grades for the Australian Open:
Oz: The Bs, the Cs, the D
Posted 02/04/2009 @ 6 :05 PM
More than most major sporting events, Grand Slams linger in the mind. That’s due first off to their length, and to the sheer amount of tennis that our brains must process in that time. Do you remember the first-week classic between Fernando Gonzalez and Richard Gasquet? I’d forgotten all about it until just now. But Slams also linger because there’s so much weight attached to each of them by players and fans. When we look back at any tennis season, a good 80 percent of its historically significant events will have been crammed into the eight weeks in which the majors were running.
So before we leave Oz and begin to consider what’s happening at Viña del Mar—a tournament that always looks cool on TV, perhaps the only one that qualifies as sultry—I’ll draw up one more report card from the last fortnight.
In general I prefer to watch the women of Serbia rather than the women of Russia. While the Russians’ athleticism and fierceness is undeniable, Ivanovic and Jankovic move and swing a little more smoothly: they seem like tennis players first, jocks second. In the past it was the same with Safina, who always looked clunky, red-faced, and angry when I happened to catch one of her matches.
I’m still not drawn to her game, especially her serve, but I admit there’s satisfaction in seeing her slug her heavy shots—even when she chokes—rather than push the ball back or motor around all day and grind her opponents down. She’s also developing an intriguing, if unfortunate, persona as a terminal second-fiddle: Younger sister to a star, French Open finalist, Olympic silver medalist, Aussie Open finalist. Her current ranking fits her to a T for the moment, and she even admitted after the final that the thought of becoming No. 1 had made her more nervous. This was clearly not the case with her opponent: When Serena walked over to her box after winning, she had to be reminded by a guy in the front row that she was, “No. 1, baby.” Serena, a younger sibling who has never had much trouble getting out of her older sister's shadow, didn’t seem to have given it much thought.
Still, Safina—by the way, can we go back to saying Saf-EE-na? I can’t get into SAF-ina; it sounds like the brand name of a mattress—has been one of women’s pleasant surprises over the last 12 months. She’s established herself in the WTA’s elite in a short amount of time after living outside of it for so long. As her body’s fitness has improved, her self-belief has jumped along with it. It’s been a gradual process, but Safina, as she proved against Cornet and Dokic here, doesn’t accept losing to the rank-and-file anymore, even when she’s not playing well. That’s the first step to winning a Slam. It may not look like it so soon after she was booted off the court in Melbourne by Serena, but she’s at least positioned herself to win one in Paris. She might surprise us again. A-
There are some things, whatever we do in the off-seasons of our lives, that we can’t change about ourselves. For Verdasco, it's the curse of the shaky serve on the crucial point, of the nerves that seem banished but return from out of nowhere. Otherwise, the guy has improved just about everything else. Like Safina, I’ve never found his game appealing; that is, until his matches with Murray and Nadal in Melbourne. You could do worse than watch tapes of Verdasco’s forehand—the set-up, the balance, the easy-but-full shoulder rotation—if you wanted to internalize the mechanics of the stroke. Too bad, in the end, he’ll be remembered at this tournament for making his friend look even better. A-
There’s too much chatter and more early round Williams sisters—and, sorry to say, Bud Collins—than is absolutely necessary. But the network is covering a tournament that takes place halfway around the world and in the middle of our night, and they’re bringing us multiple hours of it—maybe even, I began to think as I watched Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Jie Zheng, too much of it. When we think of how festive and entertaining the Aussie Open seems, where do you think we get that impression? A-
I admire him for continuing to do everything he can just to bang his head against the ceiling known as Roger Federer. But for some reason, his efforts have created one of the most schizophrenic games in history: Biggest serve ever, then pure defense afterward. It should be enough to get him to plenty of semis this year. B
Again, there are some things we can’t change about ourselves. Dementieva had two fatal flaws in Melbourne: Her serve, of course, and having to face Serena Williams, who is better than she is at tennis. B
I thought she was ready to make the final, but Safina was stronger in their semi. Still, Vera played some of the best tennis of the women’s event and didn’t maim herself in the process. B
Her demolition of Jankovic was eye-popping. Against my better judgment, I get the feeling she might sustain that kind of play at a Slam someday. B
He lost another heartbreaker, but he showed more fight in defeat than usual. Maybe too much—I thought some of his fist-pumps were mistimed. Whether or not he learns how to marshall his desire, à la Nadal, Gasquet reminded me again of how much I like to watch him play and how much I wish I’d get to see more of him at the big tournaments. B
History won’t record it, but Serena Williams was down a set in this tournament when one of her opponents had to retire due to illness. Before that, Azarenka brought a confident service motion and a new level of post-contact noisemaking to Melbourne—we’ve left the meager grunt way behind and moved toward the birdcall. Whatever she might sound like, she looks promising. B
You could say that he ran into a buzzsaw known as Fernando Verdasco and there wasn't anything he could do about it. Or you could say that his feel-your-way-into-a-point style, while nice to look at, gives those saws too much room to buzz. I'll just say that if he wants to hang with Federer or Nadal, losing these kinds of matches is no longer an option. B-
You can pretty much repeat what I said about Murray for Jankovic. She gives her opponents too much room to get hot. That's OK if you want to reach the semis of 30 tournaments, but it's a bad way to make your way through seven rounds in a row. B-
Along with tears and heat, this was a sub-theme of the Aussie Open: Bad old habits die hard. Berdych simply overpowered Federer for two sets—he could have won them by more lopsided scores—then let the elements distract him just long enough to turn the tables on himself. Or, more likely, his nervousness about finishing the match made those elements harder to ignore. B-
While ESPN brought out the Aussie Open’s vibrancy, TC made it look like any other event. The network obviously doesn’t have the same kind of resources, and it didn’t have the same access to the best matches. But it could still find a better-matched commentating pair than the oil-and-water team of Martina Navratilova and Bill Macatee. B-
She's gone in the opposite direction from Safina since their French final last year. Maybe her strokes are too low margin, maybe she doesn't have the killer instinct after all, maybe she was out of shape, maybe she has too many distractions and possibilities and doesn't need to be great. C+
He can be a cagey competitor when he wants to be, but Djokovic can also walk into the ring with the tennis equivalent of a glass jaw. Heat or no heat, he has a habit of looking for reasons to lose when events start to go against him. At the moment, it’s hard to imagine him winning a major this season. C+
Juan Martin del Potro
The Argentine is also a cagey and intelligent competitor, as long as the stage isn’t too big or the opponent too famous. His quarterfinal night match against Roger Federer was both. C
Gasquet showed more fight, while his countryman, despite playing as well as he’s ever played, showed less than ever. How long does it take an injury of "the mind" to heal? Probably not before the end of Monfils’ career. D