AUSTRALIAN OPEN: From Valedictorians to Class Clowns, Here are Grades for the Year’s First Major

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Genie Bouchard. Next.

Genie Bouchard. Next.

We got an inspirational new champion, a re-invented former champion, a few possible future champions and then, well, failure and theater of the absurd. Really, Australian Open officials? It’s OK to have players out there in 110 degree heat because people used to chase antelope in Africa?

WHAT?

So here are the final grades for the Australian Open, of valedictorians, teacher’s pets, class clowns and everything in between.

VALEDICTORIANS

LI NA: In a sport in need of mainstream attention, Li not only gives tennis something every sport dreams of – something to market to the massive population and economy of China – but also a post-championship match victory speech that goes viral. As a result, Li might be the most important player in the women’s game today, maybe even more than Serena Williams. Li was able to win the Australian Open without beating a top player, but that’s not her fault. Eight months ago, with her results failing and the Chinese media ripping her, Li nearly retired. Her work with new coach Carlos Rodriguez has helped the sport big time. Grade: A+

STAN WAWRINKA: Wawrinka’s championship was even more impressive than Li Na’s, considering the tougher competition he had to beat. He spent the past few years thinking he was never going to be able to break through the Big Four in men’s tennis, but finding honor in getting up after every defeat to keep fighting anyway. And then he took down Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. You can’t win two major tennis matches by fluke. He earned this. Grade: A+

TEACHER’S PETS

ANA IVANOVIC: The game has just been waiting for her to get her nerve back. And she came out firing again. She beat Serena Williams, not to mention Sam Stosur, and showed that she’s perfectly capable of being a top 10 player again and a threat to win another major. . .if she keeps believing. Grade A-

ROGER FEDERER: New racquet, new coach (Stefan Edberg), new, aggressive gameplan. Same results? Federer lost to Rafael Nadal again. Well, that is a completely unfair analysis. Federer is finally doing all the right things. It is the only way he’s going to win another major, and he finally seems to realize that. It’s not just that he’s coming to the net, but that he’s trying to step into the ball and attack. Sure, he waffled on it against Nadal. This is all new to Fed. It was a GREAT first step. I was starting to watch him and wonder who he’d lose to next while slicing and dinking. Now, I can’t wait to see him. He still can’t beat Nadal, but he now is a threat to win another major or two. He still has game. He even has a legit shot at the French Open. Grade: A

DOMINIKA CIBULKOVA: Hard to know if Cibulkova just changed her career, but remember this: She came into the Australian Open as a known choker. She left with wins over No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 6 Aga Radwanska and No. 11 Simona Halep before reaching the final. Forgive her for some nerves early in her first major final. That happens. The thing about women’s tennis is that there are only a couple of superstars. The women’s players are sort of cookie-cutter, and if someone with talent and nerves of steel comes along, then it’s going to take a top player playing well to beat her. Hope is that this won’t be Cibulkova’s Melanie Oudin-moment, and that she’ll have found her nerve for the long run. Grade: A+

ACED THE CLASS, FLUNKED THE FINAL

images-4

Aga Radwanska plays brilliantly, wins

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

AGA RADWANSKA: She might have played the match of the tournament in beating Victoria Azarenka. She was everywhere on the court, with just enough power. Azarenka was flustered and confused. And the media hailed Radwanska as a genius for that match. But in her semifinal match against Dominika Cibulkova, Radwanska played as if she had had a lobotomy. I’m not even sure Radwanska tried. When things weren’t working, she kept doing them. There was no hint of strategy. This is the problem with the almost-greats. You see incredible things, and then you are reminded why they don’t reach the mountaintop (see Tomas Berdych). Same thing happened with Radwanska at Wimbledon. So what’s the grade? Well, I think she’s good enough to win a major, and marketable enough to be a star. And that semifinal match was so bad, I can barely remember the Azarenka match. Grade: F.

