Tennis

Australian Open 2104: The Biggest Lessons Learned in Melbourne

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2014

Australian Open 2104: The Biggest Lessons Learned in Melbourne

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    Serena Williams
    Serena WilliamsScott Barbour/Getty Images

    Upsets were rampant in the 2014 Australian Open, and the first Grand Slam event of the year taught us some big lessons about what to expect in 2014 and beyond.

    Pre-tournament favorites Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic failed to get past the quarterfinals while Stanislas Wawrinka and Dominika Cibulkova made major breakthroughs.

    We selected eight of the biggest lessons learned in Melbourne and listed them in reverse order of their significance.

8. One-Handed Backhands Make a Resurgence

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    Grigor Dimitrov
    Grigor DimitrovSteve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Ever since Cliff Drysdale became the first prominent male player to use a two-handed backhand some 50 years ago, that stroke has slowly pushed the one-handed backhand out of the picture.

    There was a feeling it might become extinct when Roger Federer left the scene.

    The 2014 Australian Open showed the one-handed backhand might be making a comeback in the men's game as it was a prominent weapon for the second straight Grand Slam event.

    Six of the 16 players who reached the fourth round of the men's U.S. Open used a one-handed backhand, and four more reached the round of 16 in Australia. More significantly, three of the eight quarterfinalists, two of the semifinalists and the champion in Australia used just one hand off the backhand wing.

    If Federer had beaten Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, it would have ended a streak of 27 straight Grand Slam finals in which at least one of the finalists used a two-handed backhand. As it was, Stanislas Wawrinka became the first one-handed practitioner other than Federer to win a Grand Slam event since Gaston Gaudio won the French Open 10 years ago.

    Two occurrences at the Australian Open were particularly encouraging for supporters of the one-handed stroke.

    First was Tommy Robredo's two-match sequence. Robredo used his one-handed backhand to help take out No. 9 seeded Richard Gasquet, whose one-handed backhand is "downright electric," according to a New York Times article. The next round, Robredo himself went down to Wawrinka, who has the best one-handed backhand in the game today, according to John McEnroe, as noted in an AFP story

    The other event of note was Grigor Dimitrov's match against Rafael Nadal. Dimitrov, who is just 22 years old and owns a beautiful one-handed backhand, gave Nadal one of his toughest challenges of the tournament. After taking the first set, Dimitrov pushed Nadal to tiebreakers in the next two sets before falling in four sets.

    Dimitrov continues to tease tennis fans that he might have the stuff to win a Grand Slam title some day. Federer also demonstrated he and his one-handed backhand may not be finished quite yet.

    For now, though, Wawrinka carries the torch for the one-handed backhand.

7. Cibulkova Showed Short Players Can Win Big

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    Michael Dodge/Getty Images

    Tennis was starting to look like basketball, as the trend pointed toward taller players dominating the sport. Thirteen of the women's Top 100 players are 6' or taller.

    At 5'3", Dominika Cibulkova is one of the shortest players on the women's tour and is the shortest among those ranked in the Top 50. However, she proved she was big enough and powerful enough to compete for a Grand Slam title by getting to the finals of the 2014 Australian Open.

    Li Na beat Cibulkova 7-6, 6-0 in the finals. But, as the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, "It was also a marvelous tournament for the 161-centimeter Cibulkova, who had been told as a child that she should not play, could not, because she was too small to compete."

    The No. 24-ranked Cibulkova produced the most impressive four-match run of the tournament. Not only did she beat four Top-16 players in succession, but she did it in dominating fashion.

    First she took out No. 16 seed Carla Suarez Navarro 6-1, 6-0, then Cibulkova dominated the third set 6-1 to close out her upset of No. 3 Maria Sharapova. No. 11 Simona Halep was on a serious hot streak coming into her quarterfinal match, but Cibulkova dispatched her 6-3, 6-0. Cibulkova was just as overpowering in the semifinals, eliminated No. 5 seed Agnieszka Radwanska with ease 6-1, 6-2.

    That is a run that would have made Serena Williams proud.

    Cibulkova's streak ended in her first Grand Slam finals. However, the showing is expected to lift her into the Top 15 when the world rankings are released this week.

    The only two Top-100 players who are shorter than Cibulkova also performed well at the Australian Open.

    Lauren Davis and Kurumi Nara are both 5'2" and ranked outside the Top 60. But both advanced to the third round in Melbourne before losing to seeded players in competitive matches.

    Those three taught us at the Australian Open that there is still room near the top for short players.

6. A Single Loss Produces Questions for Djokovic

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    Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic showed that the outlook for a player can change radically in just a few hours.

    He seemed primed for a return to dominance entering the 2014 Australian Open. Although he had failed to win any of the previous three Grand Slam events, he had reached at least the semifinals of 14 majors in a row and had won the Australian Open each of the past three years. The addition of Boris Becker as a coach seemed like just another building block on his expected return to No. 1.

    Djokovic was riding a 28-match winning streak and had won 12 straight matches against Top-10 players when he faced Stanislas Wawrinka, who had lost 14 matches in a row to Djokovic entering their quarterfinal matchup in Melbourne.

    Djokovic had not lost a set in his three previous matches of the tournament and looked nearly unbeatable. But when he failed to finish off Wawrinka, losing 9-7 in the fifth, the trends suddenly did not appear as favorable for Djokovic.

    Not only did Djokovic lose to a player ranked No. 8, but it was the first time since the 2009 French Open that he had failed to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event. It was also his fourth straight Grand Slam event without a title, a piece of harsh reality for someone who had been ranked No. 1 until last September and has won six majors.

    Then came Djokovic's decision to skip Serbia's Davis Cup match against Switzerland later this month. Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic explained Djokovic's decision by saying Djokovic "is exhausted, both mentally and physically," according to TennisWorldUSA.com.

