Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 31, 2016

For Tennis, Hints Of A New Era

The competitive narrative of professional tennis has seemed constant for some time now, especially for casual fans who turn their attention to the sport only a few times a year. On the men’s side there was the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, which became the Big Four when Andy Murray broke through with victories at the U.S. Open and the Olympic Games along with a runner-up finish at Wimbledon, all in the summer of 2012. Beginning with Federer’s triumph on the grass at Wimbledon in 2003, one of the four lifted the trophy at 43 of the next 50 Grand Slam events. For fans tuning in to watch the finals at the Australian or French Opens, at the All England Club or at Arthur Ashe Stadium, it seemed that not just were one of the Big Four claiming the title, but he was usually doing it by defeating one of the other three.

In contrast the women’s game has been more one-sided. In a professional career that began twenty years ago when she was just 14, Serena Williams has had several periods of dominance. She won the “Serena Slam” by capturing the final three majors of 2002 and then adding the Australian Open title to kick of 2003. She took home a pair of Grand Slam trophies in both 2009 and 2010. But beginning in the summer of 2012 when she returned from injury to win Wimbledon, Williams has stood atop women’s tennis like a colossus, never more so than last year when she came within two matches of recording the first calendar year Grand Slam by a singles player of either gender since Steffi Graf in 1988.

To be sure there were elements of both those familiar narratives firmly in place as the first major of the year wrapped up this weekend on the other side of the world in Melbourne. It was Federer versus Djokovic in one of the men’s semifinals, and then Djokovic against Murray in the final. On the women’s side Williams raced through the draw, dropping not a single set on her way to the finals. Along the way she beat Maria Sharapova for the 18th consecutive time in the quarterfinals and ran her record against Agnieszka Radwanska to 9-0 in the semis. Yet by the time the Australian Open ended early Sunday morning east coast time, one couldn’t help but notice signs that suggest the story of this tennis season may be different.

It began in the very first set of the women’s final on Saturday. Angelique Kerber, the 7th seed, had nearly exited Melbourne in the opening round when she faced a match point against unheralded Misaki Doi. But after that scare the German, who turned 28 on the tournament’s opening day, grew steadily stronger. She didn’t drop another set through the semifinals, and in the quarters she fended off Victoria Azarenka, who seems well on her way back from injury. It was Kerber who scored the first service break in the final, and after Williams tied the score at 3-3 with a break of her own, Kerber came right back to reclaim the lead. As Kerber prepared to serve for the first set at 5-4, Williams had already committed 17 unforced errors. Against both Sharapova and Radwanska the defending champion had record just 20 in each match.

Williams fought back in the second set to level the match, and surely most of those watching believed that she would dominate the final set and claim her 22nd Grand Slam title, matching the record held by Graf. Instead it was Kerber who had Williams on the run, as she held her own opening serve and then immediately broke for a 2-0 lead. Again Williams broke back, and the final ultimately turned in the sixth game.

Williams had never lost a third set at a Grand Slam final. Saturday she saved four break points in that sixth game, but Kerber’s speed and Williams’s erratic serving finally proved too much to overcome. Again staked to the lead, Kerber had a chance to serve out at 5-3, but Williams rallied one last time to break for 5-4. Yet just as the flame of hope for her fans kindled anew, the challenger rallied from down 40-30 on Williams’s serve to win the final three points of the match.

The subtle shift in tone continued on the men’s side of the tournament, where the names may have been familiar but the play strongly suggested that the Big Four are no longer a group of equals. Nadal lost in the opening round to fellow-countryman Fernando Verdasco. Frequently hobbled by injury and now passed in the rankings by Stan Wawrinka, it’s now up to Nadal to prove he is still a member of his sport’s elite group. And while Federer and Murray made it through to the final two matches, in the end they were thoroughly outplayed by Djokovic.

In the semis the defending champion rolled through the first two sets. In the opener he needed just seven minutes to hold twice and break Federer’s opening service game for a speedy 3-0 lead. It took only fifteen minutes more for Djokovic to complete a 6-1 set. He was just as commanding in the second, which he won 6-2. To his credit Federer fought back, avoiding a sweep by taking the third set 6-3, but the grace and grit of the Swiss were ultimately no match for Djokovic’s power. Against Murray in the final the 28-year old Serbian was even more dominant, crushing the Scotsman in straight sets while dropping only two service games. It was Djokovic’s third straight major title, leaving open the possibility of him matching Serena’s trick of a multi-year Grand Slam with a win at Roland Garros in early June.

It’s rarely a good idea to draw sweeping conclusions from an isolated match or even a single tournament. In tennis, as in every sport, small sample sizes can be deceiving. Serena Williams left Melbourne still ranked number one in the world, and the Australian Open outcome did nothing to move the rankings of the top men. But Angelique Kerber will jump from 7th to 2nd in the new rankings to be released on Monday, while Djokovic’s hold on the number one position among the men has tightened even further.

Perhaps Williams and Federer can conjure up their old magic yet again. But both are 34 now, opposed not just by other players but also by time, the arch-enemy of all athletes. Perhaps Nadal, the King of Clay, can find his form on the red dirt in Paris. But eventually injuries can sap even the strongest spirit. Perhaps Murray can shine again, free from the twin distractions of a wife about to give birth and a medical crisis for his father-in-law. But then again Andy has always been the fourth of the Big Four, the one most likely to be runner-up.

As a new tennis season begins, one can’t help but think that perhaps the storylines of the men’s and women’s tours have been reversed. Perhaps now it is the men’s game that features a dominant player against whom all others seem destined to fall short; and perhaps it is the women’s side in which several top players will vie for supremacy. Should that prove to the case, this year’s Australian Open will be remembered as the event that heralded the change.

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