Andy Murray nearly left early but decided he better stick around to do what he always does and reach the final. Once there, of course, he was reminded that the Australian Open is not his to win – it belongs to Novak Djokovic.
The Serb has moved further into the 21st century than most mortals, defying the known laws of physical strength, elasticity and endurance as well dealing with any impertinent challenges which might cross his path with a mind like a steal trap. Nerves, loss of focus? The Serb, who won his sixth Australian Open title, doesn’t understand the concept.
Amazingly, none of the above applies to Serena Williams. Having lost in the semi-final of the US Open to the little Italian veteran Roberta Vinci, she proceeded to confound prognostications by falling to the rapidly improving German, Angelique Kerber, who became the first from her nation to win in Melbourne since Steffi Graf.
The women’s final was a thriller which Kerber won 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 despite Serena fighting tooth and nail to claw back a break in the deciding set. Angelique’s lovely smile and quick, fun-loving sense of humor made her a host of friends off court was well but Serena came out of it a winner, too. We have seen the youngest of the Williams sisters display moods ranging from expansive ecstasy to walled-in depression over a career of peaks and plunging valleys. But, in defeat, she has never lived up to her name so appealingly as she did here. She was serene.
No matter how much she was hurting inside, it would have been impossible for her to be more genuinely gracious to her opponent. Hugs and smiles on court were embellished with compliments in press conference that sound perfectly sincere.
“I was actually really happy for her,” Serena said. “She’s been around a really long time. We’ve had a number of matches and I’ve beaten her a lot. She played so well today. She had an attitude that I think a lot of people can learn from: just to always stay positive and to never give up. I was really inspired by that. So, honestly, she’s a really good girl. If I couldn’t win, I’m happy she did.”
Spoken like a champion.
But Kerber’s story was not the only fairy tale of the women’s event. Shuai Zhang, a Chinese qualifier who had played in 13 Grand Slam singles draws but never won a round, dumped No 2 seed Simona Halep 6-4, 6-3 first time out and proceeded to fight her way through to the quarter finals after upsetting Madison Keys 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Only then did Zhang falter, getting outhit by the rapidly improving Sydney-born Brit of Hungarian origin, Johanna Konta, who swept into her first Grand Slam semi-final with a 6-4, 6-1 win. Although she insists it has all been a process, Konta seemed to find a crucial switch to flick midway through 2014, resulting in a surge up the rankings which saw her finish the year at 47, an improvement of 103 places on the previous year.
She had beaten Garbine Muguruza to reach the 4th round at the US Open and her hard hitting game proved too much for Venus Williams in Melbourne, earning her a surprisingly decisive 6-4, 6-2 victory. Kerber’s solid baseline game proved too effective in the semi-final but Konta seems poised for further improvement.
But to return to Murray and his family who seemed to attract most of the drama that swirled around an unusual two weeks in some form or another. Andy came into the event stating firmly that he would be on the first plane to London if Kim showed any signs of giving birth to their first child. Even on the eve of the final? “Family comes first,” said Murray flatly. And he wasn’t joking. The nightmare scenario for tournament director Craig Tyley came perilously close to reality on the eve of the final when he was told Murray was going to be on the flight he had booked for that Saturday night – having received less than re-assuring news from home.
It was hardly surprising that Andy’s mind was in such turmoil that, having reversed that decision and deciding to stay, he couldn’t sleep. So he surprised everyone, not least his brother, by returning to Melbourne Park at midnight to watch Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares win the doubles over Daniel Nestor and Radek Stepanek.
“What are you doing here taking photographs?” asked Jamie in that scolding tone elder brothers adopt towards a junior sibling. “You ought to be in bed!”
Andy probably didn’t need telling that but the day had been a disaster with the normally meticulous preparation with Amelie Mauresmo and the support team shot to pieces. Murray had spent much of it in ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ mode on the phone to Surrey.
The emotional roller coaster that the outwardly dour Scot had been riding all fortnight had been dramatically exacerbated when Murray was playing Joao Sousa in the third round on Margaret Court Arena. Over on Rod Laver, his father-in-law Nigel Sears, who is also Ana Ivanovic’s coach, collapsed during Ana’s match with Keys.
