The Australian Open is done, and so is daily coverage of tennis at Attacking The Net… for now.
This is still a major-tournament-focused blog. We hope to branch out in the coming months, but at the present time, our resources only enable us to cover the majors in full. We will provide Sunday or Monday recaps of some of the more important non-major tournaments during the tennis season.
As we say goodbye to Melbourne, here are the 10 stories that rose above the rest Down Under:
10 – KYRGIOS AFFIRMS HOW GOOD HE CAN BE
The last teenager to make multiple major quarterfinal appearances on the ATP Tour was this guy named Federer. (Nadal reached his second major quarterfinal just days after turning 20, in case you were wondering.) Nick Kyrgios showed just how much energy he has in his five-set win over Federer-slaying Andreas Seppi in the fourth round. Kyrgios defied the normal rules and expectations concerning the use of energy in a match. He had enough juice to berate himself for over three hours… and still play with the focus and vigor needed to outlast a veteran opponent who took a two-set lead. That’s uncommon for any 19-year-old athlete. Kyrgios will certainly need to improve his return game and carry himself better on court. Yet, there is a MnEnroenian quality to Kyrgios: Anger does not hijack his level of play; it seems to bring out his best tennis. Will this dynamic continue in the coming years? Regardless of the answer, it will be fascinating to watch.
9 – AZARENKA AND CIBULKOVA MAKE TANGIBLE GAINS RELATIVE TO THE WTA FIELD
The two non-champions in the women’s tournament who made strong steps forward were Victoria Azarenka and Dominika Cibulkova. Azarenka’s calm and decisive win over Caroline Wozniacki in the second round showed that the injuries of 2014 are a distant memory for her. Azarenka, with accumulated match play and continued health, should round into form on tour and become the force she once was, or at least something very close to it.
Cibulkova defeated Azarenka in a fourth-round match that was one of the best clashes of the whole event for either gender. The main question for the purveyor of “Pome!” is if she can play a full season of quality tennis instead of running into a roadblock come the summer.
The rest of the WTA field offered stories defined largely by disappointment, with a few exceptions such as semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova (who doesn’t want to meet Maria Sharapova anytime soon). Angelique Kerber, Sabine Lisicki, Jelena Jankovic, and Ana Ivanovic were among the first-round casualties in the women’s tournament. Petra Kvitova reinforced the notion that if she’s not on a lawn, she’s going to be gone sooner rather than later at a major. A lot of WTA players have some regrouping to do at Indian Wells and then in Miami.
8 – NISHIKORI, RAONIC, DIMITROV, AND THE LONG ROAD AHEAD
The three players who hope to supplant the “Big Four Plus Wawrinka” on the ATP Tour were all made aware of the fact that as 2015 begins, they have not closed the gap on the men they wish to emulate in terms of championship-level success.
Kei Nishikori should be less troubled by his result in Melbourne than Milos Raonic or Grigor Dimitrov. Nishikori encountered Stan Wawrinka on a day when the Swiss hit his world-class backhand with a maximum of both precision and power. So it goes. Raonic should be a little more concerned, given that his movement and court positioning were so clinically exposed by Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Dimitrov showcased his athletic and artistic talents against Andy Murray in a very entertaining fourth-rounder, but losing the fourth set after having a set point at 5-2? That’s a reminder of how weak Dimitrov’s mental game remains at this stage in his career. If you were to bet on one of these guys making a major final in 2015, Nishikori is the clear choice. Yet, in the same breath, it’s also hard to expect Nishikori to reach that standard in the absence of a favorable break in a major-tournament bracket.
7 – FEDERER, BERDYCH, WAWRINKA AND NADAL — THEY ALL HIT A WALL
The great champions of men’s tennis and the two semifinalists at this year’s men’s tournament all ran into limitations of one kind or another.
Roger Federer surely realizes that his cluttered and compressed offseason was a mistake, after he looked mediocre in consecutive matches against Italians at this tournament. Simone Bolelli bothered Federer for a set and a half, but Andreas Seppi took out the Swiss in four sets. The result is, when viewed narrowly, a huge disappointment for Federer, given that Rafael Nadal would not have been his semifinal opponent (we think…). However, in a broader context, the one-off outcome against Seppi is easy for Federer to dismiss. The man needs his rest, period.
For Nadal, the story is similar. The 28-year-old just needs to recuperate and re-establish a base of fitness following his bout with appendicitis. As long as Nadal stays healthy and grows stronger, he should be ready to defend all his points from the clay season, including his title at Roland Garros. If he does that, his season will be on track heading to Wimbledon.
For Wawrinka, a semifinal result as a defending champion is a strong testament to his staying power. That said, Wawrinka’s utter inability to hit very makeable shots in key scoreboard situations against Novak Djokovic in a poorly-played semifinal from both men will rate as a considerable disappointment. It was as though Wawrinka’s tennis was so good against Nishikori in the quarters that he had very little magic left in his next match.
For Berdych, the ability to snap a 17-match losing streak against Rafael Nadal is quite important. It showed that Berdych can play patient and thoughtful tennis when he needs to. That’s a huge realization for him to make. However, in the semifinals against Andy Murray, that focus on patience seemed to linger to the extent that Berdych stepped off the gas and was unwilling to punish short balls. The essence of Berdych’s career can be found in the fact that after winning a 77-minute first set, he went away in each of the next two sets, squandering all the work he had done. That’s classic Berdych, an indication of why this immense talent has reached only one major final, like so many of his peers in the top 12 of the ATP rankings.
