Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nadal/Djokovic Insta-Reaction: That Might Have Been The Greatest Match I've Ever Seen

I...need to sleep and allow my body and mind to digest what it just consumed but I'll give these 5 quick post thoughts on Novak Djokovic defeating Rafael Nadal in 5 sets to win the 2012 Australian Open men's singles championship.

1) Five hours and fifty three minutes (5 hours and 53 minutes.)  The longest grand slam final ever.  By default that means this match has an argument in the "greatest of all time" conversation, right?
2) Speaking of entering the "greatest of all time" conversation, it's obviously not time for Djokovic to do that but I think we can safely say he's set himself up to be able to do that with this win tonight.  Last year was no fluke; it's pretty much officially clear that he's going to be able to win a bunch more of these and should battle with Nadal for many years.  This might have been what Federer/Nadal at 2008 Wimbledon was - except the tide didn't shift in this rivalry tonight.
3) You simply won't find a greater effort in defeat than Nadal's tonight/this morning.  The resiliency of that guy is just...unbelievable.  I'd never been a huge fan of his but he's really won me over bit by bit over the past few years and tonight was the apex.  It legitimately got dusty in my living room when he forced the fifth.  You simply don't see that kind of courage every day no matter what you watch.
4) I don't know how he did it but not only did Djokovic beat Nadal again, he topped his back-to-back semifinal/final grueling war double from a couple of years ago.  He topped both the Verdasco semi AND the Federer final.  My God.  I for one welcome our new Serbian overlord.
5) Thanks to the both of them for giving me a sports memory from January 2012 that will stay with me forever other than this one.  They reminded us all just how and why sports can be so great, particularly on a humanistic level.  Brilliant.

Something...longer to come after I wake up.  How did that surpass our wildest expectations?  Amazing.

2012 Australian Open - Azarenka Ascends The Throne

September 1, 2007.  That date in women's tennis will forever be remembered as a teenage rebellion, one based in Eastern and Central Europe which unfolded on that date at the 2007 U.S. Open.  Polish 18-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska fired the first shot by shocking defending champion and second seeded Maria Sharapova on Arthur Ashe Stadium that Saturday morning.  Later that day, unseeded 18-year-old Hungarian Agnes Szavay stunned seventh seed Nadia Petrova, unseeded 16-year-old Austrian Tamira Paszek took out 11th seed Patty Schnyder and unseeded 18-year-old Belarusian Victoria Azarenka slayed 16th seed and former world number one Martina Hingis, owner of five grand slam singles titles.

That night, had someone told you that it would take almost four and a half years for one of those girls to win a grand slam of their own, you would have probably scoffed - particularly if you had also been told that the women's game would decline significantly over that time period (more on that later this week.)  But last night, Azarenka finally broke through in just about the most dominant of fashions, thrashing Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 to win her first Australian Open - her first slam of any kind.

But her real breakthrough at this tournament came in the quarterfinals against 8th seeded Radwanska.  The good friends have taken similar career paths to the top 10 of the game, leaving the presently-45th-ranked Paszek and 259th-rated Szavay in the dust.  They were both superstar juniors players with Radwanska winning the 2005 Wimbledon Girls Singles and Azarenka winning the two hard court junior girls slams that year at the Australian and U.S. Open but somehow never really crossed paths.  They first met in 2006 and have played annually since; a rarity over a seven year time span in tennis.  Azarenka had won 5 of the previous 8 meetings but Tuesday's quarterfinal was their first meeting at a slam since that 06 Wimbledon first rounder - one of Radwanska's three wins.

After the first set tiebreak of Tuesday's match, it looked like history would repeat itself when Azarenka melted down, dropping all seven points to lamely cede the first set in a tiebreak, setting the stage for yet another epic Azarenka choke and/or collapse at a slam.  Consider:

2007 U.S. Open - After beating Hingis, Azarenka won just five games in the next round against 4th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova.
2008 Australian Open - 26th seed, won first two rounds in straight sets before 7th seed Serena Williams took her out 6-4, 6-3 in the third round.
2008 Wimbledon - 16th seed, won first two rounds in straight sets before 21st seed Petrova took her down in two tiebreaks in round 3.
2008 U.S. Open - 14th seed, won first two rounds in straight sets (sensing a pattern yet?) before 21st seed Caroline Wozniacki beat her 6-4, 6-4 in round 3.
2009 Australian Open - Arguably her biggest disappointment ever.  13th seed and a darkhorse pick to win a wide open crown that defending champion Sharapova could not defend due to a shoulder injury (keep that in mind), won first three rounds in straight sets including a 6-4, 6-2 beatdown of 20 seed and two time grand slam champion and former world number one Amelie Mauresmo that signaled that it was the Belarusian's time...if she could just get past 2nd seed Serena in the round of 16.  She won the first set...then retired due to heat stress in the second.
2009 French Open - 9th seed, dropped one set in the first four rounds including a 6-2, 6-3 annihilation of 8th seed Ana Ivanovic in the fourth.  Won the first set of her first ever grand slam quarterfinal with world number one Dinara Safina 6-1 before winning just six games the rest of the match.
2009 U.S. Open - 8th seed, dropped just five games in the first two rounds and took the first set in the third round 6-4 off 24th seed Francesa Schiavone.  Won just four games the rest of the match.
2010 Australian Open - It's almost like she wanted to top the previous year.  7th seed after ending 2009 in the top ten for the first time, blew through first three rounds with a bagel set (6-0) in each before bageling 9th seed Vera Zvonareva in the third set after coming back from a set deficit (to be fair though, Zvonareva may be the only elite player on tour with more ugly meltdowns than Azarenka since Wozniacki is at least consistently brilliant in the non-slams.)  Who did she draw in the quarters?  Serena again.  And again she took the first set.  But this time, she led 4-0 in the second set...before completely and utterly folding, losing the second set in a tiebreak and taking just two games in the third to complete the worst collapse of her career.

