By Jane Voigt
January 28, 2013 — The question seems daft, but it’s worth asking: Did Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka ‘win’ their singles’ championships?
Of course in the simplest of terms the answer is yes. All we have to do is look at the scores. But if we slow down and take a closer look, the answer could be no.
Perhaps what we witnessed, instead, were finals of attrition.
Li Na’s unfortunate falls, plus Andy Murray’s blisters and hamstring strain seemed to seal their fates. Gradually they could not match up to their rivals’ tactics, although fight they did until the end.
Christopher Clarey of The New York Times wrote a wonderful piece on Djokovic’s match, lending a perspective to the 4-time victor’s abilities to run, hit on the run, and dominate Rod Laver Arena as if it were his living room. The article is titled Djokovic Wears Murray Down For Australian Open Title.
Clarey wrote that Djokovic won through domination, which is one way to look at the match.
But Murray’s slide seemed to begin with a double fault toward the end of the second set, followed by two more. He hit the third one in the tiebreak. The error gave Djokovic a mini-break to 4-2. Murray earned one point after that, losing the breaker 7-3.
Anecdotally, that particular double fault occurred after a feather floated down from the rafters of the arena, right past Murray’s line of visions.
No, it did not cause him to double fault … exactly, but it certainly interrupted his rhythm and the demands of his mind.
Similar circumstances swirled around Li Na’s digression. During the second set, fireworks blasted off near Melbourne Park. The players rested for ten minutes while Australians celebrated Australia Day with their annual display.
Li took her second tumble soon afterward, smacking her head on the blue court. This was her second medical time out due to a fall followed by the possibility of a concussion. Fortunately, she checked out and returned to the match. Her fate, though, was evident.
Azarenka went in for the kill and won her second Australian Open championship.
Similarly, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga could not keep his improved pace against Roger Federer in the quarterfinal, although he had trimmed down and concentrated more on ‘safe tennis,’ rather than his normal showmanship shots.
The match went five sets, but Tsonga’s ability to compete waned against the likes of Federer in the fifth. The Frenchman’s tank was empty. Federer closed the fifth 6-2.
If we look back over the two weeks, few matches stand out as having been won … where both demonstrated their best tennis from start to finish. Where victory was attained through skill.
One, though, came mighty close: Novak Djokovic and Stanislaus Wawrinka’s 5-setter in the fourth round. Djokovic won in five sets, 12-10 in the fifth.
“I think it’s by far my best match I ever play especially in five sets against the No. 1 player,” Wawrinka said, “I was dealing with myself all the five hours, trying to always find solution, trying to always fight against him to stay with him.”
The first set was lopsided, as Wawrinka displayed the best tennis of his life. He pulled the court surface out from under Djokovic, who came out slow. Had Wawrinka won the second set, which he was poised to do, Novak may not have been headline material across the world today.
The last three sets, though, were magical and mysteriously plump with expectation. No one had an inkling who would win. And not until Djokovic flicked a backhand across the net and it passed Wawrinka ever so slightly could fans rise and cheer.
Both men were stunned when it finally finished.
“Well, it definitely ranks right at the top,” Djokovic said when asked where the match ranked in his career. “All the credit to him. I feel sorry that one of us had to lose. He definitely deserved to win. I didn’t know what’s coming next.”
Up until that flicker of a backhand from Djokovic, Wawrinka said he tried to stay focused and positive. His adrenalin helped because he tweaked a groin muscle and got treatment twice. But it did not lower his game.
Tennis has become a tough game for ultra-fit folks. Many parts of it can derail even the best: weather (hot, chilly, windy, sunny); fitness; nutrition the day of a match; type of court; the balls (Wilson versus Head Penn versus Slazenger); poly strings or monochromatic strings or a blend; and sidebar issues – for example the incident in the semifinal between Victoria Azarenka and Sloan Stephens.
Azarenka did the improbable. She kept her wits and defended her title while the world looked on with skepticism. She proved her worth as the #1 player in the world. She concentrated on winning. Only winning.
Many aspects of a tournament are, therefore, totally out of a player’s control. Their job, then, is simple – prepare for anything and everything.
Roger Federer doesn’t read the news. Many others follow suit. Rafael Nadal stayed in a small hotel room in Paris last spring. He didn’t play video games with his friends and family. He didn’t go out for big dinners. He wanted to train his mind on one goal — winning his seventh Roland Garros championship, which he did.
In 2012, Novak Djokovic’s and Rafael Nadal’s marathon final, which extended almost 6 hours and became the longest final in Open Era tennis at a Major, was voted by a majority as the best match of the year. There were few passive points, and many unpredictable ones. Both men struggled through, leaving heart and soul on Rod Laver Arena.
Novak and Rafael were pleased with their performances. Nadal walked away with a calm sense he could beat Djokovic, something missing from the Spaniard’s experiences that year. Both mentioned their suffering in their press conferences, which for them was satisfying.
Murray, after defeating Federer in their semifinal on Friday, also looked forward to suffering or so he told Jim Courier on court. But Murray did not expect the type he experienced on Sunday. The type associated with pain and game interruption.
“It was just a bit sore [left hamstring] when you’re running around,” Murray explained. “But that’s what happens with fatigue. You get sore. You get tired. With how physical the game is just now, that’s just part of it.”
The Scot is one big buff of an example of fit. No one, though, could have expected blisters and a hamstring to cause irreversible problems in his movement. He skirts the issues in the press conference, but anyone watching saw the obvious.
Li and Murray disappointed themselves most. Li thought she was stupid. That’s why she fell. Murray said, “When you play the rallies like we did tonight, you know, along with the match with Roger, that’s what happens. It’s part and parcel of playing these big events against the best players in the world.”
The entertainment value of these finals did not rank with the best. However, with the type of game played now it makes sense that at the end of two weeks even the best have their weaknesses … except Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka