February 5, 2009

After the Storm

The dust has settled in the post-Australian Open world and things, which were a bit shady in the weeks leading up to the year's first Grand Slam, have become a little clearer.

Before the tournament began, all the talk centered around Andy Murray and whether he would win his first major. After notching wins in an exhibition tournament and at Doha in the weeks leading up to Melbourne, his odds for a championship were equal to those of Roger Federer. Even I feared it might happen.

Before the tournament began, I hoped Elena Dementieva would pull out her first Slam. She'd made a semifinal appearance at the Sony Ericsson Championships in November on her way to her best year-end ranking and had already won two titles this year -- why not capture #3?

Before the tournament began, American doubles partners Bob and Mike Bryan had lost their grip on the top spot, ending 2008 ranked behind Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic. Cara Black and Liezel Huber were coming off a year that included nine titles of their own, including the U.S. Open.

How things can change in a fortnight -- or maybe, more appropriately, change back.

Of course the big stories are the glorious win of Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams's victories both in singles and doubles, with sister Venus. The Bryan brothers took back their #1 spot with an sweeping win in the third set of their final.

But there were stories for the Open that go beyond the winners, many of which I've covered, but some which flew under the radar.

The rankings for the top five men didn't change, but under the super elite there were some shifts, some shaking, and some leaps. Andy Roddick, fitter and slightly lighter, seemed to get his stride back, and climbed back to #6 with his defeat of defending champion Novak Djokovic. And Murray's vanquisher Fernando Verdasco jumped six spots into the top ten for the first time, thanks to his valiant effort against Nadal in the semis.

But those weren't the most significant moves -- Tommy Haas, Dudi Sela and Marcos Baghdatis all moved up the rankings by more than ten spots. Croatian Mario Ancic only won two matches in Australia, but his upset of Ivo Karlovic was enough to get him into the top thirty. And Ernests Gulbis's win over Igor Andreev in the first round advanced him seven spots. It wasn't all good news, of course. Last year's runner-up, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, tumbled down to #14 while former #1s Juan Carlos Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt both fell out of the top hundred thanks to their first round losses.

The women's side was shaken up too. The two finalists moved up one spot each, sending Jelena Jankovic back to #3. And like in the men's draw last year's finalists couldn't repeat -- Ana Ivanovic slipped three spots after her third round exit and Maria Sharapova, unable to defend her title while she recovers from a nagging shoulder injury, left the top ten for the first time since before she won Wimbledon in 2004.

On the upside, Carla Suárez Navarro, who eliminated Venus in the second round, climbed into the #30 spot while Jelena Dokic more than halved her ranking from #187 to #91 as she made it through to the quarters. Both Kateryna Bondarenko and Lucie Safarova proved they should be taken seriously with first round victories over top players.

The Sony Ericsson Champions Race is even more interesting. Marion Bartoli stands at #5, helped by her final appearance at Brisbane and her defeat of Jankovic in Melbourne. And Victoria Azarenka, who nearly collaped in the heat of her fourth round match with Serena, is seventh. It supports my concerns that early race figures might be misleading, but does satisfy me that they do capture the best of the year so far.

American family teams took both doubles titles. The Bryan brothers won their seventh major while the Williams sisters took their eighth. India's Sania Mirza won her first Grand Slam, taking the mixed doubles title with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi, a finalist with Mark Knowles in the men's draw.

And so with the first major of 2009 in the books, the rankings stand as follows:

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