Skies were blue, temperatures were ideal for opening main-draw action at Melbourne Park. Dimming anticipation slightly was the absence of Rafael Nadal -- last year's close runner-up in what had been one of tennis's greatest-ever final-round matches. Without Rafa, the men's draw seemed uncomfortably distorted. In contrast, all 32 top-ranked women were on hand. But then in her first-round match, Serena Williams, the strong favorite to win the women's singles, turned an ankle. After treatment Serena returned to win that match, but her uncertain physical condition cast a cloud over the women's competition similar to Rafa's absence in the men's.
Rounds One and Two
The qualifying and early main-draw rounds of Slams give players usually consigned to Challenger-level events, opportunity perform at higher level. From the qualifying matches at Melbourne Park this year emerged 16 men and 12 women, each winners of three matches and thus earning access to the main draw. The male qualifiers proved only moderately successful thereafter, however. American Steve Johnson showed well in carrying tenth-seeded Almagro to five sets before losing in the first round of the main draw. But only four qualifiers actually reached the second round, where American Tim Smyczek took a set from Ferrer before bowing, and only Ricardo Berankis, 22, the Lithuanian of compact build, would reach the third. The female qualifiers did better. Eight of the twelve scored victories in the first round of the main draw, and two of these went on to win their second-round matches -- Russian Valeria Savinkyh, 21, who beat seeded Cibulkova, and Lesia Tsurenko, 23, from Ukraine. Neither would go further.
Over four days starting Monday, 14 January, the 128 players in the men's and women's main-draw reduced themselves to 32. Form held fairly well among the males, where 24 of the 32 seeds collected victories in the first and second rounds. Probably the most eye-raising penetrations were by Berankis, whose power game knocked out seeded Mayer, and Evgeny Donskoy, 22, Russia, who beat seeded Youzhny in five sets.
The women's seedings proved less predictive, where only 18 of the seeds reached the Round of 32. The most arresting upset was by Laura Robson, 18, who knocked out eighth-seeded Petra Kvitova, 22, winning an extended third set in late-night action after a day of extreme heat. Both players were lefties with a bent for hard-hitting tennis. Laura showed her fine power in serving and stroking, but faced with Petra's extreme severity, Laura's critical task was to fend aside Petra's heavier artillery. It became a test of (1) Laura's ability to minimize Petra's opportunities for easy winners, and (2) Petra's ability to maintain her heavy artillery while holding down her own errors. At the finish three hours later, it was Kvitova who had collected the most points and was ahead in aces, winners, winners-vs.-unforced-error differential, and success at net. But the winner of the match was the young Britisher, who cut down her risk-taking after losing the first set and finished with much confidence. Laura Robson d. Petra Kvitova, 26 63 119.
Also reaching the third round was another young star, Madison Keys, 17, who comfortably defeated seeded Paszek behind impressive power in serving and stroking. Madison had earned her wild-card place in the main draw by winning a playoff for young Americans held in Atlanta in December.
How valuable was it to have cracked the top 32 as of 7 January 2013 -- i.e., the date establishing the seeding at Melbourne? (Being seeded assured two main-draw matches against lower-ranked opponents.)
Of the five males just inside the cut-off, at seeded places #28-32, three -- Baghdatis, Stepanek, and Benneteau -- succeeded in winning their first two matches. But so did two of the five who ranked just outside the cut-off -- Anderson and Chardy. Meanwhile among the women, only one player just inside (Stephens) and one just outside (Suarez Navarro) actually reached the tournament's final 32. The advantage of squeezing into the seeded group was thus shown only on the men's side and only weakly.
After four dates on the calendar, the tournament seemed only beginning. But with two rounds of singles and one of doubles in the books, more than half the tennis had been already played. In the tally of main-draw matches won by nation, the male contingents from France and Spain along with the females from Russia and U.S. appeared headed for close finishes:
France, 16.0 matches won
THE MIDDLE ROUNDS
The middle rounds are the heart of a Slam, where the seeded players or those now in their places square away in often intense match-ups. Emerging are the champions of the tournament's four quarters -- the tournament's Final Four.
