It was yet another magnificent Slam. The weather alternated between extreme heat and pleasantly warm. There were no rain disruptions, and the wind was only a minor factor, especially in the highly enclosed main arenas. The galleries were highly engaged , knowledgeable, and eminently fair-minded, though there was occasional mimicking of Victoria Azarenka's noise-making. The balls were said to fluff (i.e., became slower) fairly quickly after new ones were introduced. Bounce speeds were moderately fast, varying considerably with air temperature. The crickets of Melbourne liked the Plexi surface, causing players often to bend over and swish them away.
Play generally reflected the modern game. Typically the larger and taller player, the one with the easier and greater power, was the usual attacker, ready to step forward quickly to dispatch any soft offerings from opponent. The defender, playing from farther behind baseline, struggled to answer with his or her own power, variety, and consistency. Some points ended with outright winners -- rockets from the attacker or counter-blows by the defender. But the fundamental advantage lay with an attacker able to sustain his or her forceful pressure while making a minimum of errors. Variants -- net attacks or drop/plop shots -- made for different patterns but seemed less frequently used than usual.
Serving counted much -- (1) the ability to deliver a strong first serve and thereby seize the advantage and (2) the ability to deliver a strong-enough second serve to deny attack by the opponent. Data from the late rounds indicated that the edge of servers over receivers was slightly less than in recent years at Melbourne or at U.S. Open.
The qualifying rounds began several days before the main tournament. Ninety-six aspiring female and 128 aspiring male stars from worldwide competed for berths in the main draw . Many of the hopefuls were relatively new to the pro wars, their names unfamiliar to me. Some were experienced pros with rankings now in the second hundred. All had invested much of their youth in developing their talents. None expected to win the championship, but all hoped for a precious career lift at the Open.
Victories in three qualifying matches were required for promotion to the main draw. Sixteen men and twelve women succeeded, including young Laura Robson of Australia, age 17, and Denis Kudla, 19, of Virginia, U.S.A. But despite having tuned up their skills in the qualifying rounds, only a handful of successful qualifiers -- three males and four females -- won their initial main-draw matches. (Robson was swept away by Jelena Jankovic, while Kudla split two sets with Tommy Haas but then faltered.)
Indeed, only one male and one female qualifier managed to win two main-draw matches, thereby reaching the tournament's final 32, and neither survived to reach the final 16. (Nina Bratchikova, 26, of Russia, defeated seeded Pennetta and then Brianti before losing to Benesova. Meanwhile Lukas Lacko, 24, of Slovak Republic, defeated seeded Ljubicic and then Donald Young before losing to Nadal.)
The qualifying matches (1) give younger and lesser players valuable exposure to the Slam environment and (2) provide interesting competition during the weekend prior to the start of main-draw action. This year, however, the successful qualifiers had almost no impact on the main draw itself.
More successful were members of that larger group of players who were unseeded but were accepted directly into the main draw. Eleven such males and eleven such females successfully reached the round of 32.
Probably the most notable upsetter was unseeded Romanian Sorana Cirstea, 21, who dismissed Samantha Stosur, seeded #6 and recent champion of U.S. Open 2011. Sorana showed the easier power and better movement, and was also the more consistent in avoiding errors. Tall and strong at 5-9 and 130 pounds, Sorana won in straight sets, leading in aces, serving velocities, winners, and net approaches.
Cirstea would lose in the third round to Sara Errani, also unseeded, whose greater impact in the tournament was yet to come. Two other non-seeds, Zheng Jie and Ekaterina Makarova would both upset two seeded players, as would several unseeded males.
Mikhail Kukushkin, 24, defeated seeded Troicki in the second round. Next, he parlayed a potent forehand into an five-set upset victory over Gael Monfils, who seemed to have back trouble. Mikhail was born in Volgograd, Russia but now represents and resides in Kazakhstan, having shown some excellent results in Challenger events in summer 2011. He departed in the next, the fourth round, a loser to Andy Murray.
A former Open champion, Lleyton Hewitt, now unseeded at age 30, also achieved two upsets, eliminating Andy Roddick and then the rising Canadian Milos Raonic. Lleyton's superior court coverage and avoidance of error overbalanced the thunderous serve and forehand of Raonic. Hewitt next lost to Djokovic but not before splitting the first two sets and carrying the third to a tiebreaker.
But the biggest splash of an unseeded male was that of Australian Bernard Tomic, age 19, height 6-5, who came from behind to defeat seeded Fernando Verdasco in the first round. The Spanish veteran was generally the attacker, but Fernando errored more often than he wished. Two days later Bernard defeated Sam Querrey, aided by Sam's many errors in point-winning situations.