The rest of her 2010 was marred by injury but you see the clear history.  Vika bowls through all inferior competition before turning around and producing clunker after clunker when it looks like it's her time.  Here's what she did at the four slams last year:

2011 Australian Open - 8th seed, blew through first week without dropping a set before 9th seed Li Na took her down 6-3, 6-3 in the fourth round.
2011 French Open - 4th seed- her highest seed at a grand slam ever.  Blew through the first week again, crushed again by 6th seed and eventual champion Li, this time in the quarterfinals 7-5, 6-2.
2011 Wimbledon - 4th seed, reached semifinal dropping only a fourth round second set to Daniela Hantuchova en route (and beating unseeded Paszek 6-3, 6-1 in the quarterfinals.)  Fought back from losing the first set 6-1 to 8th seed Petra Kvitova to win the second set 6-3...before reverting to her first set form and dropping the final set 6-2.
2011 U.S. Open - 4th seed, dropped just eleven games in the first two rounds before running in to 28th seeded Serena again in round 3, getting bowled over 6-1 before dropping a second set tiebreak.

Last August's cruel draw did her no favors but considering the breakthroughs she had made during 2011 - from earning her own quarter at slams to finally getting to the semis of one meant that the straight set loss was a hugely disappointing way to end the 2011 slam season - the latest addition to a canon of capitulations at them.  And with the 7-0 tiebreak result staring her in the face Tuesday afternoon, it looked like she might be about to add another.

But then history repeated itself - in a more micro, recent way.  A fortnight ago, Radwanska had blown away Azarenka 6-1 in the first set of the semifinals of a tournament in Sydney before Azarenka dropped just five games the rest of the match and going on to beat Li in the final to win the title.  On Tuesday, she lost just two the rest of the way - both in the third set after the result had all but been decided.

Then, the same Azarenka who had blown so many pristine opportunities to seize slams after seemingly seminal victories found herself entering a second consecutive third setter against 11th seed and defending champion Kim Clijsters.  Facing the prospect of an ultimate set against the defending champ, four time grand slam champ in the semifinal and one of the greatest of all time of a tournament where she had a closet full of skeletons (many of them against another one of the GOATs in Serena), Azarenka could've folded.  She probably should've and I know for a fact that I certainly expected her to.  But she didn't for a change.  She did what she has always failed to do in the past - stuck to her gameplan of strong baseline play (of which no one in the game at present save Serena is better than her at) and - more importantly - kept control of her emotions and taking the set 6-3 to advance to the final to face Sharapova and finally put her past behind her.

Remember the Sharapova shoulder injury I told you to remember?  It has changed her career forever - most notably her serve.  It has gone from a strength to a major weakness, particularly her second serve.  She has dropped seven finals since recovering from surgery in May 2009 and two of them were to Azarenka; 6-4, 6-1 at the Bank of the West Classic in 2010 and then 6-1, 6-4 last March at the Sony Ericsson Open - tennis' "fifth slam."  It was actually the latter result that propelled Azarenka to 4th in the world and made her three summer grand slam disappointments so devastating.  But in both finals, she teed off on the Sharapova second serve all match and eventually the fear of missing a first serve and essentially ceding the point swallowed the Russian whole.  When Azarenka broke to open the second late last night, I allowed myself to pass out with the knowledge that she wasn't letting this one slip away. Not after the previous two matches and not against Sharapova's meek serve.

She didn't.  In fact, she did the literal exact opposite by serving up a bagel to complete her coronation and now she's about to be # 1 in the world.  As a long time supporter of her (some of those Serena losses were brutal with the 2010 Aussie ranking among the maddest tennis has made me), I've been waiting for this day for a long time.  Now it's time for Vika to avoid pulling an Ivanovic and letting old demons escape the closet with the rush of fame of winning her first slam.  She might not be favored to win the French Open on clay (it's her weakest surface and where players match up with her far better) but she needs to be thinking that she can win at least one of Wimbledon or the U.S. Open to keep this roll going.

I think the proper cross sport comparison for Azarenka is DeMarcus Cousins.  While they couldn't be much different in terms of almost any metric that defines people, their career paths are similar.  Both have been superstars since their younger years.  Both have had a long history of loudness, emotional outbursts and general immaturity.  But both are two of the biggest, strongest players who can simply overpower most of their competition with their raw talent and ability.  It's for these reasons I've always been a big fan of both.  One of my favorite parts of sports is watching immensely talented but troubled athletes fighting through their demons and reaching their potential.

Victoria Azarenka did just that this week.

(Quick prediction for tonight: Djokovic 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.  That one featured in this space tomorrow.)