TOMAS BERDYCH: He reached the semifinals, and then smiled and credited his team when he was told that he had become the only current player outside the Big Four to reach the semis of all four majors. Hey Tomas, that’s not really a compliment. Another way of putting it: You are the only player on tour to reach the semis of all four majors, but never win one. Berdych is adding topspin to his forehand, which is being credited for his recent improved play. I don’t know about that. That flat forehand was the reason he was winning matches. The way he fell apart briefly against David Ferrer in the quarters was shocking. Lost his nerve at moments against Stan Wawrinka in the semis, too, but in hindsight, it’s hard to mark him down too far for losing to the champ. One more thing: there was nothing wrong with Berdych’s much-criticized prison-cell shirts, other than his team was wearing them, too. Grade: B

DAVID FERRER: When he lost to Berdych in the quarters in what I’m calling the Bridesmaid Bowl, he lost his unofficial title as best player never to win a major. He pushed the line judge, too, but at least he isn’t hitting balls into the stands at crying babies anymore. Still fighting hard. Still stuck in the land of almost. Maybe Wawrinka’s win will show him what’s possible. Grade: C

to bad back (Serena Williams)

to bad back (Serena Williams)

Bad back (Rafael Nadal)

Bad back (Rafael Nadal)

MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED

RAFAEL NADAL: This is what a champion looks like. Nadal wasn’t at his best early on and was fighting serious blisters on his left palm, but won tough matches anyway. Then, when it was time to step up another level, he did, beating Roger Federer. In the final, he blew out his back, but kept playing anyway, without power or ability to run. And he took a set off Wawrinka. Nadal is going to keep getting hurt, considering the abandon he plays with. But this is how you do it. Grade: A

SERENA WILLIAMS: The interesting thing was that Ana Ivanovic, known for losing her nerve, as well as her serve, walked onto the court thinking she could beat Williams. Serena is starting to lose some of these once-in-a-lifetime losses more frequently now. Air of invincibility is a big deal for the top players. Her back was hurting, but wasn’t overly debilitating. Ivanovic was at her best, but I still think Serena should have found a way to win. Grade: B

BIG MEN ON CAMPUS

BIG-NAME COACHES: So it seems that the men’s players have decided to follow Andy Murray’s lead, after he hired Ivan Lendl and started winning majors. Everyone needs a champ now as a coach, apparently. Roger Federer hired Stefan Edberg and Novak Djokovic hired Boris Becker. Even Kei Nishikori scooped up Michael Chang, and Marin Cilic got Goran Ivanisevic. I’m not sure these are all the best hires, really, but it’s too early to judge them fairly. Edberg seems to be helping Federer to gain some much needed aggressiveness. Nishikori seems to have improved overall and Cilic was serving better. But while all those big names get to fight it out with each other again, how great is it that the big coaching winner was a former player who never won a major. Magnus Norman, who helped Wawrinka believe in himself, just beat Edberg, Becker, Chang and Ivanisevic in a major. Norman would get an A+, but the category here is big-name coaches. Grade: Incomplete

Ana Ivanovic believes again

Ana Ivanovic believes again

EXCUSED ABSENCE FROM FINAL

ANDY MURRAY: It felt as if he played this tournament with a note from his doctor. He had back surgery in September, and didn’t expect much of himself. Then, he went all the way to the semis, where he lost in four sets to Roger Federer. If he were healthy, I’d give Murray an F for dinking and over-thinking against Federer. But I can say this: I once was playing a match in juniors, and I bent over to bounce the ball before serving, and then. . . couldn’t stand up. I had to be carried off. I get it that Murray was scared to throw his body into things too much. He’ll get past that. To me, the concern is whether his back will let him move the way he’ll need to in the long run. All that talk of increased fitness under Ivan Lendl? That might be catching up with him. Grade: B+

Venus Williams still fighting

Venus Williams still fighting

VENUS WILLIAMS: Her first-round loss to Ekaterina Makarova was seen as further evidence of her age catching up with her. I didn’t see it that way. Williams has made over her game, modernizing her strokes and slapping at the ball. She lost nerve on her serve at times, but I’m going to attribute that to getting used to the changed stroke. Sure, age is an issue, as her lack of footspeed is proving. But she is clearly working on improving and re-inventing at 33. And I think age is less of an issue for her than health. Her autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome, takes away her energy. And while she won’t say it, it appears she has little confidence in her body from one minute to the next. If there is any better way to deal with her disease – and she’s searching for it – she can still be relevant. Grade: A-

