Each Monday morning, I will break down ATP and WTA draws quarter by quarter with a prediction of who may meet in the final and perhaps the semifinals. Fans can look forward this week to three ATP 250 tournaments in Montpellier, Zagreb, and Vina del Mar. The most significant storyline concerns the highly anticipated return of Rafael Nadal in the last of those events, but the other two merit the attention of dedicated fans too.
Montpellier: After a weekend satisfying but exhausting, Berdych travels from a Davis Cup tie in Switzerland to neighboring France and one of his most productive surfaces: an indoor hard court. Clearly the best player in his half and probably the best in the tournament, the top seed might face an intriguing quarterfinal test in Nikolay Davydenko, also proficient on this surface. A champion in Doha last month, the Russian owns a stunning 9-2 record against the Czech. But most of Davydenko’s success comes from before 2010, the year when his decline and Berdych’s breakthrough began. The greatest pre-semifinal obstacle for the top seed probably lies in his ability to recover from the longest match in Davis Cup history, which spanned a remarkable 422 minutes.
As one would expect in a draw littered with Frenchmen (10 of the 24 direct entrants), the home crowd should find plenty of reasons to cheer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second quarter, where Gasquet could meet Monfils in the second round. Both men shone at the Australian Open by their standards, as did occasional upset threat Julien Benneteau. While all of these French stars have faltered on home soil at times, they also can point to notable achievements from Gael’s two appearances in the Paris Masters final to Julien’s upset of Federer at the same event. Like that doubles specialist, the third-seeded Gasquet will bring momentum from a commanding Davis Cup effort on French soil.
Less impressive is the lower half of the draw, spearheaded in the third quarter by Gilles Simon. The fourth seed shares Gasquet’s task of surmounting the compatriots scattered around him. A group that features Benoit Paire, Adrian Mannarino, and Paul-Henri Mathieu includes no challenger of a competitive will comparable to Simon. This Frenchman’s first real test should come in the semifinals against the winner of a tantalizing all-Serbian quarterfinal.
While the second-seeded Tipsarevic has produced much better tennis than Troicki lately, the former arrives from an injury and the latter from a fine Davis Cup performance in Belgium. In a small, fervently patriotic nation like Serbia, rivalries among compatriots can prove more tightly contested than their relative talents would suggest. Hoping to disrupt that projected clash, the aging Michael Llodra seeks to rekindle his former magic from the Paris Indoors with a net-rushing style that reaps rewards on these courts. If Tipsarevic does advance, he will need to reverse a poor history against Simon, not an easy task in view of his unimpressive recent form.
Final: Gasquet vs. Simon
Zagreb: Twice a titlist at his home tournament, top-ranked Croat Marin Cilic has started to knock on the door of the top ten again after an encouraging campaign in the second half of 2012. He holds the top seed in a draw that features several rising stars from the region, including Blaz Kavcic and Aljaz Bedene. The former reached the third round of a major for the first time at the Australian Open in the wake of a five-set, five-hour marathon, while the latter reached a semifinal in Chennai by defeating Wawrinka (more impressive in retrospect) and winning a set from Tipsarevic. If the winner can survive the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis, an exciting quarterfinal with Cilic would beckon.
Among the most notable figures in the second quarter is seventh-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, assigned a difficult opening assignment against serving leviathan Ivo Karlovic. The young player popularly likened to Federer endured a January of extremes that lurched from his first career final in Brisbane to a first-round exit in straight sets at the Australian Open. Beyond Karlovic, another local threat in Ivan Dodig would unleash his first-strike power against the maturing Dimitrov, which should test his focus. The third-seeded Mikhail Youzhny, well past his prime, looks less intimidating in a quarterfinal that could showcase two elegant one-handed backhands.
Another aging veteran in lefty Jurgen Melzer holds the fourth seed in a tournament near his native Austria, where he will attempt to raise his level from an unimpressive Davis Cup display in Kazakhstan. Explosive upset artist Lukas Rosol might test him in the quarterfinals should he survive another Lukas, the eighth-seeded Lacko. The latter Lukas nearly upset Tipsarevic at the Australian Open, so he may fancy his chances against the Czech Lukas or a Polish Lukasz (Kubot), better known in doubles but dangerous in singles with his pinpoint serves and returns.
The bottom quarter may hold the least interest for local fans, since the only Croats received wildcards to compensate for their low rankings. But its two seeds, Martin Klizan and Andreas Seppi, enjoyed their best seasons to date in 2012. Seppi in particular has hinted at building upon that momentum in 2013 by reaching the second week in Melbourne, although this surface does not much suit his patient style.
Final: Cilic vs. Melzer
Vina del Mar: The toast of Chile when he arrived last week, Nadal celebrated his return to professional competition after a six-month absence by basking in a ceremonial welcome from the nation’s president and noted tennis stars. Fans throughout the world, even those who never especially admired him, should welcome the return of a warrior whose presence injects much more intrigue into the ATP elite. While Nadal probably will not find his finest form immediately, he may not need to find it here to win a title on the clay that he relishes so deeply. Nobody in his quarter should muster the nerve to contemplate stopping the Spaniard, including compatriot Daniel Gimeno-Traver and home hope Nicolas Massu, a former Olympic gold medalist.
The only clay tournament in a week otherwise spent on indoor hard courts, Vina del Mar has attracted a host of players from South America and the Mediterranean. Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy will seek to shift his momentum from hard courts to clay, a surface that could reward his asymmetrical baseline game but not his preference for shortening points in the forecourt. The third seed in Chile, this Frenchman might encounter veteran Spaniard and clay specialist Tommy Robredo in the quarterfinals. Or perhaps Chardy will meet Lorenzi, who once nearly upset Nadal in Rome.
Often neglected among Spanish men, fourth-seeded Pablo Andujar occasionally drifts within range of an ardent fan’s radar during the clay season. This week, he could collide with a compatriot ranked just six slots below him in Albert Ramos, who looked rather crisp at the Australian Open in a five-set loss to Baghdatis. South Americans Rogerio Dutra Silva, Leonardo Mayer, and Horacio Zeballos add some local interest without heightening the level of competition significantly.
Like his fellow second seed Seppi in Zagreb, world #12 Juan Monaco produced a season far more productive last year than any before it. A veteran clay specialist, he notched his greatest success last year on hard courts, where he reached the Miami semifinal. But he regained his groove on his favorite surface while contributing to Argentina’s Davis Cup victory over Germany this weekend, and he often has excelled during the February South American clay swing. Fellow Argentine Carlos Berlocq, known as the worst server in the top 100, should pose little threat in a weak section. Can Monaco test Nadal in the final, as he has Djokovic and Murray on clay? We will know better once the tournament unfolds.
Final: Nadal vs. Monaco
I will return on Friday morning to look at the first round of Fed Cup. Ahead on next Monday are previews of ATP events in Rotterdam, San Jose, and Sao Paulo, in addition to a more detailed preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha.
Eight first-round Davis Cup ties unfold around the world this weekend. We discuss the key players and themes that might emerge from each of them.
Canada vs. Spain: Without any of their top three men, Davis Cup Goliath Spain finds itself at a surprising disadvantage when it travels to the western coast of North America. Had either Nadal or Ferrer participated in this tie against Canada, the visitors would remain heavy favorites even against a squad spearheaded by Milos Raonic and aging doubles star Daniel Nestor. Instead, Canada now can rely on two victories from their singles #1 against the overmatched pair of Marcel Granollers and Albert Ramos, forcing Spain to sweep the remaining three matches. Among those is a doubles rubber that pits Nestor against World Tour Finals champions Granollers and Marc Lopez, who lost three of their four Davis Cup doubles rubbers last year. If the tie reaches a live fifth rubber, as seems plausible, Spanish champion Alex Corretja might consider substituting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez for Ramos against the net-rushing Frank Dancevic. Buoyed by their home crowd, though, Canada should find a way to snatch one of the three non-Raonic rubbers and send Spain to the playoff round for the first time in recent memory.
