Serve and Volley

Top Seeds Fall, the Game Thrives

Magnificent tennis shakes up expectations.

By 1.23.14

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In my youth newspaper writers were taught to avoid “As I said” or “As I wrote,” it is bad form, so I should note right away that if I wrote in this space that I never make predictions, it is because I believe in free choice as well as inexplicable chance, even if there is a higher power: though the argument in theological circles regarding just how much He concerns himself with human affairs rages on. In tennis there certainly are ways of trying to stack the cards to insure a certain outcome, including training, coaching, thinking, and practicing, by no means necessarily in that order.

In tennis there is a raging argument called the search for the GOAT, an acronym easy enough to decipher referring to skill, consistency, etc., and people who sit around offering nominations for the GOAT — which can be a lively exercise in what remains an inexact science — also sit around making predictions, which takes us out of science and into fantasy. The 20/20 foresight club predicted the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, would maintain the streak he has been riding since his last loss, which was in the final of the U.S. Open (at Flushing Meadows, Queens) and make it four Australian Opens in a row, an Open-era record. They also claimed Serena Williams, America’s best player today, would sustain the fantastic comeback from serious injuries and illnesses that many of the same folks thought would end her career two years ago, and commence the 2014 campaign with a sixth victory at Melbourne Park and continue her role as the Mt. Everest of today’s women’s tennis.

However, Miss Williams was knocked out in the third round by another courageous return-from-injuries star, Ana Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008 (Serena Williams won it last year) and suddenly all eyes were on her, and not only, admittedly, for her fine form and graceful tenacity, but also for the nerve with which she withstood the kind of pressure you come under when you are up against the top seed and everybody’s a bet for the trophy. In this line of work you are trained to concentrate on the next point and exclude all other distractions, but humans are not robots. So as soon as this happened, instant predictions turned to Miss Ivanovic, or else were focused on Victoria Azarenka, who is from Minsk but lives in Scottsdale — she does exude some of the goofy nonchalance of an American post-teen, but she is all business on court — because she won here last year and was reputedly the one possible threat to Miss Williams.

A teenager from Canada, Eugenie Bouchard, dashed Ana Ivanovic’s run in the next round, and the most graceful stylist on the tour, Agnieszka Radwanska, totally befuddled the predicted winner. Her quick sure movements all over the court, beautiful to watch even on the TV screen, her unerring net play, her icy nerves when Vika evened the score by taking the second set, her absolute confidence in the third (6-0!), made this the most impressive win in the recent career of this Krakow native (Krakowianka). Consistently ranked in the top five, victory at a major (“slam”) has eluded her, somewhat as it still eludes such players on the men’s side as David Ferrer and Stanislas Wawrinka.

Ferrer is out, knocked out by Tomas Berdych in the quarters, but the courteous and unostentatious Wawrinka surprised everyone by beating Novak Djokovic in the same round. The question, to get back to this matter of predictions, is why should this have been so surprising? Miss Ivanovic’s compatriot, the defending champion here, always beat Stan, usually on the last shot of a nail-biting fifth set. It they are so closely matched, it is reasonable to assume the outcome was bound to be reversed at any moment. Which is exactly what happened, as the man from St. Catherine (Vaud canton), up 8-7, broke Nole’s last service game.

Apart from the sheer nerve that took — and Djokovic was gracious in defeat, making no excuses and calling Wawrinka the better player — this is interesting because it underscores that more of the top players are manifestly taking a fresh interest in playing the net. Rafa Nadal is perhaps the most reluctant to go this way, though his challenger the other day, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, goes to the net whenever he can and gave the mighty Majorcan a scare in the first set of their quarterfinal match.

The most gorgeous examples here have been Miss Radwanska on the women’s side and, on the men’s, the all-court classicist Roger Federer, who in every match at Melbourne Park — where he has won four trophies, the last in 2010 — has been putting on exquisite demonstrations of how this kind of tennis is played. But the others are doing it too, and Djokovic’s final attempts were themselves beautiful examples of the play, except that the volleys went long.

Predictions are based on what sportwriters see athletes doing; but the latter are adapting all the time to everything in their environment, most notably their opponents’ evolution. No more than when you try to plan an economy, you cannot plan a season in any sport, which is why baseball managers proverbially get ulcers and tennis coaches are confounded and writers are surprised. It becomes much more interesting when you try to learn as much as you can but admit ya never know.

Semis: Federer vs. Nadal and Berdych vs. Wawrinka, Bouchard vs. Li and Cibulkova vs. Radwanska, can be caught on ESPN and Tennis Channel, and keep in mind there are also some excellent doubles, notably the attractive Australian mixed doubles pair of Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.