Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Third Man

To paraphrase Harry Lime, "In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, and they had five hundred years of democracy and peace -- and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock"... and Roger Federer. But what Novak Djokovic has done might be even more impressive -- he's managed to carve out two grand slam titles for himself in the Rafa & Roger Era.

Before the season began, I remarked in this space about the ATP's seemingly-eternal search for a definitive "third," a player who would officially declare himself as the man at the head of the class of a field that has been dominated by two players for most of the last decade. Heading into this Australian Open, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had won four straight slams, ten of the last eleven, twenty-one of twenty-three, and twenty-three of twenty-six over various stretches going all the way back to 2004. Since mid-2005, only two other men had claimed slam titles, Juan Martin del Potro (at the '09 US Open, and he's been dealing with a wrist injury almost ever since) and Djokovic ('08 Australian), while only a few more -- Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Robin Soderling & Tomas Berdych -- had even hinted at something greater in unsuccessful runs to slam finals. With neither Federer nor Nadal having advanced to the '11 AO final -- just the fifth time it's happened in the thirty-one slams dating back to Federer winning his first Wimbledon in '03 -- "the third man" seemed ready to step out of the shadows.

And, thus, on the final day of the 2011 Australian Open, 23-year old Serb Djokovic, playing in his second consecutive slam final, officially became that man by winning his second title in Melbourne in the last four seasons. Not that he got much opposition from his final opponent -- '10 AO runner-up Murray -- beyond a filled-with-long-rallies opening set in Djokovic's fairly matter-of-fact 6-4/6-2/6-3 victory. While the Scot said after the match that he felt he'd performed better than he did when he similarly collapsed in the final against Federer (he actually lost by a closer score, 6-3/6-4/7-6), he is perhaps the only person on earth who could really see any optimistic difference in the two outings.

Of course, considering that Djokovic defeated 16-time slam champ Federer in straight sets in the semis, giving him wins over the Swiss star in back-to-back slams, and lost just one set in the tournament (a 10-8 tie-break in the 2nd Round, leaving him just short of equaling the no-sets-lost Open era AO feats of Ken Rosewall in '71 and Federer in '07), Murray may not have ever had much of a chance on this day. But since it's Murray we're talking about, who'd entered this match having won six straight sets over his Serbian opponent, his final fate would have probably been the same even if Djokovic hadn't been waiting for him in the final.

For when the going gets tough, Murray usually gets going.

Having reached three slam finals in his career, he's still yet to win his first set. Generally, he begins the proceedings fairly well, but then his play quickly unravels into a tight, cover-your-eyes performance punctuated by slump-shouldered stalking of the baseline and a string of whiny, curse-filled outbursts directed as much at no one in particular as to as everyone within earshot. His feet appear glued to the court's surface, his head hangs down, his shots go off and his hopes of success are nil. One good game is followed by a horrid one. A winner one point is quickly neutralized by an error the next. Oh, and did I mention all the "don't-make-that-face, it-might-freeze-that-way" moments along the way? There, now I have. They're all just just par for the course in one of the Scot's now-patented grand slam collapses in which he eventually comes to resemble a jelly fish in tennis shoes.

At this point, is there really any reason to think that Murray will EVER win the slam that so many have seemed to think he was pointed toward for years? I mean, Nikolay Davydenko is a fine in-season player, too, but he's simply never possessed the mental make-up to truly compete for a slam. What makes Murray any different? Now, granted, Murray's game has always sort of put me to sleep, but its effectiveness has never been questioned over the balance of an ATP season. But in the heat of the do-it-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace battle for a slam title, Murray has so far been nothing short of a disaster. The fact is, no matter how many coaches he works with, unless the Scot changes something essential within himself he's going to end up winning precisely as many slam titles as Davydenko, as well as the previously most recent "new hope" for the first British men's slam champ since Fred Perry in 1936, Tim Henman. Murray and Djokovic might have been born only a week apart, but while the Serb positively glows with red-hot desire to succeed in the slam spotlight, his British counterpart appears to be painted head-to-toe in something akin to a boring beige.

From here, Perry's ghost has nothing to worry about. At least not for a while.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Djokovic. He seems to have fully come into his own. He's no longer quite the joker of years ago, but he's also not the somewhat-defensive individual who seemed to close down large parts of his one-man entertainment show after word got around that a few players (well, at least one from Mallorca) might not have liked his crowd-pleasing impressionist act, and then even felt a few New York crowds turning on him when he got into a verbal off-court jousting match with Andy Roddick a while back. In 2011, he's happily somewhere in the middle. Maybe now the best hard court player in the world, he's as confident as ever as the unquestioned leader of Serbia's first Davis Cup championship-winning team, and he's also back to being one of the most unique personalities in the sport. Watching him cutting a rug -- well, at least a practice court service line -- with Aussie pro dancer Kym Johnson in Melbourne, and his near-strip tease awarding of most of his clothes to fans in the stands after this AO final prove that. So did his rather sober post-match ceremony speech, in which he actually trumped the usually-on-these-things-like-a-dingo-on-a-baby women's champ Kim Clijsters' by being the only of this weekend's singles champs to make on-court mention of the victims of the massive floods that struck Australia just before the start of the tournament. It was a nice, mature touch.