Italy vs. Croatia: This tie should hinge on home-court advantage and the choice of ground that it entails. On a fast hard court, the formidable serves of Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig would stifle the less imposing firepower of the Italians. But Croatia faces Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini on the red clay of Turin, a slow surface where the superior consistency of the hosts should lead them to victory. The visitors will face the intriguing choice of whether to substitute their singles stars on Saturday for a doubles pairing almost certainly doomed to defeat. Three straight days of best-of-five matches for Cilic, Dodig, or both would leave them even more vulnerable to the Italian war of attrition, though. At any rate, the contrast of styles between the fearless first strikes of the Croats and the patient baseline rallying of the Italians should provide entertaining viewing.
Belgium vs. Serbia: One might see Djokovic’s name on the schedule and automatically checking off the “Serbia” box, but a few flickers of doubt persist. First, the Australian Open champion may have arrived physically and mentally drained from his recent exploits, and he has struggled against Friday opponent Olivier Rochus throughout his career. Breaking from a long history of Davis Cup participation, Serbian #2 Janko Tipsarevic cannot step into the breach if Djokovic falters. That duty lies in the suspect hands of Viktor Troicki, who endured a miserable 2012, and in the aging hands of Nenad Zimonjic, well past his prime despite his many accomplishments. Serbia thus might find itself in real trouble if they played a team with a notable talent, like Canada. With just the 32-year-old Rochus and the volatile but unreliable David Goffin barring their path, however, they should advance even if their stars underperform.
USA vs. Brazil: Tennis Grandstand will feature more detailed coverage of this tie over the weekend. For the moment, we will note that Team USA stands in promising position with two serving leviathans on an indoor hard court, complemented by the reigning Australian Open doubles champions. While Isner did not win a match in January as he struggled with a knee injury, and Querrey did not impress in Melbourne, both should steamroll the harmless Brazilian #2 Thiago Alves. In the best-case scenario for Brazil, which would feature two victories for their #1 Bellucci, their doubles duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares still should fall short against the Bryans. All of these Americans have played some of their best tennis on home soil and in Davis Cup, including on less friendly surfaces, whereas Brazil has accomplished little of note in this competition recently.
France vs. Israel: Across from one team that often proves less than the sum of its talents in Davis Cup stands a team that typically overperforms expectations at the national level. Whereas France will bring two members of the top 10 to this tie, Israel can claim no top-100 threat in singles. The fast indoor hard court should allow the offensive might of Tsonga to overwhelm Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, although the latter has developed into a more credible threat over the last several months. In a tantalizing doubles rubber, a battle of all-stars pits Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram against Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra. Underdogs in every singles rubber and arguably the doubles too, Israel can hope for an upset only if Gasquet crumbles under the pressure of playing for national pride on home soil as he has so infamously before. Otherwise, the talent gap simply looms too large.
Argentina vs. Germany: Perhaps the most tightly contested tie, this battle on outdoor red clay will unfold in the absence of Del Potro, who would have given the home squad a clear edge. While Argentina will field a squad of clay specialists, leading Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer have acquitted themselves well on the surafce and should not find themselves at a disadvantage parallel to Croatia in Italy. Much rests on the shoulders of Juan Monaco, tasked with avoiding the daunting 0-2 deficit after Kohlschreiber likely opens the tie by dismissing Carlos Berlocq. The top Argentine here enjoyed his best season to date last year but did not start 2013 especially well. Lurking in the shadows, as he so often does, is long-time Argentine Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian. Argentina will hope that Nalbandian’s contribution in doubles on Saturday will combine with two Monaco victories to give them the points that they need without reaching a live fifth rubber. There, one would favor Mayer to overcome both Berlocq and the Argentine crowd.
Pick: Er, Argentina?
Kazakhstan vs. Austria: In a tie without a singles star of note, the opportunity beckons for someone to seize the spotlight in a way that he could not at a major. The most likely candidate to do so would seem Austrian #1 Jurgen Melzer, the only top-100 singles player on either side. His opponents can produce better tennis than their current rankings suggest, though, and Andrey Golubev already has started the tie in promising fashion with a straight-sets victory over Andreas Haider-Maurer. The doubles edge probably belongs to Austria with the greater expertise of Alexander Peya and Julian Knowle, specialists who will allow the 31-year-old Melzer to rest for Sunday. Excluded from the initial lineup is top-ranked Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin, whose absence will force #211 Evgeny Korolev to win a best-of-five match for the hosts to survive.
Switzerland vs. Czech Republic: While Tomas Berdych is the highest-ranked man in this clash between nearby nations, the most intriguing role goes to opposing #1 Stanislas Wawrinka. After he came far closer than anyone to toppling Djokovic at the Australian Open, the latter may suffer a hangover in a competition where he has struggled lately. Moreover, Switzerland leans on Wawrinka to win both of his singles matches and contribute to a doubles victory on the intervening day, an enormous challenge for the sternest of competitors when the last of those matches involves Berdych. The Czech Republic will not enlist the services of Radek Stepanek, a rare absentee this weekend like Tipsarevic, but singles #2 Lukas Rosol intimidates much more than anyone that Switzerland can throw at him. In the Federer/Wawrinka era, no Swiss team ever has presented the united front that the defending champions have behind Berdych. The medium-slow hard court should not trouble the broad-shouldered world #6 unduly.
Pick: Czech Republic
Having completed the recap of the WTA field at the Australian Open, we issue report cards for the ATP. As before, grading reflects not just results but expectations, quality of opposition, and other factors.
Djokovic: The master of Melbourne like none before him, the Serb became the first man in the Open era to finish on top Down Under three straight years. That record span of dominance over a tournament that famously has eluded dominance came with a satisfying serving (note the word choice) of revenge over Murray, who had defeated him in the US Open final. Consolidating his current control over what looks like the ATP’s next marquee rivalry, Djokovic won his third straight match in it after losing the first set in all of them. Vital to his success was the series of 44 consecutive holds with which he ended the tournament, strangling two of the game’s best returners in Ferrer and Murray. Those top-five opponents managed break points in just two of Djokovic’s service games through the semifinal and final as he repeatedly won 30-30 and deuce points throughout the tournament—with one notable exception in his epic against Wawrinka. The undisputed world #1 survived and then thrived in running his winning streak over top-eight opponents to eleven. Overpowering Ferrer and outlasting Murray, Djokovic showed that he can—and will—do virtually anything to win. A+
Murray: The US Open champion came closer than many anticipated to becoming the first man to win his second major on the next opportunity after his first. Murray admittedly benefited from a puff pastry of a pre-semifinal draw, which allowed him to conserve energy for that five-setter against Federer. Threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the end of the fourth set in that match, he showed remarkable resilience by bouncing back to claim an early lead in the fifth and close out the man who had tormented him at majors. Murray maintained a nearly impenetrable rhythm on serve throughout that match, and his forehand continued its maturation into a real weapon. He will rue the three break points that he let escape early in the second set of the final, which could have unfolded entirely differently otherwise. But Murray was right to consider the tournament an important consolidation of last year’s success. A
Federer: Handed the most difficult draw of the top three, he showed just how well his game can silence players who rely heavily on their serves in ousting Tomic and then Raonic. Federer defended crisply and moved as alertly as he has in years past during the five-set quarterfinal with Tsonga that followed, which unveiled the full range of his weapons from the explosive to the delicate. But his struggles to break serve caught up with him against Murray, whom he could not crack for three and a half sets even as his own serve came under frequent pressure. Probably drained by the Tsonga epic, Federer faded in the fifth set despite mounting an impressive surge to swipe the fourth. He finished the tournament by winning all six of his tiebreaks, a sure sign that he remains one of the sport’s best competitors under pressure. A
Ferrer: Never looking his best during the fortnight, he backed into the #4 ranking rather than charging into it with confidence. Ferrer probably should have lost to Almagro in the fourth round, outplayed for most of the first four sets and kept alive only by his compatriot’s shocking inability to deliver the coup de grace. Thoroughly exposed by Djokovic in the semifinals, he suffered his second humiliating defeat at that stage of a major over the last twelve months as he offered little better than batting practice for the Serb’s weaponry. Ferrer said consistently this fortnight that he considers himself a clear level below the Big Four, and his results against them on grand stages continue to make his point for him. B
Tsonga: The Frenchman slipped to 13 straight losses against top-eight opponents here, but the manner in which he did contained kernels of hope for the season. Not folding meekly to Federer as he had in an earlier Australian Open, Tsonga regrouped from losing the first set in a tiebreak to win the second and regrouped from losing the third set in a tiebreak to win the fourth. He even spared no effort in battling Federer down to the finish in a fifth set tenser than the scoreline showed. Also likely to please new coach Roger Rasheed was his greater efficiency in closing out overmatched opponents in the previous four rounds. Docked a notch for his Neanderthal-like comments about women’s tennis. B+
Almagro: As the percipient Steve Tignor of Tennis.com noted, sometimes a player’s greatest achievement can turn into his greatest catastrophe within a handful of points. Jerking Ferrer around the court for two and a half sets, Almagro astonished audiences by his newfound courage against an opponent who had won all 12 of their previous meetings. He will remember his first quarterfinal at a hard-court major for the wrong reasons, though, once he failed to serve it out three times across the third and fourth sets before succumbing to cramps as well as the crushing weight of his disappointment in the fifth. B-
