Sunday, February 1, 2009

DAY 14, MEN'S FINAL: RAFA NAILS FED TO THE CROSS

The cracks in Roger aka our heavenly father Federer's armor are starting to spread.


In the first 5-set Australian Open final since 1988, Rafa Nadal has solidified his stranglehold on the worlds # 1 ranking with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 victory in front of an emotionally charged sellout crowd at Rod Laver Arena. While both players shined, trading superb shotmaking for much of the 4 hour and 23 minute affair, the difference in the match can be attributed to a remarkably courageous cluster of games during the third set in which Nadal found another level that left Federer on the outside looking in.

At 4-4 in the third set (with the match tied at a one set apiece), Federer, who was 4 for 11 in break point opportunities at that juncture, found himself with a triple break point. If he could convert it, he'd more than likely seize the momentum, serve out the set, and be on his way to a record tying 14th major championship.

But Rafa resisted. No, check that, he attacked. He crushed a cross court backhand to get to 15-40, proving once again that he has ice in his veins. On the next point, Rafa, clearly relishing the pressure rather than bowing beneath it, crushed another winner, this one an inside out forehand with plenty of mustard that Federer wasn't even close to. Finally, a confounded Federer netted a return and Rafa was back to deuce. He closed the game to lead 5-4 in the set, but wasn't out of the woods yet.


At 5-5, Federer had another three break points, and again, Rafa fought for the hold, playing masterful tennis at the most crucial of times, and elevating his shotmaking to an almost superhuman level. When the game ended, even though Federer would still be serving to force a tiebreaker (which he did, after fighting off a break point), one could sense that something of vital importance had been proven - that Nadal was tireless, indefatigable, and would not be denied.

Several minutes later Federer's streak of 5 consecutive tiebreakers (the one edge he did have over Rafa in their meetings of late) was over. Rafa had prevailed, and took a 2 sets to 1 lead. He had imposed his will over Federer. In a sense, we were witnessing Rafa's advantage - it was psychological more than anything else. His belief system was firmly in place, and Federer's was not.


As the fourth set began, however, Federer, with his back against the wall, began to show his teeth again. Finally, realizing that he had to go for broke, that he had to punish the punisher, he converted on two break points and used a series of pristine drop shots that were so effective that it appeared that he may have actually found a way to wear Nadal out. He served the set out with relative ease, and the match was even at 2 sets apiece.

Sadly for Federer, the beast in Rafa emerged as the fifth set began. And so did the belief.

The hunt was on once again. Adrenaline supplanted doubt, fire supplanted fatigue, and Rafa, exhibiting a boldness that was palpable (you could almost feel his belief), started to sink his teeth into his opponent. Federer had no answer for Nadal's persistence in the fifth set; perhaps he had realized in that pivotal third set that it would be useless to try.

Our heavenly father commited errors at an alarming rate, 9 of them all told, against one for Nadal, and Rafa cruised to the finish line, taking the 5th set easily by the margin of 6-2.


After playing 9 hours and 37 minutes of extremely physical tennis in two days, Rafa's empire has deservedly expanded. He now has won 3 different majors, and 6 total. In the process Nadal has, like a raging bull in a china shop, intruded upon another of our heavenly fathers dominions - the hard court. If you watched the post match awards ceremony (see picture directly above), it was plain to see that Fed is not thrilled about that. His heartfelt tears of sorrow showed just how bad he wants to equal Sampras' feat of 14 majors. There is a huge weight on his shoulders and it shows. He needs to find a way to remove this weight in order to continue on his quest.

Meanwhile, as Fed cried his eyes out, Rafa was photographed sinking his championship teeth into a brand new trophy; in his mind he has nothing to lose - as long as he believes that, he will be a very different beast to try to subdue.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

DAY 13, WOMEN'S FINAL: DEMOLITION GIRL

Destruction would be an understatement. Utter domination is putting it mildly. No, this was something more than that.


Serena aka fashionista Williams has won her fourth Australian Open in hyper convincing fashion, 6-0, 6-3, over Dinara aka big guns Safina. It took just 59 minutes, but it probably seemed like an eternity for poor Dinara, who entered the match hoping for her first ever grand-slam title. Those hopes, however, were pretty much dashed by the time the 22 minute first set had mercifully come to an end.


