And yet, while Djokovic and Williams undoubtedly were the headline performers and a pair of admirable champions, others distinguished themselves ?Down Under? in different ways. Let?s examine the most significant developments of a major that kept us captivated across two weeks through many long afternoons and evenings. I enjoyed it immensely.
DJOKOVIC?S CHAMPIONSHIP RUN
One of Novak Djokovic’s primary virtues has long been his physical durability. He comprehensively prepares for every major, comes in ready to systematically wear down his opposition, and knows that, with the exception of Rafael Nadal, no one can expect to stay with him over five sets at Grand Slam championships. Djokovic is a consummate professional, a man who leaves no stone unturned in pursuit of his highest goals, a player who recognizes the value of relentlessly hard work, a proper diet and the right set of priorities. At 27, he is at the height of his powers, neither too young nor too old to produce his finest work, seldom at a loss to figure out what it will take to drive himself deep into the heart of majors.
But Djokovic met some misfortune this year on his way to Melbourne. He was sick when he played the exhibition event in Abu Dhabi and had to default the final to Andy Murray. He then lost to the ever problematic Ivo Karlovic in the quarterfinals of Doha. He should have had a hard and productive week of practice leading up to the start of the Australian Open, but that was not the case because he was still not feeling well.
Djokovic had a rather easy journey through a draw that was not unkind and did not lose a set on his way to the semifinals. In the penultimate round, Djokovic collided with Stan Wawrinka, and they waged a five set confrontation for the third year in a row on the hard courts of Melbourne. The Djokovic-Wawrinka duels in 2013 and 2014 were magnificent, with the Serbian gaining a victory at 12-10 in the fifth set two years ago and the Swiss reversing that outcome a year ago, taking that riveting skirmish 9-7 in the fifth.
This time around, the standard was not as great. Wawrinka was never that sharp off the ground or on serve. Djokovic returned beautifully but he was out of sorts emotionally and his ground game was not as solid as usual.
Clearly, there were portions of this match that were magnificent. But it was also an oddly uneven encounter, especially from the standpoint of Djokovic. Only once in five matches over the course of the tournament had he lost his serve, but Djokovic was inexplicably vulnerable against Wawrinka on his delivery. Djokovic was broken five times over the first four sets, and he did not exploit leads with his customary sureness and efficiency. In the opening set, he lost his serve to trail 3-4, broke back immediately, held for 5-4, and then had 15-40 to run out the set. Wawrinka served his way out of the first set point skillfully, but Djokovic missed an easy forehand on the second.
He won that set in a tie-break and was off and running, but not for long. At 2-3 in the second, down break point, he double faulted. Wawrinka took that set. In the third, Djokovic was leading 3-0 with a break point for 4-0, but allowed the Swiss back to 3-3. He managed to break again at the end of that set to take a two sets to one lead, and then was ahead 2-0 in the fourth. Once more, Djokovic did not put down the clamps. He lost his serve in the third game needlessly and had Wawrinka down 0-40 in the following game. Wawrinka played a couple of superb points for 30-40 but Djokovic made an abysmal forehand unforced error on the third, and Wawrinka was back to 2-2. The Swiss took that set, and there they were again in a five set collision.
Djokovic played a very good fifth set while Wawrinka collapsed to a degree. The Serbian prevailed 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 but not before putting himself through too much anguish. At 4-0 in that final set he was screaming at himself, fed up with squandering so many opportunities before eclipsing a less than top of the line Wawrinka. Djokovic won that match not with inspiration but more so with perspiration and an instinct for survival. That put him into the final against Andy Murray.
I thought it was a remarkably absorbing title round meeting. Djokovic was determined to raise his record to 5-0 in Australian Open finals, and fully committed to garnering an eighth Grand Slam title. He had already beaten Murray in two Australian Open finals (2011 and 2013), although he had lost to the British player in the finals of the 2012 U.S. Open and in 2013 at Wimbledon. So this was their fifth head to head appointment in a Grand Slam final. Djokovic wanted it badly, but Murray had his own reasons for placing such a high priority on winning this one. He was 2-5 in major finals, with three of those losses occurring at the Australian Open. A victory here would put Murray in that elite group of competitors who have won three of the four Grand Slam events, a cast that includes Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Arthur Ashe, John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Mats Wilander, and Ivan Lendl.
