Commentary

Federer is back, U.S. men falter

Stan Wawrinka stole the spotlight, but that's not all we learned at the Aussie

Updated: January 26, 2014, 11:32 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- After one of the strangest, but ultimately inspiring men's Grand Slam finals in a while, we have certainly learned more about both Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal than we knew before.

We saw a side of Wawrinka's game, both in his victory over Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and particularly in the first set against Nadal in the final, that demonstrated he's worthy of his new No. 3 ranking.

We also discovered more about the guts and perseverance of the No. 1 player in the world. Here are five other things we learned:

1. Stop with the "Fed is dead" stuff

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer proved he is far from done by reaching the semifinals in Oz.
OK, so he can't beat Nadal. He never could and we never thought less of the winner of 17 career Grand Slam titles. The way Roger Federer looked at the Australian Open with the injection of inspiration from new coach Stefan Edberg, more power from his new racket and more energy after getting his past back struggles of last year, there is no reason he can't be back in contention for another major.

Can he beat Rafa at the French? Unlikely. But no reason to count out the King of Wimbledon on the grass courts and who knows after that?

"I feel it's been a good start," Federer said after his straight-set loss to Nadal in the semis here. "I've come from far back. I didn't have surgery like [Andy] Murray had or, like Rafa, the problems had being out for seven months.

"I've played with something that has been going on for a while. This is a step in the right direction, and that's the way I want to go. I have a belief this could be a very good year for me again."

2. The American men? Hmm.

They still don't seem to give us much hope. You have to feel badly for the highest-ranked among them, No. 13 John Isner. He retired from his first-round match here with an injured ankle after skipping the tournament last year with a knee injury. In between, he retired at Wimbledon two games into his second-round match, again because of his knee.

"All the American are working real hard and some had tough draws. … No one is losing to scrubs," Young said. Well, yeah, but that's not much consolation to those of us still waiting for an American to break into the top 10.

3. Maria's boyfriend has a name

Grigor Dimitrov's victory over then world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Masters last spring was his biggest career breakthrough. But now 22, is the guy they call Baby Fed ready to beat the top guys on a semi-regular basis?

At the Australian Open, No. 22 seed Dimitrov certainly had a respectable showing, reaching the quarters where he lost to Nadal in four sets -- one more than he nickname namesake Roger. In fact, though he has never beaten Nadal, Dimitrov has taken a set off of him in each of the four times the two have played, which at this stage has to be encouraging for Dimitrov.

4. Be patient with Djokovic

Yes, we all made a big deal of Stefan Edberg's early influence on Federer's resurgence. But let's be real, Edberg did not teach Federer how to volley the past two weeks or explain what a volley is. The bigger racket and more important, the better fitness level and overall health, has been most responsible for Federer's improved play.

Boris Becker has never coached before, and a few meetings and coaching sessions were not going to automatically push Djokovic past Nadal at the top of the rankings. Djokovic has also won every one of his titles with his previous coach.

The transition will take a while, but count on Djokovic biting at Nadal's heels all year.

5. Wawrinka gives hope to all the wannabees

Juan Martin Del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, we're talking about you. But none of the three appear to be in the same class as Wawrinka at the moment ,and Wawrinka might not want to hang around them lest they rub off on him.

Del Potro, the No. 5 seed who lost in the second round to Roberto Agut Bautista, won the US Open in 2009 but hasn't reached a Grand Slam final or won a Masters event since.

Berdych made it to the quarterfinals here before losing to Wawrinka, but he hardly seems to possess the necessary dimension to his game to break through and win a big one. Tsonga has had injury problems but is not close to the top players' level.

If you want to win a Grand Slam tournament, there is no getting around it. You have to beat at least the top three. Wawrinka beat two of them -- Djokovic and Nadal. Difficult as that it, that's the hurdle for the wannabees.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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