Thursday, January 24, 2013

Australian Open: Recap at this point

OK, well we’re at the semi final stage in both the men’s and women’s.

The women will be playing soon, but before I get to that, let’s go back to my preview post wherein I covered the women’s side of the tournament like this:

In the women’s?

Serena Williams. She might even lose a set along the way.

At the time Sally Jackson tweeted to me:

Nice analysis but women's tennis is more interesting than just Serena.

And she was right.

I’ve never been a big fan of Williams. Mostly because of things like this:

And this. And because of things like this in her press conference after losing to Sloane Stephens:

Q.  What did you think of the quality of the match before you tweaked the back?

SERENA WILLIAMS:  I don't think my level was high.  I don't know how many unforced errors I ended up hitting, but for sure more in one set than I probably did in the whole tournament.

So I think her level was high.  But as for my end, I mean, you can tell.  You each can say this is definitely not my best match in months.

Yeah Williams was up 6-3 2-0, but you see, she really wasn’t playing very well. Her opponent? Well she was playing “very high” – you have to don’t you know to beat Serena (and of course you also need Serena to play really bad). Every defeat is always like that for Williams. There’s usually an injury or she really didn’t play well at all, unlike her opponent who obviously played the match of her life.

That said, I think the injury – both ankle and back were the key – let’s be honest, Serena Williams doesn’t serve 135km/h if healthy. Sloane played very well, but I don’t see her winning unless Serena twigs the back.

But even saying that – how great is it to see Stephens win? Talk about a breathe of fresh air in the game. Genuine delight, and certainly no flash in the pan. This win probably came earlier than expected, but that’s sport – it’s a test of body as well as skill, and there is many a player who “could’ve won” were it not for an injury. Winners get their body through the match somehow.

OK. Who wins from here? Hard to go past the two top seeds, but as I write this La Ni (or Ni La) just beat Sharapova. That means at least for a quieter match than would have been Sharapova v Azarenka. I’ll go for Azarenka to win her semi in straight sets, and the final in 3.


Here’s what the past 10 days have taught us about men’s tennis:

  1. Novak Djokovic is now a legitimate candidate for the Top 10 of the ATP era.

If we go from 1973 when the ATP began – which is a few years after the “Open era” started in 1968 – it’s pretty easy to reel off the top 8 (the order more tricky):

Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Nadal.

Without any doubt these are the best 8. They own it not just in Grand Slam titles but in time spent as number 1.

But who comes 9th and 10th? Strong cases can be made for Edberg (6 Grand Slams), Wilander (7 Grand Slams), Becker (6 Grand Slams), and maybe Courier (4 Grand Slams). I’d leave Leyton Hewitt out of that top 10 even though he was number one for the 9th longest period, because with only 2 grand slam titles he really didn’t cash in when he was at the top, and I doubt he was ever the prohibitive favourite in any Grand Slam he entered.

Djokovic with (thus far) 5 grand slam titles has to now be part of that conversation. And what really has elevated him into the top 10 for mine is his consistency. By reaching the semi final he has now made 11 consecutive grand slam semi finals. Only one other person has done that – Federer. Third best is Lendl with 10 in a row. So Djokovic is in big company. Incidentally Federer’s record is 23, so Djokovic only needs to keep making the semi finals until the Australian Open of 2016 to tie it.

By making the Quarter Finals here, Djokovic also extended his consecutive run of QFs at grand slams. Lendl had made 13 in a row, Djokovic is now on 15. Federer by beating Raonic took his streak to 35. Which is so long that it’s almost a bit silly. Djokovic will only need to keep making the QF until the Australian Open in 2018 to tie that. He will only be 30 by then, so it is certainly doable, but it requires no injuries and lapses at all.

Djokovic’s defensive play is beyond that anyone else has ever played. He just gets everything back, and gets it back in a manner that quickly turns defence into offence. It is the one area that I think he is better at than Federer ever was. 

At this point I put Djokovic 9th all time ATP era, and he’s only a couple titles away from being part of a top 9 in which his place in the order is up for strong debate.

2.  Generation Next ain’t there yet.

Ryan Harrison was pretty well embarrassed by Djokovic in the 2nd round, and Federer took care of first Tomic and then Raonic. Along the way Gigor Dimitrov lost in the first round as did Goffin. Jerzy Janoicz made it to the 3rd round, which will put him into the top 25 as he didn’t play in the Open last year. Andrey Kuznetsov did very well to beat 11th seed Juan Monaco in the first round, but he was then “bundled out” in the second by Kevin Anderson.

No one really stood up and said, I’ve arrived.

3. Generation Next is coming.

The 3rd round match against Federer was an excellent reality check for Tomic, and also for his critics.

It showed the BIG difference between playing an exhibition match against a jet-lagged Djokovic and playing a Grand Slam match against number 2 in the world. If there is one thing this summer of tennis should remind everyone it is that exhibition matches like the Hopman Cup and Kooyong Classic do not count for anything!

Here’s why – go to the ATP tour website and look at the Tomic-Djokovic match up. It is 3-0 to Djokovic. The Hopman Cup does not count. It is slightly as relevant as a pre-season AFL practice match.

For Tomic it was a big match – good for profile if he wins it, good for sponsorship, good all round. Djokovic was just hoping to have a good hit out and not get injured.

If the match is worth no ranking points, then that is how much it is worth in terms of reality. Sure players like to win, but it is a paid practice match. For Tomic the Hopman Cup showed he was in good form, but the Sydney International was the one that really mattered, and it was also the one that provided the true guide to his form.

