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January 30, 2011 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australia 2011 -- A Slam For Asia/Pacific
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

This newest Slam produced its share of memorable happenings. The men's singles saw the overturning of the regal pair Federer and Nadal, who between them had won 21 of the preceding 23 Slams. The new champion, Novak Djokovic, had won the Australian three years ago. Meanwhile the new women's champion, Kim Clijsters, was also no stranger to trophy ceremonies, most recently having triumphed at U.S. Open 2010.
 
The greater drama came in the unexpected successes of several unlikely candidates. Among the men, attention went to two young and unseeded players -- Canadian Milos Raonic and Ukrainian Alex Dolgopolov, both of whom attained late-round prominence and seemed ready to challenge for top-ten status in future events. Meanwhile Chinese star Li Na brought a relentless power-hitting game that lifted her to the women's singles final and moved her inside the top eight in the women's rankings.
 
The weather at Melbourne Park was unusually cool for mid-summer, especially in the first week, and when the mercury climbed in the late stages it never approached the brutal levels seen in recent years. The highly enclosed main arenas, which hosted most of the big matches, largely shielded the action from strong wind effects and produced a sense of indoor play. Widely noted was the difference in playing conditions between daytime and night, where the drop in temperature at eventide brought a rise in relative humidity and a slowing down of ball velocities. The cool and damp conditions helped or hurt players in their match-ups differently.
 
But if playing conditions were slower than usual, service aces were slightly more frequent than has been usual at Australian Open or at the other hard-court Slam, U.S. Open (as measured in the last four rounds over the last six years). The percentages of points and games won by servers were, however, slightly lower than in past Australian and U.S. Opens. The evidence thus suggests that as players learn to exploit the snap-back qualities of the modern copolyester strings, ace-hitting is helped but so too is the ability of receivers to attack less-than-severe serves.
 
The crowds and general atmosphere at Melbourne Park were superb, including appropriate recognition of the game's history and its widening appeal. The broadcasting by ESPN2 and Tennis Channel was magnificent amid often-brilliant commentary by the corps of tv-talkers.
 
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
 
The absence of last year's champion Serena Williams and the physical troubles seen during the tournament of veterans Justine Henin and Venus Williams dimmed only slightly the lustre of the women's event.
 
TOP QUARTER
 
This was the quarter of Caroline Wozniacki, world #1 in the rankings and top-seeded at the tournament, eager to erase the comment that she had never won a Slam. Caroline moved through her first four matches without losing a set, beating small but hard-hitting Cibulkova and a troublesome member of the under-21 brigade, the Latvian Sevastova. In the latter affair Caroline played only well enough to exceed the level of her opponent.
 
Advancing in the other half of the quarter were three former Slam-winners. Francesca Schiavone's early journey was tortured -- split-set wins in her first two matches and a tiebreak-decided second set in her third. Meanwhile a slimmed-down Svetlana Kuznetsova moved to a third-round meeting with Justine Henin, where the winner would become Schiavone's opponent in the third round.
 
Justine had recently returned from elbow trouble to win all four of her matches at Hopman Cup in early January, while Svetlana had fallen outside the top twenty from her #3 ranking little more than a year ago. Throughout their Friday meeting the edge in serving and stroking velocities was clearly Henin's, but with the high-risk strikes came too many unforced errors -- significantly more than Svetlana's, including nine double-faults. Justine almost forced a third set but lost when her aggressive play at the finish was wasted by several close errors in attacking weak offerings from Svetlana. Afterwards, Justine announced that because of her elbow problem she was retiring from the pro tour. Kuznetsova d. Henin 64 76.
 
Against Kuznetsova, Francesca Schiavone offered her own blend of spins, variety, and solid defense mixed with flashing attacks featuring athletic net forays. Both players showed evidence of injury -- a Kuznetsova ankle was repeatedly taped, and Schiavone wore wrapping around the thigh. It ended in a marathon third set, where the winner was the fresher player, Schiavone, but Francisca's victory came only after surviving six adverse match points. At nearly five hours in elapsed time, it was the longest-ever women's match in Slams of the Open Era. Schiavone d. Kuznetsova 64 16 16-14.
 
