Australian Open 2014: More surprises?
When I wrote a preview for the Australian Open 2013, I foresaw a relatively comfortable passage for the top players of tennis into the latter stages of the tournament. Major upsets at Grand Slams had been few with the result that two of the Big Four were still left standing come the final.
But recent events in Melbourne have shredded to pieces the perception of tennis becoming a predictable game. In the past fortnight, many a Goliath tumbled while many a David triumphed, to the surprise of all.
It all started on the men’s side with the departure of the big-hitting Argentine – Juan Martin del Potro – at the hands of an erstwhile unknown entity in Roberto Bautista-Agut in the second round. For many, Del Potro had been the most likely man to win in Melbourne outside of the Nadal-Djokovic-Murray troika.
His defeat heralded the beginning of a long line of upsets.
The big seeds on both, the men’s and women’s side sailed smoothly through the third round and it was not until the 16th round that the big shocks struck. The first big casualty was the women’s top seed – Serena Williams – on day seven. The American, who had compiled a 78-4 win-loss record in 2014, was the overwhelming favourite for the title and was even being touted to complete a Calendar Grand Slam. She was stunned by the Serb Ana Ivanovic (four-six) (six-three) (six-three), throwing the women’s draw wide open.
She was followed out by the third seed – Maria Sharapova – the day after, when the Russian lost to Dominika Cibulkova (three-six) (six-four) (six-one).
Two of the three women’s Grand Slam champions from 2013 were out and the third was to follow soon.
Victoria Azarenka – the second-time Grand Slam champion was unable to take advantage of the departures of Williams and Sharapova in a head-to-head against her quarterfinal opponent, Agnieszka Radwańska, and was sent packing in three sets. The wily Radwańska completely outwitted Azarenka, who was reduced to tears as her campaign ended.
As the women’s seeds tumbled, those on the men’s side still stood firm. Djokovic, Nadal and Murray all won their fourth round matches comfortably to progress to the last eight. But what really caught the attention was Roger Federer’s demolition of the big-hitting Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A rejuvenated Federer, armed with a larger racquet and with renewed confidence, took the sting out of the Mohammed Ali-lookalike’s game with a (six-three) (seven-five) (six-four) win, sending a strong message.
Grigor Dimitrov, dubbed the Baby Fed, also made it to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal courtesy a win over Robert Bautista-Agut.
But it was in the quarterfinals that the biggest shock occurred. It was in a match-up that tennis fans have become familiar with – Novak Djokovic vs Stan Wawrinka – in a grand slam, in a five-set tussle with Djokovic emerging victorious.
Only this time, Stan the Man declared emphatically that he had had enough. Wawrinka ended a 14-match losing streak to the Serb and snapped Djokovic’s own 28-match unbeaten streak to win in five absorbing sets (two-six) (six-four) (six-two) (three-six) (nine-seven). The Swiss now had his eyes set on the crown and for once, people were not talking about Federer.
Not that Federer himself was doing badly. He followed up his win over Tsonga with another impressive display to dispose of Andy Murray (six-three) (six-four) (six-seven) (six-three). The 32-year-old showed great physical fitness and desire to wear down the Scot. Federer was into his 11th successive semi-final Down Under and his fans were daring to dream once again.
But barring his path stood Rafael Nadal. The world’s number one withstood a brave challenge from Dimitrov to progress to the semis despite a nasty blister on his left hand.
On the women’s side, the semifinal line-up finally took shape with Li Na facing the Canadian Eugenie Bouchard and Cibulkova battling Radwanska. Li Na comfortably defeated Bouchard, but perhaps fittingly, the much lower ranked Cibulkova upended Radwanska to make it to Saturday’s final.
Meanwhile, in the men’s semi-final, Wawrinka’s booming serves and big backhands dashed Tomas Berdych’s hopes of reaching a second major final with the score line reading (six-three) (six-seven) (seven-six) (seven-six).
For all the upsets thus far, one story remained unchanged – Nadal’s forehand versus Federer’s backhand. The Spaniard recorded his ninth win in 11 match-ups against Federer in Grand Slams and did so in a superb fashion – the (seven-six) (six-three) (six-three) score line being an accurate indicator of his performance. Federer cut a frustrated figure throughout the match as his search for an 18th slam continues.
Thus, it has come down to Wawrinka and Nadal – another David versus Goliath.
Sunday’s final matchup could not have been more lopsided. Wawrinka has never taken a set off Nadal in their previous 12 meetings.
But this year’s tournament might still have one more upset up its sleeve.
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