January 27, 2011

A Moment, Please, to Appreciate the Magnitude

Let's just take a minute to reflect on what events of the past few days could mean for tennis:

Given recent upsets, ailments, and breakthroughs, there's a real likelihood that we'll see two first-time Grand Slam winners at this Australian Open.

It would be the first time that's happened since the French Open of 2004.

For the women, we have known for some time that there would be at least have a first-time Melbourne champ -- as soon as Maria Sharapova lost in the fourth round, all previous winners Down Under had been eliminated. Sure three of the top four seeds advanced to the semis with fairly little drama, but of them Kim Clijsters was the only one with a Major to her name -- all three, of course, in New York.

She took on recent foil Vera Zvonareva in the semis, a woman she beat for last year's U.S. Open title but has lost to three other times since returning to the game -- once, even, at that Slam over in London. Neither has played perfectly in Melbourne, and I have to admit I thought the Russian would bring her game a little harder on Thursday. But she lost serve four times during the match and was never able to get a handle on Kim's. Neither committed an inordinate amount of errors, but Clijsters kept her game ever so slightly clearer, and in just over an hour ended Vera's streak of two straight Major finals.

In the other half of the draw, last year's surprise semifinalist Na Li proved that previous performance was no fluke. She followed up an inspiring win in Sydney -- we'll get to that in a second -- by taking all ten sets of her first five matches, and rebounded when trailing top seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semis. She had twice as many errors as her opponent, but four times the number of winners. And though they traded breaks liberally, over more than two-and-a-half hours, Li had earned her first Slam final.

That sets up an unlikely rematch of the championship game from just two weeks ago. Kim was heavily favored there, but a spunky Li astonishingly came back from a 0-5 deficit in the first set and not only won the match, but did it in straights. She'll be the underdog again, maybe by an even bigger margin, as Kim is clearly more comfortable on the grandest of stages. But Li has wins over the Belgian, and has kept all their matches close. Plus this is the Asia-Pacific Slam, so you can't count out the benefit of homecourt advantage -- and nearly twelve years into her career, the big win now would be a breakthrough for the Chinese.

Things on the men's side are even more interesting -- for the first time in three years, and only the second since early 2005, neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer will play in a Grand Slam final.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Though he didn't lose a set early in the tournament, the ailing top seed had been iffy for most of the fortnight and courageously fought but convincingly lost his quarterfinal match against countryman David Ferrer. It was the first time the Spaniard reached the semis in Melbourne, and coming off a trophy-run in Auckland, he is now on a nine-match win streak. To go one better, he'll have to get past last year's runner-up, Andy Murray, who has only lost one set this entire event. He actually lags Ferrer by a slight margin in their career head-to-head, but the Scot's won both their meetings on hard courts, so this won't at all be an easy run to at least repeat.

No matter the results of that match, though, we won't see a rerun of last year's final. Roger Federer, who had won four titles since the U.S. Open, was my early favorite to bring home the title an Open-era record fifth time. And when he met Novak Djokovic in the semis, he was favored by most to avenge that devastating loss in New York. The two kept it close for the first set -- neither allowed a break chance on serve -- and Roger even had a chance to pull even with the second on his racquet, but the three-hour, three-setter ultimately went the way of the Serb.

Novak, of course, is the only remaining player who's ever won in Australia, and he has just slightly positive records on both Murray and Ferrer. But he's by no means dominated either of them, so it's really anyone's game. And if we see an upset on Sunday, it could help usher in a new era of tennis power.

Clearly you have to like the chances of the more experienced player in these situations, and the odds will likely be on Kim and Nole to lift the trophies at the end of the day. But you can't discount the performances of these Australian Cinderellas, who've been just as unstoppable as their favored foes and, more importantly, shown no signs of tiring out.

And with what might be the only chance these guys have at a Major title for quite some time, I expect they'll do what they can to make history.

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