Next, Tomic overcame seeded Alex Dolgopolov, himself a current riser, in five sets. The two were physical opposites -- Bernard tall, Dolgopolov slender with lightning-like swiftness and a rapier-like forehand. Much of the play was careful, indeed defensive, featuring long exchanges typically of backhand slices. Oddly, it was the smaller player who was the more eager to force play. Alex led in aces, first-serve velocities, net approaches, and in both winners and unforced errors. But it was Tomic's more patient, softer game that prevailed, backed by Bernard's excellent court movement and what proved to be excellent stroking power when Bernie chose to use it.
The further progress of the men's singles was largely shaped by the seemingly inevitable march of the Big Four. All three non-seeds discussed -- Kukushkin, Hewitt, and Tomic -- lost in the fourth round to Big Four members. Meanwhile the young Japanese riser Kei Nishikori, who was seeded, defeated higher-seeded Tsonga in five sets amid extreme heat. Nishikori then bowed to Andy Murray. But the greater thrills in the middle rounds of this Australian Open were produced by the women.
The surviving women's field at mid-tournament was impressive. Former champions Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, and Maria Sharapova all appeared healthy, all playing at extremely high levels. Meanwhile younger stars Azarenka, Wozniacki, Radwanska, and Kvitova remained undefeated, the first two without loss of a set.
Kim Clijsters d. Li Na 46 76 64
This prime fourth-rounder rematched last year's finalists. KIm Clijsters had won their showdown in Melbourne, while Li Na had captured Garros in June. Since then neither had shown much success. Now, from the outset, both bombarded the other with nonstop weight of shot. Clijsters seemed to generate her power more easily, but Kim's expected advantage in mobility was neutralized by an ankle injury happening in the first set. Na won that first set, and In the tiebreak game ending the second set, the Chinese star won six of the first seven points. With four match points in hand, it was hard to see how Li could lose.
But Na's play abruptly declined even as Kim simply refused to miss while maintaining her forceful play. Greatly helped by Na's mistakes, Kim managed to equalize the tiebreaker and then win it, thus forcing a third set. Kim then quickly swept through the next four games against a now-demoralized opponent, and although Na narrowed the margin on the scoreboard, the verdict was no longer in doubt.
Ekaterina Makarova d. Serena Williams 62 63
Moscow-born, unseeded lefty Ekaterina Makarova, 23, 5-11, having beaten Kanepi and Zvonareva, became the fourth-round opponent of Serena Williams, a five-time champion at the Australian. Serena played poorly in the first set, having trouble keeping her forcing blows inside the lines. Needing to strike out in high-risk attacking, Serena seemed never to find and sustain her marksmanship.
Much of Serena's problem was in the play of Makarova, whose quickness and answering power largely blunted Serenas forceful rallying. Ekaterina's serves were soft but typically bounced low and were difficult to attack, while the young Russian's forehand and backhand strokes, often delivered from low with knees deeply bent, often either surprised Serena in their velocity or pushed Serena side-to-side in uncomfortable defense. The extreme heat, which had been absent during the second and third rounds, and perhaps too Serena's damaged ankle, contributed to the American's trials.
Serena won the first two games of the second set. But double-faults and disappointing errors reappeared, and Makarova persisted in her excellent movement and stroking. Toward the finish Serena seemed headed for one of her patented comebacks, but Ekaterina proved too solid to allow that to happen.
Ekaterina would next lose to Maria Sharapova, who had beaten the riser Lisicki in three sets and whose big game was at its best. Makarova's fine run at the Open probably assured her a place on our next watch list of risers.
Victoria Azarenka d. Agnieszka Radwanska, 67 60 62
Throughout the tournament to date, Victoria Azarenka had been brilliant in her sustained power to the corners and sides. It looked as if the pattern would persist, as Aznieszka Radwanska, despite showing some courageous defense, seemed badly overpowered. But Agniezska prolonged points long enough and often enough to produced Vika errors and keep matters close on the scoreboard. As the first set approached its climax, Agnieszka stepped up her own attacking, now showing power, depth, and placement. With Victoria facing a difficult Sun, Agnieska won the first six points of the tiebreak game, and promptly after the changeover an unnerved Victoria contributed an early error. It was an astonishing outcome to a set that at first had seemed hardly competitive in the opposite direction.
It wasn't that Radwanska declined amid the severe mid-day temperature. Indeed, Agnieszka continued to show improved depth and pace, sometimes challenging Vika for the initiative. But Victoria's heavy game too persisted, her errors largely absent and displaying a superb overhead and an occasional net foray. Azarenka now pulled ahead steadily on the scoreboard. Well tested, Victoria had passed the test superbly.