Two days later, Wozniacki and Schivone faced off to decide the champion of the quarter. Playing well, Francesca came to net frequently, winning the first set and breaking serve early in the second. Caroline later said that she was having trouble with Francesca's spins, but that she, Caroline, gradually tried to step up her own forcefulness, trying to dictate the flow of points. Perhaps the difference was the increased weight of Caroline's shots or perhaps it was tiredness in Francesca from the extended battle with Kuznetsova. The turning point came in Francesca's abrupt loss of serve in the fifth game of set two. The overall stats gave a remarkable picture: Caroline produced 13 winners and 15 unforced errors against Francesca's 41 winners and 46 errors. Wozniacki d. Schiavone 36 63 63.
 
SECOND QUARTER
 
The crowds were only slightly less excited here. The favorites in the quarter's top half were Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, but Venus retired in her third match with right-hip trouble, while Maria narrowly survived a three-setter against German youth Julia Goerges, 22, whose style of power serving and stroking resembled Maria's.
 
Sharapova next met Andrea Petkovic, 23, who came to Germany from Bosnia as a small child with her family. Tall at 5-11 and strong at 152 pounds, Andrea showed much all-around athleticism and tennis ability, taking the offensive occasionally but prevailing mainly thanks to Maria's mistakes. Sharapova unleashed her full power without let-up, but the errors came far more often than her winners. The overall tally of unforced errors was an astonishing Sharapova 25, Petkovic 6. It ended in straight sets in slightly more than one hour.
 
But the proper story of this quarter was that of Li Na. Li, now aged 28 and height 5-8, had been a semi-finalist last year at Melbourne and had finished last year at #11 in the rankings. What came next was stunning in the completeness of its message.
 
In her forthcoming straight-set victories over higher-seeded Azarenka and then Petkovic, Na would show her excellent court movement along with a relentless solidity in stroking, featuring forceful pace and direction. The strengths went together -- it was her quickness that made possible the balance and positioning from which came the power and angles of the ground strokes. Both against Azarenka and Petkovic, matters ended in straight sets and quickly. Coming forward occasionally, Petkovic made the second set interesting but Andrea faltered at the finish. Li d. Azarenka 63 63; Li d. Petkovic 62 64.
 
Afterwards, Petkovic predicted that Li could, indeed would, win the tournament. The margin of Na's superiority in this quarter argued that Andrea could be right.
 
THIRD QUARTER
 
The initial favorite here was Kim Clijsters, who swept through the quarter without losing a set, where the main uncertainty had been whether Kim would rein in her attacking enough to avoid giving away too many unforced errors. In short, her court movement and stroking power were too good for any opponent here, provided that Kim played sufficiently within herself. There was one exception, to be noted in the next paragraph.
 
Kim's errors necessitated tiebreaker sets against Cornet, Makarova, and Radwanska. Her most interesting opponent was Moscow-born Ekaterina Makarova, 22, a lefty bringing an aggressive, power game. Makarova's well-directed and forceful shot-making kept things close, and indeed forced Clijsters to employ her often-spectacular defensive skills. It was a good test for Kim, who seemed to gain in determination and accuracy during the many extended points forced by Ekaterina. Clijsters d. Makarova 76 62; Clijsters d. Radwanska 63 76.
 
A worthy sub-plot stirred in the upper half of the quarter, where unseeded Peng Shuai defeated seventh-seeded Jelena Jankovic. Shuai's consistent and often forceful stroking, perhaps along with Jelena's reluctance to take forecourt, largely explained Jelena's demise. Shuai then carried Agnieszka Radwanska to a close three-setter. At age 25 and height 5-8, Peng gives China a second international singles star.
 
BOTTOM QUARTER
 
Australian hopes rested with home-nation star Samantha Stosur, whose rise to prominence in singles had lifted her to #6 in the women's rankings for 2010. But Sam faltered in the year-opening tournament in Brisbane, won by Petra Kvitova. By luck of the draw, that young Czech player would stand directly in the path of Stosur at Melbourne.
 
The two met in the third round. Kvitova, age 20, is a strong lefty at listed height 6-0 and weight 153. She habitually delivers her firm ground strokes from a slighly crouched posture which positions her eyes close to ball-striking level. Stosur led early but Kvitova fought back to reach a first-set tiebreaker, which she won closely. The second set was easier for the younger star, who led in second-set "winners" by 16 to zero and in points won at net by eleven to one. It was an impressive performance against a higher-ranked player known for her serving ability and volleying skills. Kvitova d. Stosur 76 63.
 
