NOVAK DJOKOVIC TAKES ELEVENTH MAJOR
The 28-year-old Serbian captured his first Grand Slam singles championship eight years ago in Melbourne, and nowhere else on the premier stages of the sport has he been more prodigious. He secured his sixth title this time around to move past the renowned Bill Tilden into a tie for fifth place on the all time men’s major title list behind Roger Federer (17), Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal (14) and Roy Emerson (12). Djokovic now stands on the same platform as the redoubtable Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg with eleven “Big Four” prizes. Moreover, he is tied with Emerson with his six triumphs at the Australian, although Emerson amassed all of his crowns in the 1960’s before the advent of Open Tennis.
Djokovic will undoubtedly recollect this latest championship run most prominently in the eye of his mind for three crucial reasons: his harrowing fourth round collision with the Frenchman Gilles Simon, the semifinal victory he recorded over Federer, and his final round meeting with Andy Murray. All three of those wins were defining moments for the world No. 1. Let’s start with Simon.
In my tournament preview, I referred to Simon as a “perpetual pest”. He has an almost singular capacity to defend, to frustrate bigger hitting adversaries with his uncanny ball control, hit no pace shots off both sides, cover the court with alacrity, and demonstrate the subtlety of his game. The No. 14 seed Simon has not beaten Djokovic since way back in 2008, but this mid-day contest turned into a long and arduous afternoon for the favorite.
Across five hard sets, Djokovic made no fewer than 100 unforced errors against the guileful Frenchman, who won a total of 174 points in that clash. One of the chief reasons why Djokovic was so prone to mistakes was Simon’s persistence in prolonging the rallies, to make Djokovic hit those exasperating extra shots. But Djokovic also erred inexplicably on easy second serve returns and standard shots he would normally handle with ease. Djokovic ultimately prevailed 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in four hours and 32 minutes, but every set was a struggle. The first set lasted 58 minutes. In the second set, Djokovic was zero for eleven on break point opportunities, and then played an abysmal tie-break. He made hard work of the third set after opening up a 3-0 lead, but muddled through it. He wasted chances in the fourth set, squandering a break point for 4-2 with an errant return of serve, letting a 30-0 lead get away at 4-4. Even in the fifth set—which featured his finest backcourt play of the day—Djokovic served for the match at 5-1, had two match points in the following game, and then finally got the job done with a love hold at 5-3.
Djokovic clearly was out of sorts against Simon, pouting repeatedly, acting as if it was all beneath him, and allowing himself to get entangled in too many protracted exchanges when he could have taken matters into his own hands. But, despite his uncharacteristically inconsistent play and surprisingly negative attitude, his survival instincts got him through it and he deserved the victory. He then ousted Kei Nishikori in straight sets two days later, wasting no energy. And that set the stage for Djokovic’s appointment with Federer.
By then, Djokovic was back at the very top of his game. He commenced that contest with two of the finest sets of his career, sweeping aside the Swiss Maestro 6-1, 6-2. He never permitted Federer to find a comfort zone, taking control of rallies with superbly controlled aggression, returning serve with laser-like precision, serving with astonishing accuracy. In those two sets, Djokovic made a mere six unforced errors while connecting for 17 winners; Federer committed 24 unforced errors and had 11 winners. I don’t think I have ever seen Djokovic hit the ball better, although he came very close in his final round demolition of Rafael Nadal a few weeks earlier in Doha.
Against Federer, Djokovic was masterful. Seldom if ever has Federer looked more rushed in the rallies. Djokovic may have caught his adversary off guard with his offensive onslaught. He was beating the Swiss to the punch almost every time, not relying much on defense at all, and setting the tempo almost entirely. To be sure, Federer did not have a great serving night, but his opponent deserved much of the credit for that. The Djokovic returns were searing, unrelenting, and enormously consistent. Federer was harried throughout. Even in the two games he held during the second set, Federer was down break points.
Djokovic might well have won in straight sets had Federer not fended him off admirably in the third set. The Serbian had a break point for 3-2 and let Federer escape despite good openings for passing shots, and then Djokovic was broken for the only time in the match. Federer came through with some bold ad court returns to garner that break, although Djokovic had three game points. That set went to Federer, but then the match shifted indoors. Djokovic came out of a 0-30 deficit in the first game of the fourth and never looked back, breaking Federer for 5-3, serving it out at love to win 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
The serving statistics tell a good part of the story of this match. Djokovic finished at 67% on first serves while Federer was at 57%. The victor won 77% of his first serve points; Federer was uncommonly low at 61%. Djokovic won a remarkable 66% of his second serve points, 17% better than his opponent. All in all, it was a sublime performance from Djokovic as he took the lead in his career series with the Swiss at 23-22. He finished with 20 unforced errors, 31 fewer than Federer. Djokovic was virtually letter perfect against his iconic rival. The crowd in Rod Laver Stadium erupted when Federer fashioned his third set comeback, but Djokovic commendably tuned them out and closed out the account honorably in the fourth set.
