A different kind of trophy ceremony?
One of the byproducts of the stability on the tennis tour is the job of the trophy-engraving guy.
He hasn't exactly had to branch out in recent years. Especially on the men's side, where the same three names have won 32 of the past 35 Grand Slam championships. And as for the women, "Williams" certainly isn't a spelling bee backbreaker. Sure, you have an occasional "Bartoli" or "Stosur" who lands a title, and "Azarenka" is now a common handle, but for the most part, the players are eminently familiar.Well, it seems like Trophy Guy might have to buckle down, because 2014 looks like it could finally be the year of change in tennis. Enter in Dominika Cibulkova, Eugenie Bouchard, Agnieszka Radwanska, Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka. Any one of them could walk away from the Aussie Open with a maiden championship.
Yes, it seems like uncertainty has woken up from years of dormancy.
"Well, I think the older players are excited to see kind of a new group of players," Canada's Bouchard told reporters after advancing to the semifinals. "But for us young ones, it's still tough because they are still playing well. Serena is still dominating, you know, at however old she is. It's still tough for us.
"But I think it makes it really interesting. We've seen in this tournament, there have been some upsets. I think some players can still lose on any given day and it still makes it extremely interesting."
And though anarchy invariably sneaks its way into Slams, the chain of events at this season's first major have been head-spinning.
It started on Saturday, when the Williams sisters dropped out of doubles. The next day, Serena was stunned by Ana Ivanovic. On Monday, Maria Sharapova and the Bryan brothers, who won three Grand Slams in 2013, lost. Then on Tuesday, it was Novak Djokovic's turn to join the family of the fallen. Finally, two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka was escorted out of the Aussie thanks to Radwanska's stellar play.
For all the potential interlopers, no one is more deserving than Wawrinka, who went from being the centerpiece of marathon dejection to pulling off the most significant match of his career in a four-hour, five-set win over Djokovic.
"Well, I think for sure it's a really, really strong generation," Wawrinka told reporters after his nail-biting quarterfinal win. "The top four guys, Roger, Novak, Rafa, Andy -- they have been winning every Grand Slam since many, many years.
"They are just better player than us, than all the rest. They are just amazing fighter, amazing player. That's why they always won everything.
"You have to deal with that. You have to fight. I know that the only thing I can control is what I'm doing off the court: my practice, how I do my schedule. I always try to improve. I always try to find solution to change my game a little bit, to improve, to find solution when I play against the top player."
You have to go back more than a decade ago to find as much ambiguity on the men's tour as we could potentially have now. In 2003, four different players won the Slams: Andre Agassi (Australia), Juan Carlos Ferrero (French), Roger Federer (Wimbledon) and Andy Roddick (U.S.). And that's when any semblance of conjecture ended.
Federer began his assault on the all-time Grand Slam record, Rafael Nadal met his lofty goals starting in 2005 and a few years later, Djokovic transformed himself into a serial champion. And although Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro snuck in three majors, the championship names have fallen short in the variety department.
Of course, the trend of Big Three dominance could very well continue with Federer or Nadal ready to battle each other in a blockbuster semifinal. But there's just this eery feeling things won't be the same on tour in 2014.
As for the women, there's been a larger assortment of winning names, but Serena is still the prohibitive favorite tournament in, tournament out. She's snared four of the past six majors heading into the Australian Open and eight of the past 21, which is still a formidable 38 percent winning percentage.
But she won't be adding to that total, at least not in Melbourne.
Radwanska, who plays Cibulkova in the semifinals, said that even though the top seeds are gone, we shouldn't presume anything.
"Doesn't mean it's going to be easier and you have a title right away," she told reporters. "It means that other players are playing great tennis this week. That's why they beat the top seed players.
"Of course, maybe top seeds are players who are more confident, especially in a Grand Slam, they make much more the semis and the finals. But it's still tough."
But if Radwanska can pull it together, she could very well end up with her first Grand Slam-winning hardware. As to whether her name is spelled correctly, that's on Trophy Guy.
Credit where credit is dueAs the subject of winning and losing badly has become fodder for discussion after Bill Belichick's and Richard Sherman's comments following the Patriots' loss and the Seahawks' win in the NFL's conference championship games, it is worth noting how the world's best tennis players have handled some crushing losses at their first Grand Slam tournament of the season.
With his grueling five-set quarterfinal loss late Tuesday night to Stanislas Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic saw several streaks fall (among them: three straight titles, 28 match wins, including 25 at the Aussie, 14 straight Grand Slam semifinal appearances and 13 wins against top-10 players).
And yet, less than 10 minutes after the loss, Djokovic was in a news conference heaping praise and congratulations on his opponent.
"He deserved this win today," Djokovic said repeatedly. "I congratulate him absolutely. There is nothing I can say. I gave it my best. I gave it my all. I tried to come out as the winner. I tried to fight till the last point as I did in a very similar match we did last year [in the] fourth round, same court, but it wasn't to be this time.
"He showed his mental strength and deserved to win."
Maria Sharapova, who is not generally looked upon as a paragon of sportsmanship with her on-court shrieking, and was further accused of gamesmanship in her eventual fourth-round loss to Dominika Cibulkova, had some thoughtful things to say afterward.
"It's tough," Sharapova said. "I will be genuine about it. It's never easy. We're very big competitors. I think that's why I've been so successful, because of my competitiveness in the past. [But] it's moments like this that ultimately shape you and make you who you are. It's how you bounce back.
"It's easy to be successful. It's about how many times you're able to come back from the tough moments, losses and injuries that really define who you are as an athlete. That's why I'm here. Because I believe I can still be up there. I'm pretty good about perspective."
Top-seeded Serena Williams was also criticized in some circles for honestly answering questions regarding a back injury in her fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic, a defeat that immediately took her out of contention for a calendar-year Grand Slam, something many were predicting for her and she was hoping for herself.
But Williams also seemed sincere in her praise of Ivanovic.
"It wasn't the best," she said of her back, "but it was all Ana today. I thought she played really well. ... [My back] had nothing to do with it. I think Ana just played a really good match. She did what it takes to win."
And then there was 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens, who broke the streak of good behavior with the following comments about her lackluster fourth-round loss to two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka.
"Her aggressiveness didn't affect my rhythm.
"It could have went either way but I didn't win some of the important points. But it is what it is now.
"I guess she played consistent. She played pretty solid. Obviously that's what she does really well. So, you know …"
Yep, we do.
-- Melissa Isaacson