Kei Nishikori used to be known as 'Project 45'
Why is the Aussie Open the best of the Grand Slams? Simple. We get to see what additions (or subtractions) the champions have made to their games to take them to the next level.
Athletes usually take the time in the offseason to do serious training. They don't have this time during the long grind of the regular season, and they use it to re-tool their games and tweak their technique in order to address the challenges presented by newcomers.
In this slideshow, I’ll examine what insights this year’s Aussie Open provide on the directions of the current champions’ games.
Murray and Lendl go together like a wadda wadda wadda diddlie bingdi boo
At the end of 2011, Andy Murray hired eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl as coach.
At once the speculation started. Commentators and analysts scratched their heads wondering if Ivan Lendl had the temperament to take the sometimes phlegmatic Murray where coaches Brad Gilbert and Miles Maclagan had failed to take him—to holding the trophy at the end of the tournament.
The Aussie Open has so far given us the chance to watch this remarkable pairing for the first time on the big stage. The jury is still out about about the efficacy of the pairing, but the words that come to mind are from Grease in a song where the protagonists sing "We go together like..."
Whip it. Whip it good.
At the end of 2011, 10-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal's title as world No. 1 had been snatched, and he had been beaten six times in finals by Novak Djokovic.
Asked during the season what he was going to do about it, Rafa could only reply that he'd have to address any tweaks to his game during the short offseason prior to the start of 2012.
After his Davis Cup win in early December, Rafa went to work. He added three grams to the head of his rackets in an effort to increase the momentum imparted to his shots without increasing the force of his swing.
As the opening major of the season, the Aussie Open gives us a chance to gauge the effects of this equipment change, and how it will affect this pivotal career year (2012) for 25-year-old Rafa. He hasn't had much of a chance to practice the new swing, but already he seems to be getting greater penetration.
Serena suffered a very serious foot injury after her Wimbledon win in 2010 that kept her out of competition for almost a year. She has been relatively close-mouthed about the impact of this injury on her technique. The foot would swell and act up in matches in 2011, limiting her movements (she rolled an ankle, but ultimately could be linked to lack of support).
The Aussie Open has given us a chance to assess Serena's overall fitness following this injury, and enforced layoff from tennis. Did additional recuperation time in the offseason of 2011 help or hurt her form?
It doesn't look good. Serena fell in Round Three, having difficulty with her movement and with swelling on the foot. In the quarter finals Serena's form fell off significantly, and she was defeated for the first time in five years (when she played) at the Australian Open.
All screams aside
All screams aside, this may be Victoria Azarenka's time.
2011 closed with a number of contenders for the women's No. 1 position. The opening slam of the season is showing us whether they may be a new queen of the court waiting in the wings. Victoria's form in the tournament so far has been impeccable.
Li Na won her first major last year. Then she signed about a bazillion endorsements. And after that she seemed to loose focus and form.
Did the demands of her new celebrity take away from her ability to continue her run at the Slams? After all, one can't be completely disconnected from building public relations. Or can they?
This opening Slam allows us to assess the new year, the renewed commitment on her part and the coaching changes. Will Li Na be back this year?
Li Na lost her Round Four match in one of the most spectacular meltdowns (second set tie-breaker, and the following third set letdown) in tournament history.
Verdict? She seems to be back to focussing on her game, but still needs to find a champion's mental poise in order to return to the top.
Maria's inexorable return
The rotator cuff injury should have been the end of story to her Grand Slam career (no more raising the trophy). Nobody comes all the way back from an injury like that.
Well, Maria Sharapova has persisted. Through tournament after tournament. Through re-tooling the serve, again and again, and through shanks and wild, unforced errors.
In 2011 she looked like a perennial also-ran. Lucky to make it to the second week. But fighting all the way.
This tournament has shown us that Maria's game is growing and providing us with fodder for anticipation of continued great performances in 2012.
Playing with Calm
The first Slam of the year lets us start a narrative on the next suite of top-10 guys. Are the young guys ready to step up? Are mid-list champions ready to go to the next level? Or are the same old champions going to simply add to their legend(s) in 2012.
This year the opening Slam painted an exciting picture for 2012. Talent to look out for:
- Ryan Harrison (took a set off of Andy Murray with vigor)
- Kei Nishikori (defeated world No. 6 Tsonga with vinegar. Now No. 24, Nishikori has played other memorable five-setters, including against Cilic and Ferrer)
- Milos Raonic (lost to veteran Lleyton Hewitt, but the power and promise are there, and he looks to be fully back in form after hip surgery)
- Bernard Tomic (the star of the tournament at age 19 made it to Round Four, exhibiting a very mature mental game to go with his nuanced shot-making, and showed us he is the real thing)