It is not correct to generalize and it is not factual that all women who play tennis are divas. You might as well say all male tennis players are egomaniacs. It is demonstrably false. There is much humility in tennis because the sport teaches you that winning depends on you alone and you cannot blame anyone else. Even in doubles it would be viewed as insufferably bad form, especially if your partner made most of the mistakes: maybe they were made because you set him up.
Serena Williams blamed no one but herself for bowing out in the fourth round of the Australian Open last week, snapping a breathtaking winning streak that included wins last year at Roland-Garros, Wimbledon, and Flushing Meadows, three of the four great tournaments. Everyone in the tennis world with a microphone or a typewriter said she was bound to win at Melbourne Park, giving her a Serena Slam, which is what tennis commentators have taken to calling four in a row but not in the same calendar year.
She crushed all opposition through the early rounds, asking no favors and giving no quarter. She lost only 12 games until her meeting with Ana Ivanovic. Those big fierce eyes were blazing and the big hair, orange red this time, was flying. I cannot vouch absolutely for it because I saw all this on TV. (Due to certain circumstances, TAS is relying on television, no reflection on Australia, a great country.) Miss Williams is very strong and relies on a serve that, when it is working, is the hardest but also the most accurate on the women’s tour, but I have always thought her superiority is due less to these two factors than to her astonishing ability to run down anything and place her shots where she wants them from any angle.
The contrast between her first three matches and the one against Ana Ivanovic, a former number one who fell in the WTA rankings in the late ’00s, was therefore glaring. The world No. 1 and top seed here simply was not moving with alacrity. She faced the net and whacked the ball instead of stepping sideways into it. The fundamentals were so far off you had to think she was giving a counter-class, compared to the master classes she usually gives.
On the other hand — and she acknowledged this — Miss Ivanovic seemed to have recovered her old form. Her game was gorgeous. She is, too, but that is neither here nor there, unless maybe it is, since some observers, maybe with a touch of envy, have noted from time to time that her slide in the rankings was due as much to her modeling career as to injuries.
She now goes into the final stretch, with a chance to meet defending champion Vika Azarenka in the final, who looked awfully dominant in brushing aside a fourth-round challenge by the young American hope Sloane Stephens. But other contenders are getting their shots of mental adrenaline from Miss Williams’ exit and that of another contender, Maria Sharapova, who was outplayed in three sets by Dominika Cibulkova, who is from Bratislava and stands five feet and three inches, nearly a foot shorter than the blond bombshell from Nyagan and lately Bradenton. Outplayed it is, although she certainly helped with a profusion of double faults. Like Miss Williams, the Ice Queen of Florida (though a Siberian native) has suffered debilitating injuries. The American’s appeared to have ended her career until she roared back a couple years ago; the Russian has had shoulder surgery, which may well explain the persisting troubles of her service game.
These women are not wimps, however, and they make no excuses. The agile and graceful Agnieszka Radwanska demolished Garbiñe Muguruza and will meet Miss Azarenka in the next round.
On the men’s side, the major early upsets came in the first and second rounds when Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Martín del Potro were knocked out in five sets. Donald Young’s loss to Kei Nishikori was not really unexpected, but his strong play in the first two rounds had raised hopes among observers of the weak American field that he might, this time, go as deep as his talent suggests he can and as his tendency to give up when he falls behind suggests he cannot. Jerzy Janowicz, the big (six-eight), big serving, irascible and talented Lodz native went down in three sets after a good start in the first two rounds.
Otherwise, orthodoxy reigned during the first week, with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer losing a grand total of one set among them through four rounds. Federer, coming off a disappointing year, was most impressive. His classic form and all-court brilliance have been fully on display, with breathtaking passing shots, unerring reflexes at the net, perfect aces when he needed them, as when he closed out the match.
Federer will meet Murray in the quarters, which could produce a classic of strategic finesse on both sides. Djokovic will finally have a game on his hands, as he meets Stanislas Wawrinka, who has been playing as well as he ever has and has a history of taking the defending champ to the very limit. In the other quarterfinal matches, Nadal will be challenged by a young hot shot, Grigor Dimitrov, who beat the mighty Milos Raonic in the third round and one of the surprises of the tournament, Roberto Bautista, in the fourth. The other quarter is between two of the best players perennially frustrated by the big four, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych.
Are predictions useful in tennis? Are polls more a distraction than a real forecast in politics? I admit I never make predictions and I seldom pay attention to polls, figuring that the only one that counts is the one on election day. They all predicted a Serena win, and see what happened. No one expected a resurgent Ana, nor for that matter the great run of Simona Halep, a 22-year old Romanian whose best big-time performance was at last year’s U.S. Open, when she made it to the fourth round. There is also the Canadian teen phenom Eugenie Bouchard, who meets Ana Ivanovic next and frankly all bets ought to be off she is so good — but so, lately, is Ana. And not to forget Na Li, the most famous Chinese in the world. She meets Italian veteran Flavia Pennetta (she is a few weeks shy of 32), who has lost only one set so far, to a favored Angelique Kerber.
In a way, the best thing that has happened so far at Melbourne Park is that an Australian teen, Thanasi Kokkinakis, took eight games in three sets against Rafa Nadal in the second round and showed he had grit, spunk, a winning ambition. Another one, Nick Kyrgios, went five sets against French hope Benoît Paire in the second round, after beating German veteran Benjamin Becker in the first. One of the big gaps in tennis has been the absence of a strong Australian presence. Rather than make predictions for the coming tournaments, keep an eye on these kids and hope our academies and camps and colleges can produce a few like them, too.