Chardy: Not only did he upset Del Potro with inspired attacking tennis, but he followed up that five-set victory by grinding out a four-setter against the recently dangerous Seppi. The Frenchman came from nowhere to reach his first major quarterfinal and in the process showed considerable courage. Chardy almost pulled off an Almagro against the Tower of Tandil, gagging on triple break point midway through the third set when he had won the first two. Unlike the Spaniard, he mustered one last surge in the fifth with an unexpected fearlessness to finish what he had started. A-
Berdych: Drawn against the top seed in a quarterfinal for the second straight major, he could not find the same thunderbolts that he had hurled at the US Open. Or perhaps Berdych simply matches up more effectively to Federer than to Djokovic, who has won all eleven of their hard-court meetings. Before that relatively tame four-set loss, however, he recorded four straight-sets victories that bode well for his consistency, always the main question for him. He leaves the Australian Open as the man outside the Big Four most likely to win a major this year, although he will need some help to do so. B+
Del Potro: Through the first two rounds, the Tower of Tandil looked not only sturdy but downright terrifying. Just when people began to take him seriously as a dark horse title threat, Del Potro turned into the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he tottered to the exit in a strangely enervated effort. That five-set loss to Chardy at the end of the first week marked a setback in a surge that started with his bronze-medal victory at the Olympics, departing from his recent steadiness against opponents outside the top ten. F
Tipsarevic: He looked every inch a top-eight seed in dismantling sentimental favorite Hewitt before his home crowd on Rod Laver Arena, where the Aussie had wrought so many miracles before. Striking winners down both lines with abandon, Tipsarevic appeared to make an imposing statement. Then he wobbled through two five-setters and retired against Almagro, not a surprising result for a man who has completed a career Golden Slam of retirements. C
ATP young guns: Heralded with enthusiasm when the tournament began, none of these prodigies left a meaningful impact on the tournament. Brisbane finalist Dimitrov became the first man to exit Melbourne, failing to win a set in his opener, and Raonic succumbed to Federer much more routinely than he had in their three meetings last year. Tomic produced a stronger effort against the Swiss star than he did last year but still lost in straight sets after struggling mightily with a qualifier in the previous round. And American fans need not have watched Harrison’s ignominious loss to Djokovic for long to realize how far this alleged future star must improve before mounting a credible threat. Last but not least, Paris finalist Jerzy Janowicz narrowly avoided a second-round implosion over a dubious line call and rallied to win after losing the first two sets—sets that he should not have lost in the first place. Janowicz did at least progress as far as his seed projected, and many of these young men received difficult draws, but the breakthrough of young stars that many expected here happened almost entirely on the women’s side. C+
Bryan brothers: At their most productive major, they closed within four major titles of Federer by comfortably winning the final after some close scrapes earlier in the fortnight. The Bryans have earned some of their most consistent success in Australia, where they have reached nine finals and five consecutively. Djokovic still has some work to do before he can approach the numbers of these twins whose talents never seem to fade. A
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Undoubtedly the match of the tournament, it represented the high point of Wawrinka’s career to date. The Swiss #2 basked in the spotlight while cracking his exquisite one-handed backhands to all corners of the court and taking control of rallies with his penetrating cross-court forehand. Wawrinka even served at Federer-like heights for much of the match, outside a predictable stumble when he approached a two-set lead. Stunned by the brio of his opponent, Djokovic needed a set and a half to settle into the match. The underdog then needed about a set and a half to regroup from the favorite’s charge, at which point the fourth and fifth sets featured spellbinding tennis all the more remarkable for the ability of both men to sustain their quality. Fittingly, the match ended only after Wawrinka had saved two match points with breathtaking shot-making and only with a rally that forced both men to pull out nearly every weapon in their arsenals. A+
Simon vs. Monfils: Not much shorter than Djokovic vs. Wawrinka in terms of time, it felt considerably longer to watch. This mindless war of attrition featured rally after rally of the sort that one more commonly finds on practice courts, including a 71-shot meander to nowhere that contributed to the inevitable cramping suffered by both men late in the match. If the previous epic offered an argument to keep the best-of-five format, this match argued just as eloquently for its abandonment. Simon, the winner, had no chance of recovering in time for his next match, nor would Monfils if he had won. C-
Men’s final: Not a classic by any means, it compared poorly both to the women’s melodrama on the previous night and to the marathon of the 2012 men’s final. The 2013 edition illustrated some troubling reasons why the Djokovic-Murray rivalry never may capture the imagination to the extent of Federer-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Nadal. Presenting no contrast in styles, these two men played essentially the same games in a match of mirror images that came down to execution in any given situation—interesting but not exactly stimulating to watch. Moreover, they continued to bring out the passivity in each other by showing so much respect for each other’s defense that many rallies featured sequence after sequence of cautious, low-risk shots designed to coax errors rather than force the issue. These tactics worked perfectly for Djokovic, just as they worked for Murray at last year’s US Open, but they left fans waiting for a spark that never came in a match that trudged towards anticlimax. B-
And that is a wrap of the 2013 Australian Open! Up next is a look ahead to the first round in Davis Cup World Group action: all eight ties previewed and predicted.
After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open. Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.
Azarenka: The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many. What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her. Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times. Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price. She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it. When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all. A
Li: Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court. She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title. The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets. Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here. When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness. Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel. And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile. A+
Sharapova: Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week. We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning. That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility. Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance. Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right. B+
Serena: As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena. She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could. One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then. Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon. Incomplete
Stephens: Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens. Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third. Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win. Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1. A
Radwanska: Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most. Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw. She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments. It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right. B
Makarova: As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne. Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber. Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise. Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway. B+
Kuznetsova: One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion. Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past. Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA. B+
Kerber: Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense. She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012. That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her. B-
WTA #7-9: This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse. Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points. Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown. Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads. At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point. F
Wozniacki: Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round. Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches. Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova. (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.) Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery. C+
Pavlyuchenkova: Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round. What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it? Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it. C
WTA young guns: From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne. The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst. A
Kvitova vs. Robson: Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka. The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd. It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night. B
Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams: Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors. After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills. This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter. A-
Women’s final: Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament: fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies. As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time. Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final. A
Enjoy this tournament review? Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.
Follow our live blog on the Australian Open men’s final, updated at each changeover. Will Djokovic complete the first three-peat of the Open era here, or will Murray become the first man to win his second major title in the next major after his first?
Djokovic 2-1*: Although Murray wins the first point with an impressive forehand, Djokovic sweeps the next four behind some solid first serves that leave him in control of the points at the outset. A handful of groundstroke errors from the Serb provides the Scot with a love hold as the match starts uneventfully. At 15-15 in the third game, Djokovic correctly judges that a Murray lob will float long, which it does by a less than comfortable margin. Still looking a bit casual, perhaps almost too relaxed after his long semifinal, Djokovic cruises to another hold.