In the final, Djokovic obliterated Murray in the opening set. After saving a break point in the opening game, Djokovic swept the next five games and 18 of 21 points to reach 5-0. He took that set 6-1 in precisely 30 minutes. The last two sets were much tougher. Djokovic gradually shifted to a more defensive mode while Murray opened up off both wings and hit out more freely. But, when the chips were down, on the points that mattered the most, under the harsh light of pressure, Djokovic was not to be denied.
The Serbian broke for 4-3 in the second set but Murray got it back. At 4-5, Djokovic was down 15-30, but took three points in a row as Murray imploded with a forehand unforced error, an overanxious netted backhand and a passing shot mistake. Then, at 5-5, Murray led 40-0 but Djokovic made one terrific return after another and refused to miss a ball, collecting five points in a row for the break. At 40-30 in that game, Djokovic was a brick wall from the back of the court, winning a 36 stroke exchange. Serving for the set, Djokovic was ahead 30-15 when he served consecutive double faults to give Murray a break point chance. Yet Djokovic restored order swiftly, coaxing a backhand error from the No. 2 seed. Djokovic held on for the set.
Murray seemed spent early in the third as Djokovic grabbed the early break. Djokovic led 3-1 before Murray drew level at 3-3. They proceeded to a tie-break. Murray served two double faults in that sequence while Djokovic released a pair of aces. The Serbian was victorious 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3) to raise his career record to 22-9 against Murray, including wins in eleven of their last twelve duels. More importantly, Djokovic is establishing himself unequivocally as a big match player and now is 11-8 in major finals, having won five of his last six title round contests in Grand Slam events.
Where does he go from here? It is hard to imagine Djokovic not winning at least one— and more likely two— more majors this year, including his first French Open title. By the end of 2017, he should have 15 majors in his possession. That would place Djokovic only two behind Federer, as long as the Swiss does not manage to take another big one himself.
This much is certain: Novak Djokovic is steadily elevating his historical stature, and he only enhanced his reputation with the way he came through in Melbourne.
ANGELIQUE KERBER STUNS TENNIS WORLD
At 28, this immensely appealing German had seemingly found her niche as a player of importance. For four years, from 2012-2015, she had finished every season among the top ten in the world; once in that span, in 2012, she concluded the year at a lofty No. 5. To be sure, Kerber has been first rate in many ways, working inordinately hard, fighting with quiet ferocity against all of the leading players, finding a level of professionalism that few players could equal or surpass.
But Kerber never seemed likely to win a major. She is an outstanding defensive player, perhaps the best in the business with the possible exception of Agnieszka Radwanska. She can compete against anyone, and yet she is not the kind of competitor who can take matters lightly when facing those ranked below her.
That was amply demonstrated in the opening round of this Australian Open when Kerber confronted a tenacious Japanese opponent named Misaki Doi in the first round. Kerber was down match point before rallying to win in three sets. She then marched through the draw confidently, and upended two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals for the first time. Remarkably, Azarenka had never lost to Kerber. In this confrontation, Kerber took the first set but then Azarenka was up 5-2 in the second set. She served for it twice, and had five set points, but Kerber thwarted her rival to win in straight sets. She then won her semifinal, but the pundits overwhelmingly believed Kerber would not topple the prohibitive favorite Serena Williams in the final..
Serena, after all, had won 21 of her previous 25 major finals, losing to only three players: her sister Venus Williams (2001 U.S. Open and 2008 Wimbledon); Maria Sharapova (2004 Wimbledon); and Sam Stosur (2011 U.S. Open). Williams is a player born for the big occasions. But she had not played a tournament match since her bid for the Grand Slam in 2015 ended with a semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci at the U.S. Open.
Nevertheless, Williams stormed into the final in Melbourne without losing a set over the fortnight, casting aside Sharapova and Radwanska with powerful and top of the line performances. Williams seemed poised to win her seventh Australian Open; in that setting, she had never lost a final. In turn, only once in six previous meetings had she lost to Kerber.
But the left-handed Kerber played perhaps the match of her life to oust the 34-year-old American. Her strategy was well devised. Kerber was going to run down every ball, give nothing away,, make every return she could, keep her shots deep without much pace, and make Williams realize that this was going to be a clash of styles and a hard fought battle. Kerber must be saluted for two other things as well: she kept Serena guessing with the direction of her serve, particularly in the deuce court, going out wide to the forehand at some critical moments. And she went on the offensive periodically, using her forehand down the line skillfully, going behind the American to catch her off balance.