Then against Pennetta, Kvitova again showed the superior power, well controlled, in the serve, forehand, and backhand, along with fine court mobility in obtaining best striking position and defending when necessary. Pennetta made a strong effort and the scores stayed close throughout, but at the finish it was Kvitova who pulled away, convincingly.
 
But against Vera Zvonareva, it was a different story. Second-seeded in the tournament, Vera had been extended by the young Serbian Jovanovski, but in her next match Vera seemed to have found her best game. That was also the case now against Kvitova, where Vera's strong defensive ability answered well Petra's power hitting, even as Vera's attacks were often too much for Petra. Petra persisted in taking the initiative early in points and led briefly in the second set but faltered amid many hard-fought points once Vera again stepped up her play. Zvonareva d. Kvitova, 62 64.
 
FINAL FOUR
 
On stage at Laver Arena for semi-final action on Thursday, January 27 were Caroline Wozniacki and the unexpected member of the Final Four, Li Na.
 
Li's strengths had been seen earlier in the week. Her strong groundstrokes, delivered with biting velocity and aggressive placement, were the foundation. Her winning largely depended on her success in producing this artillery with relatively few errors. Fairly early, it became clear that Wozniacki's consistency and defensive play could not overcome the aggressive hitting of the Chinese star. Apparently recognizing this, Caroline began stepping up her own velocities, often feeding off Li's power to deliver regular doses of offerings aggressive both in pace and direction. Breathtaking exchanges of power thus marked much of the first set, each player holding her own in the fierce rallies, the outcome decided by a late spell of errors by Na.
 
The second set was similar. Na continued battering amid occasional erratic spells, Caroline answering with her own firm stroking and, as needed, by some remarkable defensive play under heavy pressure. The European star thus won the early service break. But there had been many long points that had seen Caroline racing corner-to-corner in defending. Was Caroline getting a little tired, and perhaps was there mixed in a premature glow of imminent victory? Meanwhile Na was cutting down in her own error-making. Caroline managed to reach match point, serving, in game 10, but the opportunity slipped away.
 
Na was now the stronger player, and the Chinese star won the second set, and her edge persisted into the third. As the finish approached, the mid-afternoon heat, possible tiredness from Caroline's recent three-setter against Schiavone, and the relentless force of Na's stroking, all magnified Li's superiority. In the overall tally the winner of the match showed, amazingly, twice the loser's unforced errors. But there were also four times the winners. Li d. Wozniacki 36 75 63.
 
That evening brought forth the superb skills of Kim Clijsters and Vera Zvonareva, played out in dramatic, only slightly less compelling, context. Nearly every point became a small war, both antagonists ripping away in pressing attacks or in deflecting attacks of the other. The two players seemed evenly matched in most aspects at high level -- in stroking power and consistency, in quickness and mobility, in court craft and determination. By reputation, Kim was the heavier hitter, Vera the more consistent, but on this day Kim played with greater patience than usual, holding down the risk-taking by toning down her aggressiveness, so that the two seemed like tennis twins.
 
In the first set the margins deciding the points, games, and the set itself were small. Probably the set's outcome was decided by Kim's success in finding the right level of risk-taking, noted above. Then in set two, having found her timing and adjusted to the conditions and to her opponent, Kim stepped up her velocities somwhat, forcing her way into an early lead. Whereas both players had been known for outstanding backhands, it was Kim's backhand that was now taking the greater effect, especially in producing the severe angles that repeatedly stretched Vera's defenses. It was probably the deciding weapon of the match-up. Clijsters d. Zvonareva 63 63.
 
Thus Li Na and Kim Clijsters met in Laver Arena on Saturday evening, January 29. They had played earlier in the year, in the final round at Sydney, where Na had won, in two close sets.
 
Clijsters won the first two games at love, but Li came back to capture the first set, breaking Kim's serve three times behind her own stinging groundstrokes. Clijsters had seemed the less confident player, and it had been the drumfire of Li that was the controlling aspect of the play. Plainly Kim needed to step up her pace and aggressive placement, but it was also clear that Kim was had been unable to do this without making errors.
 