Djokovic was looking to make history of his own on an even larger scale. He is a member of the three major club, but by winning an eighth Grand Slam tournament he would join Fred Perry, Rosewall, Lendl, Connors and Andre Agassi, and that is great company. Djokovic and Murray played a whale of a tennis match, and the first three sets of this gripping clash showcased the backcourt game in the brightest light. Their speed, range of shotmaking, offense, defense, court craft, geometrical acuity, and layers of resilience was nothing short of astonishing. Let?s recollect the crucial plot twists and turns that determined the outcome of a monumental battle.
Djokovic had established a 4-1 first set lead before Murray broke back in the seventh game. In the process of breaking again for 5-3, Djokovic fell awkwardly on his right thumb when up at the net contending with a Murray passing shot. The Serbian won that point and served for the set in the ninth game, but he was preoccupied with the thumb and played a somewhat timid game. Murray deservedly broke back. Djokovic had the thumb sprayed at the changeover. They went to a tie-break. In that sequence, Murray was up 4-2, but double faulted. Djokovic advanced to 5-4 but Murray put away a swing volley without hesitation. It was 5-5.
The next exchange may have been the crucial swing point of the entire match. It commenced with Djokovic making one of his patented stretch returns off a wide serve to the forehand in the deuce court. He sent that ball back deep down the middle. Murray would work his way into the net, only to be forced back by a superb lob from the Serbian. Murray approached the net for a second time in that point. Djokovic could not get much on his passing shot. Murray had a relatively easy forehand volley, but he punched it long down the line. To be sure, Murray faltered at the end of a point he fundamentally controlled, but the fact remained that Djokovic had defended tremendously, as only he can. The Serbian made Murray win the point three times. Murray was not up to the task. Murray missed a second serve return off the backhand with Djokovic serving at 6-5 in the tie-break. Djokovic had salvaged the set with tenacity and temerity.
In the second set, Djokovic seemed physically compromised as he fell behind 2-0, leaning over after points as if he had lost his legs, looking uncomfortable and apprehensive. But he found his strength swiftly and won four consecutive games to lead 4-2. Ready to serve at 4-3, two holds away from a commanding and probably insurmountable lead, Djokovic had to wait along with Murray while some protesters delayed the match. That delay was damaging to Djokovic, not to Murray. Murray quickly broke back, held for 5-4, and even had a set point in the following game after Djokovic had led 40-0.
Djokovic would not acquiesce. He held on, had three break points in the following game, but now Murray ably stood his ground. The tennis at the end of the set from both players was ineffably good. But Murray had the larger energy supply in the tie-break, which he won easily. Djokovic seemed physically on the edge at the start of the third set, falling behind 2-0 again. Yet he fought through his difficulties and Murray played one loose game on his serve to allow the Serbian back in. Djokovic rallied from 0-2 to 3-2 before Murray held one last time.
The next game was critical for both players. At 3-3, Murray had a break point that might have given him a considerable lift. Djokovic came forward and made a nifty backhand angled drop volley crosscourt, keeping that shot low. Murray chased it down with alacrity, but he had to go over the high part of the net. Djokovic had the shot covered, but never had to play a volley as the arduous Murray passing shot found the net. Djokovic never looked back from there, sweeping nine games in a row to complete the victory, winning 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0.
It was a match that Djokovic could not afford to lose. He came into the Wimbledon final last year with a 6-7 record in major finals, and now he has taken his last two title round matches at the Grand Slam events, raising his record to 8-7. Djokovic had to overcome some serious physical issues in the second and third sets. It was a much sterner test than the score would indicate. What strikes me more than anything else is that Djokovic did this despite deep concerns about his conditioning.
The skeptics speculated that Djokovic might have been resorting to gamesmanship, feigning an injury when he was really feeling fine. I don?t subscribe to that notion. He was obviously suffering in some way. I am convinced that the reason he was weakened was the struggle he had with his health before the tournament. It caught up with him in the end because he had to go five sets with Wawrinka and four hard sets with Murray. Under normal circumstances, he would have been much fresher and fitter down the stretch, but this was anything but normal.