With the ATP's "third man" now identified (and, hardly shocking, he turned out to be the candidate most likely to succeed all along, having been entrenched as the world #3 for the last four years), the story now evolves into one in which Djokovic attempts to up his station in the tour's hierachy, possibly even over the course of 2011. Thus, the clock officially begins now for the next adventure of the Serbian Prince Who Could One Day Be King.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

Meanwhile, Katarina Srebotnik, with Daniel Nestor, won the Mixed Doubles title, defeating Chan Yung-Jan and Paul Hanley 10-7 in a Super Tie-Breaker to decide the title and splitting the first two sets. The Slovenian veteran, who recently retired from singles play, has won five career slam Mixed championships, tied with Cara Black for the most by any player active on tour.

5...Cara Black, ZIM
4...Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
4...Lisa Raymond, USA
2...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2...Liezel Huber, USA
2...Samantha Stosur, AUS
2...Venus Williams, USA
2...Serena Williams, USA
2...Vera Zvonareva, RUS
ALSO: 2-Rennae Stubbs, AUS

16...Roger Federer, SUI
9...Rafael Nadal, ESP
2...Lleyton Hewitt, AUS
1...Juan Martin del Potro, ARG
1...Juan Carlos Ferrero, ESP
1...Andy Roddick, USA
[Australian Open - active]
4...Roger Federer - 2004,06-07,10
2...NOVAK DJOKOVIC - 2008,11
1...Rafael Nadal - 2009

[Men - Open era]
14...Marat Safin, RUS (2000 US Open / 2005 Australian Open)
12...NOVAK DJOKOVIC, SRB (2008 Australian Open / 2011 Australian Open)

2007 U.S. Open - lost to Roger Federer
2008 Australian Open - def. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
2010 U.S. Open - lost to Rafael Nadal
2011 Australian Open - def. Andy Murray
[Tour Championships]
2008 def. Nikolay Davydenko
2008 Bronze Medal Match - def. James Blake
[Davis Cup]
2010 Serbia def. France

[as champ...since 2005 Roland Garros]
2008 AO: Novak Djokovic
2009 US: Juan Martin del Potro
2011 AO: Novak Djokovic
[in final...since 2003 Wimbledon]
2003 U.S. Open - Andy Roddick d. Juan Carlos Ferrero
2004 Roland Garros - Gaston Gaudio d. Guillermo Coria
2005 Australian Open - Marat Safin d. Lleyton Hewitt
2008 Australian Open - Novak Djokovic d. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
2011 Australian Open - Novak Djokovic d. Andy Murray

#3 Kim Clijsters/BEL def. #9 Li Na/CHN 3-6/6-3/6-3

#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #5 Andy Murray/GBR 6-4/6-2/6-3

#1 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA) def. #12 Azarenka/Kirilenko (BLR/RUS) 2-6/7-5/6-1

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #3 Bhupathi/Paes (IND/IND) 6-3/6-4

#2 Srebotnik/Nestor (SLO/CAN) def. Chan/Hanley (TPE/AUS) 6-3/3-6/10-7

#2 An-Sophie Mestach/BEL def. #5 Monica Puig/PUR 6-4/6-2

#1 Jiri Vesely/CZE def. Luke Seville/AUS 6-0/6-3

#6 An-Sophie Mestach/Demi Schuurs (BEL/NED) def. Eri Hozumi/Miyu Kato (JPN/JPN) 6-2/6-3

#2 Filip Horansky/Jiri Vesely (SVK/CZE) def. #3 Ben Wagland/Andrew Whittington (AUS/AUS) 6-4/6-4

TOP QUALIFIER: Vesna Manasieva/RUS
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Sloane Stephens/USA def. Liana-Gabriela Ungur/ROU 7-6/1-6/8-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Ekaterina Makarova/RUS d. #19 Ana Ivanovic/SRB 3-6/6-4/10-8 (on 6th MP, 1:31 3rd set)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #23 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS 6-4/1-6/16-14 (Open era record 4:44, saved 6 MP)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): SF - #9 Li Na/CHN d. #1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN 3-6/7-5/6-3 (saved 1 MP)
TOP NIGHT MATCH:: 3rd Rd. - #25 Petra Kvitova/CZE d. #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS 7-6/6-3
FIRST WINNER: Evgeniya Rodina/RUS (1st Rd. - def. WC Olivia Rogowska/AUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #28 Daniela Hantuchova/SVK (1st Rd. - lost to Kulikova/RUS)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Vesna Manasieva/RUS (3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: #2 (jr) An-Sophie Mestach/BEL
COMEBACK PLAYER: #12 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
CRASH & BURN: #7 Jelena Jankovic/SRB (2nd Rd. - lost to Peng/CHN)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA (saved 6 MP vs. Kuznetsova/RUS in 4th Rd.)
LAST SHEILA STANDING: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (3rd Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: #30 Andrea Petkovic/GER
DOUBLES STARS: Gisela Dulko & Flavia Pennetta, ARG/ITA
JUNIOR BREAKOUTS: Japanese girls

All for now. Dorothy Tour Awards and Fed Cup 1st Round picks this week.


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