Kim Clijsters d. Caroline Wozniacki 63 76
Kim's superb power and mobility were seldom clearer. Wozniacki, who stood first in the WTA rankings, stepped up her usually soft game, realizing that not doing so would be suicidal. But however well Caroline applied her own force and direction, Kim would be there, ready to rip back her own, even stronger, reply. Caroline kept enough balls in play to draw enough errors from Kim to keep the scoreboard respectable.
Only in the final half-hour did the Danish princess give Kim cause for concern. Caroline, serving strongly, reached a second-set tiebreaker, where the score reached four-points each, as Kim's stamina seemed to weaken in the severe heat. When Kim finally laid a rocket on a sideline for a winner, thus establishing the final mini-break margin, Kim visibly sighed in relief. For the full match, Caroline contributed the fewer errors, but Kim's non-serving winners exceeded Caroline's 35-10.
Petra Kvitova d. Sara Errani 64 64
For most of the way, Kvitova's big game was too much for diminutive but muscular Errani. But for 30 minutes at mid-match, Sara unleashed a devastating run of attacking tennis accompanied by an almost complete absence of error. Kvitova, eight inches taller and far more powerful in serving and stroking, and helped by a sudden end to Sara's perfection, managed to reverse matters. It was not a reassuring victory for Kvitova.
WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR
Victoria Azarenka d. Kim Clijsters, 64 16 63
It was a gripping if sometimes ragged three-setter. The baseline artillery from both players was breathtaking, but generally matters seemed to favor Clijsters -- the magnificent mobility and clean striking by Kim, problems of Victoria Azarenka in serving, the packed Laver Arena solidly behind Kim. But despite these handicaps, somehow it was Victoria who emerged the winner -- by outsteadying last year's champion in an emotional third set behind an ever-reliable ground game and a finally rediscovered first serve.
Maria Sharapova d. Petra Kvitova, 62 36 64
The rocketry was equally severe in the second semi-final. By reputation, Petra Kvitova is a streaky player, inclined to spells well below her best. The ebbs and flows on the scoreboard this day seemed to confirm that observation, as Petra recovered from poor play in the first set to win the second behind strong and accurate hitting. The third set was an up-and-down affair, neither player able to sustain her best. The end came abruptly in game ten when Petra, serving, lost four quick points, all of them gifted dismally.
The stats told a strange tale. Sharapova had five break-point opportunities to break Kvitova's serve. Sharapova won all five. Meanwhile Kvitova enjoyed 14 break-point opportunities against Sharapova's serve, but Petra won only three. Plainly, when things mattered most Petra was the weaker player. Her collapse in the last four points, which decided the outcome, also suggests fragility of nerve. She must find and develop a level of forceful play that she can sustain with confidence.
FINAL: Victoria Azarenka d. Sharapova 63 60
Maria played better than the score suggests. Her rockets to the corners and sides missed only a little more frequently than in her earlier outings She served reasonably well, and her mental focus stayed strong to the finish. Instead, it was the brilliance and, at times, the near-perfection of Maria's opponent that explained the one-sided outcome.
Victoria Azarenka, like Sharapova, had been born in the Soviet Union and had gone abroad early in her tennis development. Both players were tall, Vika at 6-0, Maria at 6-2, and both were assuredly power players. But in contrast to Maria's all-out, high-risk, unflaggingly aggressive style, Victoria was inclined to let rallies develop, confident in her ability to sustain long and heavy exchanges, confident in her own defensive and countering skills and her excellent ability to avoid error.
Maria had some success ripping away at Victoria's second serve. But for the most part Victoria proved capable of turning back Maria's big game, often extending exchanges until a Maria rocket missed the margins or perhaps until Vika could turn the initiative in her own favor. In short, Maria's produced her attack about as well as always, but Victoria answered Maria's strengths far better than had anyone else this week. The official stats showed both players with 14 winners, but Maria's unforced errors exceeded Victoria's by 30-12.
Victoria has now won her first Slam, and she has supplanted Wozniacki atop the WTA 12-month rankings. Her triumph was not an extreme surprise. Victoria won the tune-up event in Sydney, and she led in the first of our pre-tournament Indicators, where player results are weighted according to historical correlations across tournaments (though not in our composite of five indicators, led by Serena. At age just 22, Victoria is clearly headed for more glory.
Here, we tally matches won -- singles, doubles, and mixed. (In doubles and mixed, each winning partner earns one-half credit for his or her nation.)
