Congrats to Rafa. Everyone seemed to have counted him out. All of the pundits predicted that there was no way he could come back from the brutal five-setter against his countryman and win the Aussie Open. They were all so very wrong. Even Brad Gilbert who, outside of his shameless promotion of his students past and present, can be a pretty level-headed prognosticator -- even he changed his mind after watching Rafa endure five heated hours against Verdasco -- and predicted that Roger would win.
I still can’t believe that anyone who has watched Rafael Nadal over the past year would dare to imagine that his heart and will to win would ever fail him, especially in a fifth set. The only chance Roger ever had of winning # 14 is the same chance he had when he won # 13: if someone else took out Rafa before the finals, then Federer would win. But if he faced Rafa in the finals, he could buckle. And once again he did, most painfully. Number fourteen summarily denied.
The ruthlessness of Serena
There was a moment in the match against Azarenka that stood out. Not during the first set, when Azarenka was giving Serena more than she could handle and it looked for several moments as if Serena’s run up to the # 1 spot would be blocked. No, the moment occurred in the second set, after Azarenka started looking as if she was about to keel over, not just from the heat or illness as the commentators would have us believe, but also from the intensity of the effort required to beat Serena Williams. The trainers had been called and a medical time-out given. Azarenka looked pale, tired, fragile. Any other opponent might have cut her some slack because it was clear that it was not going to require much effort to beat her from that point. Any other player but Serena Williams.
Serena deliberately started running Azarenka back and forth like a rag doll. Serena looked like a pit-bull who, having seized its victim by the throat, was not about to let go. She showed no mercy. Shortly thereafter Azarenka fled the court, in tears. The courtside interviewer asked Serena to share her thoughts, at which point, with a level of honesty that could only be inspired by the Jehovah she believes in, Serena admitted that having observed that Azarenka was failing, she had decided to run her ragged, because that is what competition is all about. It wasn’t personal -- it was only about winning. And of course she was right. It’s the same ruthlessness that makes Serena aim straight for the body of opposing players who dare to approach the net in a doubles match. Again, it’s not personal. It’s just tennis and the desire to win. True competitors have that killer instinct.
Cry-baby Federer could use an infusion of Serena brand ruthlessness right about now.
Back to the drawing-board for Dinara
Until she faced Serena in the finals, everyone kept saying that Dinara Safina had such a terrific game. How she is able to come from behind and win. And ever since Berlin, Dinara has indeed been on an impressive run. It’s funny how a single match can change all that.
All of a sudden the same pundits who were hailing her greatness have started dumping on Dinara. How her serve sucks. Her toss is way too high. She double-faults too much. Her movement lacks fluidity. She needs to learn how to get off to a quicker start. With a height like that why doesn’t she ever come in to net? And so on. Of course, if Dinara had beaten Serena, she would have become the # 1 player in the world. And I suspect that those same naysayers would all now be singing her praises. But Serena exposed the many qualities lacking in her opponent’s game. And suddenly Dinara is not so impressive after all.
The truth is that all of these observed weaknesses in Dinara's game have always been present. Dinara has improved her fitness and her confidence but she has not really added much to her basic repertoire. And until she faced Serena, she really did not need to. That she made it to the finals in spite of lacking serious weaponry says less about her and more about the state of women's tennis. Henin's departure has made it glaringly evident that the women's game lacks depth equal to the men's. I endorse Mary Carillo's plea that it is time for the women to step up
I have many other thoughts about this Aussie Open, which I will develop as separate articles over the next few weeks. The 2009 Aussie Open was honestly one of the most exciting ever. I wish it wasn't over yet. I am already hungry for more great tennis.