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Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Australian Open Analysis

The 2008 Australian Open was a great tournament from beginning to end. There were some gripping clashes from the outset. The tennis was first class as the players produced high level stuff all through the fortnight on the new Plexicushion courts. All in all, we could hardly have asked for more from the first major of the new season.
Let’s look at what happened and break it down.

I felt all along that this Australian Open would set the tone for Roger Federer in 2008. Had he won the tournament for the fourth time in five years--- as was his clear goal--- he would have been well positioned to celebrate another fantastic year. In 2004, he used his first Australian Open triumph as a springboard to a stellar campaign, and went on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open later in that season. In 2006, he secured another Australian Open crown and was in every Grand Slam tournament final, collecting three more major singles titles for the year. And in 2007, he glided through the Australian Open without the loss of a set, posting Wimbledon and U.S. Open victories again later in the year, reaching every major final again.

In each of those three cases--- 2004, 2006, and 2007--- Federer set himself up beautifully by coming through the field “Down Under” at the Australian Open. He took the pressure off for the rest of those years by getting on the Grand Slam board the first chance he had. In 2005, he lost an epic encounter with Marat Safin in five tumultuous sets, then was beaten in the semifinals of the French Open by Rafael Nadal, but recouped admirably to capture the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. And yet, by his recent standards, that was not the best of years; Federer, after all, had to settle for a mere two Grand Slam championships!

Be that as it may, what is the significance of his semifinal defeat against Novak Djokovic this year in Melbourne? It may be too early to read the tea leaves on this one, but I will try to put the loss in perspective. Federer had the misfortune to get a stomach virus the week before the tournament, which hindered his preparation. It was not the ideal way to go into a major. But the fact remains that he swept through his first two matches in straight sets before surviving 10-8 in the fifth set against Janko Tipsarevic. After that, he defeated Tomas Berdych and James Blake in straight sets. So the evidence suggested that Federer--- all things considered---was in pretty good shape, and had put his health woes behind him.

He had reached ten consecutive Grand Slam tournament finals, and thus a big string was broken when he was beaten by Djokovic. The guess here is that he will have his work cut out for him to win two majors this year, and might even have to settle for one. Why is that the case? He will be hard pressed to win for the first time at Roland Garros. To be sure, Federer has had a remarkable record at the French Open. The only player to beat him on the red clay at Roland Garros across the last three years is Nadal, who toppled the world No. 1 in the 2005 semifinals, and the 2006 and 2007 finals.

That is a clear demonstration that Federer is a serious threat to win the French Open. And yet, the odds remain against him at that venue on that surface. I would clearly not count him out, but the guess here--- at least for now--- is that he will not secure the crown this year. If that happens, he would then head into Wimbledon looking for his first major of the year. He has won five titles in a row at the All England Club, and would be the clear favorite again this season. He probably will do it again on the grass, but sooner or later a streak of that magnitude has to end. Then, win or lose, he will move on to the U.S. Open in search of a fifth singles title in a row.

Depending on what happens between now and then, he will be the man to beat again in New York, but perhaps only a slight favorite. Last year he became the first man in the “Open Era” to prevail at the U.S. Open four years in a row. So that is another astonishing streak that could be broken this year. My long range guess is that Federer will win either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open again this year, but not both. And if he indeed does not break through in Paris, that would leave him with only one major title for 2008. I reserve the right to change my mind later this year when I have more evidence with which to weigh how Federer is playing. We still need to see how successfully he rebounds from his setback in Australia. But, having said that, I will say for now that I see him only winning one “Big Four” title in 2008.

With a little bit of luck, Novak Djokovic would have won his first major without the loss of a set. The 20-year-old Serbian moved through to the final without dropping a set in six matches before losing the first set of the final to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He then regrouped impressively and took that match in four sets to enter the land of the elite as a Grand Slam tournament champion. That took fortitude against an inspired adversary who was vociferously supported by the crowd.

