It was surely among the most memorable surprises in the history of Slam finals. Stan Wawrinka, an unexpected finalist, had not won a single set in twelve previous meetings with the great Rafael Nadal. The outcome on this remarkable evening in Melbourne ended an era where a long-standing Big Four of superstars captured every one of seventeen consecutive Slams.
Surprises also dominated the female singles run, even more so than among the men. There too the grand trophy went to an underdog winner -- Li Na, age 31, who collected her second Slam crown.
Among both men and women throughout the two weeks, there had been plenty of drama and thrill. Conditions of extreme heat marked the first four days of main-draw action, greatly discomforting players, curtailing attendance, and requiring closure of the convertible roofs and stoppages on outside courts for several hours on the fourth day. But temperatures then moderated, and the planned schedule became uninterrupted.
Most often it was the player able and willing to be the more aggressive who became the winner of the point or of the complete match. Firm and well-placed first serves were critical to obtaining an attackable reply, ideally to be followed by a first strike and approach forward. The serve-receiver was thus obliged to deliver a firm and if possible, a well-placed return. Meanwhile weak second serves were subject to punishment by returner, often equalizing or reversing dominance in the given point.
Thus the serve and the serve-return seemed as important as ever in deciding outcomes. Although watchers greatly enjoyed what in every point followed the first two ball strikes, the statistics showing serving and serve-returning success usually told the tale of the match.
Data from the last four rounds of the men's singles at Australian Open 2014 confirmed that bounce speed and height approximated those typical in past Australian and U.S. Opens -- i.e., intermediate between conditions on grass at Wimbledon and on clay at Garros. One such indicator was in the frequency of serving aces.
Aces per point played
Wimbledon 2006-2013, 0.101
U.S. Open 2006-2013, 0.074
Australian Open 2006-2013, 0.077
Australian Open 2014, 0.073
Garros 2006-2013, 0.055
The qualifying tournament began on Wednesday, 8 January. Of the 128 would-be male qualifiers, most of them ranked in the world's second hundred, sixteen won three straight matches and thus earned entry into the main draw. The successful sixteen ranged from young risers Ze Zheng, 23 (China) and Dominic Thiem, 20 (Austria) to more familiar veterans like Wayne Odesnik and Thomaz Bellucci. Youth was more prominently represented among the successful female qualifiers, including 2013's leaders among the juniors -- Ana Konjuh and Belinda Bencic, both 16.
The main draw started Monday, 13 January. The severe temperatures -- steadily well above 100 degrees F -- ended with showers late Thursday. The first two rounds of the main draw were completed that evening, having produced about the usual number of upsets. Ten unseeded males and eleven unseeded women penetrated into the round of 32-- slightly fewer than the historical average.
The first day produced one stunning surprise. Thailand's Luksika Kumkhum, age 20, of sturdy build at height 5-5, strikes firmly with two hands on both forehand and backhand. Previous success lifted her to notice in April 2013, when her official ranking was #130. Her opponent now was powerful Petra Kvitova, top-tenner and former Wimbledon champion, age 23 at height 6-0.
Both players hit hard and aggressively. Kumkhum's unexpected victory came amid strong forcing play by the younger player, along with fewer errors. Luksika was close to the tall Czech in average first-serve velocity, and her total of winners were only slightly fewer (28 vs. 32). It added up to a split-set win for the Asian riser.
Maria Sharapova almost became another unexpected loser amid almost impossible heat on Thursday. When the stoppage rules were invoked thereby stopping play as sets ended on each court, Maria and her opponent, unseeded Karin Knapp, were already in their third set. With Maria seemingly losing velocity and control as the affair lengthened, and with Karin showing the decided edge in stamina, Maria was fortunate to pull ahead just before the finish of their extended final set.
One of the male favorites departed before the finish Thursday evening. Juan Martin del Potro was decidedly the stronger server, scoring 28 aces against just 12 by his opponent, Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain. But although Juan Martin won the first and third sets, it was Roberto who won the other three. Afterwards del Potro agreed with the general opinion among watchers by crediting Roberto for brilliant play throughout, especially when points mattered most. The official tally showed both players with more winners than unforced errors, while the player with the higher number of both was, surprisingly, Bautista Agut.