During the second set, Kim played somewhat more forcefully, moving inside the baseline more frequently to meet Na's offerings and occasionally attacking net. Kim's defensive bent was by no means fully absent, however. Perhaps significantly, Kim avoided her often-seen tendency to rush between points, and her patient court tactics seemed to follow from this predisposition. There were stretches where Kim stroked only into the middle third of Na's court, determined to stay inside the lines. Only then -- once Kim had fortified her timing and confidence -- would Kim deliver the familiar full-blooded thrusts to the sides and corners. Most significantly, Kim contributed no stretches of horrible and careless error-making, seen often in the past.
 
Kim's selective and controlled aggression worked. Kim stemmed matters sufficiently to reach three games all in the second set, and after that she would sweep nine of the final twelve games. As Na's serenity declined in the late going, so too did her consistency. Kim won, not in spectacular fashion, but because of fewer errors. It seemed to me that Na's unforced errors were mainly from high-risk attacking, while Kim's were largely the result of pressure from Na. Clijsters d. Li 36 63 63.
 
THE MEN'S SINGLES
 
Stunning upsets dismissed two members of the pre-tournament Big Five, but otherwise form held up remarkably well. Still, neither Nadal nor Federer reached the final round, opening the way for the next-in-waiting twosome.
 
TOP QUARTER
 
Bidding to win a fourth consecutive Slam, Rafael Nadal surely saw danger in his quarter, as he must. There was the young Aussie Tomic early, then Marin Cilic, whose career seemed about ready for another jump upward, and finally, if Rafa reached the quarter's final, countryman David Ferrer -- a determined battler who knew Rafa's game well.
 
Early attention turned to qualifier Milos Raonic, 20, who had come to Canada from the former Yugoslavia at age three. Late last year Milos rose from the qualifying rounds to attain several main-draw wins and reach year-end ranking of #156. At height 6-6 and powerfully built at 198 pounds, Milos brings a serve of extreme power. Thus in beating Phau and Llodra in his first two main-draw matches at Melbourne, he scored a total of 48 aces. In his third match, a four-set win over tenth-seeded Youzhny, he out-aced his opponent 31-3.
 
For one set in his fourth-rounder against David Ferrer, Raonic performed with dazzling brilliance. With easy effortlessness, he blistered forehands and backhands to the lines and corners. His first serves were the fastest recorded of the tournament; his second serves reached into the 130's mph. Ferrer managed to return most of them albeit weakly. The youngster pounced on the returns in superb first-strike tennis, ripping them to the corners or putting them away with amazing violence. The first set was Milos's.
 
But the youth's magnificence gradually faded as Ferrer improved in his anticipation. Milos's ground game began to show weakness, and David ran off the second set rather quickly. Thereafter there were stretches of Milos's early brilliance, but the determined veteran became relentless in his own perfection, and the promise of set one gradually faded. Ferrer d. Raonic 46 62 63 64.
 
Meanwhile Rafa adanced without losing a set. In his evening meeting with Marin Cilic, the two men exchanged rockets relentlessly. The cool and damp conditions diminished the effect of Rafa's fire, while Marin's relatively flatter shots penetrated better. But Rafa stayed comfortably ahead, unleashing his own angled deliveries often for winners. Marin's serve, delivered from the Croatian's 6-6 height, was assuredly forcing, but not enough to turn matters. Nadal d. Cilic 62 64 63.
 
Nadal and Ferrer thus reached their expected meeting. David is always a difficult opponent. Small of stature, he has forced his way among the top tiers of tennis pros, building a game based on court speed, defensive ability, and, increasingly in recent years, good attacking ability with good power. He had beaten Rafael Nadal in four of their eleven previous tour meetings. Thus David was assuredly a serious opponent for Nadal, even for a Rafa at his best.
 
But on this day Rafa was probably only at 90-95 percent. Earlier in the week there had been hint of a lingering illness, and now leg trouble forced Rafa to an injury time-out after only three games. After that Rafa occasionally showed difficulty stopping and starting in extreme moments.
 
David stayed focused, yielding few easy points while pressing Rafa relentlessly, often delivering firepower in the exchanges just as forcing as Rafa's. Nadal produced high-order tennis much of he way but generally seemed resigned to losing. Ferrer d. Nadal 64 62 63.
 
SECOND QUARTER
 
Andy Murray made his way to the final of this quarter without loss of a set. His opponent there would be Ukrainian Alex Dolgopolov, whose journey was far less tranquil.
 
