Federer falls in the third round! Nadal knocked out in straight sets by the man he beat seventeen times in a row! Venus and Serena, fantastic as ever, and Serena takes it all! Two fab teens, one Aussie, one American, make splendid runs into the second week. There was plenty of excitement at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, even from the distance and as seen on the small screen. Best of all, Leander Paes of India and Martina Hingis of Switzerland, teaming up in mixed doubles, beat the defending champs, Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor, for the title in that draw. It is always thrilling to see legends remain legendary.
There were sensational points though no matches that immediately passed into legend. But that is not necessary for a successful Grand Slam tournament. There were some high moments of competition, predictions were shattered, young people came up, and in the end veterans outplayed them, as usually they do; the show goes on. The Oz Open augurs well for a good 2015 Tour.
Roger Federer fans have some cause to worry, and probably will suffer some stress until he makes a deep run, perhaps at the upcoming Indian Wells (California) tournament. Because he has been the finest player of the past fifteen years on the men’s tour, and his fans want him to keep going, and he wants to keep going, there is a special anxiety every time he loses early, as he did here, his earliest exit in this Open, which he has won four times.
He is fit, at 33, and strong, and graceful as ever and probably still possesses the best all around, all court game in the sport. This means that for probably as long as he wants, at least into his forties, he can, in fact, keep going. The problem is that he is like the New York Yankees — doing well in the early rounds of a tournament, which is respectable by any measure for most mortals, is simply not enough. Most baseball teams are happy if they make the post-season regularly. The Yankees have to get all the way to the World Series and, one or two years out of three, win it.
Federer is, in fact, currently ranked number two or three in the ATP. That is phenomenal, extending a streak of being up there among the five best for about as long as anyone remembers. But he is also the all-time Grand Slam men singles’ record holder, at seventeen. He has just about everything a champion could wish; winning the Davis Cup for Switzerland (their first) last December capped a great come-back year after the injuries of 2013 that provoked insinuations of decline and fall in the sports press. The only thing Federer does not have that I can think of is two single-year Grand Slams (where you win every major, or Slam, in the same calendar year), a feat achieved by the legend in his own time Rod Laver, after whom the main stadium at Melbourne is named.
So after he won his first two matches fairly easily, it was something of a pain to see him lose to Andreas Seppi of Italy in the third round in four sets that ended with a superb down-the-line forehand shot, as if to underscore that, notwithstanding close scores in each set, Seppi was in charge, for all practical purposes, all the way through, finding ways of blunting Federer’s aggressive play.
Seppi is a fine player, who has toiled for years in respectable rankings (presently No. 46), and there is no disgrace in eventually running into him when he is having an exceptional day. The same thing happened to Rafael Nadal in the quarters, except that it was more evident that his opponent, Tomas Berdych, who had not beaten him since 2006 or thereabouts, had finally figured out a winning plan. This was all the more surprising as Berdych, a tall handsome silent type, has a reputation for predictability. He does the same thing over and over, namely rely on extremely strong deep well-placed groundstrokes, and if you can deal with those, you can figure out how to outfox him. This time he outfoxed the tenacious, never-say-die Nadal. He was pulling him into the alleys with monster serves and angled crosscourts, then firing into the other side of the court. Nadal at the end looked completely spent, exhausted and without answers.
So, two of the Big Four down, two to go. These, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, Scot versus Serb, as fate would have it, were on opposite sides of the draw, so they met in the final. Or rather, Brit vs. Serb, until the next referendum, though Murray himself is always very sensible and courteous about such issues when they are brought up, which is how he is generally, except on the court, when he goes in for histrionics and foul language. Both men seemed unbeatable for two weeks and the consensus was that they fully deserved to be there, notwithstanding that Djokovic won his semi against defending champ Stan Wawrinka (who helped mightily in the Swiss Davis Cup victory) in a match both acknowledged was rather sluggish.