Djokovic 3-2*: Murray finds a cleaner rhythm on his first serve and holds at love again, this time punctuated with an ace. Although he starts with a 30-0 lead, Djokovic finds himself pegged back to 30-30 with two routine errors. A crushing inside-out forehand and a nonchalant miss on a drive volley move a game to deuce for the first time. From there, a brave net approach draws an error from Murray on the pass, and then Djokovic delivers his own scintillating backhand pass down the line off a drop volley that looked out of his reach.
Djokovic 4-3*: His normally trusty backhand spraying a few early errors, Murray soon faces the first two break points of the match. A sturdy first serve and a penetrating cross-court forehand do just enough work to avert them. He then saves a third break point that Djokovic had created by carefully massaging the rally, and a fourth break point escapes on an uncharacteristic backhand error from the Serb. Two points later, Murray escapes the game with a first serve down the center stripe. With that potential momentum swelling his sails, he wins the first point of his return game. But a stunning recovery from Djokovic after a sprawl behind the baseline allows him to rip off a backhand down the line that wins the point anyway. The quick hold leaves him within range of the first set without having faced any serious pressure.
Djokovic 5-4*: After some passive groundstrokes, Murray falls behind break point on a cross-court backhand that narrowly misses the edge of the sideline. Able to save the fifth break point on his serve, he unleashes a first serve and a bold drive volley that takes away vital time from Djokovic’s defense. Two points and another drive volley later, he stays even in the set. Although Djokovic loses two points in his next service game, he closes out the game with a confident ace that forces Murray to hold for his survival in the set.
Djokovic 6-5*: Starting to improve his first-serve percentage, the Scot holds routinely after some court-stretching rallies. That game departed from the script of their final here two years ago, when a Djokovic break at this stage opened the floodgates for his routine triumph. Djokovic continues to hold as well, opening the court with crisp, flat angles that thrust his opponent off balance. He did not face a break point in this set.
Murray 7-6: After 15-15, which they reached by trading netted groundstrokes, the Serb unleashes a massive cross-court backhand to set up a comfortable approach and move within two points of the first set. A pair of backhand errors from Djokovic let Murray off the hook, and a strong first serve clinches the hold. Neither man dropped serve in this set, although Murray faced greater pressure during it. A double fault starts the tiebreak ominously for Djokovic, and Murray battles to win the next rally several times over before finally finding the winner. With a wild forehand, the Serb falls behind 0-3, and Murray soon leads by a double minibreak at the changeover. Disinterested in the proceedings, Djokovic tosses away the rest of the tiebreak in a deflating finish to a tense set.
Murray 7-6 2-1*: Holding at love, Murray ranges all over the court to retrieve everything that Djokovic flings at him before drawing errors in a series of long rallies. The streak of points reaches eight for Murray, and seventeen of the last nineteen, as he reaches triple break point on the top seed’s serve. Djokovic recovers to save all three, suddenly transitioning back into offense. Capitalizing on that miniature surge, he starts to open his shoulders more freely on his groundstrokes and dodges what might have looked like a formidable deficit. After a massive return for an outright winner, Djokovic reaches 30-30 on the Murray serve following a strangely sprayed backhand wide that his opponent mistimed. But Murray records the 15th straight hold of the match.
Murray 7-6 3-2*: Consecutive aces help Djokovic pull ahead to 40-15, only to see a fine return by the Scot and a careless error pull the game back to deuce. Murray again fails to exploit the opening, though, and allows his opponent to stay hopeful in this set. The front-runner then delivers an ace of his own to start and another to finish a strong hold.
Murray 7-6 4-3*: A sluggish start to the next game from Murray offers an easy hold to his opponent. And a diffident return game from Djokovic allows Murray to do the same.
Murray 7-6 5-4*: After the Scot challenges on a close volley near the baseline and receives the bad news from Hawkeye, Djokovic fires down first serves that allow him to take command of the rally immediately. Charging to 40-0 with pinpoint groundstrokes highlighted by a backhand down the line, Murray skirts a double fault to hold serve without a tremor. He will attempt to break for a two-set lead.
Murray 7-6 6-5*: Punished for an overly meek approach, Djokovic watches a Murray forehand pass sail by him on the first point of this crucial game. Two points later, a bold smash from deep on the court for a clean winner puts the Serb ahead. He closes out the hold with sturdy baseline play but cannot subject Murray to much pressure as the Scot closes out a second straight set without a loss of serve.
Sets even 7-6 6-7(3-7): Although a double fault temporarily opens the door for the Scot at 30-30, Djokovic closes out a second straight set full of holds with punishing forehands, a well-angled smash, and a cross-court backhand for a clean winner. The two men then trade overpowering first serves on the first two points of the tiebreak. After Djokovic had double-faulted away the first point of the first-set tiebreak, Murray double-faults away the first minibreak of this tiebreak. A forehand error from the Scot leads him trailing 2-4 at the change of ends, and a service winner soon deepens his arrears. Responding with a forehand error of his own, Djokovic permits Murray to stay within range. Another draining rally ends with a meekly netted backhand by the Scot, though, and his slice finds the net on the Serb’s first set point to even the match after a pair of lopsided tiebreaks in each of the first two sets.
Djokovic 6-7 7-6 2-1*: Opening with a commanding service hold, Djokovic strikes two aces and even wins a Hawkeye challenge, a rare event. Not much more challenging is the next service game from Murray, where the difference in effectiveness between his first and second serves surfaces. Spreading the court with effective wide serves, Djokovic holds routinely again as his opponent’s forehand starts to falter.
Djokovic 6-7 7-6 3-2*: A love hold for Murray quickly restores the set to level terms as the Serb struggles to find a way into rallies. Two routine errors from the third seed late in the defending champion’s next service game remove any threat of pressure on the latter.
Djokovic 6-7 7-6 4-3*: Considering the holds that flow so easily on both sides, 40-30 seems like a chance for Djokovic, but he lets Murray draw level by failing to corral a wide serve. A crushing cross-court backhand highlights the defending champion’s next service hold, which ends with a spectacular series of defensive retrievals.
Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3: With a forehand rocket on the first point of the eighth game, the Serb signals his intent to score a crucial break. He then recovers a drop shot, drawing an odd miss from Murray, and rips two brutal forehands to reach triple break point. While Murray fends off the first two, aided by his opponent, his forehand finds the net on the third for the first break of the match. Serving for the set, Djokovic establishes his authority with massive first serves and closes out the set at love.
Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3 2*-1: Down 0-30 on his serve in the first game, Murray desperately needs a hold to start this must-win fourth set positively. He wins the next three points before floating an inside-out forehand wide to reach deuce. A lovely backhand stab volley off a potent pass provides him the key to unlock the hold. In the second point of his next game, Djokovic slaps a careless inside-out forehand into the alley to position Murray with a 0-30 chance, and an error on his forehand down the line presents the first break point on his serve since early in the second set. Untroubled by the danger, Djokovic thumps down three first serves to hold. On the second and third points of the next game, Murray cannot track down a blistering backhand return and dumps a double fault into the net. Running around his backhand to strike an inside-in forehand, Djokovic claims double break point. Saving the first break point with a service winner, Murray surrenders the second after a long rally with a netted forehand.
Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3 4*-1: A flicker of hope shines upon the Scot when he reaches 30-30 in the next game, extinguished with a tame forehand error and a backhand pushed wearily long. Serving in a must-hold game, Murray falls behind 0-30 but regroups to win three straight points by exploiting some wayward groundstrokes from the Serb. Djokovic stretches the game to deuce with a forehand perfectly placed in his opponent’s forehand corner before the third seed again earns a game point. Pulverizing groundstroke after groundstroke off the baseline, the Serb refuses to relent and returns the score to deuce. From there, a dazzling series of defensive sprawls and a double fault from Murray leave Djokovic with a stranglehold on the proceedings.
Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3 5*-2: Perhaps a little too comfortable, the Serb donates two quick errors that he erases in part with an imaginatively angled forehand. The increasingly tired Murray shows little resistance from there. A rather careless return game from Djokovic, aiming for form rather than function, extends the final through another changeover.
FINAL: Djokovic 6-7(2) 7-6(3) 6-3 6-2: With the title on his racket, Murray strikes a pair of elegant passing shots past the top speed as he approaches the net too rashly. Three points later, Djokovic jerks him from side to side, earning a championship point. He wastes no time in converting when Murray nets a backhand to hand the Serb his coveted Australian Open three-peat.
Murray will rue the three break points that he squandered in Djokovic’s first service game of the second set, which could have dealt a serious blow to the defending champion’s spirit. The Serb allowed him only one break point the rest of the way in a sparkling sequence of 21 consecutive holds. Djokovic has won four of his six major titles at the Australian Open, equaling Agassi and Federer for the most by any man here in the Open era.
Follow for updates from the women’s final as the match unfolds. Victoria Azarenka seeks to defend her title and her #1 ranking, but Li Na looks for a third straight victory over a top-four opponent.
Azarenka 1*-0: Having claimed that she would silence her nerves for her second final here, Li suggests otherwise with a double fault to open the final. Not nervous herself, Azarenka pounds a series of deep returns that allow her to move inside the baseline early in the rallies. A pair of routine errors from 30-30 hand the first of what should be many breaks to the defending champion.
Li 2-1*: When she starts her first service game, Azarenka now looks edgy and quickly returns the break with some tepid errors. Steadying herself in the next game, Li opens it by winning a long rally with a clean forehand winner, her first of the match. As expected, she dictates most of the rallies for better or for worse and ends most of them with winners or unforced errors. With some more solid serving, she earns a valuable hold to reverse the early deficit.
Li 3-2*: Smartly freezing and wrong-footing Azarenka by redirecting her groundstrokes, Li breaks easily under the weight of her superior power as the top seed looks a trifle sluggish. Down 30-15 on her next return game, Vika drills a backhand down the line that appears to alleviate some of her simmering frustration. Two game points spurned, one on a gruesome miss, Li dumps a backhand in the net to keep the set on serve (or on break, if you prefer).
Li 5-2*: With a massive backhand that cleans the sideline splendidly, Li earns the third straight break after surrendering just one point to Azarenka. Her return continues to maul the Belarussian’s serve, both first and second. Azarenka has won just four points in three service games as she still looks for her first hold. By contrast, Li holds serve at love with a resounding statement that moves her within a game of the first set.
Li 5-4*: The top seed urgently needed to hold, and she does by finding more first serves before following them with deep penetrating groundstrokes. Serving for the first set, Li donates a loose sequence of points that leave her pinned at triple break point. Her groundstrokes narrowly missing their targets, she saves just a single break point before another sloppy error moves the set back on serve, although Azarenka still must hold to draw level.
Li 6-4: From 30-30, a crushing cross-court return winner off the forehand positions Li at set point, but Azarenka saves it when her opponent’s return sails long. The two women then trade sizzling forehand winners as the quality of the match improves, Vika’s coming off a sharply angled pass and the Chinese star’s after a point that she set up with groundstrokes off both sidelines. A second set point vanishes with a fine drop volley from Azarenka, not usually a specialty of hers. But a third set point arrives when Li catches the Belarussian leaning the wrong direction and punishes her with an inside-out backhand winner, only to squander it with a return error. The fourth set point falls into her ledger without the need to strike a ball, though, when Azarenka double-faults well long.
Li 6-4 0-3*: Break #8 arrives immediately when Li’s backhand drifts into the alley in a surprising sign of weakness from a normally steady shot. Clearly not free of her nerves yet, she contributes more errors in another Azarenka game that reaches deuce and ultimately break point. Able to save the break point with a service winner, Vika steadies herself to play some of her most impressive tennis so far as she paints both sidelines with both groundstrokes in a Djokovic-like sequence that finally silences the tenacious Li. The unforced errors flow ever more freely from the Chinese star’s racket, recalling her wayward start to the second set in the 2011 final after she had won the first. Vika claims an extra break to take control of this set, for now.
Li 6-4 2-3*: In every service game but one, Azarenka has dropped her serve or faced break point. That trend continues when a crisp inside-out forehand from Li follows a wayward forehand from Vika to regain part of the deficit. Ranging along the baseline midway through her next service game, she tumbles onto the court as she appears to sprain her ankle. Not as gruesomely twisted as some before her, it requires a medical timeout that halts the momentum of the match even further. When she returns, however, Li unleashes aggressive backhands to hold off the slightly out-of-tune Azarenka.
Li 6-4 3-4*: Battling to regain the other break, Li moves across the baseline more effortfully but almost as effectively. She draws an error from Azarenka via a well-timed lob and soon finds herself down triple break point when the defending champion misses a straightforward forehand. A netted ball on the third appears to drain some of the spirit from her as a merciless Vika digs out of trouble to hold. Faced with a virtual must-hold, she double-faults consecutively at 15-15 as her movement starts to falter. Azarenka nets a routine backhand on the second to keep the set tight, and some clean serving from Li allows her to escape the game.
Li 6-4 4-5*: Bombing a pinpoint backhand return on the first point of the eighth game, Li moves Azarenka off the court by creating a sharp forehand angle. By netting a drop shot, the defending champion sets up double break point. When Azarenka sprays a forehand on the second, the set returns to even terms after the top set had led by a double break. Struggling to capitalize on the momentum shift, Li nets some routine groundstrokes and sends a backhand long on break point.
Sets even 6-4 4-6: Appearing to suffer increasing pain in her ankle, the Chinese veteran concedes the next game quickly with a series of routine errors. Azarenka holds without facing a break point for just the second time and holds for just the third time overall in two sets. Li now must regroup herself mentally and physically for a final set as her ankle trouble continues to loom.
Li 6-4 4-6 2-1*: At 15-30, Li botches a mid-court forehand in horrific fashion to set up double break point. After she holds a game point following a netted groundstroke from Li, Azarenka grows too passive and later double-faults for the 14th break of the match. Taking advantage of a lull in her opponent’s consistency, the Chinese star edges ahead just before the Australia Day fireworks start in Melbourne.
Azarenka 4-6 6-4 3*-2: An excruciating match for Li’s body grows ever more painful as she slips on the baseline during the first point after the fireworks and not only twists her ankle again but bangs her head into the asphalt. After a timeout to assess a potential concussion, she bounces back with a sparkling inside-out backhand return at 30-30 to earn a break point. Azarenka then shows off her own two-hander to save the break point with a signature cross-court angle. An early forehand error in the next game and a double fault on the third point dig a hole for Li. With double break point ahead, however, Azarenka floats a shot over the baseline. Or rather not, for Hawkeye reverses the call and forces a replay that the world #1 wins with another magnificent cross-court backhand.
Azarenka 4-6 6-4 4*-3: Holding comfortably for a rare time, Azarenka moves within two games of defending her title. For her part, Li regroups sturdily from losing the first point of a crucial service games to take command behind her first serve. She holds with a booming cross-court forehand to keep the suspense very much in this match.
FINAL: Azarenka wins 4-6 6-4 6-3: An inside-in forehand winner followed by penetrating backhands puts Azarenka in an early 0-30 hole as she grows too passive. Creating an interesting change of pace at 30-30, Li claims a break point with a moonball that draws a forehand error. Azarenka saves it with a first serve out wide and moves within five points of the title with an inside-out forehand winner. Another wide serve leaves Li serving to stay in the match. A fine backhand winner down the line keeps her alive at 15-15, but a forehand winner from Azarenka moves her within two points of the title. The game soon reaches deuce following a deep forehand and a netted backhand from Li, deciding her own fate to the end. A wild backhand offers Azarenka her first championship point, which she earns with a backhand sailed over the baseline from Li.