Fourth-seeded Li Na was carried to the limit by unseeded Lucie Safarova. For most of the going, left-handed Lucie, who was slightly the taller and rangier of the two, produced the heavier artillery, pounding the sides and corners with nicely top-spun deliveries. Late in the second set Lucie held match point, but she lost the opportunity with a narrow miss on what seemed a sure winner. Li Na stepped up her own spin and power just in time to save the second set, and she won the third when Lucie weakened badly toward the finish.
Ivanovic d. S. Williams, 46 63 63
The blazing temperatures had now subsided. The third-round opponent for tournament favorite Serena Williams was tall Ana Ivanovic, now 25, who had never before won a set from Serena, though she had been champion at Garros 2008. Ana's play in recent months had been on the rise.
Serena started poorly, unable to unlimber her big game. Too often the current La Prima of world tennis moved causally, striking inaccurately, failing to clear net with softish shots that ordinarily would receive full punishment. Ana's intent was to attack with her potent forehand whenever possible, even standing in closely to punish Serena's first and second serves. Although Ana too made errors often, her boldness enabled her to reach score 4-4 in the first set. But then there came a lapse by Ana, some stepping up by Serena, so that when Serena won that first set, it seemed the start of a familiar script for Serena -- a tight start that turned into a later demolition of the opponent.
But it was not Serena who raised her game in set two. Now Ana more and more found the edges with big forehands and surprising serve returns. For Serena, despite flashes of her familiar excellence, the errors came too often, while her usual insistence on dominating play was stunningly weak. Ana captured the second set by margin of two service breaks. When Ana then captured an early break of serve in set three, it seemed that Serena's comeback would surely now begin. But Ana was now playing almost without error, and her aggressive striking persisted in its effect. Serena managed to hold her remaining serving games to the finish. But she was unable to break down Ana's strength when she herself was serving.
Serena had not seemed physically hindered during her loss. But she seemed slow in reacting to Ana's strikes, and her serving and striking seldom carried their familiar weight. Afterwards it was learned that recent back trouble had apparently prevented Serena from her practice routines and explained the earlier withdrawal of Serena and Venus from the doubles.
It had been one of Ivanovic's greatest performances, at a level seldom glimpsed from Ana in recent years. Most surprising had been Ana's ability to keep up her high level throughout the three sets while attacking effectively albeit at relatively high risk.
Serena led in aces 13-1, as Ana stood in closely and sometimes guessed wrongly the serve direction. But Ana often punished Serena's second serve, winning 59% of Serena's second-serve points. (In contrast, Serena won only 40% of Ana's second serves.) Ana led on non-serving winners, 32-9, many of them from potent deliveries that clipped the lines, while producing fewer unforced errors than Serena.
Federer d. Tsonga, 63 75 64
Last year at Melbourne, Federer against Tsonga, Roger outlasted his younger and physically stronger opponent in five sets. They met again a few months later at Garros, where Tsonga swept through in straights. This fourth-round meeting at Melbourne Park 2014 would be very different.
It was hard to remember a Federer ever having played better. Roger's forehands and backhands carried the old, rifled power in rallying, relentless pressing Tsonga. Again and again, Roger slipped forward behind a forcing shot to opponent's backhand, scoring a winning volley from Tsonga's reply. There was no holding back by Roger to conserve energy, no spells of quiet torpor -- just persistent and forceful attacking. Federer led in points won at net, 34-11, and recorded a astonishing 69% in second-serve points won.
Was Federer's high level the recent coaching of net-artist Stefan Edberg? Or was it extra power in Roger's new and slightly larger racket? Or was it Roger himself, now free of back pain and uncertainty, now determined to seize his final competitive years? Probably it was all of these.
Thus only three of the top-seeded eight women actually reached the tournament's quarter-finals. It was a different story among the men, where seven of the eight quarter-final places were filled with the pre-tournament favorites.
It often seems that players who defeat highly favored opponents then fade in their next outing, their intensity weakened by the glow of success. Would Ana Ivanovic maintain the superb serve-returning and blistering forehand accuracy that carried her to victory over Serena Williams?