Men's top quarter. This was the presumed domain of the two-time defending champion, top-seeded Novak Djokovic. In the third round Novak staved off dangerous Radek Stepanek in three close sets. But big trouble arose in Novak's next match. His opponent, Stan Wawrinka, 15th-seeded, had not beaten Novak in their last ten meetings. But on this evening Stan assembled unexpected strengths and sustained them in a match of high drama.
Stan was generally the attacker, wielding a rocket forehand to go with his familiar backhand and serving strengths. Countless points were settled with a sizzling forehand winner by Stan to a side or corner. (For the entire match, Stan led Novak in aces, winners, net points won, and break-point opportunities, along with first-serve and second-serve velocities.) As the fifth set rolled into overtime, with Novak seeming tired and Stan having muscular discomfort, Novak focused on extending the points, relying on his superb court movement, generally allowing Stan to dictate play with his potentially risky forcefulness. The last point exemplified the pattern, where Novak defended against Stan's forcing thrusts again and again until finally, with Stan drawn to net, Novak delivered a softish, cross-court backhand pass untouched by Stan. Novak Djokovic d. Stan Wawrinka 16 75 64 67 1210.
Novak recovered well from the five-hour ordeal, defeating powerful Tomas Berdych two days later behind Novak's superb movement, athleticism, and resolve.
Second quarter. This was the quarter made up-for-grabs by Nadal's absence. All four of the high-seeded players here -- Ferrer, Tipsarevic, Almagro, and Nishikori -- succeeded in reaching the fourth round. The most-severely tested enroute was Janko Tipsarevic, who managed five-set victories over tough opponents Lukas Lacko and Julien Benneteau. But Janko next, behind Almagro on the scoreboard, retired with foot injury. David Ferrer then defeated Almagro for the 13th straight time but only after another five-set marathon. Almagro three times had opportunity but failed to serve out the match. Ferrer, seeded #5, thus became the quarter's nominee in the Final Four.
Third quarter. It was hard to conceive that either Andy Murray or Juan Martin del Potro would not emerge champion of this quarter. Del Potro, however, was stunned in five sets by French player Jeremy Chardy, 25. Chardy then defeated Seppi, another giant-killer. Murray then comfortably handled Chardy to capture the quarter.
Fourth quarter. No upsets here but there came yet another critical nighttime five-setter, where Roger Federer squeezed out his victory over the powerful and athletic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Jo-Wilfried played always forcefully, almost never at less than full energy and determination except perhaps in the euphoria of starting the fifth set after capturing the fourth. It was hard to see that Roger had ever played better than in closing down that deciding set.
Women's top quarter. Top-seeded Victoria Azarenka ran into big trouble in Round Three. Her opponent, Jamie Hampton, 22, height 5-8, born in Germany of American parents, lost the first set but then captured the second behind heavy serving and stroking. But back trouble was now intervening, and though Jamie continued as the more-aggressive, heavier-hitting player, she was unable to complete her victory. Jamie tallied by far the larger number of both winners and unforced errors, and, oddly, though she lost the match, she tallied the more favorable differential of the two (minus 6 vs. minus 11). Jamie's tennis career had been set back by wrist surgery at age 19. Victoria Azarenka d. Jamie Hampton 64 46 62.
Meanwhile unseeded veteran Tsvetlana Kuznetsova made a strong run, defeating Wozniacki in three sets. Kuznetsova reached the quarter's final match, where she lost to Azarenka, who now looked unstoppable.
Second quarter. The tournament's giant killer to date had been Laura Robson. Her third-round opponent was Sloane Stephens, 19. Both were severe strikers but Laura was the more-determined attacker. Following her usual pattern, Sloane was the more patient in opening up her own forcefulness, willing and able to rally with good margin inside the lines to await opportunities. As the count of Laura's errors climbed, Sloane remained comfortably ahead. Sloane Stephens d. Laura Robson, 75 63.
