced, net
approaches are hazardous, often suicidal. Still, aggressive play was almost always
key to winning, favoring the player best able to attack firmly to the sides
amid strong instincts to move forward to meet any soft reply. The killing shot
was often a swinging volley taken at midcourt. Highly indicative during
matches was the tally of winners vs. unforced errors, where a favorable plurality
seemed key for advancing to the late rounds. Soft hitting when in trouble was
disastrous and during neutral exchanges invited attack.
The balance of power among the tennis nations remained stable. Russia was the
comfortable winner in the women's tally, comfortably ahead of the
second-place U.S. females. The Russkayas placed five players in the final sixteen of
singles. Meanwhile the leading nation among the men was U.S.A., where Roddick,
Blake, and Fish scored well in singles, all at least reaching the last sixteen,
and the Bryans won the doubles. The French males were second.
WOMEN'S FINAL - S. WILLIAMS d. SHARAPOVA, 61 62
It was as complete a demolition as ever seen in a Slam final. Earlier in the
tournament Serena had played erratically in long stretches. But on this day
the muscular American played at close to perfection, replying to just about
every offering with full-power attack. The result was a ruthless forcing game
backed by absolutely superior court mobility along with quickness in racket and
body shot-preparation. There was little caution in Serena's serve-returning.
Williams relentlessly punished nearly all Sharapova's serves--not only Maria's
already-suspect second serve but also any first serve that was not in the
tightest corner of the service box. Even when Maria managed to reach one of
Serena's serve-return rockets, her unfamiliarity with Serena's extreme weight of shot
often produced weakish replies. Sharapova tried to stop the deluge by
stepping up her own play, but the result was often errors or mishits of her own. Even
when the outcome was beyond doubt, the ferocity of Serena's game dropped off
hardly at all. It ended in little over an hour.
SERENA'S ROAD TO THE FINAL
After winning Australian Open 05, Serena competed only sparingly owing to
long-standing knee trouble. Fully sidelined in late 2006, she returned to action
in early January at Hobart, Tasmania, where she lost in the third round to
unseeded Austrian player Bammer. At Melbourne Park she defeated two unseeded
opponents and faced fifth-seeded Nadia Petrova in the third round. Nadia had in
recent months approached the game's elite level, having shown all-around
hard-hitting excellence. Serena seemed on the hefty side, but she was clearly trimmer
than in her 2006 appearances.
I watched the last half-hour or so of play, where Serena, who had been
error-prone earlier in the match, now found her strong attacking game while avoiding
excessive errors. It was the Serena of past times--determined, utterly
concentrated, and ruthless in her strong serving and hitting. Petrova was
consistently outplayed, her own attacking shots easily neutralized by Serena's athletic
mobility. Serena's level of play in the late going suggested that the American
superstar--if she could sustain that quality--was again capable of defeating
In her fourth match Serena again brought to mind the Serena of old,
dominating the rising Serb star, Jelena Jankovic. Serena's serving and stroking carried
more weight than Jelena's, helping her generally maintain the initiative. Just
as decisive was Serena's athletic mobility, which largely neutralized
Jelena's bids to attack. It seemed that the only player that could have beaten
Serena this date was Serena herself, and that was not to be.
Serena was now favored to win her half of the draw owing to her own strong
performances and the demise of Mauresmo, the defending champion who lost early
to unseeded Safarova. Serena's quarter-final opponent was Jerusalem-born
Shamar Peer, age 19, who finished 2006 as World #20. On this date Serena's play
reverted to the error-prone and often listless game seen earlier, far below her
fierce perfection in closing out Petrova and overwhelming Jankovic. Meanwhile
the teenager, behind her excellent mobility and counter-punching skills, moved
ahead early and kept matters close until the conclusion. It was a highly
competitive if not especially well-played contest, where errors far outnumbered
winners. Serena found her wonderful serve and power stroking in several critical
moments, ultimately prevailing in a tense and extended third set.
In their semi-final meeting, more often than not the dominating player over
Serena was Nicole Vaidisova--tall and powerful at age 17, winner over Safarova.