At Sydney the highest ranked opponent Tomic beat was Andreas Seppi at number 23. In the Oz Open he beat the number 72 and number 120 in the world. So he didn’t really claim any scalps. BUT he did show he was good enough to be in the top 20.

His game against Federer was very good. He was able to stick with Federer for a number of shots, and probably deserved to win the 2nd set. But in tennis probably deserving doesn’t cut it.

Tomic’s serve is quality, and his forehand is very good. His movement needs to improve, but he is much better than this time last year.

Top 20 must be the goal this year and his game is certainly good enough – he troubled Federer for 2 sets, and while he went away in the 3rd, that is more about age and the difference between tournament best of 3 and grand slam best of 5.

So if you don’t like him, get used to not liking him for a while, because he will rise up the rankings. But it’s tough. How tough? Well after his great summer, where he won his first title, he leaves the Australian Open with only 70 extra rankings points than he had this time last year. To put that in context, he currently lies 765 points behind the number 20 in the world. He needs to play as good has he did this month, every month. And that is hard when you’re a long way from home, and you’re playing on the outside courts.

It is a tough, tough grind to get to the top.

Raonic as well is going to get “there”. He is now number 15 in the world. He reached the 4th round like he did last year, but he now has a couple tournaments where he has to defend points – San Jose which he won last year, and Memphis, where he came runner up. But for Raonic the big prizes are Masters events. At Indian Wells and Miami last year he lost in the 3rd round – to Federer and Murray respectively. With a higher ranking he might get a better draw that will see him face the big guys in the QFs – and every improvement gets him that much closer to the top 10.

His serve is such that in a best of 3 he really can do some damage. If he’s on, he’ll be impossible to break and even if he can’t break his opponent, you’d back him in a tie breaker. Oddly he has only made the 2nd round at Wimbledon the two times he has played it. I can’t see that remaining the case for much longer.

4. Nadal is a big loss, but the top 4 is closer to the rest than it has been

The top 4 seeds made it to the semis, but no one – perhaps not even David Ferrer considers Ferrer a tougher match up for Djokovic than would have been Nadal. But that aside, the QFs played by Djokoivc and Federer were top matches. Wawrinka stepped up and really should have won. A bit of luck, a few line calls… but there’s a reason why Djokovic is number 1, and it ain’t because he has won matches because of a bit of luck and a few line calls.

Similarly Tsonga played all over Federer at times. Federer stole the third set tie breaker when Tsonga’s game seemed bigger and better. Federer’s class rose to the top in the 5th, but Tsonga is coming, and looks like he has decided this is the year. He’ll become number 6 in the world after this – although until Nadal comes back that is effectively number 5. That means he has very good draws in the Masters events, and he has the game to win 2 sets off anyone – and in best of 3 that’s all you need.

The biggest disappointment of the tournament for me was Juan Del Potro losing in the 3rd round. He was my sneaky outsider tip. His loss meant Andy Murray played Chardy in the QF and, to be honest, by that stage Chardy had done his dash. At 25 Chardy will certainly rise up the rankings, but he was never going to challenge Murray in the way that Del Potro could have. But to win a QF you got to first get there, and Del Potro didn’t.

OK the semis:

In last year’s semi final Djokovic beat Ferrer  2-6 6-1 6-4 6-2. And if I had to predict the games scores as well as the result, I’d go with that line again. 4 sets. Sportsbet has Ferrer at $7.10 which is just stupid, and almost worth a punt. $7.10 in a two horse race? Absurd, especially when Ferrer is 5th best in the world.

The Federer-Murray one is juicy. Murray has hardly been stretched. He played Simon in the 4th round when Simon was physically exhausted just by getting out of his chair to go do the coin toss, and Chardy was not a great guide.

In the past the key aspect would have been does Murray have the mental game to win at this level. After the Olympics and US Open that question no longer arises (though I think it still will when it comes to Wimbledon). Since the Olympics, they have met twice – Murray won in Shanghai, and Federer won in London. These two are very even but Murray is slight favourite with the bookies and I think he should be. This has 5 sets written all over it. I think Murray will win, even though (as ever) I’ll be hoping for Federer.

I just think had Murray been playing last night against Federer he would have won, so Federer will need to play better than he did in that match (getting in more than 61% of his first serves would be a good start).


Anonymous said...

I was at that US open final you're showing video from (one of only a dozen Australians based on the noise from the crowd).

Not sure if you got it from television but Serena's outburst really turned the crowd against Stosur. The crowd were openly booing Stosur (it was on the 10th anniversary of September 11 so they were particularly patriotic) and were the worse behaved I have ever seen for a tennis match I have attended.

Given how it plays to her favour on home turf I can see she gets pretty big advantages to behave that way.

Still, I think it's a bit hard to say "Winners get their body through the match somehow". I think her success shows enough to prove she is a winner.

Steve 1 said...

The problem with Serena for me is that she has always seemed fairly graceless in both victory and defeat. I also think her back gave out because she was trying to hit the ball too hard throughout the tournament in an endeavor to intimidate her future opponents. The thing about being over 30 and playing sport is that you need to learn to play within yourself and win.

Greg Jericho said...

Anon - Serena is definitely a winner. I'd say her, Navratolova and Graf can fight over who is the greatest all time.

That US Open final is why I have no idea why Stosur chokes like she did. She overcame the most amazing moment, held strong and won. Why oh why can;t she always do that??!