by Maud Watson
Physically, mentally, and emotionally, Novak Djokovic proved he had it all in his epic win over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final. This win did more to boost his reputation and solidify the Serb’s status as the best player in the world than anything he did in 2011. He had many reasons to lose that match. He could have gotten frustrated and deviated from the game plan when he frequently misfired in the first set. He could have crumbled going into the fifth after three forehand unforced errors in the tiebreak ultimately cost him the fourth. He was being asked to win two five-set matches back-to-back for the first time in his career, and he was being asked to pull it off against a guy long considered one of the game’s most physically punishing players. At 2-4 down in that final set, he could have accepted it was over. He’d had a good run. But instead he turned a badly missed backhand by Nadal into a turning point, snatching back the momentum. And despite the obvious tiredness, he never looked like a man who was going to lose that match. There was no panic, and if anything, the occasional smile that crossed his face showed he was enjoying the battle, win or lose. When he broke Nadal that final time, there was no celebration. There was still work to be done, and only when he had struck that final winner to seal the match did he let the emotions flow. Will he have the same kind of season he did in 2011? The general consensus is no, but with his win in Australia, it surely hints that such a run wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
Here to Stay
She’s been touted as a future Grand Slam champion for a few years now, and playing in her first major final, Victoria Azarenka definitely delivered. After a shaky start to fall in a 2-0 hole, she turned the tables on the more experienced Sharapova, allowing the Russian just one more game in what turned out to be a total route. Her improved movement, touch, and net play were all on display as she not only won her maiden slam, but secured the No. 1 ranking in the process. Her shrieking and “in-your-face” attitude will undoubtedly be a turn off for some, but they are also the same qualities that have served the likes of Sharapova and Serena Williams, among others, well. She’s clearly someone who enjoys the spotlight, and she has solidly emerged as a strong candidate to help fill the void at the top of women’s tennis.
Time Will Tell
You have to hand it to Rafael Nadal. His fighting spirit was at its best in his Australian Open final loss to Novak Djokovic, where his outright refusal to throw in the towel played a huge factor in extending it to five sets. But at the end of the day, a loss is a loss, and this had to be one of the most painful in his career. For his own part, Nadal put a positive spin on things, stating he felt he was right there mentally this time. It’s also the closest he’s come to defeating Djokovic at a major since the Serb turned the tide in their rivalry. But there were also some worrying signs for Nadal. After nearly six hours, it was Nadal, allegedly the physically and mentally stronger of the two, who blinked first. This was all the more surprising considering that Djokovic, much like Nadal in 2009, was the one coming in on one day’s less rest after a grueling and emotional semifinal win. When it mattered most, Nadal also reverted back to his defensive mode and allowed Djokovic to dictate play. And perhaps the biggest hurdle still in Nadal’s path is the mental block he has against the current No. 1. He doesn’t miss that sitter backhand to go 40-15 up at 4-2 in the fifth unless a guy is in his head. Only time will tell how Nadal will truly view and handle this loss and its potential impact on the rest of his season.
Any time a player reaches a Grand Slam final, especially if they’ve had shoulder surgery, it’s a good effort. But while Maria Sharapova should take heart from her Australian Open run, she should also be leaving with some question marks about her chances to hold aloft another major trophy. Chris Evert certainly thinks she can, going so far as to say “she’s too good not to.” Still, some, myself included, beg to differ. That’s not to say Sharapova won’t. She hits the ball big enough, and if she couples it with relative consistency, she could win. But she’s also going to need some help from the draw. Her semifinal win over Kvitova had more to do with the unforced errors coming off the Czech’s racquet than anything Sharapova was doing. Then there was the drubbing she suffered from Azarenka, a player who matched her stroke for stroke (and shriek for shriek), but also possessed greater variety and guile. It really exposed Sharapova’s one-dimensional game. So if Sharapova wants to win another major going forward, she has two options. She can either pray that the draws ultimately pan out for her, or she can look to add a few new tools to her game (and the latter option will probably only come to fruition if someone “important enough” puts the bug in her ear!).
January 2012 is a month Caroline Wozniacki would probably like to forget. After entering the Australian Open amid an injury scare, she gets dismissed by Clijsters in the quarters and wakes up this past Monday as the No. 4 player in the world. To top it all off, we learn that after just two months on the job, Ricardo Sanchez has been sacked as her coach. While diplomatic in his comments to the press, Sanchez confirmed what many already suspected – that there was no place for him in the Wozniacki father-daughter system as Piotr refused to relinquish the reins. No one disputes that Piotr has done a wonderful job with his daughter, but she’s now spinning her wheels as the competition begins to pass her. A coach other than Piotr is needed, and he would be well-served to remember that wanting what’s best for his child sometimes means letting go, not holding on.