Azarenka showed the resolve of a champion in defending her first major title, but Li also deserves credit for battling so fiercely through injury after injury to extend the world #1 deep into a final set. Credit to both of them.
On the penultimate day of the tournament, the 2013 Australian Open will crown its women’s singles and men’s doubles champions. Read about what to expect from those matches.
Azarenka vs. Li: Meeting in a final on Australian soil for the fourth time, these two women of similar styles have battled to a very even record. Both can hammer magnificent backhands for winners to anywhere on the court, while the forehands of each can falter under pressure despite providing plenty of firepower at times. Neither wins many free points on serve, although each has improved in that department lately, and both relish pouncing on an opponent’s second serve. For these reasons, their previous meetings usually hinge on execution rather than tactics, as well as on the ability of Azarenka and Li to shoulder pressure deep in the tight sets and matches that they have played. After the Roland Garros champion dominated the early stages of their rivalry, winning four of the first five, the defending champion here has reeled off four straight victories. But two of those have reached final sets, including the Sydney title tilt last year.
The more impressive of the two in fortnight form, Li has echoed her 2011 surge in Paris by defeating two of the top four women simply to reach the final. Convincing victories over Radwanska and Sharapova, the latter of whom had troubled her lately, left her record immaculate without a single set lost. In fact, Li has won 14 of her 15 matches this year in yet another display of the brisk start with which she often opens a season. Also accustomed to starting seasons on hot streaks before her body breaks down, Azarenka has mounted a creditable albeit not overpowering effort in her title defense. She has not faced anyone ranked higher than 29th seed Sloane Stephens en route to the final, but she defeated the dangerous Kuznetsova with ease in the quarterfinals and has yielded only one set. What most may remember from her pre-final effort here, unfortunately, happened in the closing sequence of her semifinal victory. A dubious medical timeout just before Stephens served (unsuccessfully) to stay in the match incited disdain from throughout the tournament and Twitterverse, which may ripple through the response to her on Saturday.
In an ironic twist, any hostility towards Azarenka might well inspire her to produce her most motivated, relentless effort of the tournament. The world #1, who will remain there with a title, usually thrives on the negativity of others and can excel when barricading herself inside a fortress of “me against the world” attitude. For her part, Li Na will hope to show greater poise than she did in this final two years ago, letting a mid-match lead slip away to Clijsters. The coronation that followed at Roland Garros just a few months later and the steadying presence of coach Carlos Rodriguez should help the Chinese superstar channel her energies more effectively this time. Thus, one can expect a high-quality match with plenty of passion on both sides, a fitting conclusion to the many intriguing WTA narrative threads that unwound at the year’s first major.
Bryan/Bryan vs. Haase/Sijsling: Finalists here for a fifth straight year, the Bryans hope to emulate women’s doubles champions Errani and Vinci in atoning for their disappointing runner-up finish to an unheralded team in 2012. Equally unheralded is the duo of Dutchmen across the net, who have not lost a set since tottering on the brink of defeat in their first match. Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling needed a third-set tiebreak to elude that initial obstacle, but they have compiled an ominously impressive record in tiebreaks here, which bodes well for their chances in a match likely to feature few break points. Their relative lack of experience would seem a clear disadvantage against the Bryans, superior in chemistry to virtually every imaginable team.
All the same, the surprising Australian duo of Barty and Dellacqua posed a severe threat to women’s top seeds Errani and Vinci in the corresponding final, so the Bryans cannot take this team too lightly in their quest for a record-extending 13th major title. They have earned their most consistent success in Melbourne, where they have reached nine total finals, but the twins looked slightly more vulnerable this year in losing sets to the teams of Chardy/Kubot and Bolelli/Fognini. Neither of those duos can claim anything remotely comparable to the storied accomplishments of the Americans yet still challenged them. As with those matches, this final will test the conventional belief that two capable singles player can overcome the most elite doubles squads. Both inside the top 70, Haase and Sijsling have gained their modest success almost entirely in singles, whereas the specialists across the net know the geometry of doubles as well as any team ever has. That comfort level should prove the difference in a triumph that extends the stranglehold of the Bryans on history.
Follow this live blog during the highly anticipated semifinal between Andy Murray and Roger Federer. The winner will battle two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic for the Australian Open title on Sunday night.
Murray 2*-1: After two forehand errors, the second ending a 28-shot rally, Federer faces an early break point. Delivering a timely first serve, he snuffs out the threat with a drive volley. Some crisper baseline play allows the Swiss to hold and avoid the initial deficit. Murray’s first service game unfolds more routinely, a positive sign for a player who struggled to hold throughout the tournament. Federer continues to experience greater difficulty in his service games, not finding his first serve as often as he would prefer. Following another long rally played mostly on the Scot’s terms, he earns two more break points. Saving the first by approaching the net aggressively, Federer escapes the second with a meek backhand error from Murray. Another long rally erases a third on a forehand error from the third seed, but an imposing cross-court forehand on a fourth draws a netted reply and gives the Scot the early lead.
Murray 3*-2: Able to find many more first serves than his opponent, Murray wins more free points en route to a 40-0 lead. But Federer draws all the way back to deuce and earns his first break point of the match. Murray saves it with a pinpoint ace out wide and ultimately holds after multiple deuces. No chance of an insurance break beckons as Federer closes out his game within moments.
Murray 4*-3: Murray continues to find Federer’s backhand consistently in the rallies, arranging many of the points from his strength (his two-hander) to Federer’s weakness (his one-hander). He holds a little more easily this time for 4-2, putting the pressure on the Swiss in a must-win game. Federer digs an early hole for himself with some wayward forehands. Racing along the baseline in his best defensive point of the match, Murray cracks a running backhand pass to set up double break point. On the second of the break points, Federer leaps to his left and exhibits his spectacular reflexes with a backhand smash over his shoulder. He wins the next two points to stay within range.
Murray 5*-4: At 15-0, Murray wins a fine cat-and-mouse exchange with Federer at the net that unwinds through several expertly angled volleys. Having held at love to move a game away from the set, he puts little pressure on the Swiss star’s next service game.
Murray 6-4: Staying steady with the first set on his racket, Murray plays high-percentage tennis in closing out the crucial hold for the loss of just a single point. Federer must protect his serve more authoritatively from here to climb back into the match.
Murray 6-4 1*-2: Attacking the net with greater conviction, Federer opens a promising lead but lets the opening game slip back to deuce with his first double fault of the match. Having navigated that slight disturbance, he can put no pressure on Murray’s serve. Nor can the Scot on the Swiss serve in the third game as the second set starts quietly.
Murray 6-4 2*-3: The tactics are there for Federer, while the execution is there only occasionally. Winning a 16-stroke rally, he appears to have marooned Murray at the net before missing a routine backhand wide as the Scot holds comfortably again. Under severe pressure at 2-2, 0-30, Federer fends off the younger man with the help of some overly ambitious groundstrokes that wind up in the error column for Murray. An ace punctuates another vital hold.
Murray 6-4 3*-4: A slightly loose game from Murray places him in a spot of bother at 30-30, where a passive point from Federer allows the Scot to finish at the net. An ace takes Murray to 3-3, and gives him the momentum to mount an early challenge in his return game. Showing off his touch and court coverage, he outmaneuvers Federer again at the net. Not deterred by that setback, the Swiss star sweeps four of the next five points to hold wit some more consistent groundstrokes.
Murray 6-4 4*-5: Facing a bit of scoreboard tension for the first time, Murray shows no sign of discomfort in hammering a sequence of first serves that give Federer no chance to enter the point. An unwise drop shot allows Murray a flicker of hope when he converts the forehand pass with room to spare. But the US Open champion gains no further traction in a game that Federer finishes off with a crisply angled forehand.
Murray 6-4 5*-6: Serving to stay in the second set, Murray responds with a forehand winner down the line on the first point. An errant backhand moves Federer within three points of the set, but a brilliant backhand winner down the line finishes a rally during which the Swiss had held the upper hand throughout. The straightforward hold for 5-5 behind him, he can return to heightening the pressure on Federer’s serve. In that regard, Murray earns no success. A pair of perfectly placed volleys lead the Swiss to a love hold that moves the set to the brink of a tiebreak.