The going was not easy, but for a while it looked as if Ana would do just that. Her opponent was rising Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, 19, who had won the last meeting between the two. Ana won their close first set, but after that Eugenie showed that her rapid rise as a teenager was no accident. With blistering forehands and backhands, with a flexible and wonderfully crafted service motion, and -- most of all -- showing superb court composure and quiet confidence, Eugenie gradually swept into the lead, ultimately earning a convincing triumph. Bouchard thus became the first into the tournament's Final Four.
A. Radwanska d. Azarenka, 61 57 60
Agnieszka Radwanska is capable of excellent power. But hers is a game of craft, quickness, and control. Now, against favored Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka seldom tried to dominate with power, as Vika is extremely good in replying to power. Agnieszka's pattern was to extend points patiently, avoiding errors, answering Vika's thrusts with her own excellent anticipation, speed, footwork, and racket control. Vika, frustrated by her own too-many errors in set one, nevertheless captured a close second set behind some excellent attacking. But things unraveled for Vika early in set three amid several close games when Agnieszka performed some of her most spectacular defensive play and countering.
Joining Bouchard and Radwanska in the women's Final Four were Li Na -- the only favorite to win her quarter of the draw -- and Dominika Cibulkova, whose superior power overwhelmed riser Simona Halep in a meeting of two smallish overachievers.
Wawrinka d. Djokovic, 26 64 62 36 97
Strong in the shoulders, full in the chest, Stan Wawrinka, 28, brought plenty of serving and stroking power. The Swiss star's legs were less heavy but strong and built for speed. He also brought some excellent recent results -- a fine run at the 2013 year-ender in London and a triumph at the Chennai tune-up -- along with the confidence that came from having taken Djokovic to five sets at both Australian and U.S. Opens in 2013.
Novak Djokovic, the tournament favorite and four-time past champion at Melbourne Park, now took the first set comfortably. But early in the second, with Novak persisting in his preferred style of patient pressure, Stan's heavier weight of shot, directed aggressively, began to take effect. Stan's signature weapon, his magnificent backhand one-hander, was now complementing Stan's many severe forehands, ripped by Stan to the corners with full velocity and often little spin. Meanwhile, Stan's potent serve, often deceptively disguised, was giving Novak trouble. Stan captured sets two and three, even as his battering was wearing down Novak.
Down two sets to one, Novak now stepped up his own hitting, managing to stem Stan's run. Novak captured the fourth set with a service break in the eighth game after Stan led 40-Love. Once again, the two began a fifth set.
The hitting was a bit softer than earlier, both men showing effects from the furious play earlier. Rallies now tended to be longer, matching Djokovic's talents and inclination. But Novak now looked slightly the more tired, while neither player seemed superior in the extended exchanges. Always, both worked hard to gain closer position to baseline during rallies, taking time from opponent. Each player broke serve once early in the fifth set, and after many hard-fought games and with the tiebreak rule not in effect, the score reached 7-games-all.
The margin was narrow -- it seemed to come down to Stan's superior conditioning for the long ordeal. In game fifteen Stan served through against little resistance. But game sixteen saw Novak contribute the ending by making two errors close to net.
Joining Wawrinka in the Final Four were Berdych, whose easier power carried him over close rival David Ferrer, and the winners of two titanic meetings involving members of the long-standing Big Four.
Nadal d. Dimitrov, 36 76 76 62
Blocking Rafael Nadal's entry into the Final Four was Grigor Dimitrov, 21, from Bulgaria, widely recognized as a future top player. Grigor had beaten Milos Raonic enroute to the quarter-finals and now again displayed the power serving, the wonderful forehand from all parts of the court, the offensive and defensive skills, the quickness, speed in movement, and composure seen in his career to date.
Producing the victory called for all the strengths of top-seeded world #1, Nadal. Grigor took the first set, closing with three blistering serves, none of them returned by Rafa. The second set went to a tiebreak -- a high moment where Grigor might have moved ahead by two sets. Rafa took the tiebreak lead when Grigor's level momentarily declined, and the tiebreak ended when Rafa played at his aggressive best in claiming the last three points.
With the scoreboard now even, Rafa was now serving regularly to Dimitrov's backhand, Grigor's weaker side. Still, the third set also reached tiebreaker, where -- despite another poor start by Grigor, the youth reached set points -- ahead when serving at 6 points to 5, and then again ahead with Rafa serving at 7 to 6. But with Rafa as usual at his best in high situations, Nadal took the last three points and, with them, the third set.
Dimitrov had seemed the more likely to tire as the struggle lengthened, and indeed his serving velocities dropped off as the match lengthened. But the tennis continued to sizzle into set four. But with his nose now in front, Rafa was now relentless in driving to the finish.
Federer d. A Murray, 63 64 67 63
Both men were returning from disappointing results in 2013, Federer having endured chronic back trouble and Murray having missed the late-year events after back surgery.
Roger was the more aggressive in most of the going, attacking forecourt boldly and often, generally brilliantly and successfully. For the full match Roger won 49 of 66 points at net, or 74%. His forward thrusts often started behind a first-strike delivery off a Murray serve-return, and occasionally directly behind serve. Murray too increased his net forays as the match unfolded.
Andy played well considering his long stretch on the sidelines, showing his easy power in serving and stroking. He stepped up his play during the second-set tiebreaker, when Roger briefly retreated into nonaggressive play.
Li d. Bouchard, 62 64
Back in summer 2012 here in Washington, Eugenie Bouchard faced another, better-known riser, Sloane Stephens, in a main-stadium evening match. At first Eugenie was obviously uncomfortable, perhaps because of the imposing surroundings or perhaps because of the unfamiliar pace of Sloane's serving and stroking. The first set was dismal for Eugenie, utterly one-sided, as Eugenie's shots seemed unable to find the court. The crowd gradually drifted away into the night, but those that remained were rewarded, as Eugenie abruptly found her best level and forced matters to a hard-fought third set.
The script seemed almost the same now in Melbourne, where Eugenie faced her first Slam semi, inside Rod Laver Arena. For five games Li Na blistered the court with her patented rocketry, and Eugenie could scarcely extend a point. But then, in game six, helped by Li's troubles serving into a difficult Sun, it again became a different Eugenie, her big forehands and backhands now answering those of her opponent. Indeed, Eugenie would hold the scoreboard close in set two, keeping things interesting to the finish.
Cibulkova d. A. Radwanska, 61 62
Both women had played their best tennis in earlier matches. But only one would do so on this date. Dominika Cibulkova, powerful in musculature, overwhelmed the softer game of Radwanska, ripping away at almost anything offered by Agnieszka. The Slovak star misfired occasionally but unfailingly persisted in her all-out striking. Showing a rock-solid backhand and a devastating forehand of power and accuracy, Domika simply dominated from start to finish. Agniezka recognized the need to step up her hitting, but Dominika was too quick in her countering and Agniezka missed too often.
It was hard to believe that this date's Agnieszka was the same player who had so brilliantly beaten Azarenka.
Wawrinka d. Berdych, 63 67 76 76
It was a match-up of two power players. Tomas Berdych had beaten the higher-seeded Ferrer, and Wawrinka had upset Djokovic. The taller Berdych was generally the more aggressive in his net-approaching, his positioning on baseline, and, especially, in his serve-returning. Both served well, delivering a high frequency of aces and good serving percentages. There was only one break of serve in the entire match, occurring from a brief run of errors by Berdych in the first set.
Thus the match was decided in the three tiebreak games. Berdych won the second-set breaker with some fine serving and forehand power. But Tomas's serving prowess faltered in the two later tiebreakers, Tomas losing six of his ten serving points in those two tiebreak games, three by double-faults.
Nadal d. Federer, 76 63 63
From the start Federer never seemed the likely winner. The first set was close, however, when Roger reached tiebreaker after overcoming several break points enroute. Roger throughout was plainly the more interested in coming forward, but Rafa seldom offered promising opportunities. The two settled into many pure baseline exchanges -- i.e., tennis essentially on Nadal's terms. Roger fell behind quickly in the first-set tiebreaker and could not recover.
Knowing that his best hope was to avoid extended exchanges, Roger rekindled efforts to come forward, but despite a high number of net approaches, the tactic brought no sustained success. Rafa's greatness -- covering the court with relentless perfection and often replying to Roger's bids with superior power and precision -- simply overwhelmed Roger's weapons. Rafa's dominance became unmistakable early in the second set and scarcely waned thereafter. Rafa's performance was especially impressive in view of Roger's excellent form in earlier rounds and his obvious strong determination.