Play stopped for twenty minutes while Sears was administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and driven off to hospital. Unsurprisingly, this did little for Ana’s concentration and she lost to Keys 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Judy Murray informed her son of what had happened as he came off court and he jumped straight into a car for the hospital. He was there the next morning, too, and, even as Sears’ condition improved, it remained a worrying time for the whole family, not least Nigel’s pregnant daughter back in England.
With a father-in-law in hospital and a wife about to give birth on the other side of the world, it would have been difficult to conjure up a more stressful path through a Grand Slam championship and it revealed a great deal about Murray’s strength of character that he managed to battle his way to a fifth Australian Open final.
If he needed a little slice of luck to do so it came in the form of an unfortunate injury to Milos Raonic who strained a groin muscle in the third set of their dramatic semi-final. Having won the ATP title in Brisbane – albeit over an ailing Roger Federer – Raonic looked like a serious title contender as he surged into a two set to one lead, off the back of his massive serve and vastly improved volleying.
But Murray was making a serious match of it before the Canadian’s injury, not least with a second serve that turned from a liability into a weapon that brought him two aces and several winners through precise placement. Afterwards Roanic pronounced himself heartbroken and it was easy to understand why. But, if he can stay fit, this giant athlete with an intellect to match will be hammering at the door of the Top Four as the year unfolds.
By the time Djokovic and Federer reached their allotted places in the semi-finals, both men’s form in the previous rounds had made predictions less obvious than might have been expected. The Federer Express had been flowing more smoothly down the tracks than the suburban trains which rattle between Melbourne Park and the vast Melbourne Cricket Ground. Only Grigor Dimitrov had managed to take a set off him and his 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 demolition of sixth seeded Tomas Berdych in the quarters left his army of admirers drooling.
Djokovic, on the other hand, had not looked particularly impressive while beating Italy’s Andreas Seppi 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 and then turned in a very strange performance against Gilles Simon whom he eventually managed to beat 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. Incredibly, the fleet-footed, smooth hitting Frenchman, who offers very little pace, induced no less than 100 errors off the Serb’s racket and Novak was very relieved to get off court with his crown intact.
But if Federer was hoping for a hangover from that performance, he was quickly disappointed. Djokovic hit him with two almost perfect sets of tennis, winning them 6-1, 6-2 and, had it not been for Roger’s talent and determination, it could have turned into a huge embarrassment.
As it was, Federer ripped enough backhands down the line and came up with enough great first serves to climb into the match and take the third set 6-3. He still seemed to be in it when he finished off one of the best rallies of the tournament with a glorious backhand winner on the run deep into the fourth. The Rod Laver Arena went wild but the ecstasy was short lived. Incredibly, Djokovic proceeded to win the next eight points to close it out 6-3.
The tournament’s strange happenings continued to the very end with Bruno Soares writing himself into the history books. Not content with becoming the first Brazilian man or woman to win a title at the Australian Open when he and Jamie Murray clinched the doubles after 1.00 am on the Sunday morning, Soares, fortified by coffee after a sip or two of champagne, returned to the court in the afternoon to help Elena Vesnina claim the Mixed doubles crown over Horia Tecau and Coco Vandeweghe. In doing so Soares achieved the rare, but not unique, feat of winning two Grand Slam titles in one day.
So it was a fascinating Australian Open, only partially mired by the wild over reaction to a betting story, deliberately planted for maximum effect one day before the start. The BBC, strangely willing to become publicity agents for the betting website Buzzfeed, dredged up all sorts of rumor, innuendo and partial fact – almost all of it several years old – to smear an entire sport.
The reaction was pretty instantaneous. After one truncated press conference, the game’s leaders returned in the second week, united like never before, to announce the appointment of a British QC to investigate the workings of the Tennis Integrity Unit with nothing concealed.
“Everything that Adam Lewis comes up with will be revealed,” insisted ATP boss Chris Kermode. “We have nothing to hide. We recognize the threat and the need to be extra vigilant and we will be.”
Amen to that.