HEAD OF INCOMING CLASS

GENIE BOUCHARD: I spent a decent amount of time watching her at Wimbledon just to see where I thought her game was. She looked like potential that needed time. So I was surprised how fast she came around. It’s hard to explain this, but there’s a point where players go from a collection of strokes to an actual mature ballgame. She got there. At 19 years old with a run to the Australian semis, she surpasses Sloane Stephens as the leader of Generation Next. The worst thing about her was her mention of liking Justin Bieber. Close second was that stuffed animal she put on the desk in front of her while ESPN interviewed her. Whatever, she’ll grow out of that stuff. The best thing was that she wasn’t giddy to get this far. She felt she belonged. Grade: A-

GRIGOR DIMITROV: A nickname like Baby Fed and all the social media potential in the world by dating Maria Sharapova and once having dated Serena Williams? Tennis has been cheering this guy on for a while now because he’s exciting and he will sell. It was a breakthrough in beating hot Milos Raonic, and then giving Nadal a run for it for a couple of sets. He doesn’t have the control he needs yet, but he has the strokes. And more importantly, he has great fire. Still, this was just one win. Grade A-

SLOANE STEPHENS: She’s just 20, so it shouldn’t be an issue yet that she still needs to take another step. But the fact is, she still needs to take another step. She is great at beating players who aren’t as good as she is in majors. But she never beats top players, and needs a signature win. People want to count her win last year in Australia over Serena Williams, but Williams was so hurt she could barely play. I guess reaching the fourth round of another major is good enough, but I would have expected that she at least put up a fight against Azarenka when she got there. She drilled Azarenka with a shot and then not only apologized, but also seemed to actually mean it. A few points later, she had a chance to drill Azarenka again and get into the set, but niced-out. Grade: C

Donald Young was the last American standing

Donald Young was the last American standing

CLASS CLOWNS

AMERICAN MEN: I feel like this one should start with a punchline of some sort. The best I’ve got is that Donald Young was the last American man standing. Young beat Andreas Seppi, and was blunt and honest about himself in the post-match interview. There was talk about his newfound work ethic, too. Then, he lost to Kei Nishikori  7-5, 6-1, 6-0. Exactly what happens to Young that he keeps doing this, fighting hard for one set, losing it, and then falling apart?  To me, the American highlight was Sam Querrey’s win over the always-erratic Ernests Gulbis. Querrey just looked so strong and composed, with that power serve. Only at the end did he show some bad body language. It was everything he can and should be. Then, that went away in the next round. Not that I like seeing this usually, but just once, I’d like to see Querrey smash a racquet or scream in anger or something just to show what’s inside. John Isner, who is going to have a good run in a major some day – bank on it — hurt his ankle in the first round. And I still think Jack Sock has serious potential.  But in Oz, Querrey is the only one who didn’t deserve an F. Grade: D-

BERNARD TOMIC: We really don’t have a TMZ-like character in tennis in the U.S. Tomic is one screwup after another, from issues with his dad to his driving. So if you think he really was too hurt to continue against Nadal in the first-round, it really doesn’t matter. It’s his fault that his own people don’t believe this former Australian hope. This was just more fodder. Grade: D

Not chasing antelope

Not chasing antelope

AUSTRALIAN OPEN OFFICIALS: They did a great job, as usual, except for one thing: They were on the verge of killing a few players in the first week. It was 110 degrees, and you just left Maria Sharapova out there? If you don’t have common sense rules in place, then forget the rules and use some common sense. Don’t trot out a doctor to throw out some b.s. about how people used to chase antelope in Africa for hours at a time. You wonder if he was suffering from heat stroke while he was saying that. Players were throwing up, blacking out, packing up and going home. The players love this tournament and think it is run fantastically. Sorry, but when you put players at risk, you have failed your primary responsibility. Grade: F

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About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

One response to “AUSTRALIAN OPEN: From Valedictorians to Class Clowns, Here are Grades for the Year’s First Major

  • GolFan

    Great post! Agree with all!

    Honourable mention goes to Kei Nishikori as part of “Head of Incoming Class”. He gave Nadal a whole host of problems in their match. We may not yet have seen the best of Kei.

    And, a new category… “Outside Court Warriors”! Both Robredo and Bautista beat top ten opponents on relentless runs to the 4th round.

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