Final: Li d. Cibulkova, 76 60
There was plenty of Down Under Thunder left for the women's final. Li Na, age 31 at height just under 5-8, and Dominka Cibulkova, age 24 and listed at 5-3, were both known as heavy hitters. In both cases their power came from excellent use of core strength, plus for the smallish Cibulkova, her skill in employing long backswing. Both were excellent movers.
Dominka gifted away the opening game, serving, but after that it became a nearly equal test of striking abilities. Dominika was better in holding down errors, but Na, who was taking greater risks, remained ahead on the scoreboard behind occasional winners from her devastating backhand. Both stood ready to crush the other's softish second serves, helping explain the two double-faults in game six by Na that led to an equalizing service break. Dominka lost serve again in game eleven, which included another double-fault. But Na was unable to close out the set in game twelve, contributing two errors from a forehand that had lately begun to improve and another at net, plus a rare backhand miss. A tiebreak game would decide the first set.
Both players by now had found their timing and patterns. Both of them, but especially Li, now showed the power to push the opponent to a deep corner and then rip a winner to the open side. Most points in the tiebreaker were played to perfection, ending in a screaming rocket to an opening by one player or the other. But it was Li Na who never missed during the tiebreak game.
The ferocity persisted in the second set, especially the fire of Li Na. The games went quickly, all of them to the Chinese idol, her opponent now out-powered and generally unable to answer.
For Li Na, it was a second Slam crown, she having won Garros 2011. All her match-wins at Melbourne came in straight sets except in her narrow escape against Safarova. It could hardly be argued that Li was the best player in the tournament. Her opportunity to extend her success into the coming clay-court season was intriguing. She was now our unofficial La Prima, surpassing Serena Williams.
It had also been a wonderful run at Melbourne for Dominika, including four wins over higher-seeded opponents and another over a former Slam champion. Her future too looked exciting.
Final: Wawrinka d. Nadal, 63 62 36 63
Wawrinka played with confidence and near-perfection through most of the first set, scorching his serves and ground strokes, mixing in some net attack, not losing a first-serve point. Rafa was less comfortable, often yielding dominance in rallies, gifting away a service break in a horrible third game. In the ninth game, however, with Stan serving to close out the set, the Swiss star's first serve would not find the court. But with Stan behind Love-Forty, it was now Rafa's serve-returning that disappeared. Indeed, Rafa failed to return the next five Wawrinka serves, three of them second-serves, only one an ace winner. As Stan thus banked the first set, it was hard to absorb that the heavy favorite had lost.
Stan collected the first two games of the next set, resuming his blistering attacking. Soon afterwards Rafa bent over amid back pain. A seven-minute respite and then massage two games later scarcely helped. Rafa's movement and power remained seriously reduced. Stan would run out the second set despite spraying many errors.
With Rafa two sets down, Rafa's heavy and accurate ground strokes reappeared in the third set, though his movement and serving power were still diminished. Meanwhile Stan's letdown persisted, and the third set went to Rafa.
It was hardly tennis of Slam-final quality. The openings on Rafa's side of the court were now often and large, the frequent misses by Wawrinka ugly, the gallery quiet except upon a successful thrust by one or the other players. Rafa's serving faltered in game six, the service-break registered by a now-rare rocket to a corner from a Wawrinka forehand.
Still, it was not quite over. Rafa was still firing fairly well, his movement and power barely noticeably below their best. Rafa broke back in game seven, but Stan reasserted his dominance in the next game to break Rafa one last time. Game nine went quickly, Rafa now unable to return Stan's finely placed serves.
Probably the dominating play of Wawrnka in the first hour had decided the outcome. Rafa's incomparable defenses had been clearly insufficient. Rafa's injury made it almost impossible for Rafa to turn the match around. Whether a healthy Rafa would have done so will forever remain speculation.
