So much for predictions. The women’s side of the draw completed its meltdown as we careened toward the final in Melbourne, with Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka losing to Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals, then promptly losing to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in the semifinals. There’s a good chance you don’t know much about Cibulkova, so allow me to enlighten you.
She has dropped one set en route to the final, the first in a round of 16 match against Maria Sharapova. Other than that, she has had three “bagel” or love sets (where she won 6-0), and four 6-1 set victories, including one in a convincing handling of Radwanska in the semifinals. This is her first Grand Slam final, having previously made the semis at Roland Garros in 2009. She has never broken the top ten of the women’s rankings.
What can we draw from this remarkable performance? That despite an epic run of dominance by one of the game’s best ever, last year’s Wimbledon and this year’s tournament in Melbourne reinforced that the other guy (or woman, in this case), can and still does make the final and win Think Marion Bartoli at the All England Club facing off against Sabine Lisicki.
What really impressed me about this run is how she has remained unflappable despite several really good opponents, and has come from behind as well as dominated from the start. Sharapova started strongly against her and is tough to beat if she has it going, annoying grunts and all, but to her credit, Cibulkova wore her down with her powerful ground strokes, unloading time and again, pushing Sharapova off-balance, getting into her head and causing her to falter.
On the other side, Li Na has been steady as a rock. The three-time finalist in Melbourne looks poised to take her first crown Down Under. She also has dropped only one set en route to the final, and has been particularly impressive in her mauling of quality opponents, though I will say that she caught a break in the semis in the form of upstart, happy-to-be-there, 19-year Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Look for her in the future, now is Li’s time. With her absolutely scorching backhand and great mobility, I see her prevailing in a dogfight against Cibulkova.
On the men’s side, watch out for Grigor Dimitrov. Just not quite yet. I love his passion and his candor, saying before his quarterfinal match against Rafael Nadal, “I expect nothing less than to win.” Call that the swagger that only a 22-year-old can have, but I loved it, particularly as he backed it up with a great performance, taking a set off of Rafa, and then seemed genuinely shocked that he didn’t win. I read that Kevin Durant of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder was exactly the same way when he lost in the Finals to the Heat in 2012. He was absolutely sure he would win, until he didn’t.
But you know what? That’s the attitude a champion has to have, at least at first. Andre Agassi, in his later years, would actually get nervous before early matches in tournaments, citing the reality of the situation that people took time out to see him play in a feature written in SI before he retired.
Rafa beating Dimitrov coincided with Roger Federer taking down a still-rusty Andy Murray, setting up a semifinal showdown of titans we haven’t witnessed in some time, at least not in this respect.
Federer looks good. Really good. Healthy and with a slightly larger racket that much has been made of, he demolished Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and convincingly handled Murray, and has to be considered at least likely to make a match of it. This tournament is an interesting prelude to what the year could bring, as perhaps the talk of when he will retire will quiet down a little.
For so long, he’s said that he’s going to keep playing as long as he can, that he loves the lifestyle and the game too much to let it go, despite his eroding skills. He had the class to never mention that he was hurting, or that something was wrong. Like the tinkerer he is, he made some changes (rest, new coach, whose emphasis on net play has shown itself to work wonders already but will be tested with the mobile, fighting style of Nadal, and new racket), and looks to be as on top of his game as he could be at age 32. We don’t know how many more of these matchups we’ll get where both players are playing well and frankly, I cannot wait to watch.
Lastly, the Federer-Nadal semifinal sets up a really intriguing final matchup with Stanislas Wawrinka, long an afterthought in Swiss tennis, now someone knocking on the door of the top five. Wawrinka seems to have it in his head that he can win this, and I am beyond excited to see what transpires in the final (Wawrinka beat Czech Tomas Berdych in four hard-fought sets in the semifinals). I say if Federer can get past Nadal, Wawrinka has no chance against him, but if Rafa prevails, Wawrinka just might claim the crown.
But then again, I’ve been wrong a lot.