Kerber moved ahead of Williams 3-1 in the first set before Serena battled back to make it 3-3. But Kerber was cagey and resourceful in closing out that set 6-4. Williams raised her game markedly in the second set. Having made 23 unforced errors in the first set, Williams reduced that number tremendously in the second set to only five. She never even faced a break point in that set. It went to Williams, 6-3.
In the third set, Kerber regrouped quickly to move out in front 2-0, but Williams reached 2-2. The best and most exhilarating tennis of the evening was when Williams served at 2-3. There were five deuces in that gripping game. Twice, Kerber released scintillating backhand down the line drop shot winners. This was enthralling stuff from both competitors. Kerber finally got the break and held at love for 5-2.
Williams fought back valiantly to take the next two games. Serving at 4-5, she came from 0-30 to 40-30, only one point away from a 5-5 deadlock. But Kerber was unshakable. She went down the line off the forehand opportunistically, drawing a forehand error on the run from Serena. On the following point, she sent a series of forehands crosscourt before taking her next shot down the line, extracting another mistake from Serena. At match point down, Serena came forward and missed a routine forehand volley long. Kerber had exploited the vulnerability of Williams at the net on the conventional (rather than drive) volley. It was a fitting conclusion to an absorbing contest.
Commendably, Kerber made only 13 unforced errors across the three suspenseful sets, while Williams had 46—although half of her’s were in the first set. Moreover, the serving statistics were decidedly in Kerber’s favor, a development no one would have envisioned. Kerber put in 55% of her first serve, with Williams at 53%. More surprising was this: Kerber won 73% of her first serve points with Serena at 69%. And while Kerber won only 47% of her second serve points, Williams was down at 42% in that category.
In any event, Kerber must be deeply admired for her exploits. In 32 previous major tournament appearances, she had never been to a final. Now, in her first title round contest at a Grand Slam event, with nearly every authority expecting her to lose, Angelique Kerber cut down Serena Williams. That was no mean feat. The German now resides at No. 2 in the world. She has indisputably earned that distinction.
MILOS RAONIC BACK IN BUSINESS
The year 2015 was a time of turmoil and sadness for this dedicated craftsman. The 6’5″ Canadian was riddled by injuries and the second half of his season was sorely disrupted. He had foot surgery, missing the French Open. He had to cut his season short at the end of the season with a thigh injury, missing out on the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. It was a very tough time for a young man determined to reach the top.
But he commenced his 2016 campaign on a high note, overcoming Federer for only the second time in the final of Brisbane. At the Australian Open, the 25-year-old looked like a largely transformed player. He had often seemed ill at ease in the past when he approached the net. He did not always appear to be that comfortable executing either the forehand or backhand volleys. His backhand ground stroke was a weakness.
In Melbourne, Raonic delighted longtime followers and newfound fans with his vastly improved game. He attacked frequently and effectively. He now can serve-and-volley efficiently and even naturally, and approaches the net more persuasively. He handles the low volley with greater dexterity. He anticipates much better in the forecourt altogether. And his backhand ground stroke—particularly his down the line two-hander and his slice down the line off that side—are much improved shots.
Raonic knocked out 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka in a five set, fourth round skirmish. After Raonic’s two set lead was erased by the Swiss No. 2, the No. 13 seed played an outstanding fifth set to win 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3. He then accounted for Gael Monfils in four sets. In the semifinals, Raonic collided with Andy Murray, and the tennis in that encounter was crackling. Raonic attacked intelligently. Having served-and-volleyed 57 times against Wawrinka (winning 37 points), Raonic had appropriate respect for Murray’s return. He served-and-volleyed only 19 times (winning 13 points), against the No. 2 seed.
Meanwhile, Raonic sparred beautifully with the British player from the baseline. He built a two sets to one lead but eventually fell 4-6, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2. Raonic was clearly hampered down the stretch by a leg injury, saying later he hurt it in the middle of the third set, but still he nearly pulled off a four set triumph. Serving for the fourth set at 5-4, Murray trailed 15-40 but he emerged unscathed from that corner and closed out the set. Murray might well have won in five even if Raonic had been fully fit, but there was no chance for the Canadian in that final set in his compromised condition. He could not properly launch himself into his serve and changing directions from the baseline was entirely too difficult.
Still, Raonic will make his presence known in a far reaching way over the course of this season. The Australian Open marked only the second time that he has advanced to a semifinal at a major. That territory will become increasingly familiar for him in the months and years ahead. He is now a complete player, exceedingly well rounded, ever expanding. He has the game, the gumption and the deep determination to reach a major final in 2016. In fact, he very nearly achieved that milestone in Melbourne,
JOHANNA KONTA SURGES FORWARD
When the Australian Open fortnight began, Johanna Konta was unseeded, and in danger of bowing out early. She drew No. 8 seed Venus Williams in the first round. That was no simple task. But Konta—who made a surprising run to the fourth round of the 2015 U.S. Open—struck down Williams in straight sets. She went all the way to the penultimate round of the tournament, and acquitted herself well against Kerber. Konta was down 3-0 and two service breaks early but won the next four games. She moved ahead 4-3 and 5-4 on serve before the wily Kerber prevailed 7-5, 6-2.
