Category Archives: Australian Open

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

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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

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Stan Wawrinka Breaks Through the Big 4, Beats Rafael Nadal. His Victory in the Process of Getting There

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Stan Wawrinka wins the Australian Open Sunday

The message of Stan Wawrinka and his incredible win at the Australian Open Sunday over Rafael Nadal, a few days after his incredible win over Novak Djokovic, has been twisted a little. Simplified. Confused.

The quote Wawrinka had tattooed on his arm, is not akin to “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’’ It’s bigger than that. Wawrinka’s tattoo, from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, says this:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’’

That is not about continuing to try until you have success. It is about redefining success, finding it in the nobility of simply trying and trying no matter how many times you fail. It’s not about trying until you succeed, but rather about finding success in the effort.

It tennis terms, it was a way of keeping sanity in a world of Nadal, Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. It is such a great example of a blue-collar mentality and a look into what it’s like to be a top tennis player dealing with the sport’s historically incredible Big Four.

“Before today, I always (was) saying that except Roger, Rafa, Novak, you always lose, especially every week,’’ Wawrinka said Sunday after beating Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to break up the Big Four’s stranglehold on major championships and win his first major. “So it’s not easy because tennis life, when you lose, it’s tough to get through and to take a positive from a loss, from failing from a tournament.

“That’s how I see, in general, my career.’’

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Wawrinka’s tattoo where he can always see it while playing

The Big Four had won 34 of the previous 35 majors, going back to 2005. The string was broken only by Juan Martin del Potro’s 2009 U.S. Open win. But at the time, del Potro seemed a likely candidate to join the top group. If not for wrist injuries, maybe he would have. But he’s healthy now, and still can’t quite get back.

Wawrinka didn’t seem like the guy to break through. He was destined to be the guy Djokovic beat in a classic five sets at last year’s Australian Open, and then again at the U.S. Open.

He was The Other Guy in the picture of greatness. He was good enough to get into that picture, though, which maybe made it more frustrating. He found comfort in the Beckett quote, which he thought about for years, but didn’t have tattooed on his arm until last year.

Wawrinka said Sunday that he never believed he could win a major until after he had actually done it.

The success was in the courage it took him to keep getting up and fighting after crushing and inevitable losses to the greats. The Australian Open? That was just a bonus.

Wawrinka was 0-14 against Djokovic, 0-12 against Nadal. He’d never even taken a set off Nadal. Being from Switzerland, Wawrinka also spent his career in the shadow of his friend, Roger Federer.

Now, Wawrinka moves to No. 3 in the rankings, ahead of Murray and Federer.

But the beauty of Wawrinka’s story is in the process, the failing that led to this. We love to celebrate the blue collar guy in sports, connecting him to ourselves, and to a belief that it’s possible to break through the ceiling.

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Li Na Wins Second Major, Leads Tennis Into New Frontier

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Li Na in the Australian Open final

Li Na comes off like a stand-up comic, though you’re never quite sure if she’s trying to be funny or if it just comes off that way accidentally with her blunt honesty. She speaks her mind.

But she stood on the court Saturday after winning the Australian Open and gave her joking/truths over the p.a., thanking her agent for making “me rich’’ and then her husband, Shan Jiang, for all he has done.

“Also,’’ she said to Shan, “you are so lucky (to) find me.’’

Tennis was so lucky to find her, and was lucky to still have her Saturday. The U.S. mainstream sports fan doesn’t even know who Li is, but she is women’s tennis’ greatest selling point. She might be the most important person in the women’s game, and is definitely the most important one not named Williams.

Li is the only Chinese player ever to win a major. Now she has won two, beating Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7-3), 6-0 just nine months after considering retirement rather than continuing to do endure heavy criticism from Chinese media over her falling results.

Her coach talked her into sticking around another month just to see how things went at last year’s Wimbledon. They went well, so she hung around for the U.S. Open. That’s how close tennis was to losing her.

I can’t wait to see what the TV ratings were for Saturday’s match. Think worldwide. Think hundreds of millions. Think: Super Bowl-like.

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When Li won the 2011 French Open, according to TV ratings, 116 million people watched in China. A week later, 106 million watched the Super Bowl in the U.S. I know it sounds as if a punchline is coming; there are a lot more people in China than in the U.S.

But with so many sports looking to find a way to crack China, seeing it as an under-tapped massive population with a strong economy, tennis has already been trying to ride Li’s success since 2011. It was trying before that, too, without much luck.

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Reality check for Federer. Crushed by Nadal, but Oz was Great Start to Reinventing Self

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Reality is reality and facts are facts. But the reality and facts of Rafael Nadal’s easy win over Roger Federer Friday in the Australian Open semifinal are based solely on what you expected.

What I mean is this: If people expected Federer to beat Nadal, then they really haven’t been paying attention lately. He was never going to win this match. Cold reality is that Nadal is far better now than Federer.

But the fact is this: These past two weeks have been a massive success for the reality of Roger Federer.

Jack Nicklaus used to say that he never wanted to be a ceremonial golfer, that he was there to win. Without changes, Federer was going to be just for show by the end of this year. He might not have been in the top 20.

