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Steve Flink: Australian Open 2017 Retrospective

As the first major tennis tournament of the year, the Australian Open is the opening bell for all of the leading players, a chance to begin a season in style and an opportunity to secure a major prize and set the tone for a stellar campaign ahead. It is always an intriguing fortnight.

This year, however, was the most startling major we have witnessed in a long time. Three of the four singles finalists seemed to have only a remote chance to be there when the proceedings commenced. The two best players in the world—No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 1 Andy Murray—were ousted in the second and fourth rounds respectively. The top ranked woman and No. 1 seed Angelique Kerber was knocked out in the round of 16 after looking ill at ease the whole tournament. Surprises occurred abundantly. Improbable runs turned into impossibly triumphant journeys. It was a stirring time for fans, players, and journalists alike. Here are the people and highlights that stood out for me from a riveting tournament.

FEDERER'S ASTONISHING VICTORY

Roger Federer had not played a tournament since Wimbledon last summer. He prepared for the Australian Open by competing in the Hopman Cup, winning a couple of matches on that exhibition stage, losing a close and exceedingly well played encounter with Alexander Zverev. He had no reason to even dream of winning the tournament when it started. No reason at all.

And yet, Federer confounded all of the authorities and shocked even himself by taking the top honor and claiming an 18th major event more than 54 months after capturing his last Grand Slam tournament at Wimbledon in 2012. Federer established himself at 35 as the oldest man to win a major since Ken Rosewall at the Australian Open in 1972. Rosewall was 37. He was an eternally youthful player whose grace and elegance were reminiscent of Federer in many ways.

But Federer prevailed over a stronger field, and he did so having missed the last major of 2016 to heal a lingering knee injury. Truthfully, he had no business winning this tournament.

But he could not have been a more worthy victor in the end. After muddling through the first two rounds and unimpressively removing Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin, he found another level in crushing old rival and brittle No. 10 seed Tomas Berdych in straight sets without even facing a break point. He followed with a five set victory in a shotmaking festival against the ever entertaining yet incessantly injury prone Kei Nishikori. He then took apart the beguiling left-handed attacking player Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals before overcoming Stan Wawrinka in a wildly swaying five set contest. Federer won that skirmish after taking the first two sets and dropping the next two.

After the fourth set, Federer took an injury timeout for a groin injury issue—as well as a brief window to clear his head—but when he returned the Swiss remained clearly vulnerable, most notably off the ground. At 1-1 in fifth set, Federer fended off a break point against him with some outstanding defense, and then saved another at 2-2, as Wawrinka inexplicably netted a backhand under no pressure. That giveaway was catastrophic for Wawrinka, who had the winds of momentum entirely on his side. At 2-3, Wawrinka played a dismal game on serve, double faulting it away.

Federer had dodged out of danger. Given that reprieve, he marched to victory 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3, serving with fluidity and precision once he got his nose out in front again at the end. I will analyze the Federer-Nadal final later in this column, but the bottom line is that the Swiss achieved the most significant comeback of his career to topple the Spaniard.

Federer thus garnered a fifth Australian Open championship to go along with his seven crowns at Wimbledon, his five U.S. Opens and his one victory at Roland Garros. The way I look at it, this will be the match he mentions one day as the single most gratifying triumph of his entire career. To overcome his most enduring rival in the final of a Grand Slam tournament after six months away from the game was a staggering achievement. To cut down four players ranked in the top ten was mind boggling. Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open largely against the odds as the No. 17 seed at the U.S. Open in 2002 to conclude a sterling career. Federer was the first No. 17 men's seed to collect a major singles crown since Sampras did it back then.

I can't think of anyone else but Federer who could have gone through a field like this after such a long time away from the game. Both players fully recognized the historical consequences. Had Nadal succeeded, he would have 15 majors in his collection and would stand only two behind Federer. It would have been his seventh victory in nine Grand Slam tournament finals against the Swiss. Nadal would have stood only two majors behind Federer with Roland Garros next up on the calendar.

But now Federer has widened the gap between himself and his most crucial adversary and the Swiss has a comfortable 18-14 lead at the Grand Slam events. I am convinced that Nadal will never catch Federer. Moreover, a slumping Novak Djokovic—beaten in his last three majors after sweeping four in a row—is stuck at 12 majors. He will win a bunch more but 16 may be his limit. No one in this generation will match Federer. I believe Federer has reaffirmed that he must be regarded as the greatest player ever to lift a tennis racket. His win over Nadal was therefore the single biggest triumph in his stupendous career.