Kiev-born, age 22 and a listed height of 6-0, Dolgopolov ended 2010 just inside the top fifty, having scored good results in match-ups against several members of the second ten. Injuries had hindered his earlier career development, which however showed steady and rapid improvement the last four years. Attention turned his way from his five-set upset of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Saturday.
 
Much more was to come. Alex's serving and stroking power along with his easy court movement came on display in his fourth-rounder against Big-Five member Robin Soderling. It is difficult to dominate play against the tall Swede, but Alex did so, and with superior control of his rocketry. After Robin took the first set comfortably, it became Alex's show. The newcomer blasted away at the lines with equal power and better control than Soderling, and he showed better defensive abilities.
 
Robin's experience and determination squeezed out the fourth set, but otherwise there was no question who was the better player this date. Afterwards there was a poignant moment, when tv reporter Jim Courier, himself a two-time champion at Melbourne, recalled how he and other tour pros long ago watched tiny Alex amaze everyone with his racket proclivities. Alex was being taught by his father, who traveled the pro tour.
 
Against Andy Murray, Alex started out poorly, overplaying his attacking perhaps in recognition of Andy's resistant defense. But at mid-set Alex began cutting out the errors, meanwhile showing the explosive serve and groundstrokes seen earlier in the week. Matters reached five games all, but although Alex fired several brilliant aces in serving game 12, Murray steadied and ran out the first set. And with Alex now fading slightly and Andy refusing to give errors (and in complete command during his serving games), the second set too went to the British star.
 
Midway in set three Alex abruptly regained the flair and velocities shown earlier. The set-ending tiebreak game went to an Alex now serving and stroking at his best level of the day. But still ahead two sets to one, Murray made sure there would be no strong run thereafter by the Ukrainian, whose reserves had probably been weakened in his last two matches, both five-setters. Watchers looked forward to Dolgopolov's future appearances on the tour. Murray d. Dolgopolov 76 63 67 63.
 
THIRD QUARTER
 
The four highest-seeded members of this quarter all reached their fourth-round expected meetings. In the first of these showdowns Novak Djokovic showed a dazzling blend of power, mobility, and control in overwhelming Almagro. More surprising was Tomas Berdych's similar destruction of Verdasco, where the Czech star played with easy and extreme power and almost no errors. Tomas's near-perfection on this date was seen in the official stats, which showed only eight unforced errors by Berdych against 39 by his opponent. Berdych d. Verdasco 64 62 63.
 
The final match of the quarter on Tuesday evening produced mighty thunder indeed, as Berdych and Djokovic throughout exchanged bolts of dazzling ferocity. Novak captured the first set fairly comfortably, ripping forehands that sizzled with pace and dove downward with topspin in ways remindful of the Federer attacking forehand. Unmistakable was the Serbian star's serving prowess, improved over past years featuring a considerable elbow bend in the take-back, bringing better topspin.
 
Berdych answered well in the second set with his considerable weaponry, carrying the affair into a tiebreak game and a score of five points all. The next two points saw both men employ low-risk baseline play, each mainly concerned to avoid errors while protecting his own side of the net, both daring the opponent to open up matters. In both points, it was Berdych who became the first to risk attacking, and in both cases Tomas missed closely. Ahead by two sets, Djokovic then ran through set three with brilliant offense and defense. Djokovic d. Berdych 61 76 61.
 
BOTTOM QUARTER
 
There was near-certainty that Roger Federer would prevail here, especially after countryman Stan Wawrinka knocked out Andy Roddick on Saturday evening.
 
Wawrinka had upset Monfils earlier, and now his superiority over Andy was almost complete. The Swiss star largely neutralized Andy's serving strengths by managing to block back nearly all deliveries. Andy correctly jumped on these weak replies to pound the corners and come forward. But Stan often passed Andy at net or ran down weak volleys for putaways. But if Andy instead elected to stay back, the superiority of Stan's groundstrokes, especially the down-the line backhand, usually prevailed. Andy later remarked that the cool and damp conditions sapped the life from his, Andy's attacking shots. Although Andy's average first-serve and second-serve velocities were greater than Stan's, the Swiss star out-aced Andy 24 to 9. He also outscored Roddick in winners (excluding aces) by 43 to 15. Wawrinka d. Roddick 63 64 64.
 