Vaidisova seemed eager for the initiative, exploiting her excellent power in
serving and in driving to the deep corners in hopes of offsetting Serena's
superior mobility and tactical strengths. The score remained close, and Nicole
reached a set point late in the first set. Meanwhile Serena largely played
within herself, keeping her errors--although alarmingly frequent--at an acceptable
level. But after losing the first-set tiebreaker Nicole turned cranky. Though
she recovered from two games down in the second set, her persisting negative
manner seemed--probably correctly--to doom her chances.
Watchers applauded Serena's wins to date, but her difficulties against Peer
and Vaidisova clouded memories of her excellence earlier. Thus Sharapova, who
had steadily improved after first-round trouble amid severe heat, was still
generally regarded the favorite.
THE UPPER HALF
When the tournament began the upper half of the draw seemed the stronger,
featuring Sharapova and Clijsters, along with Martina Hingis and the rising
19-year-old Muscovite, Anna Chakvetadze. These four became the half's four
survivors into the quarter-finals. In all three matches among the four, the losing
player was, paradoxically, the one with the fewest number of unforced errors (and
also the fewer winners).
In the quarters, Chakvetadze made things scary for top-seeded Sharapova. Anna
indeed appeared superior to Maria in the consistency of her ground game,
forcing the favorite to seek the initiative. Chakvetadze answered Maria's rockets
to the corners with spectacular replies, often executed on the run, exceeding
even the counter-punching strengths of Peer seen the day before. After
narrowly losing the first-set tiebreaker, Anna for a while seemed listless and
concerned with shoulder pain. But she reversed matters and pressed the taller Maria
closely toward the end, showing occasional extreme power off the backhand.
Anna's serve was less than deadly, however, perhaps weakened by her shoulder
trouble. Maria needed all her powers of concentration and will, along with her
bold attacking instincts to prevail.
Meanwhile Clijsters defeated Hingis in the other quarter-final albeit with
more difficulty than expected. Kim made an unaccustomed number of errors,
typically in attempting to force play. Martina executed her usual clean all-court
game, but Kim's greater hitting power was evident on those occasions where Kim
unloaded at full weight and also in the consistent difference in their serving
velocities. Hingis did well in partially defanging Kim's attack, but the
latter succeeded in finding the necessary level of attack now without making too
In the semi-final meeting of the survivors, Sharapova seemed more aggressive
than Clijsters. Maria often scored well from midcourt or forecourt behind
blistering serves or attacking shots. Matters reached four-games-all and, with
both players hitting and moving well, Maria seized the next two games and the
first set behind some fine service returns.
Both players were now competing at what seemed their best, but it was Maria's
sustained heavier firepower off the ground that paved the way for winning
putaways from closer in. Kim managed to reach most of Maria's forcing serves and
ground strokes, but whereas Chakvetadze had usually managed to rip back such
offerings, Kim often produced softish floaters. Toward the end, except for an
inordinate number of double-faults, Maria's dominance became complete.
THE CURRENT ORDER IN WOMEN'S TENNIS
Does the completeness of her triumph at Melbourne mean that Serena is ready
to resume her domination of the game relinquished two years ago. Indeed, there
was no evidence at Melbourne of Serena's past knee trouble, nor of any
lessening of her fierce competitive desire. That further Slam successes for Serena
lie ahead seems strongly likely.
With mind to the months ahead, we here offer an informal ranking of the top
women based mainly on evidence from Melbourne and the months just before. Note
especially the prominence of relative newcomers after the first four.
1. S. Williams
8. Peer or Jankovic or Safina or Mauresmo.
MEN'S FINAL - FEDERER d. GONZALEZ, 76 64 64
The final round matched the two men who had clearly been the tournament's
best. The defending champion, Roger Federer, had won his first six matches
without losing a set, while his opponent, Fernando Gonzalez, was playing at his
best-ever levels of speed, power, and consistency. For several months it had been
evident that Fernando, or "Gonzo," now working with coach Larry Stefanki, was
tempering his past overhitting style to cut down on excessive errors. The
result was a top-ten finish at the end of 2006. But now, at Melbourne, Gonzo
seemed again to be putting full energy into nearly every shot, except that now his
errors were few.