Meanwhile Serena Williams reached the final of the quarter without losing a set. Her meeting with Sloane Stephens, next, provided all the drama that history might seek in this meeting of champions across two tennis generations.
In watching Stephens in past match-ups, it always seemed that Sloane was playing under wraps -- showing her superb court coverage and easy generation of power only occasionally, typically content to let the opponent contribute to her own downfall. She had lost to Serena in two fairly close sets at Brisbane earlier in the month. Now, with high stakes, Serena would test Sloane with her full arsenal of power and determination.
Sloane held up well, showing good ability to contain Serena's forcefulness and reply with some effect. Except for Serena's devastating first serving, there seemed no area where the two were not essentially equal. Serena won the first set, and the score reached 2-all in the second. Then came the moment that turned the tournament around. In making an abrupt deceleration, Serena strained her back, and the muscular spasm that resulted badly hampered the veteran warrior from then on. Utterly gone was Serena's incomparable serving velocity, and her backhand power too became compromised.
Serena refused to quit. She kept matters close, often helped by untimely gifts from her opponent. But even though Serena's velocities improved toward the finish, Sloane summoned enough stretches of fine play to claim the victory. Sloane Stephens d. Serena Williams 36 75 64.
Third and fourth quarters. Perhaps it was that the first and second quarters had used up all the drama. Here, Li Na mastered all five of her opponents in straight sets to capture the third quarter. Only her last victory was a close one, over Agnieszka Radwanska, amid many breaks of serve. Meanwhile in the bottom quarter, Maria Sharapova's shrieking devastation in serving and striking destroyed all opponents by one-sided scores. Her win in the quarter's final over Ekaterina Makarova, upset winner over fellow lefty Kerber earlier, was convincing.
Thus the men's and women's final fours were now known. Ferrer had captured Nadal's place among the male Big Four. Meanwhile among the women Li Na and Sloane Stephers promised interesting opposition to the earlier favorites, Sharapova and Azarenka. The stage was set for the last weekend.
THE FINAL FOURS
Semi-final Thursday. Li Na and Maria Sharapova both started off with untempered rocketry, aggressively placed, neither star interested in being patient. It was all-out first-strike tennis, both going for the advantage early in points, both regularly targeting the corners and lines. In the first set, most of the games were severely fought, often with back-and-forth deuces. usually with Na coming out ahead. Maria seemed shaken by her opponent's toughness, and she received little help in the form of errors by Na. Difficult sun, wind, and high heat were probably to Na's advantage. Li's more compact forehand achieved better topspin and was generally more reliable than Maria's. If Maria generated slightly higher velocities, these were offset by Na's better mobility in making her replies.
Committed still to the all-out offensive, Maria began the second set with yet greater forcefulness. But she lost a good chance to break serve early by missing several tries at crushing Na first serves. Even if Maria's screamers found the court, Na was often able to stay in the point. Memories of past fades by the Chinese star were still fairly recent, but Na stayed cool and focused whatever the point score, breaking serve in the fifth game from 40-15 down. Maria was now increasingly becoming outplayed in movement and consistency by Na, whose own serving became extremely effective in the last half-set. A remarkable statistic was Li's success in holding her own second-serve points. (Na won 63% of her second-serve points, Maria won only 25% of hers.) It would be Na's second trip to an Australian Open final. Li Na d. Maria Sharapova 62 62.
Second semi-final. Against the defending champion, Sloane Stephens again showed her remarkable strengths -- easily generated power in serving and stroking, fine court movement, ability to answer an opponent's forcefulness, excellent match temperament. One can envision a larger and stronger Sloane a year or so in the future, playing a more urgent attacking game but with a superior foundation in court movement, variety, and defensive skills. For now, Sloane's patience and sometime defensiveness probably fit her personal temperament and career development. But the wedding to these ways probably cost her a chance to defeat Azarenka on a day when Vika was not at her best.