Serena had that look on her face from the onset of the match, the look of a woman who was not going to be denied. We've all seen this look before from Serena, and usually, it means frightfully bad news for her opponents. Tonight, in front of a packed house at Rod Laver Arena, was to be no exception. The mighty Williams was questing for her 10th Grand-slam title, and it was immediately apparent (painfully apparent for a beleagured Safina) that she had learned a thing or two about high stakes tennis while winning those first nine. As Safina started the match apprehensively, Williams was on fire from the very first point, and the all-out assault never let up, even when the match was firmly in her control.

Serena was serving with gusto, and hitting screaming winners from all over the court. Alternatively, when Safina wasn't double faulting, which she did three times in her first service game, Serena dug in and let fly on her second serve, attacking maliciously while a dumbstruck Safina could do little more than flail away at Serena's returns as they whizzed past her. Serena finished the set 3 for 3 on break point opportunities and 9 for 9 on her first service points. She lost 8 points in the whole set. Outrageous.


As the second set began Safina tried to muster an attack. Knowing that she must fight fire with fire she finally joined the party and stole a few games with some wicked go-for-broke ground strokes. But even as she started to hit a few winners, she could not get her serve on track. Finally, in the 6th game of the 2nd set, she procured her first hold. It drew her to within striking distance, but it was clear by this juncture of the match that this was Serena's show.

After another hold in the 8th game, Serena blasted her way through her final service game and the trophy was hers. She finished the match with 23 winners and only 7 errors. As is often the case, Serena saved her best for last.

Miss Williams is now one of 5 women to have 10 or more grand-slam titles in the open era. The others are Steffi Graf, Martina Navritalova, Chris Evert, and Margaret Court. Pretty fine company indeed. Additionally, Serena is now tied for the most Australian Open Championships, and she has also grabbed the worlds # 1 ranking from Jelena Jankovic.

In the trophy ceremony after match, Safina showed herself to be a truly good sport. She remarked that she was nothing more than Serena's ball-boy for the evening. Meanwhile, an overjoyed Serena was giggly and exuberant as she thanked her mom and dad, and her sister Venus for hitting with her in the morning.

It may have been short, but as is typically the case with Serena in big pressure matches, it was equally sweet. Sweet and vicious, just the way Serena likes to do it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

DAY 12, GETTING NOSTALGIC

Well, here we are, with three more matches to digest and the rest of the 2009 Australian Open a great big blur in our rearview mirror. But before we forget everything that happened here and remember only the finals, let's take a look back at the 10 most scintillating moments of the first tennis major of the 2009 season:

10. The Fans.
This one is not an actual moment, it is just a general shout-out to the spirit of the fans in Melbourne. Never before have I seen such cookiness. Reminds me of Halloween in San Francisco. Crazy fans of all nationalities, faces painted and bodies painted; Wild and beatiful creatures, expressing their creativity and love for the sport (and braving the oppresive heat to boot), how can you not give them a spot in the top ten?

9. Gilles Muller over Feliciano Lopez in the first round, 6-3, 7-6(7), 4-6, 4-6, 16-14
The first upset of the tourney always deserves a little respect, especially with a 30 game 5th set!

8.
The Williams sisters playing doubles
It is a pleasure to watch either one of them play singles, but man, what a treat to get both of them on the court at the same time! Definitely far better than watching them lick the inside of Oreo cookies with the Manning brothers.

7.
Directv's interactive coverage of the early rounds
Watching every match live with interactive scoreboards and draws is like being in tennis heaven, getting free lessons from Fed and Nadal.

6. Dinara Safina's 4th round thriller against Alize Cornet
Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. What a match. Hopefully we'll see more and better from Cornet as the year progresses.

5. Gonzo over Gasquet in 5 sets, third round match

The match of a lifetime for anyone who was lucky enough to be in the stands on Margaret Court to see it. Gonzo, down 2 sets, turned the clock back to 2007, at least until he met Nadal in the 4th round.

4. Serena's houdini act in the quarters to get by Kuznetsova
Proving once again why this 9-time major champion is perhaps the premier clutch performer in woman's tennis (Especially when the roof is closed!)