Both men produced superlative tennis. Amid their extreme power, both played
with tactical awareness, mixing in superb aggression and defense. Federer
seemed more consistently forceful than customarily, and he moved into forecourt
frequently, approaching and volleying strongly and often. Fernando showed off his
new strong game, and although Roger's pace helped cause several
now-uncharacteristic errors by Gonzo, both men held serve until game nine when Roger,
serving, contributed some close errors and was twice beaten at net. Thus the first
service-break of the match was Gonzo's. In the next game, game ten, Gonzalez
held two set points. But somehow Roger, now mixing in periods of patient play,
managed to secure the equalizing break. Two games later Roger nearly broke
serve again, reaching several set points, and a few minutes later Roger
decisively won the set-ending tiebreaker.
The magnificent level of play scarcely let up. Federer now became almost
perfect in holding his own serving games. In set two he lost only two serving
points, and set three was nearly as impressive. Amid many breathtaking points,
Gonzo's serve held up well, while Roger's movement and defensive ability blunted
Gonzo's strongest attacking. Roger broke serve once in both second and third
sets, and it was enough. Gonzalez played with determination to the end, and
the Chilean merits great credit for bringing forth Roger's very best along with
a seldom-seen net-attacking game.
ROAD TO FINAL - GONZALEZ d. BLAKE 75 64 76, GONZALEZ d. NADAL 62 64 63,
GONZALEZ d. HAAS 61 63 61
Just as noteworthy was Gonzo's road to the final, including straight-set wins
over James Blake, Rafael Nadal, and Tommy Haas.
Blake and Gonzalez staged breathtaking rallies, many of them taxing the
athleticism, physical strength, stamina, and mental limits of both men. Years ago,
most tennis players could be typed--some were big hitters, others wonderful
movers, others precise and consistent placers of the ball. But Blake and Gonzalez
now seemed to be performing at highest level in all these traits, so that
this struggle of two top-tenners seemed to exemplify how far the pro game has
advanced. Many points in themselves became extended contests. Gonzalez managed to
stay ahead all the way, but somehow his superiority never seemed clear. His
victory set the stage for what seemed likely to be a fascinating quarter-final
battle against the Murray-Nadal winner.
The Murray-Nadal fourth-rounder pitted the world's top teen-ager, Murray,
against the player who had outgrown this distinction just last year and was
already a superstar,. Nadal at 20 has already won Garros twice. Every time I watch
Andy Murray, he seems physically stronger, more in control of what once seemed
an ungainly body. His serve is now extremely potent, and his rocketing ground
strokes seem effortlessly delivered amid his excellent court movement. Nadal
meanwhile still shows the weighty overspin deliveries off both sides, the
tireless court coverage, even as the youthful fire seems slightly dimmer. The
match swung back and forth for five sets, but in the end Nadal's relentless
presence prevailed--67 64 46 63 61.
Against Nadal, Fernando's power forehand, delivered with extreme sweeping
backswing, was amazing to behold. The misfires that watchers had come to expect
in past years were almost wholly absent. Again and again, the lithe Chilean
ripped inside-outers using fearsome overspin to the left-handed Nadal's forehand
corner, tempting Rafael to cheat in that direction. Once Gonzo gained the edge
during a point, which happened often, Nadal could seldom break the pattern.
When the exchange was neutral, as in Nadal's serving games often, Nadal tried
to keep his shots to Fernando's backhand, where the Chilean showed patience
in employing a consistent one-handed slice, which Rafael attacked only
gingerly. Fernando's court mobility was excellent, and even when forced onto the
defensive, his power from either side posed threat of immediate offense. Once
again, as in his recent victories, Gonzalez showed an impressive excess of winners
over unforced errors, in ratio 2:1.
Against Tommy Haas in the semis, Gonzo's heavy hitting was again tempered by
large doses of backhand slices, delivered cross-court to Tommy's strong
backhand side. It is a tactic seen fairly often in today's otherwise hard-hitting
baseline game, where the recipient of the slices is tempted to vary the pattern
by driving down-the-line, thereby opening up the point but also at risk of
error or opponent's strong forehand reply. In these backhand exchanges Gonzalez
was generally better than Haas in avoiding error and also entirely able to
cover the eventual down-the-line bid from Tommy's classic backhand. The resulting
statistics were like those in Fernando's earlier triumphs--more than twice as
many winners as errors by Gonzalez.