Instead, at 32, he has already not only taken the first steps, but also placed himself back in position to win majors again.

Please read the rest of the column here

 


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Federer Faces Facts, Makes Racquet Again. It’s About Time

imgres-1The first thing you noticed when Roger Federer played Andy Murray on Wednesday at the Australian Open was that his headband and wristband were bright red. So were his shoes. It took a minute to realize why that would stand out.

Here’s why: Roger Federer was playing in color again. For the past few years, he has been in black and white, playing an obsolete style with obsolete equipment, stubbornly in denial about what was going on around him.

It was sort of sad, really. He always had some excuse for his decline. I covered the match where it first should have been hammered into his head, a loss to Robin Soderling at the French Open. Federer blamed the weather for that one, as if Soderling were playing under a different sky.

That was 2010. But now Federer has finally faced facts.

Please read the rest of the column here


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Serena loses to Ivanovic? Once-in-a-Lifetime Losses Adding up for Williams

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The truth about Serena Williams is that these inexplicable, once-in-a-lifetime, fluky, never-happen-again losses keep happening again. They’re starting to pile up.

Williams is still the best player in the world, but with her loss to Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open, something changed. A week ago, the talk was that Williams was so much better than the rest of the tour that she might win all four majors this year. She might be the best ever.

Then, she lost to a woman, talented as she is, who has spent the past few years crying after every loss, too scared to toss the ball over her head for a serve.

When Williams lost to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon last year, I said it was the first time her mind and body let her down at the same time. Now, it has happened twice, albeit with a U.S. Open title in between.

There are real issues for Williams. She’s 32, and it’s starting to show. It was crafty after the match how news of her back pain accidentally – I should say, “accidentally’’ with air-quotes – leaked out. Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said something. Then, when faced with the question, she declined to let it take away from Ivanovic’ win, yet did manage to say her back was so bad she almost didn’t even play.

That’s not much of an excuse anymore. A body starting to become unreliable, to break down, doesn’t seem like a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a 32-year old who lost in the Australian Open last year because of another injury.

What we’re starting to see is this: Williams isn’t able to physically dominate and intimidate everyone the way she used to. And when she isn’t able to do that, she doesn’t seem to know what to do.

As the injuries add up, and she starts to run slower, that will become more problematic. More and more, the bullying thing is going to start to fade.

Maybe we saw signs of that two years ago in the U.S. Open final against Sam Stosur, too. I just didn’t recognize it at the time because it was so stunning seeing any weakness in her. Remember when Williams sat there during a changeover berating the chair ump like a little kid getting worked up, nearly crying while saying, “You’re a hater. You’re unattractive inside.’’

Ana Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic

Stosur has been known to fold mentally, but she’s an incredibly muscular athlete who stood up to Williams physically that day. And Williams crumbled. At Wimbledon, Lisicki, known for her power and inconsistency, pounded on Williams.

But those seemed like flukes. Great athletes putting it together one time.

On Saturday? Well, put it this way: The first three times I talked with Ivanovic, a few years ago, she was crying after losses. Yet somehow, a woman who hadn’t shown one bit of mental fortitude in years, walked out on a court believing in her heart that she could beat Williams. And she could do it by overpowering her.

That’s a big deal. Roger Federer is running into it now, too. More often than not, when tennis’ dominant players take the court, the match is already over. The person on the other side of the net just doesn’t believe enough to do it. Now, opponents believe they can beat Federer, and some of them are doing it.

To be honest, going into the Australian Open, I thought the only player who believed she could beat Williams was Victoria Azarenka. Continue reading


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Venus Williams out Early Again. Losing Courageous Fight Not to Age, but to Health

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It is now just painful to watch Venus Williams. It used to be joyful. She can play as well as she ever did, but can’t do it two days in a row. Or two minutes in a row. Or, if she can, then you don’t know which two days, which two minutes.

She doesn’t either.

Williams lost in the first round of the Australian Open on Sunday, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Ekaterina Makarova. The easy narrative is that Williams is 33, and that all of the things that come with old age in tennis are now coming to her.

But it isn’t that easy. And that’s part of what makes it so painful watching someone who has meant so much to the game and done it so elegantly for so long.

Williams has completely modernized her game. Yes, at 33. Her serve and forehand don’t look the same as they used to.

She slaps at them now with a looping follow-through, rather than using the old, classic fluid arm movements. Her backhand is different, too. She was slicing forehands at times, mixing up shots. She hit dropshots.

She has never done any of this. Think of the want-to it takes to do it now, when she could so easily blame her slide on age, and on Sjogren’s syndrome, which causes fatigue.

“The last 12 months I have had issues,’’ she said after her match. “But this year, I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well.’’

It is typical of her to speak so vaguely about her health or injuries. She also said that health is a “factor for any professional athlete, so I don’t think I’m any different from anyone else.’’

This is a courageous fight she won’t even talk about. After watching that match Sunday, I’m convinced it’s the autoimmune disease that’s beating her.

Please read the rest of the column here


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