Sunday, January 26, 2014

2014 Australian Open recap: Stan’s the man

So two weeks ago a bloke write a post for The Drum in which he stated:

“But most certain of all is that the men's tournament will be won by one of the top-seeded players.”

Now in my defence I did mean one of the top 10, but yeah, Stan Wawrinka coming through, and being the first player to beat both Djokovic and Nadal in the one grand slam (Federer has a couple times beaten Djokovic and Murray to win, but not Nadal and one of the other) was not really on the cards.

Even prior to the final it didn’t look that likely. Nadal thrashed Federer who had thrashed Murray (really the last part of the 3rd set was a flub) and Tsonga. He looked to be peaking at the perfect time.

It was time to invite Pete Sampras down to hand out the trophy to Nadal for winning his 14th title (and thus equal with Sampras). It’s a tough game, men’s tennis. Best of 5. Can go for easily over three hours. Anything can happen. But c’mon. Put down your glasses.

No one told Wawrinka however, who came out and pushed Nadal around all the way through the first set. He won it easy, deservedly, and confidently.

But we’re talking Nadal here, El toro. The strongest mental player in the game. The come back is possible even probable.

Winning a grand slam though is both a mental and physical test and the body needs to be able to last the 7 matches. And it can go at any moment. A slip, and lunge, a twinge.

And Nadal’s body, which conversely seems built of steel and at times as fragile as rusted iron, was unkind.

His back twigged. A spasm? A muscle pull?

Who knows. But he was off for an injury break after being broken at the start of the 2nd set.

The crowd booed. Spurred on perhaps by Wawrinka taking a bit of issue with the time out, because certainly it was the precise moment if you were going to indulge in some gamesmanship to call for the trainer.

The crowd was perhaps chastened by memories of Azarenka going off in last year women’s final, perhaps as well by Nadal’s rather oddly timed injury time-out in his semi-final against Federer, and who knows, perhaps even recalling Tomic’s quick default in the first round against Nadal.

And you can say they were unsportsmanlike. But tennis has become victim to players using timeouts at opportune times. The crowds know it, and can sense it especially when the other player seems to be thinking it as well.

It was clear though, as soon as the play restarted, that Nadal was injured. And the crowd, perhaps chastened by their own reaction, cheered for Nadal for most of the rest of the match.

Nadal gave Wawrinka the 2nd set with barely a yelp.

But there was no way Nadal was going to quit. You don’t quit in the final of a grand slam. Justine Henin did it in the 2006 women’s final in Melbourne and it rather hung over her. It seemed disrespectful to Mauresmo.

Grand slam finals tennis etiquette  requires even when you are injured to stay out there and get beaten.

And there was no way Nadal was going to quit because backs are funny things… drugs can dull the pain… swinging for winners at every opportunity can suddenly start being a good strategy – especially if you opponent is not quite sure what to do – kill you off, or take pity, or go through the emotions like Wawrinka sort of only needed to do in the second set?

And so it was with Wawrinka. He gifted Nadal a break at the start of the third set. He played like he assumed Nadal was unable to walk, and then when Nadal began to run he played like someone who felt he had been cheated.  Stan the man

For a set he was angry and confused with the world.

The Nadal of the second set was gone, replaced by a bloke playing like there was no tomorrow, because there is none. You don’t win 13 grand slams by leaving anything on the court.

And Wawrinka was a wreck. He had thoroughly outplayed Nadal in the first set, and suddenly was acting like the match had been stolen, instead of him playing like he was up 2 sets to love.

He tried to shorten points despite it being Nadal who wanted each rally to finish as soon as possible. He forgot to make Nadal run. He lost timing, lost game play, lost his head.

The second set was lost by Nadal’s back; the third lost by Wawrinka’s head.

The fourth set though seemed to bring normality back to the court. Nadal was running around, but clearly not able to return with the power needed to trouble Wawrinka’s serve. Nadal was down break points in his first serving game, was at 30-30 in his second.

Wawrinka’s serve seemed solid and it looked only a matter of time before Wawrinka realised the match was there for him to take.

And take is he did, when he broke Nadal easily to go up 4-2.

Start the engraving.

And then he was broken to love.