Once again, as against Serena earlier, Sloane lost the first set, and then fell behind an early break in the second. Recovering somewhat, Sloane began pressing Vika in long games, pulling off occasional offensive thrusts, scoring well at net. Vika appeared to tweak a knee, but the greater problem may have been the very hot temperature of the afternoon. (Vika's earlier matches had done little to acclimate her to the very hot conditions that now prevailed.) Prior to game ten, there was a long pause for medical attention, Vika now showing chest as well as knee problems. The delay probably hurt Stephens, who had survived five adverse match points and now waited quietly on court. Upon resumption, with Sloane serving to reach five-games-all, second set, after several deuces the champion collected a closing service break. Victoria Azarenka d. Sloane Stephens 61 64.
First men's semi. The first men's semi on Thursday evening brought together Djokovic and Ferrer. It was less a contest than a demonstration -- a demonstration of Novak Djokovic's absolute mastery of his craft, a kind of tennis that is neither offensive nor defensive. Novak struck every ball with purpose and at least moderate forcefulness. Keeping his opponent off balance with his disguised placement, diffusing Ferrer's thrusts by his own movement and flexibility, Novak seemed in control of nearly every point. The Spanish star, lacking the extreme and disruptive power in serving and stroking shown by Wawrinka earlier, was powerless to change the flow. David's tennis was close to flawless. But it didn't matter. Novak Djokovic d. David Ferrer 62 62 61.
Second men's semi. Friday evening displayed a different Andy Murray from a year or so ago. Having linked his fortunes with the coaching of Lendl, Andy had left behind his inclinations for heavy-hitting defense, replaced by a new focus on taking and exploiting the initiative. Avoiding the territory deep behind baseline, Andy's sizzling power from close-on baseline kept Federer from dominating, often forcing Roger onto the defensive. Meanwhile Roger too was looking for quick-strike success. But in the evening air the temperature was slightly down, the humidity slightly raised, the ball speed slowed, the weight of Andy's heavier blows less stanched than Roger's by the conditions.
Andy took the first set and, serving spectacularly well, was often the dominator in the second as well. Roger took the early lead in the second-set tiebreaker, where at six points all Andy, attacking, could not quite prepare for a high ball and allowed Roger a stunning pass, creating the edge that one point later ended the set, equalizing matters.
The third and fourth sets followed the patterns of the first and second on the scoreboard. The highest drama of the evening came at the end of set four, when Andy, playing superbly and having just held serve at love and then broken Roger's at love, served for the match at 6-5. What then ensued was a stretch of perfection in power tennis by Roger of the kind recognizable from Roger's greatest years -- rockets to the corners and lines that seemed to dive magically to find their targets. Andy answered well, reaching 30-15, but then faltered before the unstoppable. In the ensuing tiebreaker, Roger then lost only two points. It was two sets all.
Bad blood had led to a nasty exchange, and now Andy, close-in, elected to blast a short ball directly at Roger at net. Roger dodged and the ball landed out. But the episode soon seemed forgotten as Andy now, his fury relieved, now found his zone of perfection, mixing just a bit of moderation with his newfound aggression. Perhaps it was that the six-year difference in youth counted more in the fifth set. Andy allowed no doorway for Roger to erase an early service break. It was the first time that Andy had defeated Roger in a Slam. Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, 64 67 63 67 62.
Both women's finalists-- Li Na and Victoria Azarenka -- were known for edgy ways when under duress. The crowd gave its noisy support to the Chinese star and seemed impatient with Vika, who had been criticized for her long time-out against Sloane Stephens. The Saturday-evening temperature was coolish, in the 60's, with some breeze under the open stadium roof at the Laver arena. As the match unfolded, neither player could dominate the action longer than 6-8 minutes without faltering.