I believe he was genuinely exhausted and baffled by how he felt. But even if the skeptics were right and Djokovic was resorting to gamesmanship, why would Murray fall for it? He has been around too long to let a very familiar rival deceive him and throw him off his game. The bottom line is that Murray was sorely agitated from the moment he lost the first set, mocking himself at the changeover, carrying on senselessly about his plight at subsequent changes of ends. It is time for Amelie Mauresmo to lay down the law of the land and insist that Murray stop drifting into that wasteland. Lendl made it absolutely clear that he would not tolerate any outburst directed by Murray at his courtside support group, and Mauresmo must now demand the same.
Be that as it may, Djokovic was the better man in the final, and the emphasis should be on his stellar and clutch play rather than Murray’s advertised insecurities. Murray will move forward from here, and is delighted to be back at No. 4 in the world. Djokovic has lengthened his lead substantially at No. 1. Djokovic convinced me beyond the shadow of a doubt that he has now demonstrated why he is the best returner in the history of tennis, better than Andre Agassi, more impressive than Jimmy Connors. I also feel certain that he will win at least one more major this year and perhaps two. He may very well complete a career Grand Slam this year by claiming the French Open singles crown. Remember that in six of his ten Roland Garros appearances, he has lost to the ironman Nadal, including the 2012 and 2014 finals. Yet he does have four clay court victories in his career over the Spaniard.
Djokovic has set the stage for a spectacular 2015 season. He has now won more Australian Opens than any other man with five, surpassing Federer and Andre Agassi. Only Roy Emerson–who captured six titles in the 1960?s when tennis had not yet gone open– has won more than the Serbian ?Down Under?. The feeling grows that Djokovic is on his way to a banner season.
SERENA?S TRIUMPHANT JOURNEY
It had been five years since Serena Williams had last been the victor at the Australian Open. But she collected a sixth crown this year. As was the case with Djokovic, she was not operating at the peak of her physical powers during this tournament. She was battling a burdensome cold and cough, and apparently a bad back. She had also been concerned about her health in advance of the Melbourne fortnight. Williams was devoid of energy during the Hopman Cup event, requesting a cup of expresso during one of her matches, losing two of her three contests in singles during that exhibition team event.
Williams had her share of struggles all through the Australian Open. She reached the third round without losing a set but then dropped the first set against Elina Svitolina before restoring order. In the round of 16, she had a very tough match against Spain?s Garbine Muguruza, the same woman who crushed Serena at the French Open last year. Muguruza came blazing out of the blocks this time and blasted a somewhat subdued Williams off the court in the first set. She had beaten Serena 6-2, 6-2 at Roland Garros, and now she had taken the opening set in Melbourne 6-2 again.
Williams made some important adjustments with her court positioning in the second set, finding a way to absorb Muguruza’s power with more success. Serena moved closer to the baseline, took the ball earlier, and used the angles to get Muguruza off the court. Muguruza had been directing traffic and dictating convincingly in the early stages, taking foot speed out of the equation. But once Williams started pulling Muguruza off the court with more regularity, the complexion of the match changed radically. Williams had not served with her customary pace or precision early on, but at the close of the second set her delivery was markedly improved. She served three consecutive aces and held at love to win the set 6-3.
Nevertheless, the first two games of the final set were hard fought. Muguruza saved three break points in the opening game of the final set, and then had no less than six break points in the second game. Muguruza squandered one of those break points abominably, running through a forehand volley and sending it long. Williams was unyielding on the others. She held on for 1-1, and thereafter was in control, winning five of the last six games to take the match 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. Next, Williams accounted for 2014 finalist Dominika Cibulkova with ease before overcoming Madison Keys in the semifinals.
In the final, she ousted Maria Sharapova for the sixteenth time in a row to take the title 6-3, 7-6 (5). Williams was decidedly better than Sharapova in the first set, but the second set was hotly contested and there was very little that separated the two players. Neither player broke serve in the second set. Both women competed honorably. The level of play was probably the best they have ever displayed simultaneously against each other. But the defining factor in the match was the Williams serve, the best there has ever been in women?s tennis.
In the second set, Williams served 14 of her 18 aces. She won 84% of her first serve points in the match. Remarkably, Williams won only 38% of her second serve points, a tribute to the fierce returning of Sharapova. But Williams was just too good in the tight corners of an exhilarating showdown. Sharapova was excellent off the ground, taking calculated risks, releasing winners that were not born of desperation, making everything she could of her chances. In the end, however, she could not contain Williams. The 33-year-old was the better big point player, the superior shotmaker, the woman who often controlled the tempo of the match despite some bold and big hitting from her renowned adversary.
