Has there been a wackier Slam in recent memory? It all began on Day 1 with a great women's match, the rarest of rarities. A match that deteriorated into a never-ending farce when Tamira Paszek served for the match against Jelena Jankovic. Five times. Wasted three match points before the Serbian backboard outlasted the trembling teen to advance to the second round. Days later, the backboard upset a lethargic and seemingly uninterested defending champion to make her first semifinal Down Under, only to succumb, finally, to a slew of injuries(?) and a relentless onslaught by the eventual champion. Surely, the One-Flew-Over-the Cuckoo's-Nest match set the tone for the fortnight. As I go through Slam withdrawal, a few lessons from Melbourne are making themselves known.
1. Maria Sharapova is streaky. For all of the commentators' opinions that Maria has added to her game and that she's moving better than she ever has, I simply point to the 2006 US Open final. Her demolition of Justine Henin wasn't as close as the 6-4, 6-4 score suggests. Maria defended well, transitioned well, volleyed well and never game Justine a chance to dictate from anywhere on the court. Fastforward to Melbourne 2008, and it's a virtual repeat. (We were reminded that Justine can still be hit off the court. ) As it is, Maria won the third Slam of 2004, the last Slam of 2006, and the first Slam of 2008. If her streakiness continues on schedule, she's set to win the second Slam of 2010. That would be Roland Garros where she would complete the career Slam. And then I woke up.
2. Novak Djokovic is the new Bad Boy of tennis. And he loves it. I suppose I ought to have learned that already, but it became more clear in his round of 16 match against Lleyton Hewitt when he mimicked the Aussie's lawn mower celebrations and even the "C'mon!" with the hand pointed toward the forehead. So much for Lleyton's trademark. Djoke (and his family) feeds off the me-against-the-world mindset. If he can antagonize the crowd, all the better. He relishes mocking them with a scowl after saving a break point. Winning a crucial game. All of it a big FU to those who would cheer for somebody else. How dare they. Add that to his phantom injury timeouts, his bush-league set tanks, his abject narcissism and his overbearing parents and he makes other bad boys look like angels.
3. Serena Williams plays Slam-winning tennis when she's unfit and unprepared. At least in the past three years. Or maybe she just can't stand the pressure of defending a Slam title. In her eight trips to the winner's circle, she's only defended a title once: Wimbledon 2003. But wait, this was an even year. With her Melbourne titles coming in 2003, 2005, and 2007, only a fool woulda thunk she'd take it 2008. Foolish me.
4. The King is dead. If you believe Djoke's big-mouthed mother, that is. But as I said before the event began, change is in the air. The closer Raja gets to Slam 14, the more difficult winning will become. When did he start having so much trouble closing out sets? He failed to serve out a set against Janko Tipsarevic and lost it. Had to go overtime in the fifth. He failed to serve out a set against Djoke and lost the match in straights. Raja didn't use his illness and lack of preparation as an excuse. And after having his way with Fabrice Santoro, many of his fans foresaw another run to the title. I was most surprised by Raja's lack of fight in the face of defeat against an opponent he doesn't like. (Does he like anyone? Really?) It was eerily reminiscent to Serena's lack of fight against another Serb.
5. Ana Ivanovic has become Lleyton Hewitt. I know they call her Aussie Ana and all that, but still. Forget about Squeakyshoegate, which came to a head in her semifinal against Daniela Hantuchova. (Yup. That's right. Daniela Hantuchova, Grand Slam semifinalist! Jon Wertheim's out-of-the-box pick finally delivered.) Reflect on the "C'mons!", the fist pumps in her opponents' faces, especially on their errors, and the protracted theatrics after winning the big points. Hell, after winning any point. What's with the Serbs and Lleyton? Speaking of which...
6. Lleyton Hewitt is done. No matter how fit he is, no matter how legendary his coach, Rusty's biggest weapon just doesn't cut it anymore. What is speed without a knock-out punch? Nothing at all. Not in the men's game anyway. I'd like to say he could find more Davis Cup glory, but then I got real and realized he has no team to back him up. Oh well. Perhaps he might want to consider that sports management company he thought about this time last year.
7. Amélie Mauresmo is done. I wish it weren't so. I love her. But it is what it is. There simply is no excuse for a two-time Slam champion to succumb to her nerves the way she did this fortnight. She wasn't defending a title or even a runner-up result. But the Amélie of old has returned to competition and it ain't pretty. If she crashes out of Wimbledon again...
8. Andy Roddick is done. He doesn't have to be, but since he keeps his sharpest knives in the drawer.... Oh, I'll remain a fan. And I'll hope that I'm wrong. That he can still achieve all his career goals and nab a Wimbledon title. If he does, it will be a Goran Ivanisevic-type run, years from now, after he's fallen out of the top 100. He'll get a wildcard, blast his way through the draw, and defeat another player who covets a Wimbledon trophy above all others in a Monday final that goes triple overtime in the fifth. Till then, A-Rod is A-WOL (thanks, Drop-shot) and that's that.
9. France picked the wrong guy. Richard Gasquet was the phenom with the ferocious backhand. He was anointed the Next Big Thing and became the hope of a nation. But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the unheralded, has more guts. Not to mention a bigger game. A more complete game. Not by much, of course, given how the French learn tennis. But Tsonga became the first Frenchman to make a Slam singles final in seven years, and he beat the anointed one along the way. If Jo-W can remain fit and injury free, I see no reason why he can't win Wimbledon. And the US Open. And the Australian Open. And Roland Garros. Quiet as it's kept, you can blow people away on clay. Just because we haven't seen it in awhile, doesn't mean it can't happen. Speaking of France, with all the focus on Serbia, did anyone notice France also had three players in the finals? Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra lost the men's doubles final, but there they were, losing the men's doubles final. Allez!
10. Martina Navratilova is the best American commentator. By several country miles. Virginia Wade is my favorite, but Martina exhibits the best of Wade: impartiality, insight, and wisdom. When a commentator can focus on the players' tennis, keeping their back-stories on the back burner, a viewer can actually learn something worthwhile. Can actually see why and how a player changed tactics to turnaround a losing effort. Thanks to Tennis Channel's inaugural Australian Open coverage, I got to hear Martina call a complete match for the first time. How refreshing.