SERENA WILLIAMS CLAIMS NO. 23

The year 2016 was predominantly frustrating for Serena Williams. She did win Wimbledon for the seventh time, but was beaten in the finals of the Australian Open by Angelique Kerber and by Garbine Muguruza in the title round contest at the French Open. At the U.S. Open, she fell in the semifinals against Karolina Pliskova. None of these were bad losses by any means and that trio of players all improved tremendously in 2016. But the fact remains that Williams does not expect to be at least a semifinalist in all four majors and only come away with just one title.

That is why she will be so delighted to have come through at the Australian Open this year. By winning on the hard courts in Rod Laver Arena, Williams has moved past Steffi Graf into second place on the all time women's list with 23 majors, and stands only one title away from a tie with Margaret Court. With three more chances to establish equality with Court over the rest of the year, and four more in 2018, the feeling grows that Serena will surely tie and probably break Court's record. Why would she not win another Wimbledon with her game on grass? How could the U.S. Open not belong to her one more time? Who can say she will not defend her Australian crown next year?

In Melbourne, Williams swept through the field without losing a set. She did not even get pushed into a tie-break. In only one set across seven matches was she taken even to 7-5. She did have some good fortune. Pliskova, seeded fifth, was upset by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the quarterfinals, and Serena crushed Lucic-Baroni in the penultimate round. Her sister Venus, the No. 13 seed, defeated Coco Vandeweghe in the semifinals after Vandeweghe had stopped both Muguruza and Kerber. Those upsets all benefitted Serena.

But the fact remains that she maintained high standards all through the tournament, and in the final outperformed not only a sibling but a seven time major singles champion. That final commenced in bizarre fashion with four consecutive service breaks. After Venus held for 3-2, she reached 0-30 on Serena's serve. Serena was not going to tolerate losing four games in a row. After Venus missed a backhand down the line on the run, Serena served an ace. She held on, broke in the following game with a searing backhand down the line winner, and soon closed out the set in the tenth game on serve.

In the second set, Serena gained the essential break of serve in the seventh game. She followed with a trademark love game on serve. Not one of her deliveries came back. Serena had had moved to 5-3. At 5-4, down 15-30 as she served for the match, Serena swept the next three points to close out a 6-4, 6-4 victory.

It was an ideal way to start a season and commence a Grand Slam campaign. Williams lifted her record in Grand Slam tournament finals to 23-6. She demonstrated once more her unassailable qualities as a big match player. Serena Williams is poised to add to her prodigious record across the rest of 2017 and on through 2018. She could not have asked for anything more from herself at the Australian Open.

HOW FEDERER TOPPLED NADAL IN THE FINAL

Most authorities believed that history was going to repeat itself when Federer and Nadal clashed in the men's final. Not only did Nadal own a commanding 23-11 career winning record over the Swiss, but he had won nine of eleven meetings against his old rival in Grand Slam events. Moreover, he was 3-0 over Federer at the Australian Open, including a five set win in the 2009 final. On that occasion, Nadal had stopped countryman Fernando Verdasco in a five hour, 14 minute, five set blockbuster of a semifinal. This time around, circumstances were similar. Nadal fought valiantly for four hours and 56 minutes across five scintillating sets to oust Grigor Dimitrov in the penultimate round.

As was the case eight years ago, Nadal had only one day of rest after his semifinal while Federer had two days off. The script seemed to indicate another absorbing final with Nadal winning again. But perhaps everyone underestimated Federer, perhaps even the man himself. In my view, Federer did not approach the Nadal appointment in a dark frame of mind, but he was bracing himself for another long and perhaps agonizing afternoon. He is not a champion who sells himself short, but he is a realist and he recognized what he was up against, particularly in light of the long stretch he had been away from tennis.

It was a final of fluctuating fortunes from beginning to end, and both players blended brilliance with some bad patches. Would Federer have been in the final had Andy Murray not lost to Mischa Zverev in the fourth round? I seriously doubt it. Facing Zverev in the quarterfinals rather than the world No. 1 offered Federer a very favorable match-up against a player he knew he would beat. His straight set win over Zverev gave him time to regroup for the semifinal showdown with Wawrinka.

As for Nadal, would he have been in the final without Novak Djokovic losing to Denis Istomin in the second round? Even the biggest boosters of the Spaniard might concede that a semifinal with Djokovic rather than Dimitrov almost surely would have been beyond his reach. So both Federer and Nadal were fortunate to have the two best players in the world removed form their paths.