Meanwhile Federer was having trouble in his march, pressed first by Gilles Simon and then by Tommy Robredo. But then against Wawrinka in their afternoon quarter-final, Roger's early attacking met weak resistance, and although there were a few fine moments for Stan, as the second set unfolded it looked as if Wawrinka had already acknowledged the inevitable. After Stan's fine performances earlier, this one ended quietly. Federer d. Wawrinka 61 63 63.
 
FINAL FOUR
 
The first men's semi pitted Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in a rematch of their U.S. Open semi, won by Nole. Roger had won their three later meetings, but Nole had played more impressively so far in the current tournament.
 
The first set was a dazzling affair, both men striking heavily and repeatedly to the corners and sides, both answering with superb mobility in neutralizing the other's forcing blows and retaliating. Djokovic showed the slightly easier, more comfortable power and the higher level of athleticism in speed and agility. The evening conditions probably helped prolong the exchanges, slowing the play slightly. Aces were few, but there were many strong serves that produced errors in the return. It was modern tennis at its highest level, with both men holding back nothing.
 
Novak won the tiebreak game ending the first set when Roger's play dipped slightly amid a hint of caution by Roger. Nole took the second set as well, amid many service breaks. Roger for a time lowered his aggressiveness, and the change led to a temporary spell of errors by Novak. But the younger player soon regained his best, especially in the extended rallies. Roger somehow managed to equalize the third set at four games all, but the defending champion could no longer fight off the inevitable. The certitude of the verdict suggested that the old order had turned for good. Djokovic d. Federer 76 75 64.
 
There were twists and turns aplenty in the dogfight semi-final between Andy Murray and David Ferrer. As both men possessed offensive and defensive arsenals of high order, matters essentially came down to the easier and the more extreme power of the Scotsman against the extreme quickness and determination of the Spanish player. The first set was close, but Ferrer finished ahead, helped by a brief decline in Murray's play after several exhausting, incredibly extended points.
 
The play stayed nearly equal thereafter as Andy gradually stepped up his weight of shot, coming forward more frequently, while David sustained his own varied game, which included many superbly angled attacks. Drop shots became more frequent, often producing crowd-pleasing moments. Both snarled between points regularly, whether at themselves or toward convenient others for perceived mistakes. Murray captured the second-set tiebreak and won the third set as well, where the score seemed one-sided but the tennis remained fierce. Andy also led in the early going of set four, but when he abruptly contributed several loose errors, the still-resolute David forced yet another tiebreaker. But David again played poor tiebreak tennis, while Andy registered two final aces to complete his difficult victory. Murray d. Ferrer 46 76 61 76.
 
Thus the Sunday final pitted the two 23-year-olds, Murray and Djokovic, the two who had perennially ranked just behind the world's Big Two. Murray, runner-up at Melbourne last year, had won their last three meetings, but Nole had been the more impressive in the present tournament. Djokovic had a history of weakness in very hot conditions, but the Laver roof had been closed during this 100-degree day and was opened only at match time amid outside temperatures now in the 80's.
 
Back and forth they waged -- severe serves, rocket ground strokes, splendid court movement, fierce determination. Through the early games Djokovic held serve more easily and was striking the ball more cleanly than his opponent, but it was not until the tenth game that matters swung clearly in Nole's direction. A key point ensued at score 15-30, Murray serving. During the ensuing 39-shot rally, where nearly all shots were forceful in pace and direction, dominance shifted several times. It ended with Nole gasping for breath at the net, but with his opponent ripping a forehand into the net. The next point ended quickly and with it the first set, to Djokovic.
 
It was more than just momentum. If not already it soon became convincingly clear that Novak's magnificent movement and defense could not be beaten by Andy's weaponry. Indeed, the court surface -- still cool from the daytime air conditioning -- seemed ideally suited to Nole's skill in sliding into his athletic replies from the deep corners. Djokovic's relentless power to the corners and sides simply shortened what now seemed a predestined plot.
 
Andy grumbled his frustrations and sometimes seemed to lack energy in his footwork. Nole swept through the second set and, although Andy fought back to split the first six games in set three, once again Nole produced a stretch at something close to perfection. Moving with full energy into preparation for every shot, ripping away with potent topspin his attacking forehands and backhands, and, most of all, persisting in his superb counter-punching defense, Djokovic relentlessly claimed his victory. Djokovic d. Murray 64 62 63.
 