3. The resurrection of Jelena Dokic
Is there anything more beatiful than being born again? Once down and out, Jelena Dokic has made it through the wilderness to overcome her own personal demons. She entered the Open as a Qualifier and ended it in the quarterfinals as a legitimate contender for the title. The stuff of dreams indeed.

2. Federer's comeback vs. Berdych in the 4th round
If roger aka our heavenly father goes on to win his 14th major here, this match could go down in history as a definitive federer gutcheck match. Just pure magic!

1. TBA
I'll leave this one up to the Fed or Nadal, I'm sure they'll pull through!

DAY 11, OUR HEAVENLY FATHER SHOWS NO MERCY

In swift and decisive form once again, Roger aka our heavenly father Federer has prevailed over his longtime rag doll, Andy aka Izod Roddick, in straight sets, 6-2, 7-5, 7-5.


What is it about Roddick that makes our heavenly father salivate? For the 16th time in 18 matches, Fed has put the beat down on Andy - calling it anything other than a beat down would be utter hypocrisy by the way - and moved into the finals. Now Fed gets to relax and await the winner of tonights All Spanish Semifinal between Rafa Nadal and Fernando Verdasco.

Many, myself included, were anticipating a more thrilling affair. After all, Roddick took Novak Djokovic to the woodshed in the quarters, he is sporting his newer svelte look, and he seems to have been reinvigorated by his recently developed relationship with new coach Larry Stefanki. Perhaps this will be the time that Roddick does more than simply lick Fed's boots for three sets in a major, we were thinking.

Three games into the match, after Fed scored his first break, then easily consolidated in the fourth game, it was painfully apparent that this was not going to be the case. Roddick's desperate attempts to get to the net behind some very average approach shots were shunned by Federer - passing shots like laser guided missiles blistered by a flailing Roddick time and time again - with the greatest of ease. When Roddick played points from the baseline he looked like a dog on a leash, being led from corner to corner, until finally Fed found the opening and blasted a winner.


As great a player as Andy Roddick is, there is just something about the way he matches up with Federer that makes him look like a child trying to play against a virtuoso. How often do you see Andy Roddick's opponent serve twice as many aces as he does? Not very often, but Federer, having seen that near nuclear serve now for the 18th time, seems to have very little trouble redirecting its energy right back in the face of its source. The ace count was Federer 16, Roddick 8.

13 break point opportunities yielded 4 breaks for Federer - it could have been worse, but it was much more than he needed, given that Roddick was being handcuffed by Fed's serve and couldn't manage a break.

A mere 2 hours and 7 minutes after it began, this one was in the books, just like it has been so many times before. Maybe next time we should just put it in the books before it starts? No, no, anything can happen in the semifinals of a major, right?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

DAY 10, C'EST LA VIE


The men's semifinals are set. A pair of surly Spaniards have dashed the hopes of the french in two one-sided quarterfinal matches on Rod Laver. One predictably, the other, quite a surprise.

The Surprise: 14th seeded Fernando Verdasco knocked off another top 5 seed with another impressive effort, a 4-set drubbing of last years runner up, Jo-Willy Tsonga. After knocking off Andy Murray in 5, Verdasco showed no signs of fatigue, and very few lapses of concentration. The Spaniard, who had never ventured farther than the second round in Melbourne is using a ramped up serve, pinpoint groundstrokes, and improved conditioning to smash through the field with relative ease.


Tsonga really shouldn't hang his head here, he was dealing with some back problems, and he just happened to run into Verdasco at the wrong time.

Next up for Fernando is his countrymate, Rafael aka short sleeve Nadal.

H0-hum: Rafael Nadal seems to enjoy his number one ranking so much that he won't let any of his competitors even come close to beating him. He seems to be as selfish with his # 1 ranking as he is with that French Open Title that he refuses to let go. This time his victim was #6 seeded Gilles Simon, who, in spite of the loss, has logged his best performance in a major thus far in his career.

But the three set victory wasn't as easy as it often is for Nadal. It certainly was a different match than the licking he put on Simon last year down under. He did face a set point from Simon in the second set, and the match was competitive throughout. Rafa's lack of errors and his ability to break Simon's serve (7 for 12 on break points) put the distance between them in the end.