At the outset of the Federer-Nadal contest, Federer was sharper. He won the first set on one service break garnered at 3-3. In the second set, Nadal altered his tactics and elevated his topspin forehand up high to the Federer backhand as frequently as possible. The Spaniard built a 4-0 lead and despite losing his serve once he carried the set comfortably. The opening game of the third set was one of the most critical of the match. Federer coasted to 40-0 but Nadal battled back and had three break points that might well have propelled him through the set. Federer stepped up and met those moments regally, releasing aces every time. All of those untouchable first serves went wide to the Nadal forehand in the ad court. I wondered why Nadal did not try to take that serve away from Federer by the third time he got to break point? Why not alter his return of serve positioning and from the Swiss to go down the T?

Be that as it may, Federer blitzed through that third set after escaping in that opening game, winning it 6-1. It was a comprehensive display of his luminous talent as the Swiss kept swinging freely while Nadal tried unsuccessfully to find a remedy. Nadal, though, was ready for another revival. The dynamic Spaniard broke for 3-1 in the fourth set, reaching 0-40 with a penetrating forehand down the line setting up a forehand inside in for a clean winner. Federer saved one break point but Nadal broke through at 15 as Federer netted a backhand approach volley off a cagey backhand down the line pass from Nadal.

In the following game, Nadal held for 4-1 with a spectacular chopped forehand winner crosscourt in response to an excellent crosscourt backhand from the Swiss. Nadal did not drop another point on serve in closing out the set 6-3. He had forced a fifth set, and Federer went to the locker room for treatment on his groin. The delay did not disrupt Nadal in the least. He broke a disjointed Federer in the first game of the fifth set, struggled but held for 2-0 after saving three break points, and then advanced to 3-1, saving another break point in that fourth game.

At 3-2, Nadal saved another break point and moved to game point, but indecisively struck a forehand crosscourt that clipped the net cord and bounded wide. He lost the next point on a glorious backhand winner from Federer but then, break point down again, Nadal faltered when it counted, missing an inside out forehand wide. He had been only a single point away from a 4-2 lead and that might have been insurmountable for Federer. But now the Swiss was back to 3-3 and absolutely revitalized. He held at love for 4-3. Nadal was deflated and he double faulted to trail 0-40 in the eighth game. The Spaniard surged back to deuce twice, but was stymied by a beautifully angled backhand crosscourt from the Swiss. Nadal was coaxed into a forehand error as he faced break point for the fifth time in that game.

Serving for the match at 5-3, Federer seemed too conscious of where he was and what was at stake. Nadal went to 15-40 by attacking Federer's backhand and putting away a backhand volley. But Federer aced Nadal down the T for 30-40 and then Nadal missed an inside out forehand. Federer got to match point, missed a forehand long that was unprovoked, but responded with his 20th and final ace of the match for a second match point. His forehand crosscourt clipped the sideline. Nadal challenged the call but knew it was futile. In three hours and 38 minutes, Federer eclipsed his toughest rival 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.

He would say later that he "got lucky". I disagree. He did wander off the reservation of his game briefly in the second and fourth sets as Nadal raised his level, but across the board and over five sets, I have never seen him return serve as well as he did in a match against Nadal. He did not resort to the chip as he so often does, coming over his returns with conviction and getting astonishing depth time and again. Moreover, his backhand during the rallies was magnificent. He went for it freely and was rewarded for his courage. That backhand was golden. Meanwhile, he served beautifully in the first, third and fifth sets, especially on the biggest points.

Federer won this match much more than Nadal lost it, but the Spaniard contributed to his own demise by getting away from the heavy topspin forehand and flattening it out far too often. He seemed to want to slug it out with Federer rather than return to the recipe that has worked so regularly over the years against the Swiss Maestro. Nadal also had problems deciding where to go with his first serve because Federer's backhand returns hurt him so often. He went to the body serve with some success but never found a formula that could keep him out of trouble with regularity.

And so for the first time since 2007 at Wimbledon, Federer beat Nadal in a Grand Slam tournament final. He did it in the most unlikely of ways, winning five games in a row from 1-3 down in the fifth set. In that stretch, Nadal had game or break points in two games, and was at deuce twice in another. The essential reminder about this fifth set was that Federer was simply better on the biggest points. Nadal was more apprehensive. Federer refused to surrender his faith in himself and his chances, no matter what he might have envisioned when he walked on the court, regardless of how daunting his task appeared to be. This was not a match that can be compared to Wimbledon in 2008, the Australian Open of 2009 or a number of other Federer-Nadal duels, including the gripping Italian Open final of 2006.

