January 27, 2013

Déjà Vu?

At the start of this year's Australian Open, I asked my readers which pair of recent champions had the best chance to repeat in Melbourne:
  1. The 2008 combination of Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic,
  2. 2010 titleists Serena Williams and Roger Federer, or
  3. Last year's winners Victoria Azarenka and Djokovic again.
Somewhat surprisingly, results indicated most of you expected a replay of 2012's events -- but as play began, there was plenty of reason to believe that wouldn't happen. Sharapova was on fire in early matches, losing just nine games in her first four rounds, while Serena, dominating on serve as always, out-aced everyone in the field and delivered four bagel sets to her opponents as well. For the men, Roger Federer was coming off a year that brought him back to #1 in the world and ended a two-year plus Slam drought. He was tested by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters but, after surviving the challenge, seemed to be up to the task of returning to the crown. All of their dreams were halted, of course, some in dramatic defeat and others in shockingly one-sided losses.

But by the time we entered finals weekend, even though Option #3 was the only possible outcome, their opponents in the championship matches made it far from certain we'd be in for any kind of repeat.

Victoria Azarenka came into her second straight Major final the favorite, but still in questionable shape. She drew harsh criticism during her semifinal against Sloane Stephens for taking a medical time out late in the second set, and the crowd was against her from the start. When 2011 runner-up Na Li, who'd already picked up a title in Shenzhen this season and hadn't dropped a set yet Down Under, came back immediately after losing serve in the first game and built a 5-2 lead for herself, the defending champ seemed a little rattled. Vika eventually lost the set, but seemed to regroup to start the second. Li didn't give up though -- she managed to draw level again and even after taking a tumble and twisting her ankle kept things close. She was relentless, too, in the decider -- after suffering another fall, this time hitting her head on the ground, she still wouldn't give up. But Azarenka had found her game for good this time, and finally closed out the match -- her second Grand Slam victory -- with one more break of serve.

Two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic wouldn't have an easy time in his quest to make history, either. He'd had a full two days rest since dismantling David Ferrer in his semi, and faced an opponent who'd gone four hours against four-time champion Roger Federer a round earlier, but he came on court seeming to be the more lethargic one. Andy Murray fought off all five break points in the first set and won an astonishing eighty-one percent of his first serves. He took an early lead in the tiebreak and had all momentum on his side when he won the first set. But Djokovic kept his cool and, though the Scot built a 0-40 lead early in the second and didn't lose one point on first serve until the breaker, this time was able to close out the set. The first break of serve didn't come until the thirty-first game of the match, three hours of play in, with Nole leading 4-3 -- Murray had already saved a couple opportunities, but battling blistered feet and sore hamstrings he finally dropped the game and eventually the set. His game rejuvenated, Djokovic took control in the final set, avenging his loss four months ago in New York and locking down his historic third straight victory Down Under.

It might seem like we've seen this story before -- after two weeks of big shots, huge surprises, gutsy wins and shocking upsets, we've re-crowned the same champions in Melbourne for the first time since 1993. But the campaigns didn't go quite the way they did a year ago, nor were the victories assured at any point during the fortnight.

Things may look the same, but they're different nonetheless, and with these two champions showing they can thrive under vastly dissimilar circumstances, they've ultimately served notice to everyone else in the field of just how hard it will be to derail them.

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