Russia, 35.5 wins
Czech Republic, 20
As usual the women's crown went to the Russkayas, led by Sharapova in singles and the pair Kuznetsova-Zvonareva, who won the women's doubles. Next were Czech Republic, reflecting that small nation's first-round strength in all three events, and U.S.A.. The Americans were lifted by the mixed-doubles win by Mattek-Sands on the last day. The Russian women have captured our tally in every year starting in 2004.
Spain, 21 wins
The leading contributor for Spain was Nadal. Second was France, which scored nine first-round singles wins, more than any other nation. No French player reached the final sixteen, however. Third-place U.S.A. was lifted by the Bryans, runner-up pair in men's doubles. Spain has now led in the tally in three of the last five years, France and U.S.A. each having prevailed once in that period.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN TRIPLE
No male or female player has won all three events -- singles, doubles, and mixed -- since the Australian championships became opened to professionals, though previously it happened more than occasionally. Indeed, only a handful of players now compete in all three events. We here measure who came closest to this unique achievement by simply adding up match wins. A classic Triple would require eighteen match wins -- seven in singles, six in doubles, and five in mixed. (We give a full credit to each partner in doubles.)
Our winner among the women is Sara Errani, who won four singles matches. She lost in the quarters to heavily favored Kvitova, where Sara, despite her small size, showed remarkable power and forced Kvitova to produce her best tennis. Errani also scored five wins in women's doubles, reaching the final round with partner Vinci. Her total score thus came to nine match wins. Close behind were four other women, all with eight wins. (Kuznetsova and Zvonareava both added two singles wins to their six doubles victories, Vinci scored five doubles wins and three in mixed, and Vesnina four doubles wins and four in mixed.)
On the men's side, our hero was Leander Paes, the mercurial doubles artist. Leander reached the final round in both men's and mixed doubles, winning the former with partner Stepanek. Paes thus finished with ten wins -- six in doubles, four in mixed. Second place in our tally went to Horia Tecau, the strong Romanian, who won four times with Lindstedt in men's doubles and won the mixed with Mattek-Sands, making nine total wins. The Lindstedt-Tecau loss to the Bryans in the doubles semis came in a heartbreaking finish in the final tiebreak game.
Here, we compare (1) how far each player advanced in the singles tournament vs. (2) his or her seeded expectation. Two unseeded women share the lead. Sara Errani and Ekaterina Makarova both reached the round of eight. (Each thus gets one credit for reaching the rounds of 32, 16, and 8, respectively, making a score of plus-3.) Both played well in losing in their quarter-final losses, Sara losing to Kvitova, noted above, and Ekaterina to Sharapova. At age 23 and height 5-11, Ekaterina is a year younger and six inches taller than Sara, so she seems more likely to be a true riser. Time will tell.
Matters are muddled among the men, where six players scored at plus-2.
-- Kei Nishikori, seeded in range #17-32, reached final 8.
-- Bernard Tomic, seeded in range #9-16, reached final 16
-- Mikhail Kukushkin, seeded in range #9-16, reached final 16
-- Phillipp Kohlschreiber, seeded in range #9-16, reached final 16
-- Lleyton Hewitt, seeded in range #9-16, reached final 16
-- Lukas Lacko, won qualifiers, reached final 32
Nishikori and Tomic are the likely true risers here, both of them on our watch list of likely risers. Plainly Tomic is the world's best teenaged tennis player. But there was disturbing news when Bernard, having returned from Melbourne to his home in Western Australia, apparently in some way misbehaved with police during driving enforcement.
MEN'S FINAL FOUR
There were countless dramas arising daily in the tournament, from bottom to top. But the events of the men's singles semis and final towered over all else in the magnitude of their high theater.
All members of the sport's Big Four -- Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray --moved into the men's semis, just as they had at two of the preceding three Slams. Federer and Murray did so with straight-set wins in the quarters over del Potro and Nishikori, respectively. Rafael Nadal had more trouble, as Berdych, playing aggressively, captured the second set in a tiebreak. Novak Djokovic was also pressed to a second-set tiebreaker by David Ferrer, but the defending champion maintained the initiative with firm hitting and absolute freedom of error at the critical times, advancing in straight sets.
Plainly the Big Four remained the sport's elite, a chasm ahead of all others. The world awaited their show-down meetings just ahead.
Semi-final: Nadal d. Federer 67 62 76 64
It was surely among the finer of the meetings of the two giants of recent tennis. There was none of the passiveness that had often marked Federer's play in his greatest years, except perhaps in a spell just after an interruption for celebratory fireworks nearby. Rafa's play too differed from that of his early career, when he relied fully on brute power and overspin to break down opponents.