But if it was not an epic, it was irrefutably a classic. I am certain that one day in the distant future, long after he has retired from tennis, when his mind is clear and he can reflect accurately on his storied career, Roger Federer will put this match right up there at or near the top of his most gratifying victories.

COCO VANDEWEGHE REACHES FIRST MAJOR SEMIFINAL

One of the most compelling matches of the fortnight in the women's draw was the showdown between Coco Vandeweghe and Eugenie Bouchard in the third round. To me it was the most enjoyable match of the entire tournament for the women. Bouchard looked like the player who captivated all of us in 2014 when she finished the year at No. 7 in the world. Her timing and execution from the backcourt were outstanding. Her second serve held up remarkably well. Her return of serve was uncanny at times. She came from a set down to lead 4-2 in the third before a determined Vandeweghe captured five of the next six games to win with her big serve and a large heart to boot.

That victory gave the American the confidence to take apart the defending champion Kerber with surprising ease 6-2, 6-3. She then upended French Open champion Garbine Muguruza even more comprehensively 6-4, 6-0. I believed she would beat Venus Williams in semifinals. Vandeweghe is 6'1, 25 years old, unabashedly self assured, and one of the biggest hitters in the women's game. But in my view she was too eager to display her firepower against Venus. It was as if she was going to prove indisputably that no on in women's tennis could hit a tennis ball harder than she could. She seemed obsessed with proving that point. Vandeweghe took the first set in a tie-break with some stellar play, but Williams rallied to win 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-3.

Vandeweghe would have had a better chance to win if she had stopped slugging and started looking to open up the court more and make Venus do a lot more running. Her obstinacy impeded her progress. She would have given Serena Williams a sterner test than Venus did in the final, but the fact remains that even if Vandeweghe let an opportunity elude her grasp, she still made a significant breakthrough by making it to the semifinals. In 24 previous appearances at the majors, she had advanced to only one quarterfinal. Now she is at a career high of No. 20 in the world. The way I see it, with her explosive game and extraordinary serve, Vandeweghe will be in the top ten by the end of 2017.

DIMITROV CONTIUNUES HIS RESURGENCE

Although the Federer-Nadal final was suspenseful, magnificently fought on both sides of the net and a singularly appealing confrontation that gave the fans a chance to celebrate two icons, the best men's match in my view was the semifinal between Grigor Dimitrov and Nadal. The Bulgarian had won Brisbane leading up to the Australian Open, and he hardly skipped a beat in reaching his second major semifinal in Melbourne.

Dimitrov played perhaps the match of his life against Nadal. After losing the first set, he rallied to take the second before dropping a tense tie-break in the third. But he outplayed Nadal decidedly in a fourth set tie-break.

That set the stage for a pulsating fifth set. Both players had early break chances, and then Nadal found himself in the unenviable position of serving at 3-4, 15-40. Dimitrov was theoretically five points away from the most important win of his life. Nadal had been thwarted so often by Dimitrov's alacrity all around the court and by the Bulgarian's propensity to dictate rallies with outstanding depth and pace, but now the Spaniard reached back with every resource he had to pull himself out of a dangerous predicament. At 15-40, he took his backhand up the line majestically for a winner. Then he went down the line off his forehand, made a delayed approach, and put away a forehand volley. Another forehand volley winner off a hanging backhand from Dimitrov took Nadal to game point, and he held on steadfastly for 4-4 by forcing Dimitrov into an error.

In the ninth game, Nadal broke Dimitrov at 30 by driving a forehand passing shot down the line to set up a backhand passing shot winner. Now serving for the match at 5-4, Nadal was unwavering, as was Dimitrov. The Spaniard at last got across the finish line on his third match point, winning 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4.

Point for point, set after set, from the beginning until the end, this match surpassed even the Federer-Nadal final. I am optimistic that Dimitrov will be in the thick of things this year at the rest of the majors. He is moving entirely in the right direction. "Baby Fed" is growing into his game, working hard to make the most of himself, and learning what it will take to reach the latter stages of Grand Slam tournaments on a regular basis. His performance against Nadal in Melbourne was the best I have ever seen from him. The hope here is that he will realize that he can make a habit out of playing that way.

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