Williams has moved past Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time women?s ladder with her 19 majors, and is tied with Helen Wills for third place behind Margaret Court (24), and Steffi Graf (22). She will win at least one more major this year, and if she comes through at Roland Garros it would not be beyond her scope to become the first woman since Graf in 1988 to record a Grand Slam. Williams is 19-4 in major singles finals, and has lost to only three players in title round contests: Sharapova once (in 2004), Venus Williams (twice), and Sam Stosur. That is a splendid record. Having put a sixth Australian Open crown in her collection, Serena has surpassed all others in the Open Era among the women. After a disconcerting stretch of three majors in a row a year ago when she did not advance beyond the round of 16, she has now secured the last two. She will almost surely move past Graf in the next couple of years, and my feeling is she will close in on Court. Until she is 35 and maybe even longer, Serena Williams will still control the climate of women?s tennis.
KEYS NOW CLOSER TO THE FOREFRONT OF THE GAME
For a couple of years now, we have been waiting for the enormously capable Madison Keys to make a significant move and establish herself as a front line player in the women?s game. Keys will turn 20 on February 17, and yet she has been displaying her talent significantly ever since the 2013 season. She finished that campaign at No. 37 in the world, and moved to No. 31 in 2014. Last year she took her first career singles title in Eastbourne on the grass, overcoming top ten players Jelena Jankovic and Angelique Kerber in that event.
But coming into this season, she had never been beyond the third round in ten major championships. Perhaps she was just not ready. Maybe she did not always get the best of draws. It is entirely possible that she was still in the process of understanding match play at the highest levels of the game. We too often expect promising players to begin realizing their potential before they are emotionally and physically able to explore those boundaries.
Keys probably fell into that category. She displayed flashes of brilliance periodically but needed time to recognize what it took to compete more favorably. During the off season, Lindsay Davenport started working with Keys, and the former world No. 1 was there in Melbourne as her coach. Davenport has made an immense impact on her pupil already. The exhilarating run of Keys to the semifinals of the Australian Open was outstanding. The leaps and bounds she made across that fortnight were breathtaking.
The first big win for Keys was over two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the gifted left-hander. At 4-4 in the first set, Keys exploded into another gear and broke her opponent at love. She held at 15 to win the set, serving a 116 MPH ace at 40-15 down the T. In the second set, Keys displayed similarly striking qualities as a competitor. Down 4-5, she held at 15, buoyed by an ace that gave her 40-15. Keys broke Kvitova at 30 and then held at love without missing a first serve to complete an uplifting victory over the No. 4 seed. In the last three games, she took 12 of 15 points to close out a superb account.
Facing seven time Grand Slam singles titlist Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, Keys once again sparkled down the homestretch. She hurt her left upper leg during this encounter in the first set, which she won. Then Keys lost the second. In the third, Keys was down a break at 1-2, got it back, but then was broken again to trail 4-3. Williams was two holds away from the semifinals. But Keys replicated her late match form against Kvitova, breaking Venus at 30 for 4-4, holding at 15 with an ace out wide, and breaking at love to finish off a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory.
Now Keys took on Serena Williams, and she was every bit as impressive in defeat as she had been in her big wins over Kvitova and Venus Williams. Still hindered perhaps by her leg ailment, Keys broke Williams in the opening game at 30, overpowering her iconic opponent with pace off both sides. Keys served an ace for 40-0 in the following game and held for 2-0. She advanced to 3-1. Williams battled back to 3-3 and then both players held to set up a tie-break. Keys had played a terrific set.
In the tie-break, Serena opened with an ace down the T and she surged out in front, serving another ace for 4-1. Williams did not lose a point on serve in that sequence, but Keys adamantly stood her ground, connecting for consecutive aces from 3-6 down. At 6-5, on her third set point, Williams unleashed an unstoppable serve down the T to seal the set. Williams took a commanding 5-1 second set lead, but Keys put up a courageous stand at the end. Serving in the sixth game, she saved seven match points in a nine deuce game and held on. With Serena serving for the match at 5-2, Madison saved one more match point before conceding defeat, bowing 7-6 (5), 6-2.
Keys had gone out entirely in style. She is now stationed at No. 20 in the world and this adventuresome player has opened up a much wider world of possibilities for herself. Keys is one of the most alluring and explosive players in women?s tennis, a big hitter off both sides with one of the best serves in the game. She has the temperament. She’s got the ambition. She possesses the talent. She carries herself with moxie. The Australian Open was the start of something substantial for Madison Keys.