Both men played forcefully, seeking to create openings early and exploit even the narrowest openings. To offer softish, temporizing shots was to yield dominance to the other. Roger was more often the one at net, and occasionally even tried serve-and-volley forays. He managed a 61% winning percentage in forecourt -- an excellent outcome, as Rafa's countering skills remain the game's best. Rafa seemed unaffected by a recent ankle injury and an earlier shoulder problem.
Roger moved ahead early, playing brilliantly. Rafa soon lifted his game to match but failed to deny Roger the first-set tiebreaker. Set two saw Rafa produce some of his most brilliant defensive counters prior to closing out convincingly. The third set then went to Rafa, who in the critical tiebreak game played conservatively. But Rafa, after losing four consecutive points during the tiebreak, finally ended the set with a rocket to the opposite corner.
Lots of magnificent tennis remained for the fourth set -- riveting rallies, furious in their intensity, pro tennis at high level. Often answering Roger's most severe attacks were seemingly impossible replies by Rafa, reveling in his athleticism. Matters were settled in the last three games, all won by Rafa, though Roger held game-points in all three.
Semi-final: Djokovic d. Murray 63 36 67 63 75
It went on almost without break -- nonstop heavy hitting, extreme court coverage, elation and disappointment. Djokovic took the first set and an early lead in the second when Murray's forehand misbehaved more often than it should have, the Scotsman's second serve sometimes too soft. But Andy turned matters around, his forehand gradually becoming a more reliable and deadly weapon. Set three produced spells of absolutely breathtaking play, both men fighting back from adversity, both producing dazzling movement and rocketry. The tiebreak ended suddenly, Murray now ahead, two sets to one.
Fifth set. The artillery had lost some of its weight and precision. Errors came a bit more frequently. The warriors now moved less crisply, both showing signs of leg problems. The contest had become a physical ordeal, where each man rationed his final reserves even as every point remained critical approaching the finish line. Djokovic moved ahead in games 42, then 53, Novak now serving for the set, having held at love in his last two serving games. Incredibly, it was Novak who now faltered even as Andy again found his potent forehand. Novak lost serve at love and played dismally as Andy held to 55. But the final turn was yet ahead.
Andy moved ahead, claiming three break points in game eleven. But then came the final reversal. Was it fatigue, was it nerves, or just random occurrence? Following his superb come-back of the last four games, Andy's unforced errors now abruptly began to outnumber his well-played points. Meanwhile Djokovic, maintaining a calm exterior along with his own high level of play, held on to capture game eleven and then allow Andy to self-destruct in game twelve.
As tv-talker Navratilova put it, it had been one of the greatest matches in Australian Open history.
Final: Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal 67 64 62 67 75
That the tournament final could produce even higher quality and twists of plot seemed impossible. But that is what happened in the nearly six hours of epic tennis, Sunday evening at Melbourne Park.
Djokovic had won all six of their meetings of 2011, though Rafa still had the career edge. The two were almost equal in age and height, Rafa with the heavier build though Novak able to summon the higher serving velocities. Both were skilled in all aspects of tennis, but both were probably most superior in their serve-returning and court-movement abilities.
It led to a fairly similar pattern of play through most of the first four sets. Both men clearly preferred back court, even in their attacking. Djokovic was generally the more aggressive striker, but for both men, coming to net except in the strongest situations made the advancer vulnerable to the magnificent shot-making skills of the opponent. Rafa won their close first set, but after that Novak was clearly the dominant player and as matters unfolded, Novak became also the leader on the scoreboard. Djokovic led in the fourth-set tiebreak, but the Serbian star narrowly missed a fairly easy down-the-line shot that would have given him the huge scoreboard advantage 6 points to 3 -- i.e., three match points. Disappointed and perhaps shocked, Novak then gifted away the rest of the set.
Fifth Set. Djokovic now seemed spent, his legs visibly weakening during points. Nadal, who seemed the fitter, claimed the service-break edge at 42, serving and ahead 30-15. But Rafa missed an easy putaway and then added two more errors, surrendering his service-break edge. Rafa reacted in disbelief, and indeed it had been as stunning a turn as Djokovic's gifting in the previous set. Nadal still seemed the stronger player, even as Novak seemed to have forgotten his earlier fatigue. Who was the fitter?
There were more break-point opportunities just ahead. Rafa fought off one in game nine, then another in game eleven. But Djokovic would have another chance in that game, and this time it was Nadal who faltered. The last game, Novak serving for the championship, was not easy. Djokovic took the first two points but Rafa took the next three. Facing a break point that would equalize everything that had gone before, the defending champion, still playing with controlled aggression, took the last three points, finishing with a winner from forecourt.
The nobility of both men's performance, indeed those of the entire Big Four, will long stay in the annals of the sport.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.