A truly horrible game. No first serves in, a seriously choked forehand to lose the game.

And so everyone started to wonder if this is going to be the biggest choke of all time. Because, while Nadal deserves the credit for sticking it out, it was clearly on Wawrinka’s racquet and he was literally giving the games to Nadal. Balls hit long, shanked forehands, tight first serves, dumb tennis. It was some of the most awful tennis to watch.

I don’t think there was anyone watching or playing the match who thought if it went to 5 sets that Wawrinka would win. He had to win the 4th. To lose it would have been the most gut searing experience that could have been only worsened by the thought that losing 3 sets in such circumstance is worse than 2, and that he was very likely going to do just that.

Thankfully – because it would have been seriously godly horrific to watch – he again broke Nadal straight away to go up 5-3.

This time he served it out like a man knowing it was his time.

The tournament of the body and mind was won by the man who was able to keep hold of both – even if the mind looked gone for a set and a half.

Anyone who thinks this victory is diminished has no idea how sport works. It’s survival of the fittest. There is many a sportsman or woman going around who would’ve had a great career were it not for injuries.

The body needs to hold up in order for you to hold up the trophy. That’s why you do the training, that’s why you have the insane fitness regimes.

Was Nadal unlucky? Yes. But no less than he was lucky Tomic was injured allowing Nadal to cruise through what was expected to be a tough first round. Pete Sampras was getting easily beaten by Mark Philippoussis in the quarter finals of the 1999 Wimbledon Championships when Philippoussis tore the cartilage in his left knee. There’s no asterisk by Sampras’s name on that trophy, and there’s none next to Wawrinka’s for this one.

The body and the mind both have to hold up.

And so is there a changing of the guard? Not really, but yes. Wawrinka is 28 years old. He is never going to be the big thing in tennis (nor even the next big thing). He is not the new generation – he’s older than Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. But it is a changing of the guard because it should let every other player in the top 10 know that it can be done.

Surely Juan Martin del Potro will one day remember he is good enough to win these titles. Tsonga, Simon, Monfils and others should know you don’t need to win a title by the time you’re 25 or you’re done.

But also the tournament showed us glimmers of the future. Grigor Dimitrov has arrived, and he looks set to stick around. At just 22 he is the first of the next generation of players who have had to realise that the old days of breaking through when you’re 19 or 20 are gone.

The men’s game is now a game for men. He beat Canadian Milos Raonic, and he at number 11 in the world is likely to be the next one to break into the top 10. If both he and Dimitrov can do it this year, then a changing of the guard will be more in doing than in the talking.

For Tomic? Well he had a bad one. Injured and also well beaten in Sydney by del Potro. He now sits at around 65 in the world.

But the year is young. Where he is at the US Open is more important than where he sits now. But he’ll have to put up with playing on the back courts and not being given the top 10 treatment he does in Australia.

So too will the two new guns of Aussie tennis, Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. They now face the reality of men’s tennis. They might get a couple wild cards but the reality is their rankings are such that they will be having to play qualifiers just to get in the most low level of tournaments on the ATP tour. For the most part they’ll be playing on the 2nd tier Challenger circuit. 

Krygios was ranked 183 in the world coming into the tournament and even after it won’t be in the top 150. Kokkinakis is ranked in the top 500. There is a mountain to climb yet.

They both looked great – but tennis is a cruel fight all the way up the top. The talk of Tomic being replaced is possible, but it is worth remembering Tomic has already made it to the top 30. He has shown he actually does have the game to get seeded in the grand slams, and once you get there, it’s up to you to do the work and make your luck. 

Krygios and Kokkinakis by contrast have played a couple good games in a row.

Anyone who thinks it is a guarantee they’ll get to the top should look at Belgian David Goffin. He is 23. In the fourth round of the 2012 French Open he took the first set off Roger Federer. He got up to number 42 in the world as a 21 year old.

He is now ranked 111 in the world.

He last played in the Challenger event in New Caledonia where he had to retire in the 2nd round with an injury, and he wasn’t even able to come to Australia and play in the qualifiers. It won’t matter too much because he was only defending 10 points from last year’s tournament where he got knocked out in the first round.

Potential is great, but the body and mind have to hold up.