FEDERER FALLS IN THE THIRD ROUND AND NADAL BOWS OUT IN QUARTERFIINALS
Approaching the first major of 2015, Roger Federer was riding high. He had finished 2014 at No. 2 in the world. He had been a semifinalist or better at three of the four majors last year, and had been perhaps a break point away from toppling Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. Many authorities thought he had a good chance to win the Australian Open for the fifth time.
But Federer was beaten for the first time in eleven career appointments against the industrious, solid and persistent Andreas Seppi in the third round. This was a match Federer could well have won, but instead it was a bruising defeat for the 33-year-old. He won more points in this match than Seppi, but on the points that mattered most he was found wanting.
Federer has long been among the sport?s finest tie-break players. He knows precisely how to navigate the pressure packed moments in these sequences, playing the percentages, honing in on the crucial points, imposing himself accordingly. Prior to his meeting with Seppi, Federer had won 369 tiebreaks across his career, losing only 198. But in this confrontation with Seppi, Federer did not exploit leads in both tie-breaks he played in a stunning four set loss.
Having lost the opening set, Federer was poised to make it one set all, bursting out in front 4-1 in the second set tie-break and later serving at 5-3. But he dropped four points in a row. Federer was victorious in the third set and then fought his way into another tie-break again in the fourth. He led 3-1 before Seppi rallied for 3-3 on a double fault from the Swiss. With Seppi serving at 4-4, Federer struck a gem of a backhand passing shot winner crosscourt, inventing his own angle. He was serving at 5-4, seemingly on the verge of a fifth set. But Seppi peppered the Federer backhand to coax a mistake, and then produced a gutsy inside out forehand winner. Serving at match point, Seppi was in trouble. Federer approached on an inside in forehand and Seppi had no margin for error going down the line. But he somehow found a way to get that shot past Federer for a startling and fortunate winner. Seppi came through 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5). Seppi won 144 points and Federer 145 but Seppi outplayed Federer in the tie-breaks and that was clearly and surprisingly the difference.
Will there be lasting implications from that defeat? I doubt it. Federer had such a consistent year in 2014 that this loss won’t throw him that much off stride. He remains highly motivated and is a very young 33. At Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he will make his presence felt.
As for Nadal, he came to Melbourne sorely short of match play. But he did manage to reach the quarterfinals before Tomas Berdych ended a 17 match losing streak against the Spaniard with a resounding 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (5) victory. Nadal never got untracked and was missing badly off both sides. He gave Berdych a great deal of comfort in offering so little resistance over the first two sets. In the third, Nadal played with considerably more verve, intensity, discipline and energy. It was not enough to get him back into the match, but it was a better way to go out after the dismal way he commenced the proceedings.
Nadal will now head out onto the clay in February, and surely he will find his bearings then. By Indian Wells and Miami, the essential Nadal will be back in business, competing at a much loftier level, believing in himself again. When he plays the crucial clay court events in the spring leading up to the French Open, Nadal will really be Nadal once more.
SPORTSMAN OF THE TOURNAMENT
When Nadal took on the American qualifier Tim Smyczek in the second round, most learned observers anticipated a routine victory for the Spaniard. But Nadal found himself pushed down to the wire by the enterprising American on an evening when the Spaniard was sick to his stomach at times and well below par. Nadal won the first set easily but then lost the next two before capturing the fourth. In the fifth set, he was serving for the match at 6-5, 30-0. His first serve landed in but was called out. Smyczek could have let that go and taken a crack at a second serve, but he was not willing to be that pragmatic. He held up two fingers to the umpire, telling him to give Nadal a first serve. Nadal acknowledged the gesture, and the crowd applauded appreciatively. Nadal promptly won the point on the replayed first serve before the gallant Smyczek saved three match points. Nadal closed it out from there, winning 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-5 in this second round match.
This was a singularly admirable gesture of sportsmanship, and very rare in such a situation. Nadal went out of his way to salute Smyczek on the court after the match, and later in the interview room, as well he should have. Smyczek did something that should not be so out of the ordinary in the world of sports, and yet it is. He deserves every bit of the praise he has received for his sense of fair play and decency, and that moment will long be remembered as one of the highlights of a memorable 2015 Australian Open.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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