Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Australian Open top 10

This was an especially intense Australian Open, not just because of the upsets and the wonderful women's final, but also because of the off-court conversations surrounding the event. BuzzFeed and the BBC chose to make their vague and unsatisfying "announcement" about match-throwing just as the Open began, which moved the conversation away from court action. And then there was Margaret Court, who chose to explain to us that, in her day, it was easier to win majors.

The event is always intense for me, anyway, because it involves my losing much more sleep than I need to lose. So, having consumed innumerable cups of coffee--while I can still sort things out--here are my top 10 Australian Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Still in the mix: Though her successful efforts in women's doubles were put on hold because of the health of partner Ekaterina Makarova, Elena Vesnina found another way to win in doubles. She and partner Bruno Soares won the 2016 mixed doubles title.

9. From Russia, with love: It may not be 2004, but Russian players clearly aren't going anywhere.
2015 runner-up Maria Sharapova made it to the quarterfinals and Ekaterina Makarova made it as far as the round of 16. And while an argument can be made that both of them should have advanced farther, we can also look at the other side of the Russian coin: three up-and-coming players did quite well. Both Daria Kasatkina (who, like Sharapova, was stopped by Serena Williams) and Elizavita Kulichkova made it to the second round, and Margarita Gasparyan reached the round of 16, where she, too, was stopped by Williams.

8. Keep calm and rally on: In 2015, Johanna Konta showed us that she was not only talented, but that she was one cool customer. She confirmed that in Melbourne, where she reached the semifinals, and took out Venus Williams and Ekaterina Makarova on the way.

7. Si-mo-na: Simona Halep once again fizzled out with an early exit. A very early exit. 2nd seed Halep was knocked out in the first round by qualifier Zhang Shuai, leaving us--once again--wondering if and when the Romanian star will regain her confidence.

6. : So close--again: World number 1 Serena Williams had another chance to go for the Grand Slam, but that possibility no longer exists in 2016. Williams, a six-time champion in Melbourne, cut her 2015 season short and also missed Hopman Cup competition because of a leg injury. She showed up with no match warm-ups, yet looked incredibly good until she reached the final.

5. But I left the room for just a minute!: Early round upsets were a big part of this year's drama. 2nd seed Simona Halep lost in the first round, as did Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Sara Errani, Caroline Wozniacki, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens, Andrea Petkovic, Irina-Camelia Begu, Caroline Garcia, and Venus Williams. All seeded players. There was more carnage in the second round: Sydney champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Petra Kvitova, Jelena Jankovic, Timea Bacsinszky, Elina Svitolina, and Sabine Lisicki. And while they were not seeded, it's worth noting that both Eugenie Bouchard and Alize Cornet also got knocked out in the second round.

4. Zhang Shuai--see "perseverance": 27-year-old Zhang Shuai had tried fourteen times to win a main draw match at a major, and had failed fourteen times. She decided to give qualifying a try in Melbourne, with the possible plan of retiring from pro tennis if she couldn't improve on her record. She made it through qualifying and then pretty much went on a tear that will long be remembered. Not content to just quietly play her only successful major first round, Zhang dropped a bomb on 2nd seed Simona Halep, taking her out in straight sets. For her next act, she took out the talented French fighter, Alize Cornet. Now on a roll, Zhang defeated Varvara Lepchenko in the third round, and then beat 15th seed Madison Keys. Johanna Konta stopped Zhang in the quarterfinals, but oh, what a run it was!

3. Modern art: So many times, the matches we think are going to be wonderful turn out to be disappointing, but not the one played by upcoming stars Kiki Mladenovic, seeded 28, and new Aussie Daria Gavrilova. The spectacle featured the Frenchwoman's big serve and artistry, Gavrilova's fighting spirit, and an Australian crowd that was practically in a frenzy over their newest tennis citizen. It was as good a match as you could watch, and it was also that one match--it always happens--that looked like it was played out of sequence and belonged in the very latter part of the tournament. Gavrilova won, 6-4, 4-6, 11-9. The third set took and hour and 36 minutes to play. The pressure was too much for Gavrilova, though, and she would lose handily in the next round.

2. No stopping Santina: They did it again. Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza won the 2016 doubles championship, meaning that they are just one French Open championship away from attaining a "Santina Slam." The pair began playing at Indian Wells last year. They won that tournament, then Miami, then Charleston, consecutively. Since then, Santina has won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the WTA Finals, as well as five other tournaments. The team is on a 36-match win streak. Hingis and Mirza played each other in the Australian Open mixed doubles draw (Mirza's team won), but neither contended for that title, which was a bit surprising.

1. Raising the flag in Care-A-Lot: The Care Bears live in the land of Care-A-Lot, and tennis's own KareBear, Angelique Kerber, belongs there more than anyone I can think of. A marvelous defensive player with super-strong legs, Kerber has had plenty of ups and downs over the last few years. The "ups" occurred when her serve was on and she added aggression to her game. The "downs" occurred when her serve was off, she failed to be aggressive, and she became very frustrated during a match. 

Boosted by a return to her former coach and a series of hit-and-talk sessions with Steffi Graf, Kerber made a breakthrough last year, even after getting off to a poor start. She overcame considerable odds in terms of both injuries and opponents, to win in Charleston. She went straight to Stuttgart and won there, too, and--before the season was over--she had also won in Birmingham and Stanford, giving her an all-surface sweep. But her performance in majors continued to disappoint. She changed her training regimen in the off-season, and in Melbourne, she was able to put together the three elements she needed--the big serve, the aggression and, of course, her trademark killer defense. 

It wasn't exactly ein Stück Kuchen. In her very first match, Kerber saw her opponent, Misaki Doi, hold a match point. An argument can be made that, in the end, it was the best thing to fall into Kerber's range of vision. She saved that match point and went on to defeat Doi, and then to defeat Alexandra Dulgheru, Madison Brengle, countrywoman Annika Beck, two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, and upstart Johanna Konta. Oh--and Serena Williams.

Kerber played the match of her life against a somewhat shaky (but still, we know how that can turn out) Williams, making only 13 unforced errors in the match. Her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory made her the Australian Open champion, and it also made her the number 2 player in the world. Kerber has a lot of big points to defend in 2016, but she starts the year with a rather large, plushy cushion. This is Kerber's first major title, and she won it by approaching her career the same way she approaches her opponents--by going after everything, no matter how how difficult the job may look. It's the most basic of approaches--and it works.

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