And so to the final question that always comes up at any grand slam. How is Federer going?

I think he was playing well enough to beat anyone… except Nadal. Nadal’s game is what would have been created in a lab by the world’s best scientist charged with constructing a player who can beat Federer.

That top spin left-hand forehand to Federer’s backhand is just death. Federer’s weedy arm is just not strong enough to do what Wawrinka did in the final against it.

But the way he played against Tsonga and Murray suggests if the body holds up (that old-man back is always going to be an issue until he retires) he should have a good year. He drops to number 8 in the world, but that won’t matter too much.

Given how few points he has to defend at both Wimbledon and the US Open and a few other tournaments that he skipped last year, his current top 8 ranking is more a victim of time than of how he is playing. He made the semis and there’s no reason to think he can’t get back to the top 4. The trouble is with Wawrinka now top 3 and having the 2000 points from this tournament for the rest of the year, it’ll be hard to shift him. The fight for the 4th spot will be fierce.

Djokovic as well is looking ok. He was probably due a loss, and it took Wawrinka having the fortnight of his life to do it. Murray also looks like once he has a few matches under his belt and few months on the fitness track, he’ll be up there as well, despite his current ranking of number 6.

The status quo is still there for the most part, but Wawrinka showed it can be changed if you play your best and take the opportunities when they present themselves.


The other big thing is this stopped Nadal from getting to 14 grand slam titles. He remains 4 behind Federer. He’ll probably get there, but it is amazing how tough those last few can be.

So here’s the graph of the top grand slam winners (open era). I include tournaments missed, because you gotta turn up to win it.


Nadal is still on pace, but the body can go at any time… you don’t count them till they’re sitting on your mantelpiece.

The next graph starts from when each player won their first title onwards. It shows that Nadal’s peak certainly hasn’t been as dominant as Federer’s. When Federer learned how to win them, he learned how to win them a lot, but time is on his side – not perhaps in ever having as good a run as Federer, but in overhauling his career number of titles. The question is if his body will be for the probably 2 more year needed:



As usual with me this has been focussed on the men’s side. I will endeavour to do something on the women’s game soon (time permitting). Even with Wawrinka’s win, I think you can make a great case that the women’s game has much greater depth than the men’s – and that is a very odd situation given the past 30 years.


Michael said...

The second set was lost by Nadal’s back; the third lost by Wawrinka’s back.

Did you mean Warwinka's head?

Anonymous said...

Nadal faked the injury. He was getting clobbered and it was getting worse at the start of the 2nd set. He was DESPERATE. Desperate enough to give up the set to break Stan's momentum because otherwise it was a lost set and match anyway !

Rafa, is a determined CHEAT. This is evidenced by his constant illegal coaching, taking too much time (which is rarely called), his lil bottle games and his "injuries" always and only when he is "losing" and at the right moments.

It is sickening really. Made sicker by umpires like Carlos Ramos denying Stan his right to know why Rafa left the court and persisting in his intransigence even after the TV announcers themselves said the rules say Stan has a right to know.

Is the sport in conspiracy with Rafa to let him break the rules with impunity.

As a long term tennis fan I am DISTURBED.

Amazing how Rafa suddenly came back from the dead at the very end of the 2nd set to then win the 3rd right ?

All too strange and considering Rafa's past history all too predictable.

Rafa has been CHEATING for many years and I question whether he would have won even half the slam he has if he had been forced to play by the rules.

I think he should be investigated along with the tennis authorities and stripped of his titles if it is determined he won them by being allowed to play outside the rules.

Ethna said...

8222385Apostrophe police alert,Greg.
They got a good airing here...'crowd's', 'semi's'
Great post btw.

Greg Jericho said...

Cheers Michael - the mistakes you make when you write the thing at 12:30 am!

Greg Jericho said...

Thanks Ethna - fixed.

I don't think Rafa was cheating last night. I do think he pushes the boundaries of "gamesmanship" though at times. He certainly likes making players wait.

The third set was not that surprising. He started swinging and going for winners to keep the points short and Wawrinka was still thinking the match was over and then just got annoyed by it all.

The 4th set was a better reflection. Nadal was able to run and hit, but lacked a bit of power on the return, and Wawrinka rightly won.