Sets even 6-4 6-7 (5-7): Having won the first set 6-4 and lost the second 7-5 in the Wimbledon final last year, Murray takes care not to fall into the same trap again. He again holds for the loss of just a solitary point, forcing a tiebreak with the chance to take a two-set lead. An immediate mini-break falls into the Scot’s pocket when a deep cross-court forehand forces Federer to rush his own forehand into the net. But Murray loses no time in handing both of his first two service points to his opponent. Quickly down 1-4 following a Federer first serve-drive volley combination, he wins his next two service points to stay within range. A vital challenge prevents him from surrendering an extra mini-break, and the tiebreak draws level a point later when the Swiss clanks a routine backhand into the net. With a service winner, Federer still edges within two points of evening the match, as does Murray with a strong forehand approach. Down to his second serve, the Scot still closes to the net aggressively to put away what seemed like a futile lob, only to see the Swiss position his feet perfectly to rip a winning pass off the smash. Another forehand error, sprayed over the baseline, evens this match with a very similar scoreline so far to last year’s Wimbledon final. Federer won that match in four sets after losing the first.
Murray 6-4 6-7 2-1*: Trying to build upon his momentum, the second seed slashes a forehand return winner on the first point and plows toward the net two points later, only to net a volley from a strong Murray backhand. A stinging cross-court backhand expels some of the Scot’s frustrations and allows him to start the set positively. Losing the rhythm on his first serve, Federer slips into defensive mode and opens a door for Murray to snatch the momentum back directly. After an extended exchange, Murray gradually exploits the shallow balls from across the net and slips into the forecourt to rush the Swiss into an errant pass. Quickly seizing command behind his first serve, Federer approaches the net with an inside-in forehand that the Scot cannot answer. He then thumps down an ace en route to the arduous hold. Less arduous is Murray’s next service game, which ends at love amid some flustered shots from both men.
Murray 6-4 6-7 3-2*: More at ease in his next service game, Federer plays superb defense to win the first point from Murray on the next. Although benefited by a Hawkeye challenge, the Scot now suffers a more taxing service game, complicated by missing a relatively makeable backhand sitter. That said, Federer lets him off the hook with a wild forehand as he continues to play from behind in this set.
Murray 6-4 6-7 5-2*: A double fault and a loose forehand provide Murray with another window of opportunity early in the sixth game. As Federer floats a backhand just long, three break points emerge. On the second of them, Murray pokes a second-serve return deep enough to assert himself early in the rally, which the Swiss soon ends with a backhand wide. Two games from retaking the lead, the third seed protects his serve more confidently and strikes consecutive aces (one confirmed by Hawkeye).
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3: Rocketing a second-serve return winner on the first point, Murray attempts to create even further pressure. He overruns a ball at 15-15, though, assisting Federer in surviving the game. The third set on his racket, Murray recovers from losing the first point to outlast Federer on the second. From there, an ace, a baseline-clipping forehand winner, and another ace close out the set.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 1*-2: A little flat at the outset, Federer falls behind break point almost immediately, but he wrong-foots Murray brilliantly to extricate himself. Despite twisting his ankle while reversing direction, Murray covers the court well enough on the next few points. A pair of inside-out forehand winners allow him to keep pace early in the fourth set. Behind a series of wide serves that open the court, Federer holds easily to move ahead again.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 1*-4: Plunging himself into early trouble, Murray nets a backhand and slices another into the alley to start his next service game. A sloppy approach error produces three break points, the first two of which vanish behind perfectly placed serves to the Federer forehand. On the third, though, a second-serve return near the baseline sets up the Swiss on neutral terms in the rally, which ends on a forehand error from Murray. Surging to 40-0 with one ruthless groundstroke after another, Federer marches within two service holds of a final set.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 3*-4: Steadier first serves from Murray earn him an easy hold as he rebounds impressively from losing serve for the first time in the match. Continuing to exploit the Scot’s vulnerability on wide serves to his forehand, Federer allows Murray back into the game with a poor drop shot. A fine reflex pass by Murray catches him just a hair out of position and creates a break-point chance. Unable to find his first serve, Federer falls behind from the outset of the rally and cannot recover as his opponent rushes to the net and finishes the point emphatically.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 4*-5: The two men open the eighth game by trading groundstroke errors, followed by a Murray ace. Saving a break point that arose from a scintillating Federer backhand down the line, the Scot battles through deuce after deuce while wasting his final challenge on a ball that barely tweaked the baseline. Finally Murray survives after four deuces, opening up the court with a wide serve and then pummeling his backhand into his opponent’s backhand corner before a forehand error from the Swiss levels the set at 4-4. A spectacular lob from well behind the baseline opens the next return game for Murray, but Federer closes to 30-30 with formidable first serves. Straightforward errors take the game to deuce, from where a Swiss forehand barely cleans the line. Liberated from danger for the moment, Federer holds with a service winner.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6*-5: Recalling his excellent efforts when serving to stay in the second set, Murray holds at love to keep the fourth set alive. A pair of netted groundstrokes from Federer again open the door for him to collect a break that would allow him to serve for the match. After a backhand floats over the baseline, Murray holds three break points. Missing his first serve consistently, Federer drops his serve at love when he fails to retrieve an explosive forehand.
Sets even 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 (2-7): Leading 30-15 after a service winner, Murray drops three straight points to send the fourth set into a tiebreak despite having served for the match, the last on a horrific forehand lashed into the doubles alley. Federer survives the first point when the Scot tamely nets a backhand, and a vicious return of serve earns him a quick minibreak. Nevertheless, the minibreak moves back to Murray with a forehand error from the Swiss. Serving at 2-3, the third seed falls behind from the outset of the point and cannot prevent Federer from finishing at the net in vintage fashion. An extra minibreak moves the Swiss within two points of a final set, which he collects routinely following two deflated errors from Murray.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 3-0*: Impressively managing to collect himself, the third seed held serve to start the final set without undue adversity. To the contrary, Murray plays steady baseline tennis that earns a break point on Federer’s first service game. Unable to land his first serve, the Swiss shanks a backhand to concede the early lead. A disastrous return game allows Murray to hold serve at love and race halfway to victory in an impressive reversal from his fortunes late in the fourth set.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 4-1*: The coup de grace would seem to loom when Federer stands vulnerable at the net with 30-30 on his serve. Netting the pass, Murray continues to allow hope to linger for the Swiss, although a love hold moves him within two games of the final.
Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 5-2*: Rather clearly conceding a Federer service game in which he fell behind initially, the Scot saves energy for the first of the two service holds that he needs. Murray loses only one point as he prepares to serve for this match yet again.
FINAL: Murray wins 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2: A pair of weary groundstroke errors suggest that the third seed might not need to serve out the match after all. At 15-30, a smooth second-serve return winner from Murray leads him to double match point. Although Federer saves the first, a forehand jerked well long on the second thrusts Murray into his second Australian Open and third straight final at a major.
Read about what to expect from the marquee match in the second men’s semifinal and the intriguing clash of storylines in the women’s doubles final.
Murray vs. Federer: Preparing for their 20th career meeting, these two familiar foes have battled nearly neck and neck through their first nineteen with Murray holding a slim 10-9 edge. Perhaps more relevant, however, is the advantage that Federer claims at majors, where he has won three finals from the Scot for the loss of one total set. On the other hand, one could argue that this trend derives from Murray’s initial futility in major finals, where the pressure of snapping Great Britain’s drought unnerved him repeatedly until his breakthrough last fall. Among the key turning points that spurred him to that US Open title was his victory over Federer in the gold-medal match at the Olympics, attributable in part to the Swiss star’s fatigue but still a vital confidence surge for Murray.