But the defining moment for Djokovic was his 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5) triumph over Federer. They had not met since the U.S. Open final last September, when Federer recorded a straight set win despite being in some difficult situations. Federer won that match in straight sets but only after rescuing himself on numerous occasions. In the opening set, Djokovic was serving at 6-5, 40-0, triple set point. He had five set points in that critical game, but his anxiety was his undoing. Federer kept slicing backhand returns into the wind and making Djokovic generate his own pace. Djokovic cracked, losing his serve, dropping that set in a tie-break.

In the second set, Djokovic led 4-1 and later had two set points with Federer serving at 4-5, but did not convert again. Federer coolly worked his way out of another bind, took the set in another tie-break and came through in the third like a champion. He deserved to win because he played the big points the way they should be played, giving nothing away, daring Djokovic to find a way to beat him.But the feeling here is that both men knew a serious rivalry was brewing. In their previous meeting, Djokovic had ousted Federer in a final set tie-break in the final of Montreal. That was his first win over the world No. 1, and he did it in style.

So a lot was at stake in Melbourne. Djokovic was determined to prove that he could beat Federer on a big occasion after his agonizing loss in New York. He was overwhelmed by the occasion at the U.S. Open. He did not fear Federer as much as he was unnerved by the thought of closing in on a career changing moment. He faltered in New York but in Melbourne he was more mature and able to summon his composure when it mattered. Against Federer, Djokovic turned the tables with some clutch play of his own. In the opening set of his semifinal against the world champion, Djokovic was serving at 3-5, 0-30, second serve. One false move there and the set would have been gone in a hurry. In turn, Federer would have been off and running and perhaps impossible to stop.

So how did Djokovic respond? He swung an excellent slice second serve wide to the Federer forehand, and the Swiss maestro could not handle it. Djokovic then threw in two aces and held on. In an astounding turn of events, he closed out the first set on a brilliant run of four straight games, and swept nine of ten games to open up a 5-1 second set lead. Federer found some of his range again to take two games in a row before Djokovic pocketed the second set. In the third, both men obstinately held serve all the way until the tie-break, but Djokovic had to demonstrate some mettle to get there. At 5-6, he saved two set points on his serve. An unstoppable first serve to the backhand saved the first, and an excellent serve setting up a forehand winner enabled Djokovic to wipe out the second one. In the tie-break, Djokovic rallied from 3-1 down. When he reached match point with Federer serving at 5-6, Djokovic was fully stretched out on his two-hander by a terrific wide serve, but he somehow managed to get it back with very good depth. He then out-rallied Federer from the baseline to seal the verdict 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5).

That was a superb piece of business for Djokovic. To be sure, Federer had endured a tough fortnight after being stricken with a stomach virus the week before the event. He had come perilously close to losing in the third round to Tipsarevic, serving to save the match four times, handling the pressure with typical poise. But then Federer had not lost another set on his way to the penultimate round. He seemed have his bearings. He did not play his best tennis against Djokovic, but the Serbian had a lot to do with Federer being off his game. He served awfully well the last two sets. His first serve is now one of the best in the sport. And his returning against Federer was remarkably good. Moreover, his combination of offense and defense from the back of the court is an incredible asset. He beat Federer soundly when they went backhand to backhand, and he held his own off the forehand. Very few men can battle Federer so convincingly from the back court.

In the final, Djokovic was preoccupied with some problems his family was having in the stands, and he did not take control from the baseline in the opening set. Tsonga, meanwhile, was picking up where he had left off against Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Nadal never quite knew what had hit him in that match. Tsonga—dictating points freely, mixing up his serve skillfully, displaying touch on the drop volley that was nothing short of stupendous---obliterated Nadal 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 in a breathtaking demonstration of his talent--- was making a big move at this tournament.