Maybe it was in the air, with deflated footballs and such, but Murray, whose sportsmanship is exemplary most of the time, insinuated that Djokovic, who also usually strikes observers as a class act when it comes to paying respect to opponents, used gamesmanship when they were at one set each and got Murray flustered by faking an injury. Murray got ahead early in the third then fell apart and ended up crushed in the fourth, 6-0, bagel.
Djokovic certainly did not play the last set and a half like someone with a bad cramp or other injury, which what he briefly looked like. What exactly psyched out Murray? Sometimes when you jinx yourself, you say the other fellow jinxed you. But we’ll never know.
What we do know is that Djokovic now has five Australian Opens under his belt and, of the Big Four, is starting the year strongest. Nothing succeeds like success, and while the Open gave a big boost to the sport in revealing younger talent coming up, in particular the Canadian Milos Raonic and a phenomenal 19-year-old Australian, Nick Kyrgios, it remains the rule that, in the excruciating endurance contest of a two-week grand slam event, the experience of several years (Djokovic, to be sure, is only 27) is crucial.
This is true of Serena Williams too, who, on the women’s side, fought off two tough challenges, in the semis and the final, the first by 19-year-old Madison Keys, the second by her great rival Maria Sharapova. Miss Williams, at 33, is untouchable when she is in good form and feeling well, which is most of the time. More exactly: she is touchable, those last two matches proved it, but she almost always pulls through when she decides she wants to. Pulls through and pulls away: the typical Serena Williams match consists of a slow start, perhaps a lost first set, and then she turns the tables, changes the rhythm, crushes her opponent. Given the way Miss Keys plays, however, it is safe to bet that when Miss Williams slows down (if she ever does), there will be another American with a good shot at dominating the women’s tour.
So it was that kind of tournament. But to be honest, the part that may turn out to be most memorable was in the most obscure category, the mixed doubles. Say what you want about doubles, it isn’t singles, and mixed doubles isn’t doubles doubles. Well, this sounds like the nonsense it surely is, but it is a way of saying that when you see such a marvelous run as the one that Martina Hingis and Leander Paes made in winning, it is all the more pleasing.
Martina Hingis, a child-defector (with her mother) from Communist Czechoslovakia to Switzerland (she is a Swiss citizen), is a child prodigy of tennis who for some ten years between the mid 1990s and the mid ’00s was one of the most exciting and admired players on the women’s tour, despite some serious injuries and even though she received a suspension for a minute trace of something or other that the International Tennis Federation decided was forbidden fruit, voluntarily ingested, though she claimed she did not know how it got there. That was unfortunate because she had a meteoric career, winning all the slams except the French, with three wins at the Australian, one at the U.S. and one at Wimbledon. She also won them all in doubles, including a Grand Slam in 1998. She also did this twice in mixed doubles.
She returned to the tour last year and this year is off to a good start in the doubles game at which she always excelled. The same age as Serena Williams’ sister Venus (who reached the quarters at Melbourne, itself a remarkable comeback since she had not advanced so far in a slam in the past five years), there is no reason not to see plenty more of her. Her partner in victory is the legend-in-his-own time Leander Paes, one of the winningest doubles players of all time and, at 42, a veteran and winner of fifteen Grand Slam events (Miss Hingis has sixteen).
Moving in perfect step with each other, the Paes-Hingis duo seemed always a step ahead of the ball, which is what you are supposed to be in tennis but cannot always be, and even less so in the quicker game of doubles. And even when he was a step behind the ball, Paes found a way to catch it, as when he hit a volley with his arm wrapped around his back. It went in. The shot came back at him, but he was already at the net and he put it away. Indian tennis fans — millions, perhaps even many millions — were thrilled, but so were Paes’s many fans in Washington tennis, on whose world team tennis team he plays.
Just two years ago Paes won the U.S. Open men’s doubles, teaming with Czech star Radek Stepanek, who was rumored to be close romantically to Miss Hingis. She, it must be said if we are sliding into true confessions mode, won a slam event in the early ’00s with the great Mahesh Bhupatti, long a tennis groupie heartthrob in India and Paes’ former men’s doubles partner in the Indian Express. Small world. Smaller than football even. But nobody touches the balls. Until someone tosses the first serve.