Li started well behind a forehand that had become a strong overspin weapon, contrasting with her very flat rocketry in year's past. In a first set where service breaks were frequent, it was Na's forehand that dominated the point outcomes, overshadowing Li's familiar well-controlled and moderately forceful backhand. Vika stayed close and seemed to have equalized the play toward set's end but finally yielded her second double fault -- at set point in game ten.
With Azarenka ahead 3-1 in set two, Li injured her left ankle, turning it over slightly in shifting her weight, and the Chinese star was on the ground. Play resumed after taping, but Na's new ankle now produced a run of good play as Na reset the score at 4-4. With Na getting close to finishing matters, Vicka once again produced her on-and-off edge, forcing a third set.
The pattern persisted into set three, both players taking turns in producing spells of error-free forcefulness but neither able to pull decisively ahead. A celebratory fireworks display caused another ten-minute halt, and then, immediately upon resumption, Li turned again the same ankle. The episode looked nastier than before, but the tape applied earlier apparently prevented further damage. Of greater concern was Li's hitting her head on the hard surface.
What seemed a deplorable ruling came soon after the next resumption. At score 2-2. Azarenka drove a strong bid toward Li's baseline. It looked as if the ball was landing out. Li obviously thought so and instantaneously slapped the ball to the side. The out call came quickly, but the call certainly did not precede Li's racket's touch. Nor was hand movement by the linesperson discernable on my tape. Then Victoria challenged the out call, and the review showed that the shot had actually touched the line and had landed good. To me there seemed no reason to replay the point -- the ball had been good, and there had been no verbal or visible out call to impede Na making a return. It seemed clearly Vika's point.
The point was replayed, wrongly in my opinion. Vika protested only briefly, aware of the likely adverse crowd reaction. Vika won the game anyway. But something seemed badly wrong with the rule or its interpretation.
It didn't matter. Vika was now at her best, moving well and striking fearlessly. Na took one more game behind some firm striking to make the score 4-3, Vika serving. The last two games were Vika's, Na playing forcefully but too often missing. Upon Vika's first match point Li yielded an error off a routine backhand. Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na, 46 64 63.
The men's championship match brought together the world's best two players, once again meeting on a grand stage. Andy Murray had won their U.S. Open final last year, but Novak Djokovic had won their two more-recent match-ups. On analysis the two seemed very even, but one circumstance seemed to favor Djokovic -- Novak's extra day of rest since his semi-final along with the less-severe effort required of Novak in advancing through that round.
There were no breaks of serve until mid-way in set three. At one-set-all and three-games-all Andy was looking slightly the less fresh -- less than quick in reacting to Novak's serves and strokes that stretched Andy to the forehand side. Some of the points were now brutal in their intensity and duration -- the kind of points where Novak usually excelled and here again did so. Andy's manner occasionally betrayed pain of perhaps blisters or perhaps muscle draining. Andy willed himself on, but the relentless pressure of Novak's determination finally prevailed.
The service break finally came in that seventh game, and although neither player let up in his will thereafter and although the drama remained high, the scoreboard continued in its swing. Of the last eleven games, all but two would go to Novak, his resolve staying at its peak, Andy more and more miserable, Novak's far greater success at net still increasing, the verdict becoming inevitable. Novak Djokovic d. Andy Murray, 67 76 63 62.
It was Novak's third straight Australian crown, his fourth overall, to go with one each triumph at Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He remains ranked #1 in the official rankings and also cements his seat as our unofficial Il Primo, our current king-of-the-hill, which he regained from Murray late last year.
Like the men's and women's singles, the men's and women's doubles were won by the highest-seeded entrants. The American brothers Bryan captured their sixth Aussie men's doubles crown. It was also their 13th career Slam, more than any other pair in history. Errani-Vinci won the women's doubles.
The tournament's highest singles overachiever among the males was Jeremy Chardy, who although unseeded attained the rounds of 32, 16, and 8 -- i.e., three levels of overachievement. Two women tied for the honor, both also at three levels of overachievement -- Svetlana Kuznetsova, who reached the final eight after being unseeded, and Sloane Stephens, who reached the final four after being seeded in the first 32.