Konta, 24, carries herself with dignity and unmistakable confidence. She has demonstrated in the last two majors a growing belief in herself. Against Kerber, appearing in her first major semifinal, Konta never looked the least bit intimidated. I like her playing style a lot. She has that ” easy power” off her forehand side, ripping winners almost effortlessly. Without swinging too hard she can create impressive power. Her two-handed backhand is penetrating as well. Her serve could improve but she can win free points with it.
Konta is now stationed at No. 28 in the world. She should be a seed at the French Open and other majors. Her run to the semifinals of the Australian Open was no accident.
THE MATCH FIXING CONTROVERSY
On the eve of the 2016 Australian Open, media outlets from all over the world exploded with stories about match fixing in tennis. Television stations, newspapers, radio and web sites were all covering the story because of a story done by the BBC and BuzzFeed News. The story said that 16 players—all ranked in the top 50 at one time—were involved in the fixing of matches. They reported that singles and doubles champions from Grand Slam events were involved. No specific names or dates were mentioned. The charge was that seedy gamblers had approached players at hotels, offering money for these competitors to deliberately throw matches or sometimes sets. In some cases, the players were offered $50,000 to go along with these schemes.
Some of the names were later leaked, including, of all people, Lleyton Hewitt, the retiring former world No. 1 player. Supposedly, Hewitt was suspected of losing to Stan Wawrinka in a Davis Cup match on purpose. Can you imagine that? Anyone who has even remotely followed Hewitt’s career is well aware that his competitiveness and undying fighting spirit have made him who he is. No one has fought harder, tried more consistently or competed with more integrity than the unflagging Hewitt. The notion that he could throw a Davis Cup match–or a contest anywhere on the planet under any circumstances—is just plain ludicrous.
Making matters more complicated, there was an investigation following a first round mixed doubles match in Melbourne between Lukasz Kubot-Andrea Hlavackova and David Marrero-Lara Arruabarrena. That investigation is ongoing.
To be sure, this is a serious problem for tennis. The gambling problem is terribly difficult to monitor. Lower ranked players could be very susceptible to dangerous mafia types approaching them. The sport needs to crack down hard on any players who have been involved with match fixing; it threatens the very integrity of the sport, and must not be tolerated.
During the second week of the Australian Open, three members of the Tennis Integrity Board—Chris Kermode (ATP Chairman), David Haggerty (ITF President), and Philip Brook (Chairman of Wimbledon and of the Tennis Integrity Board) held a press conference to announce an independent review of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program (including the Tennis Integrity Unit). It will be led by Adam Lewis QC.
They reviewed for the media that in 2008 tennis created the Anti-Corruption Program and the Tennis Integrity Unit. Kermode said, ” It is unprecedented that seven stakeholders of tennis have come together so quickly with one purpose, and that’s with the sole aim to restore public confidence in our sport. All of us, all seven bodies in our sport, believe that with everything in the news and the serious allegations that have been thrown at our sport, that the last thing anyone wants is another sports body investigating itself, which is why we have taken this very bold step to commission a completely independent review.”
Kermode reminded everyone that since the advent of the Tennis Integrity Unit in 2008, there have been 18 convictions of players and six life bans. He later added, ” I’ve seen more lists in the last week of various names and matches.” (All of that was from leaks by the way.) Kermode continued, ” It’s important to point out that having lists, which are mainly compiled by suspicious betting patterns, does not mean corruption. They are a red flag and they are investigated. Personally, I think it’s sort of irresponsible for anyone to publish names, verging on libel.. We believe that any player, until they are proven guilty, should be allowed to play and shouldn’t have their reputation damaged at all.”
In the weeks and months ahead, we will see where this leads. But it is an admirable step that has been taken to address what could potentially be a crippling issue for the sport. In the meantime, the authorities including Kermode should be applauded for moving quickly to address the growing concerns surrounding match fixing.
No one should take this issue lightly. But the reporting of this story worldwide was blown way out of proportion. Too many segments in the media jumped to conclusions that are based on widespread speculation rather than facts. Everyone needs to sit back, cool off, and let Adam Lewis do his job. Let’s see where it leads. The initial reporting of the story has created a mass hysteria inside, through and around the fringes of the sport. What is needed is a much more sober approach. If and when that happens, the game will be much better off. I remain optimistic that tennis is headed down the right path after the fitting response during the Australian Open from the authorities.