The first major of the year, the Aussie Open, is now in the history books and the champions have been crowned. If you're anything like me, you had a number of questions running around your noggin but left Oz with even more. Regardless, the 2009 tennis season is now shaping up to be one for the ages.
Can enough be said of Rafael Nadal and his effort of the past fortnight? The world's top baller entered Melbourne with a new look (it's got sleeves!) and concerns about some '08 season-ending injuries that left him short of match play and with a little bit of rust. Plus, he'd just lost early in Doha to Gael Monfils and had never been to a hard-court major final in his career. Like that mattered.
The 22-year old blew through his draw in blazing form up until the now-classic semifinal heavyweight bout against compatriot Fernando Verdasco. The pair threw body blow after body blow for 5 hours 14 mins (an Aussie Open record) and in the end Rafa's trademark mental toughness pulled him through in 5 sets. And with only a day to recover and practice for the final against Roger Federer, pundits and fans (including his most loyal Rafanatics) wondered if there was anything left. But the steely-eyed Spaniard put all concerns aside, dug in his Nike heels and put on one of the most impressive physical displays ever seen in the sport, going another 5 sets to defeat the Swiss stylist for his first Aussie Open title (the first Spaniard to do so) and sixth career major (the second youngest to earn six majors by 22 behind Bjorn Borg.) And with only the US Open title eluding him, a career Golden Slam is within his reach as is the ultimate prize: the calendar-year GRAND SLAM this season.
Roger Federer came into Melbourne healthy this time around after beginning the '08 season with mononucleosis. He also began in fine form but bumped up against a zoning Tomas Berdych in the fourth round, needing 5 sets and his bag of tricks to get by his Czech foe. But his biggest test came in the final when he battled Rafa for the 19th time in their respective careers. On paper the 27-year old held the advantage: multiple hard-court majors titles in his pocket including 3 Oz Open crowns and a fatigued foe in Rafa. Like that mattered.
His poor record of not converting break point chances in their past matches continued (only 6 of 19) and his serve (52% success on first serves) was nowhere to be found during the match. He fell to Rafa for the sixth time in a Grand Slam meeting, third consecutive time in major final meetings, and a added a fifth consecutive loss to the Spaniard. His post-match pool of tears bared the naked truths: he may be further away from a record-tying 14th Grand Slam crown than ever before and, more strikingly, Rafa is clearly the better baller now and may be the better baller when all is said and done. Let's hope he gets a full-time traveling coach sooner than later.
Defending champ Novak Djokovic flew mostly under the radar and gained more attention for his switch to HEAD from Wilson than for his game. He made his way to a third round encounter with American via Bosnia Amer Delic which included a violent encounter between fans from the respective countries outside the stadium. Nole then faced a rejuvinated Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals, their first since the contentious US Open meet up in the same round last year. The Serb won that encounter but wasn't so lucky this time around, retiring mid-match after struggling mightily with the heat. It seems his personality has become prickly and his game more stagnant which leaves the outlook for the rest of his season very muddy.
Andy Murray entered the Aussie Open as the prohibitive fave to take the Aussie Open crown to the dismay of a few after going undefeated in the warmup tourneys, earning wins over Rafa + Fed. But the Brit baller had the unfortunate luck of running into the buzz saw known as Nando and was shell-shocked in the fourth round. However, the 21-year old is still developing his vast arsenal and should be a contender at any tourney he enters for the rest of the year.
The breakout star of the tourney was, of course, Nando. The 25-year old was the Davis Cup hero when Spain defeated Argentina in the final last season and spent the off-season not only romancing Ana Ivanovic but also training intensively in Las Vegas with Gil Reyes. He entered the Aussie Open with high hopes and a confidence-building appearance in the Queensland final but nothing could predict what would happen next: defeat of Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and his first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal. Nando, of course, made the trip worthwhile by playing a now-classic epic encounter with Rafa. Unfortunately for him, a double-fault on match point sealed his fate but if Nando keeps the focus and dedication on building his game he should be in the mix for the rest of the season.
Big props go out to Andy Roddick for putting in the hard yards during the off-season and making his fourth semifinal appearance Down Under; Juan Martin del Potro for making his second consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal (though his mental game needs a tune up); Yen-Hsun Lu for his second round upset of David Nalbandian and his mustached belly bump; Gael Monfils + Gilles Simon for their PDA; and Marat Safin who most likely played, and lost, his last match ever in Oz. *still wearing sad face*