Next up: Federer v. Roddick in one mens semi, and Nadal v. Verdasco in the other.


G'day all!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

DAY 10, FROM RUSSIA, WITH A HICCUP

Not so fast, Russia.

Determined to monopolize the Australian Open Semifinal, the Russians sent Svetlana Kuznetsova out to try and solidify another Russian slot next to country mates Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonerava, and Dinara Safina.

But they encountered a problem with their mission: the lady on the other side of the court.


After losing the first set beneath a scorching hot sun, it was to be an uphill battle for the three-time Australian Open champion, Serena Williams. She was being outplayed by the hard hitting Kuznetsova, who was running her from corner to corner, attacking her with on both wings with her world class ground strokes.

Then the roof closed, and a 25 minute delay ensued. Just what the doctor ordered for the bumbling Serena.

The temperatures dropped 40 degrees, from the 120's to the high 80's on the court. Purists may not like it, but Serena did.

Apparently, (even though she'll tell you otherwise) so did Svetlana Kuznetsova. She liked it so much in fact, that even under that strange modernistic roof, she was three points away from serving out the match. It was at this time that the strong willed Williams, seeded number two, but boasting 9 career major championships, dug deep into her reserves.

Ten games later, the momentum had changed hands convincingly. Serena, confidence growing with every stroke (and with every forehand that Kuzi stroked long), won 9 of the next 10 games, and a match that was sitting on Kuznetsova's racquet just 45 minutes prior, was now clearly in Williams control.



Kuznetsova, known for having difficulty in closing out matches, was accosted by the same demons again. Her sizzling ground strokes started to fizzle just as Serena, probably the best on the woman's tour in these high pressure situations (although Dinara Safina seems to be working on her Houdini act), was getting her game solidly on track. The third set was low on drama and high on Serena fist pumps, with the American cruising, 6-1; Kuznetsova, once again was left disconcerted, talking to herself, and wondering what went wrong.

So the woman's semifinals are set to start tomorrow. Three Russians, a hiccup, and Serena with an attitude - and a good one at that!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 8, Quitters galore


Damn, I guess we now know the difference between the Australian Open (different cheerleaders, see above?) and the NFL. 3 matches came to abrubt halts yesterday as Gael Monfils, Victoria Azarenka, and Jie Zheng all retired due to various injuries before the end of their matches. It's something that is unfortunate, but in the kind of heat that occurs at the height of the Aussie summer, it's not altogether surprising. Especially given the fact that this tournament comes at the beginning of the year when not all the players are prepared for grueling 5 setters.

But don't let these trifling matters dampen your enthusiasm for what has been a very entertaining tournament thus far.

After red hot (just ask the ladies, or his last 4 opponents) Fernando Verdasco took a 5-setter over favored Andy Murray yesterday, finally a top 5 seeded man was upset. But 4 of the 5 top seeds still remain and the quarterfinals, which start today, boast some sure to be epic matchups.

Check these out, my fellow tennis afficianados:

1. Andy aka Izod Roddick v. Novak aka screw you New York Djokovic, in a rematch of their 2008 U.S. Open quarterfinal, won by the Joker in 4 sets.


2. Roger aka our heavenly father Federer v. Juan Martin aka the streaker Del Potro. As a big fan of Del Potro, I'm really excited to see what kind of tennis he plays in this his second straight major quarterfinal. He's gonna break through at some point, but after seeing Fed defend his turf against Berdych on Saturday, we all know it's going to take a valiant effort, i.e, no quitting kid.

3. Rafa aka short sleeve Nadal v. Gilles aka the rabbit Simon. Simon has been playing great tennis for the last six months so don't count him out (though it is pretty hard to imagine him winning here).


4. Jo Wilfreid aka float like a butterfly Tsonga v. Fernando aka eye candy Verdasco. Tsonga, last years surprise finalist is gonna have to bring every ounce of his heavyweight flair against the reborn Verdasco, who is flying high after knocking off # 4 Seed Andy Murray yesterday.


So, there you have it, 4 mouth watering matchups, worth setting your watches by.

If I wasn't out playing tennis all day I'd have more time to tell you how I feel about the woman's draw. Click here and form your own opinions.
G'day all!