Claiming his revenge over his Olympics nemesis at the year-end championships in November, Federer recaptured the momentum in their rivalry on a relatively fast surface that suits his game better than Murray’s style. Still a natural counterpuncher despite his improved aggression, the US Open champion may find the faster court on Rod Laver Arena a disadvantage in this matchup with a man who prefers to shorten the points and force the issue. (Less consequential, one suspects, is the somewhat contrived issue of his night matches, or lack of them, which he addressed by practicing on Hisense in the evening.) But Murray encountered no difficulty on the faster outer courts here while winning all of his first five matches in straight sets. He enters this semifinal fully rested, essential to execute his grinding game plan of wearing down Federer. He also enters this semifinal largely untested by an opponent worthy of his steel and will need to adjust quickly to the steep spike upward in competitive quality across the net.
Handed a much more challenging draw than Murray, Federer needed five sets to thwart an inspired challenge from Tsonga that forced him to unleash his full array of artistry. Before then, the formidable serves of twin giants Tomic and Raonic could not trouble the Swiss, who held serve relentlessly until the Frenchman cracked him four times in the quarterfinals. Likely to lose at least a few service games to Murray, an outstanding returner, Federer will need to convert more of his own break points. An anemic 4 for 18 against Tsonga, he let several opportunities slip away early in sets that would have eased his progress. While they did not cost him in that match or in those that preceded it, when he also struggled in that category, Federer cannot offer Murray additional lives and expect to escape.
Another question of note concerns his backhand, which has looked sharp this tournament but has not always shone when tested by the Scot’s superior two-hander. If Federer can dominate on serve and step inside the baseline to finish points, his groundstroke consistency may not matter. And Murray has looked uneasy for much of the fortnight with his timing from the baseline as well as his serve, under threat more often than one would expect from his outclassed opponents so far. All the same, this battle for the right to challenge the defending champion promises greater suspense than Djokovic’s demolition of Ferrer.
Errani/Vinci vs. Barty/Dellacqua: Champions at Roland Garros and the US Open last year, the Italians who long have dazzled in Fed Cup duty ended 2012 as the best doubles duo in the WTA. Errani and Vinci also reached the final here last year, falling to Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in a minor upset, so they will aim to reverse that result. Littered with obstacles, their route so far has required all of their teamwork, ingenuity, and veteran experience to survive. After they came within three points of defeat against Hsieh and Peng in the quarterfinals, the Italians trailed Venus and Serena by a set and a break in the semifinals. One would think that deficit insurmountable, but Errani and Vinci pounced on a late second-set lull to turn around the match despite their disadvantage in overall power.
Their lengthy annals of experience together offer them a crucial edge over the Australian hopes of Barty and Dellacqua, who surely stunned even their most ardent fans by reaching this final without losing a set. Defeating Schiavone and her partner in their opener, the Aussies delivered their most significant upset over third seeds Kirilenko and Raymond. Nor have Barty and Dellacqua looked back from there as they plowed through a section of the draw riddled with upsets. For the 16-year-old novice and the injury-troubled lefty, Friday presents a golden opportunity to earn the most significant accomplishment of their careers so far, a great leap forward for Barty in particular. For the Australian fans, meanwhile, the chance to support their players in doubles after most of their singles threats exited early should not go unnoticed.
Follow the first men’s semifinal on a live blog tonight. Will top seed and defending Novak Djokovic oust fourth seed David Ferrer?
Ferrer 2-1*: Ferrer holds on a backhand error by Djokovic, a positive start for a Spaniard who often struggles on his service games. After jolting out to a 40-0 lead, meanwhile, the defending champion encounters some trouble when Ferrer punishes a forehand for a return winner, but he finds a strong first serve to hold. Some more sluggish returning from Djokovic keeps the fourth seed in front early in this semifinal.
Djokovic 3*-2: A slice that finds Ferrer’s backhand corner perfectly sets up the other sideline for a signature Djokovic backhand that gives the Serb control of his service game. Consecutive aces allow him to close it out at love. The two men then trade backhand errors on the first two points of Ferrer’s game, a surprise considering the steadiness of both two-handers on display tonight. Two points later, Djokovic jerks the Spaniard around mercilessly from one sideline to the other, finally coming to the net to deliver the decisive blow with a drive volley-conventional volley combination. That exchange sets up two break points, the first of which Ferrer yields by spraying a ball over the baseline.
Djokovic 5*-2: Using his wide serve to open up the court for down-the-line groundstrokes, Djokovic continues to cruise on serve with a series of short exchanges. Forcing the action on Ferrer’s service game as well, he cannot break through the Spaniard’s defense and gets surprised by one audaciously angled forehand. From 40-15, though, Djokovic takes him to deuce by capitalizing on some meek second serves. At the second deuce, he dazzles with a backhand pass on the full run over the high part of the net to earn a break point. A deflated Ferrer floats another groundstroke long to surrender the insurance break.
Djokovic 6-2: Coasting to triple set point, Djokovic wraps up the set with an ace that concludes his third straight love hold. The top seed lost just two service points in that set, while breaking Ferrer twice, so the underdog faces a steep climb from here.
Djokovic 6-2 2*-1: Under duress again at 30-30 on his serve, Ferrer wins the next two points with more convincing groundstrokes. He must keep this higher level of aggression to stand a chance against Djokovic, more than happy to rally with him in neutral mode. After another routine hold by the Serb, he drags his opponent through another long game, which Ferrer would have lost quickly if not for some timely first serves. The Spaniard continues to miss too many routine balls for his consistency-based style of play to shine, and an egregious netted backhand with the court open positions Djokovic at break point again. A forehand error early in the next rally hands him an early lead in this set as well.
Djokovic 6-2 4*-1: Another love hold for the Serb consolidates the break with the assistance of unforced errors flowing ever more freely from Ferrer’s racket. Missing balls left, right, and center now, the Spaniard puts up virtually no resistance as he surrenders his serve at love. Djokovic does strike a clean inside-out backhand winner on the third point of the next game, but he does not need to find his best form at the moment.
Djokovic 6-2, 5*-2: For the first time in the match, Ferrer finally earns an opening on his opponent’s serve, closing to 15-30 behind a penetrating second-serve return. At first, a stirring return two points later looks as though it may bring him to break point, but Djokovic lunges for an impressive defensive retrieval that keeps him in the point long enough to benefit from another error. An indifferent game from both men allows Ferrer to stay in the set after he trailed 15-30, Djokovic declining to close the door as he misses several makeable shots.
Djokovic 6-2 6-2: As Rod Laver watches, the man seeking an Australian Open three-peat cruises to a two-set lead. Despite an unwise drop shot, Djokovic impresses from the baseline by unleashing every variety of angle from his forehand. He converts his first set point to establish a stranglehold on this semifinal.
Djokovic 6-2 6-2 3*-0: In no mood to let the Spaniard detain him for long, Djokovic quickly moves to 15-30 in the first game of the third set. A commanding position on the next point reaps no rewards, however, when he shanks a forehand in a rare donation. Not that he need worry, for Ferrer misses a forehand after another long, grinding rally of the sort that he normally wins and then concedes another error to surrender the opening break of serve. A quick hold behind him, Djokovic breaks the deflated Spaniard at love one more time to essentially put away the match. Slamming a SportsCenter-worthy forehand winner from outside the doubles alley over the high part of the net onto the sideline, he follows that spectacle with two crushing backhands down the line. The Serb can do no wrong at the moment.
Djokovic 6-2 6-2 4*-1: A comfortable hold for Djokovic, punctuated by a favorable Hawkeye challenge, precedes an easy service game for Ferrer as the Serb appears to have settled into cruise control.
FINAL: Djokovic wins 6-2 6-2 6-1: Still refusing to surrender despite the obvious futility of the situation, Ferrer tracks down a Djokovic drop shot only to experience the indignity of seeing a lob sail over his outstretched racket as he leaps for it. Ever a showman, the top seed tries out a series of elaborate drop shots that work by a matter of millimeters. An errant forehand and a double fault set up Djokovic’s first match point, which Ferrer surrenders easily on his last unforced error of the 89-minute evening, a brutal display of superiority by the defending champion and world #1.