Sunday, January 31, 2010
Seven a lucky number for only a select few
By Ravi Ubha, ESPN.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Every Grand Slam event throws up a few surprises, and the Australian Open was no exception. Well, apart from Roger making another Grand Slam semifinal (yawn) and ultimately winning, and Serena doing what she does best -- standing at the winner's podium.
What did we learn from the fortnight? Here are seven things from the seven rounds:
First Round: Sharapova still needs work
When the draw was made, more than a few (this author included) picked Maria Sharapova to reach the semifinals. After all, she landed in the same quarter as the ailing second seed, Dinara Safina, and the slumping eighth seed, Jelena Jankovic.
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The three-time Grand Slam champion showed flashes of old form in 2009 following shoulder surgery, too.
Sharapova clearly has plenty of work to do after exiting to friend and fellow glamour girl Maria Kirilenko in a 3.5-hour slugfest that kicked off the tournament. The losing Russian delivered 11 double faults after struggling with her serve last summer.
Not the best start in the wake of signing a reported eight-year, $70 million extension with Nike.
"A bad day's not going to stop me from doing what I love," Sharapova told reporters. "I'm still gonna go back on the court and work hard and perform. I'll be back here on a Saturday of the second week."
Second round: Ana is down and almost out
Ana Ivanovic, as hard as it is to believe, was the world No. 1 in June 2008. She continues to slump, much worse than Sharapova.
The stunning Serb, relegated to a seeding of 20th in Melbourne, blew a lead and fell to Argentine Gisela Dulko 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4. The ball toss and serve are still a mess. One toss on the deuce side looked like it was headed into the stands, given how skewed it was to the right.
The Aussie press would have loved an extended stay from Ivanovic, since she's dating Australian golfer Adam Scott. She was even dubbed "Aussie Ana."
"I think I just have to be patient," the 22-year-old, perennially on best-looking lists, told reporters. "It will take some time. I do feel better on the court. I feel like my old self."
Ivanovic hasn't reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal since claiming the French Open in 2008.
Isner began the season by winning a first title in New Zealand, getting a pat on the back from Federer. Despite being tired, the 6-foot-9 Isner, a better athlete than 6-foot-10 Croat Ivo Karlovic, still got to the fourth round by upsetting 12th-seeded Frenchman Gael Monfils.
The 33rd seed competed well against eventual finalist Andy Murray in the last 16, earning a set point in the opener.
"This is a great start to the year," Isner, struck down by mono last year, told reporters. "I won eight matches in a row at this level. It's a great accomplishment. I know that if I can continue this type of consistency, my ranking is going to continue to climb."
Blake lost a five-set thriller to U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, with Querrey continuing to struggle since suffering a freak arm injury in September. Querrey lost to 33-year-old German Rainer Schuettler in the opening round.
Fourth Round: Wozniacki is suffering from post-U.S Open blues
Caroline Wozniacki, owner of a wonderful smile, is great for the women's game. But it's evident the 19-year-old Dane needs to get more aggressive if she wants to remain in the top 10.
Wozniacki rarely registered more winners than unforced errors on her way to the U.S. Open final in September, relying on the bigger hitters to be off their game.
China's Li Na swept past Wozniacki in straight sets. Wozniacki, with an inflated seeding of fourth, struck all of three winners -- yes, three -- coupled with 22 unforced errors. Mind you, Wozniacki was nursing a slight injury to her right leg.
"There's a long way to go," Wozniacki told reporters. "There's a long year ahead of me. Now I'm going to go and practice and work even harder, and come back stronger, hopefully."
We don't doubt it.
Quarterfinals: Andy can play aggressive
No one in his camp admitted it, but Andy Murray's clash against Rafael Nadal was a defining moment in his career. Many experts expected Murray to win a first Grand Slam in 2009, but his best performance turned out to be a semifinal showing at Wimbledon.
Murray played more offensive than ever before, hitting big with his forehand, serving and volleying, and stretching Nadal out of position with his compact two-handed cross-court backhand.
Nadal's ailing right knee, which forced him to retire in the third set, had little to do with the outcome.
"His serve was unbelievable with my chances, at 30-all, at 0-30, with the break points," Nadal told reporters. "He's doing really well, and I think he has a big chance to win this tournament."
Nadal is supposed to be gone for a month with the knee injury, and his ranking dropped to fourth Monday. If he's out longer than expected, a tumble to fifth -- or worse -- isn't out of the question as the season develops.
Can you imagine a Federer-Nadal quarterfinal at Roland Garros?
Semifinals: Roger is a comedian
When Federer obliterates opponents, like he did against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 90 minutes, it gives him more time to chat courtside. Better for us.
The Swiss turned comedian in a five-minute interview with Jim Courier on Friday night.
First up was how much he works in the offseason.
"It's all talent. I don't work," Federer began, drawing laughs from the crowd at Rod Laver Arena. "I just sit on the couch. All I do really is take care of the kids."
On facing Murray in the final: "I know he'd like to win the first [major] for British tennis, for what is it, 150,000 years?"
About an hour later in his news conference, Federer turned more serious, piling the pressure on Murray and taking a shot at his game, not for the first time.
"I think he really needs it more than I do," Federer said. "So I think the pressure's big on him."
Murray, speaking to British reporters Saturday, claimed the barbs were "irrelevant." But later, he added, "If every time he loses to me he thinks it's because he hasn't played his best, well, every time I've lost against him I don't think I've played my best, either."
They still don't like each other.
(Federer had the last word, on the court, Sunday.)
Final: Serena is an all-time great
Justine Henin was playing only the second tournament of her comeback, and she'll get even better as the season progresses.
But Williams, far from her best, too, proved for the umpteenth time how big her heart is.
Williams saved a flurry of set points and won the first set, which was vital given she's never lost a match at the Australian Open when taking the opener.
She struck a horrible-looking passing shot, sent a serve past the baseline and lost 15 straight points from the end of the second set to the start of the third. Earlier in the second, Henin reeled off eight consecutive points. Did we mention Williams had a bad hamstring, calf, ankle and wrist?
When it really mattered, though, Williams came out firing early in the third.
"She's a champion," Henin told reporters. "She plays the right shot at the right time."
Williams racked up a 12th major to pull into a tie for sixth with one of her mentors, Billie Jean King. Next on the list are Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18, quite a leap.