UPPER HALF -- RODDICK d. SAFIN, 76 26 64 76
This third-round meeting of two heavy servers and heavy strokers seemed
likely to decide Federer's opponent in the semis. Marat Safin had regularly
produced his best in past Australian Opens, and he had indeed won the tournament two
years earlier. Knee trouble had held back Marat's success since then, but his
physical readiness now seemed high, and he had played Federer closely in the
semis at Kooyong just the week before. Meanwhile Andy Roddick had shown clear
improvement in recent months, and had beaten Federer in the Kooyong final. The
heavy-hitting power styles of both men were well suited to the
slowish-bouncing Rebound Ace courts.
Both seemed strong early-on. Safin's serve was the more smoothly delivered
and seemed the more effective, more often finding the lines and corners and more
often producing aces. Roddick's attained slightly higher first-serve
velocities but his edge was in his higher-bounding and more-forceful second serve.
When baseline exchanges ensued, Roddick was more often the aggressor, showing
nice statistical success when at net, though Safin produced some dazzling passing
At one-set-all, Safin's game began to fray, though only slightly. There was
an unwise drop-shot try and an inexplicably soft treatment of a sitter, both of
which proved costly to the Russian. Now and then, Marat neglected to make the
extra half-step needed to attain best hitting position. Then Marat hurt a
finger, and next came a stream of complaints directed at the umpire. Marat
successfully challenged several line calls, but the tall Russian's discontent seemed
to grow along with increasing evidence of physical tiredness. Meanwhile Andy,
who had been surly in his previous match, stayed well focused and seemingly
fresh, perhaps helped by the close-by presence of consultant coach Jimmy
Connors, who had just arrived from America. With his game now at its peak, Andy was
a convincing winner of the tiebreak game ending the fourth and final set.
The official statistics showed that Andy had come to net considerably more
frequently than Marat, so that Andy's plurality of points W-L at net was +19,
compared with Safin's +11. The comparison appeared to vindicate Andy's
After defeating Safin, Roddick indeed moved on to the semis, defeating Mario
Ancic in five sets and Mardy Fish in three. Meanwhile Federer defended his
top-seeded position with straight-set wins in all his matches. Among his victims
were Youzhny, Djokovic, and Robredo.
FEDERER d. RODDICK 64 60 62
It was hard to imagine that anyone has ever displayed a higher level of
tennis than did Federer in his semi-final conquest of Roddick. Andy kept matters
even for most of the early going, but lost the first set amid several errors of
his own, a firm serve return by Roger, and Roger's fast reaction in making a
mid-court volley. Andy won the first two points of set two, but after that
Federer's total domination set in. Ripping winners, point after point, Federer
made Andy's resistance seem absent. Often--presumably following plan--Roddick
tried to establish himself at net, but now the tactic almost always brought an
immediate winner by Roger. Even from positions of disadvantage Roger's magic
prevailed. The one-sided nature of the contest persisted into the third set. It
was a stunning performance by the defending champion, one that would underline
the quality of Gonzalez's resistance in the final.
THE CURRENT LADDER
Almost surely, Roger's place atop men's tennis will persist in months to
come. It also seems likely that Gonzalez will sustain something close to his
current level of play and perhaps establish his position as the sport's hard-court
#2. The other veterans of the 2006 top eight, including Nadal, Roddick, and
Blake, should stay in contention for second place, while newcomers Murray,
Djokovic, Gasquet, and Berdych showed at Melbourne that they too belong in this
group. Here is an informal current ranking of the men for hard-court play,
derived from performances at Melbourne Park and in the months just before.
7/8. Haas, Ancic, Davydenko, Safin, Djokovic, or Ljubicic.
February will be relatively quiet for most of the leaders. There will be
indoor events in America and Europe, the women's Tier One in Tokyo, and the clay
circuit in Latin America, all broken by Davis Cup play in the month's second
week. There will be little time to reflect on Australia and the March events
ahead in pro tennis.
Gratitude is owed to the Aussies for a wonderful Slam, and to ESPN/ESPN2 for
bringing the matches to America.
Arlington, Virginia, USA