Draws in tatters at Australian Open

This article will be a lesson in the art of posting every day during a major tournament. The only other comparable tournament that demands this much daily attention is the NCAA basketball tournament, where champions get upset on a daily, nay hourly basis. Down Under at the Australian Open, things have gotten positively out of hand.

Since I last wrote, both Serena Williams (the top seed and number one player in the world) lost, along with four-time major champion Maria Sharapova. Sharapova fell victim to the inconsistency that has plagued her in these last few years, with her serve deserting her and an inability to get out of her own head a problem as well. Then, the woman who beat Serena, Ana Ivanovic, also a former major champion, lost to a 19-year-old upstart from Canada, Eugenie Bouchard, who will now face Li Na in the semis.

The women’s draw has absolutely fallen apart, on both the singles and doubles side, with the Williams sisters withdrawing a few days ago (during the heat wave) in order to concentrate on singles (look how that turned out). My new prediction for the final: Victoria Azarenka prevailing over Li Na, barring something unusual happening, which is likely to happen.

Maria Sharapova fell apart against Dominika Cibulkova.

Maria Sharapova fell apart against Dominika Cibulkova, losing in three sets and hardly putting up a fight in the deciding frame.

On the men’s side, things were more predictable, until they weren’t. Roger Federer turned in a throwback performance in a three-set dismantling of hard-hitting Frenchman and perennial thorn in his side Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He faces Andy Murray in the quarterfinals.

David Ferrer, a consistent semifinalist and finalist, went down to the 2010 Wimbledon runner-up, Tomas Berdych, someone he has had no trouble with in the past. Even Rafael Nadal was tested in a highly anticipated matchup with Kei Nishikori of Japan, as it took him the longest three-set match of the tournament to beat the young Nishikori.

Newcomers were welcomed, with talents like Grigor Dimitrov (someone Rafa himself called all sorts of superlatives and who happens to be dating Maria Sharapova) broke through and will face Nadal in the quarters. The Bryan brothers were unceremoniously eliminated from the doubles draw, breaking their run of dominance in Melbourne and lending credence to the trashing of the doubles game that John McEnroe recently went on.

But the upset of upsets happened last night. Let me see if I can adequately describe my feelings about Stanislas Wawrinka taking down Novak Djokovic in a “third try really was the charm” setting. I’m not an original member of the Djokovic bandwagon. For a long time, I thought he was a little soft, calling for medical timeouts at strategically opportune times, retiring when it was convenient, never quite being able to win the big match. His tennis and his dogged determination to be better won me over in 2011. I’d prefer a handful of other guys to win, but I’m no longer annoyed if he does prevail, largely because he does it in such spectacular fashion.

However, I am tired of only two (and sometimes three) men in the draw being able to beat him. For a while there, it looked like nobody was even close, a Federer/Nadal level of dominance ensued in 2011 and the beginning of 2012 as he beat Rafa in three straight major finals. Really, this newfound rivalry with the Swiss makes me happy because it goes to show that there is still room for others at the top. Wawrinka seems to have Djokovic’s number in a way few others do. ESPN.com referred to Wawrinka as Djokovic’s “dogged foil,” drawing on his recent matches against Djokovic here in Melbourne last year as well as in New York a few months ago, when the Swiss came oh-so-close to taking down the Serb.

Imagine what it’s like to be Stanislas Wawrinka. The closest you’ve come to glory was when all-time great Federer partnered with you to win a doubles gold medal at the Olympics in 2008. He’s never been more than second fiddle in his own country, sort of like Andre Agassi was to Pete Sampras except less so because Agassi was an 8-time major winner in his own right. And now he’s at the top of his game (in his 30s, no less), having the tools to somehow compete with the first- or second-best player in the world. It’s… awesome. And it’s all the more amazing considering Djokovic has probably the single best backhand in the game, (Wawrinka hits an outdated one-handed backhand), is one of the best returners, and is so fit and flexible and turns defense into offense so fast that it must feel at times that a wall with the ability to hit balls past you rather than back at you is on the other side of the court.

Fortunately for the Swiss, when he’s feeling his forehand and moving well, he’s tough to stop. I saw him get crushed by Nadal in Madrid last May; in between the service holds at love for the Spaniard and easy breaks of Wawrinka’s serve (it was played on the red clay) was one game where it seemed Wawrinka just decided just developed the power to read Nadal’s mind. I think he hit three straight winners off Nadal’s serve and another rally ended equally quickly with a winner for a service break at love, if memory serves. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, if he could somehow manage to do that consistently…” Against Djokovic, for those five sets last night, he managed it, with 17 aces and 51 winners. It helped that Djokovic misfired a lot, hitting 60 unforced errors, but credit Wawrinka for setting many of those up, including those that led to match point.

As the saying goes, every dog has his day.

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