Stan's tournament triumph was multi-dimensional, based on superb physical fitness, tennis skills, concentration, and will. The message stands -- that Stan Wawrinka was the man who broke the dominance of the Big Four. Not del Potro, Berdych, Ferrer, or Tsonga, all players that seemed more likely to be the one. Stan's new reward in ranking points lifted him into the official top four, where he seems likely to remain indefinitely. Having defeated both Djokovic and Nadal at Melbourne, he became our Il Primo of pro tennis.
The great Italian pair Errani-Vinci repeated their 2013 triumph in women's doubles. European veterans Kubot and Lindstedt won the men's doubles, and Mladenovic-Nestor won the mixed.
The top female overachiever was Dominika Cibulkova who, while seeded only in the #17-32 bracket, reached the final round of the tournament -- an overachievement of four levels. Eugenie Bouchard, who overachieved by three levels, was second. Among the men, Stan Wawrinka posted three levels of overachievement. Eight men tied for second, each showing two levels. Our tiebreaker nod goes to Stephane Robert of France, 33 , who received no overachievement credit under our rules for emerging from the qualifiers as a Lucky Loser, but who then earned two credits by penetrating the tournament's final 32 and final 16.
Once again, no player came close to achieving the Slam Triple (winning the singles, doubles, and mixed, all three). The closest was Dan Nestor, who was on the winning side in four matches in men's doubles and five in mixed -- a total of nine victories. The top woman was Ekaterina Makarova, who won three matches in singles and five in women's doubles -- a total of eight victories.
The national contingent winning the most matches among the men was that of France, lifted by twelve wins in the first round of singles. Spain was second, behind Nadal's six wins in singles. Switzerland was third, Wawrinka having won the singles and Federer reaching the semis. Poland and Canada scored unusually well, both inside the first eight. The U.S. contingent won among the women, helped by first-round strength in both singles and doubles. The success of the American women ended ten straight years in first place by the Russkayas, who finished second this year.
France, 28.0 match-wins
Czech Republic, 14.5
Australian Open 2014 will be remembered and talked about as long as pro tennis lives. But the current season hardly pauses. February brings indoor and outdoor tournament sequences over much of the world, along with Davis and Fed Cup first-round play. The American swing at Indian Wells and Miami follows in March.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX: WATCH-LIST WATCHING -- MELBOURNE PARK
Female members of our current watch lists of predicted risers earned considerable notice at Australian Open 2014. Eugenie Bouchard broke through by defeating Ana Ivanovic and four other main-draw opponents, then finally losing to Li Na in the tournament semi-finals. Garbine Muguruza defeated Caroline Wozniacki and two other main-draw opponents before losing to Agniezka Radwanska. Simona Halep made it to the tournament quarter-finals, losing there to finalist Cibulkova. Elina Svitolina won twice beflore losing to seeded Sloane Stephens. Achieving one main-draw win were Karolina Pliskova, Luksika Kumkhum (who beat Kvitova), Madison Keys, and Anna Schmiedlova (who lost to Muguruza). Three teenaged listees each won three qualifying matches to earn entry into the main draw -- Ana Konjuh, Belinda Bencic, and Elina Siniakova -- while Victoria Duval reached the third round of the qualifiers before losing to Siniakova. Bencic would win her first-round main draw match but both she and Konjuh would be knocked out by Li Na.
Our male listees achieved somewhat less. The group's top achiever was Grigor Dimitrov, who reached the tournament quarter-finals, where he lost to Nadal after winning the first set. Fabio Fognini achieved his seeded level of #9-16 by reaching the fourth round, where he bowed to Djokovic. Jerzy Janowicz and Vasek Pospisil both attained their seeded level, #17-32, by reaching the third round. Pospisil then withdrew because of injury. Also winning twice was Milos Raonic, but Milos lost to Dimitrov and thus failed to attain his seeded level of #7-16. Two listees won through in the qualifying tournament -- Rhyne Williams and Dominic Thiem. Rhyne then won a set in losing to del Potro in the main draw, and Dominic won a first-rounder before losing to seeded K. Anderson.
Our next watch list of risers, based mainly on performance in First Trimester of 2014, will be produced by our computer in April and announced here. At the same time our watch list issued in April 2013 will end its 12-month term. Among those scheduled to depart from our special scrutiny will be Grigor Dimitrov, except that his success at Melbourne Park makes him a likely candidate for the new list and a fresh 12-month tenure.