6 – A SPLASH OF COLD WATER FOR THE WTA’S NEW WAVE
Last year marked the ascendancy of Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep as forces to be reckoned with on the WTA Tour. Both women made major finals and reached the semifinals of separate majors. They performed well and competed better than they performed.
At this tournament, they both turned in discouragingly impotent quarterfinal performances against Russians — Makarova for Halep, Maria Sharapova for Bouchard. How these young talents handle life as a target in 2015 will be one of the foremost stories to watch in women’s tennis.
5 – MURRAY MOVES FORWARD
The fortnight Andy Murray experienced in Australia was not transformative. This wasn’t a whole new Murray — he still grumbled and groused and complained his way through an erratic performance in the final against Novak Djokovic, and he once again left his fans with that familiar “coulda shoulda woulda” vibe. However, for all the ways in which he remains exasperating, Murray has once again become a player who resembles the formidable 2013 version more than the diminished 2014 version. Under three months ago, Murray was torn to shreds by Roger Federer at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. These past two weeks in Australia, Murray reached his eighth major final, which shows how much he overshadows all of his non-Big Three peers in men’s tennis.
The main hurdle Murray has to clear, of course, is the Big Three, especially at a major. Until he defeats a Big Three foe, Murray’s recovery from late-2013 back surgery won’t be entirely complete.
4 – GIMME THE KEYS, PLEASE
Nick Kyrgios had his coming-out party against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last year. The breakout player of this tournament was clearly Madison Keys, who is — without question — the American tennis player with the brightest future and the highest ceiling of potential. Whether or not that potential is realized is another matter, but Keys owns more upside than anyone else in the stable of young American tennis hopefuls. That much is certain.
Keys doesn’t merely own easy power in her groundstrokes. Her serve is a massive weapon, something which differentiates her from much of the WTA Tour. If she had stayed healthy at this tournament, imagine what she could have done. (Of course, if Serena Williams had been healthy at this tournament, it’s scary to consider what SHE might have achieved.)
No, one should not say that “If Keys doesn’t obtain X number of Y achievements, her career will be a failure.” It’s much, much too early to engage in that kind of expectations game. However, it’s quite fair to say that Keys owns many of the tools and resources that a major champion owns. Don’t expect her to make more major semis this year, but she ought to be able to make her way to many round-of-16 matches in the tournaments she plays. That seems like a reasonable place to set the bar for her at this point in time.
3 – SHARAPOVA’S SHARPNESS
The tennis community really, really wants to see a few matchups in 2015. In men’s tennis, it’s Nadal versus Murray at a non-clay major. Wawrinka-Nadal, with both men healthy, would also rate as a foremost example. In women’s tennis, the return of Victoria Azarenka begs for a few matches: One is against Petra Kvitova, preferably at Wimbledon. The other is against Maria Sharapova in any location.
Azarenka has been the WTA player who could push Serena Williams better than anyone else on tour. Maria Sharapova has often been blasted off the court by Serena, making it reasonable for pundits and commentators to say that Azarenka is the better fighter than Sharapova.
At this Australian Open, however, Sharapova offered fresh evidence that she can fight even against her nemesis. The second set of Saturday’s women’s final was the best set of tennis in the whole two-week event for either gender. Sharapova’s lack of service yips, combined with a persistently aggressive game, showcased the very best the five-time major champion had to offer. If this Sharapova sticks around, she’ll ditch the “ClayPova” moniker… because she’ll be relevant again on other surfaces.
2 – THE DJOKOVIC RESTORATION
The story of Novak Djokovic is a story of restoration. Ivan Lendl owns a spectacular resume — it’s a first-world tennis problem to have that body of achievement — but the Czech was 8-11 in major finals. A year ago, Djokovic was 6-7 in major finals following a loss to Nadal in the Roland Garros championship bout. Djokovic needed to solve end-stage major matches. Stan Wawrinka very generously enabled Nole to return to the finals in Melbourne, but once there, Djokovic put his foot down in the final 1.5 sets against Andy Murray. He’s now 8-7 in major finals and has a few more prime years in which to collect lots of major trophies. Sure, he still looks anything but elegant on the court, but his survival skills remain better than those of everyone else on tour save Nadal.
The past several years of men’s tennis have witnessed Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal chasing history to the highest mountaintop.
Novak Djokovic is now in that chase — third, sure, but on the mountain just the same — after bagging an eighth major in Melbourne.
1 – SERENA’S TENNIS HEALTH
The dimension of Serena Williams’s 19th major title (her sixth in Australia) that will always remain in the public memory is that she played tremendous tennis while sick. She overcame a tormentor, Garbine Muguruza, coming from a set down. She cooled off a hot player, Dominika Cibulkova, with a ridiculous display in the quarters. She fended off Madison Keys in a quality first set in the semifinals.
Then came the crown jewel: A five-time major champion, seeded second, played about as well as she could play in a championship match. Maria Sharapova gave her very best — as a competitor, but also as a performer — in Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night.
She still got straight-setted.
By a sick, coughing, hacking opponent.
That, folks, is the power of Serena Jameka Williams.
We shall not see her like again.