Achieving a Slam triple -- winning the singles, doubles, and mixed -- remained distantly elusive. Closest were the one male and three female players who each scored eight match wins:
Bob Bryan -- 6 doubles + 2 mixed = 8 total wins
Elena Vesnina -- three singles +four doubles + 1 mixed = 8
Ekaterina Makarova -- four singles + 4 doubles = 8
Roberta Vinci -- two singles + six doubles = 8
Vesnina and Lucie Hradecka were the only players to win at least one match in all three events. Probably only a player of the eminence of Serena Williams, partnered by perhaps Venus in the doubles and a Bryan in the mixed, can plausibly aspire for a future triple.
In the tally of matches won by nation, France's male contingent scored more main-draw match wins (singles, doubles, and mixed) than any other, slightly edging Spain's, lacking Nadal. Spain had won the honor in 2012 and 2011. As usual the Russians won the most among the women:
France, 24.5 match wins
Russia, 32.0 match wins
Statistics from the late rounds again showed Australian Open joining U.S. Open as intermediate in playing characteristics, where both hard-court events lay roughly half-way between the extremes of Wimbledon and Roland Garros. Data from the men's singles showing aces per point played illustrated the pattern:
Aces per point played:
Wimbledon (average 2006-2012) -- 10.13%
Australian Open (2013) -- 8.00%
Australian Open (average 2006-2012) -- 7.63%
U.S. Open (average 2006-2012) -- 7.59%
Garros (average 2006-2012) -- 5.73%
The splendor and historical significance of the tournament could not quite match that of 2012 given the absence of Nadal and departing of Serena. But it had been unquestionably a magnificent Slam, probably more so than most others, once again a superb celebration of both this sport and all of sport. The intensity of the several long late-night matches left the tournament its lasting flavor.
Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX -- WATCH-LIST CHECKING
From our several riser watch lists still active -- those announced in April, July, and November 2012 -- several members did well at Melbourne Park.
Sloane Stephens greatly exceeded expectations by reaching the tournament semi-finals, while unseeded Laura Robson and Madison Keys both scored two main-draw wins thus penetrating the tournament's final 32. Angelique Kerber won three matches but failed to attain her seeded level in the first eight. Garbine Muguruza had an encouraging first-round win before losing to Serena Williams, Annika Beck defeated Shvedova in the first round but then lost to Morita, a watch-list alumnus whose 12-month residence thereon has expired. Meanwhile Donna Vekic, 16, lost to Wozniacki after a strong first-round win.
Among the male listees, Milos Raonic scored three match wins and Jerzy Janowicz two, both men achieving their seeded levels in the final 16 and final 32, respectively. Unseeded Evgeny Donskoy, 22, Russia, won twice to penetrate the final 32. Steve Johnson won three qualifying-round matches and then carried Almagro to five sets in the main draw. Brian Baker won a first-rounder but then suffered an ugly leg injury which will sideline him lengthily. Unseeded Guillaume Rufin and Roberto Bautista-Agut both won a main-draw match before departing.
Strong candidates for our next list, in April 2013, should include Valeria Savinkyh, 21, and Lesia Tsurenko, 23, both of whom reached the final 32 at Melbourne after winning three qualifying matches. The fine run of Sloane Stephens should tell our computer to list her (for the third time). The four wins of Jeremy Chardy, 25, and the two main-draw wins by Ricardas Berankis, 22, should propel these candidacies. Israel's Amir Weintraub, 26, won through in the qualifiers and main-tour first round from a distant best-historical ranking. Unseeded Bernie Tomic, 20, Australia, won twice before losing to Federer, thus bidding to return to our list after a year's lapse. Adrian Mannarino, 24, France, won a Challenger in early January, then won three qualifying matches at Melbourne before losing to del Potro.