He had come into the event at No. 38 in the world, but had knocked out No. 9 seed Andy Murray, No. 8 Richard Gasquet, and No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny before routing Nadal, who had not lost a set himself on his way to the semifinals. Tsonga is a rapidly emerging star, an athlete of the highest order, a player who is just beginning to tap into his talent. He was a dangerous opponent for Djokovic, who was coming off such a big win and could not afford to let his guard down. But Djokovic settled down admirably in the second set and gradually took control of the match with the depth, accuracy and penetration of his shots. Tsonga was worn down badly by the middle of the third set. Tsonga found another gear in the fourth and Djokovic grew unsettled by nerves and a slight strain in his hamstring, but the Serbian pulled through in four sets.

I believe Djokovic will be the chief challenger to Federer for the No. 1 world ranking in the year ahead. Nadal will definitely remain in the mix, and I expect him to celebrate another great clay court season. But Djokovic, a semifinalist at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year, is better equipped to deal with Federer from the beginning of the season until the end on all surfaces. It will be fascinating to watch it all play out in 2008. There is an excellent chance that the four majors will be divided three ways this year. And Djokovic will surely make a strong bid to prevent the mighty Federer from finishing No. 1 in the world for the fifth consecutive year.

Along with many other close followers of the game, I fully expected Justine Henin to win her second Australian Open, and an eighth Grand Slam championship in the process. She had lost only four times in 2007, and did not lose a match after her semifinal defeat at Wimbledon against Marion Bartoli. But Henin was beaten comprehensively in the quarters by a top of the line Maria Sharapova, who went on to win the tournament without losing a set in seven matches.

I saw Sharapova win her first major at Wimbledon in 2004. At 17, seeded 13th, barely aware of what she was doing, Sharapova cast aside two-time defending champion Serena Williams in the final of that event. Two years later, she took apart Henin methodically in a straight set U.S. Open final. And now she has taken her third major title. But she has never played better than she did in Melbourne.

In the second round, she faced former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who had already captured three tournaments since her return to singles last September. In a scintillating performance, Sharapova crushed Davenport in straight sets. In the quarterfinals, Sharapova took on Henin. Henin did not play badly. She kept searching for ways to hurt Sharapova, tried to take the ball early and dictate, looked for openings whenever she could find them.

But Sharapova played the match of her life. Her serve was devastatingly potent and accurate. She was broken only once. And her mobility--- never a strong suit in the past--- was eye-catching. In the past, Henin had almost always managed to expose that weakness, moving Maria around the court like a chess player, making Sharapova play too many running forehands for her own good. But this time around, Sharapova was incredibly quick off the mark. Her court coverage was outstanding. Her ball striking was only enhanced by her mobility. Sharapova was hitting winners on the dead run with regularity and comfort. In the end, she crushed Henin 6-4, 6-0 like a consummate professional. She was relentlessly aggressive from the baseline, and her forehand held up admirably. It was the kind of match Sharapova must have dreamed of playing.

And yet, there was more work to be done. She beat both Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic--- the two great Serbians--- back to back for the crown, winning both matches in straight sets. In the final, Sharapova wasted a 4-2 lead on a stifling day in the sunshine. She then served at 4-5, 0-30, two points away from dropping that first set. Sharapova remained entirely composed, took that set on a run of three straight games, and came through 7-5, 6-3. Now the only major to elude her is the French Open. The jury is still out on whether or not Sharapova will win that clay court event some day. Clay is her weakest surface, although she was a surprise semifinalist at Roland Garros last year.

But whether or not she does eventually get the job done in Paris, Sharapova will undoubtedly win at least two more majors in her career, and maybe more. I expect her to wage a credible campaign to unseat Henin at No. 1 in the world this year, although she will probably fall short of that goal. Henin is so reliable and so utterly professional that it is hard to imagine her not having another banner year in 2008. But Sharapova will win another big prize this year--- at least as I see it. She will have a good chance to prevail either at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.A year ago, Sharapova was troubled by a serious shoulder injury. She was beaten 6-1, 6-2 by Serena Williams in the Australian Open final of 2007, and it was apparent that she could not serve at full strength. The problem resurfaced at different stages last year. But now she seems to have put that problem behind her. I have no doubt that this will be the best year yet for Maria Sharapova.


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