It seemed plain that an important chapter in tennis history had been written.
 
TENNIS NATIONS
 
The strong performance of Vera Zvonareva in singles, backed by a fine array of early-round singles performers, plus success by Maria Kirilenko in women's and mixed doubles explained the success of the Russian women in winning the most matches at Australian Open 11. The Russkayas had led in the tally at the preceding seven Australian Opens. Second place this year went to the women from Czech Republic, whose members included Kvitova, Benesova, Safarova, and Zahlavova Strykova, all of whom contributed at least two wins in singles, along with a host of fine doubles contributors. Third place belonged to U.S.A., with good contributions in doubles from Mattek Sands and others.
 
The Spanish males were just as dominating on the men's side, led by Ferrer, Nadal, Almagro, Verdasco, and Robredo, all of whom attained the final 16 or better in singles. U.S.A. finished in second place, lifted by the Bryans, who won the doubles. Third place went to Serbia, led by the new singles champion. France, whose males collected eight first-round wins in singles, finished fourth. (France had led the tally in 2008, Spain in 2009, U.S.A. in 2010.)
 
THE OVERACHIEVERS
 
We define our overachievers by comparing how far each player advanced in the tournament with each player's pre-tournament level of seeding.
 
Among the men, two players led with scores of plus 3. Unseeded Alex Dolgopolov earned one point each for reaching the rounds of 32, 16, and 8, respectively. Meanwhile Milos Raonic earned one point for winning the qualifiers and one point each for reaching the rounds of 32 and 16.
 
Several others earned plus 2, among them Andy Murray, who at #5 was seeded in the first eight and actually reached the final two. Robredo and Wawrinka also finished two levels higher in singles than seeded.
 
Li Na was the clear overachiever among the women. Li was seeded in the first 16 but actually reached the final round -- i.e., three rounds higher -- for score of plus 3.
 
Unseeded Peng Shuai scored plus 2 in singles and added 0.5 as partner for Peer in doubles for total of 2.5. Seven other women scored plus 2 in singles or doubles.
 
THE THIRD MONARCH
 
Every Slam produces two great champions -- the winners of the men's and women's singles, respectively. These two individuals become tennis's unofficial royalty, the reigning King and Queen of the sport. We honor and welcome to this role Novak Djokovic and Kim Clijsters.
 
We also look at all the other players, male and female, who did not win a singles crown at Melbourne. Our purpose is to single out the one whose performance and character shown in the current event most deserve the admiration of the world's tennis community. The choice for Australian Open 2011 happens to be an easy one.
 
Our new Third Monarch of tennis is also the leading member of China's "Golden Flowers." She is also the tournament's leading female overachiever by our formula. We accordingly honor the courageous and athletic Li Na, runner-up at Melbourne but #1 symbol of her nation's rise in international sport. Her success also argues that Australian Open has indeed become the Slam of Asia and the Pacific.
 
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
 
FOOTNOTE: THE INDICATORS CRITIQUED
 
In predicting the tournament's outcomes in women's singles, we examined six indicators. Here's a rough picture of how well they worked.
 
The first and second indicators, 12-month Overall Performance and 12-month Hard-court Performance, both misleadingly pointed to Wozniacki as the most likely women's champion. The second indicator , Hard-court Performance, outdid the first by placing Clijsters ahead of Zvonareva in second place. Clijsters indeed defeated Zvonareva in the tournament semis enroute to winning the tournament.
 
The third indicator, Past Australian Open Performance, largely failed, except that it placed Clijsters in a tie for third place, ahead of most of the other leading candidates.
 
The fourth indicator, Elite Wins minus Total Losses 2010, gave a strong and unambiguous signal in favor of Clijsters.
 
The fifth indicator, Tune-up Events of 2011, enumerated the winners at the six tune-up events. The signals were largely correct in three cases -- those pointing to Zvonareva, Li, and Kvitova. Three were misleading -- those pointing to Arn, Henin, and Groth. This indicator seems to have been more useful than I expected., especially in pointing to Li.
 
The sixth indicator, Recent Pattern of Improvement, misleadingly pointed to Wozniacki.
 
Assuredly the most valid indicator was the fourth, Elite Wins minus Total Losses. Numerical analysis over several years should suggest how to weight the different indicators in assembling them.
 

Green DotGreen DotGreen Dot

Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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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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