    Djokovic remains one of the game's top players, and you would expect him to respond favorably to his setback in Melbourne. But a hint of uncertainty will now follow him until the French Open.

5. Roger Federer Is Still a Factor

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Although Roger Federer went down rather meekly to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, his overall performance at the Australian Open indicates he is still capable of winning a Grand Slam title.

    Granted, a lot of things would have to fall into place for him to win his 18th major crown. However, his improved play in victories over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray interrupted a steady decline that virtually eliminated him from major-title discussions.

    Federer had won only one tournament in 2013, which was the first time since 2002 he did not win at least four.  Entering the Australian Open, he had failed to reach the quarterfinals of his past two Grand Slam events, and he had been to the semifinals in just one of his last five majors.

    At the end of 2013, Federer bore little resemblance to the man who had won 34 tournaments in a three-year span from 2004 through 2006. His ranking had slipped to No. 6, and there was no indication the downward trend could be halted.

    A few changes allowed Federer, at age 32, to make an encouraging run in the Australian Open.

    One factor was his health. Federer said he was no longer bothered by a back problem that had inhibited his movement.

    The second factor was the hiring of former Australian Open champion Stefan Edberg as a coach. Only time will tell whether Edberg's presence will have a lasting positive influence on Federer, but it seemed to help in Melbourne.

    Finally, Federer made a switch to a larger racket. He said the new racket gives him more power on his serve and could help his service return as well, according to a USA Today report.

    If nothing else, those changes seemed to improve Federer's confidence, which had been shaken over the past two years.

    There remains the issues of Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Federer has lost his last three matches against Djokovic and his past eight against Nadal, who dominated Federer at the Australian Open. Those guys are not going away any time soon.

    Plus, Federer may not even be the best player in his own country anymore, with Swiss countryman Stanislas Wawrinka taking a place among the game's elite.

4. Li Na Proved Adjustments Late in a Career Can Be Beneficial

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    Chris Hyde/Getty Images

    Players in their 30s generally don't consider making fundamental changes to their game. However, Li Na was past 30 when Carlos Rodriguez, who became her coach in 2012, suggested she change her grip for her serve and backhand, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

    "If somebody says you want to change the grip on the serve for somebody who is 31 years old, you say, 'Please, go home,'" said Rodriguez, according to the story.

    He also told her to come to net more, according to a USA Today report. Li accepted both suggestions.

    Those changes were just part of Li's late-career resurgence. She almost retired seven months ago.

    Li got to the finals of 2013 Australian Open, but she had little success the following spring. After a poor performance at Eastbourne in June, she considered quitting, according to a Wall Street Journal article Li was 31 years old and ranked No. 6, with no indication things would get better.

    But things did get better. Li was up to No. 4 by the time the 2014 Australian Open rolled around, and she got the one break she needed in the third round against Lucie Safarova. Li survived a match point against her in the second set of that match when Safarova missed a backhand by two inches.

    Li controlled Safarova and her subsequent Australian Open opponents thereafter. After a shaky first set in the finals against Dominika Cibulkova, Li dominated the second for a 7-6, 6-0 victory that gave her a second Grand Slam title and first since the 2011 French Open.

    Li, who will turn 32 in February, is expected to move up to No. 3 in the rankings this coming week and will be just a whisker behind No. 2 Victoria Azarenka.

    Li's lesson to the tennis world is that a player can reap major benefits by making significant fundamental changes to her game late in her career.

3. Women's Tennis Is More Wide Open Than We Thought

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    Ana Ivanovic
    Ana IvanovicMark Kolbe/Getty Images

    Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are the big names of women's tennis, and entering the Australian Open, it seemed they owned the women's game.

    However, for the second time in the last three Grand Slam events, none of those three got past the quarterfinals. Two players ranked No. 20 or lower got to the semifinals at both the 2013 Wimbledon tournament and the 2014 Australian Open, and a player ranked outside the Top 20 got to the finals of each.

    Sabine Lisicki and Dominika Cibulkova were both ranked No. 24 when they reached the finals of last year's Wimbledon and this year's Australian Open, respectively. Lisicki beat Williams on her way to the Wimbledon finals, and Cibulkova knocked off Sharapova in Melbourne.

    Marion Bartoli, who won Wimbledon last year, and Li Na, this year's Australian Open champ, were far from the pre-tournament favorites.

    Unexpected results are becoming more common. In Melbourne, Williams lost to No. 16 Ana Ivanovic, who had never won a set from Williams in their four previous meetings. Williams is still No. 1 by a wide margin, and her back injury contributed to her loss to Ivanovic. But the fact remains, she has failed to reach the quarterfinals in two of her last three majors.

    Agnieszka Radwanska had lost seven straight matches to Azarenka, and the last five were not close. But she crushed Azarenka 6-0 in the third set of their quarterfinal in Australia. Azarenka has struggled over the past several months, and her hold on the No. 2 ranking is becoming tenuous.

    Sloane Stephens, 20, seemed to be on the cusp of a Top-10 ranking for months, and she entered the Australian Open at No. 13. But her ranking is expected to slip out of the Top 15, probably to the No. 18 spot, after losing in the third round of Australian Open.

    Instead, Eugenie Bouchard, who turns 20 in February, now looks like the star of the future. She is ranked No. 31, but figures to move up to the Top 20 after reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open.

    It's becoming more and more difficult to handicap women's Grand Slam events.

2. Wawrinka Has Arrived

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    Michael Dodge/Getty Images

    Stanislas Wawrinka showed greatness can be achieved at an advanced age.

    In March 2012, Wawrinka had just turned 27, by which time most players have reached their peak and often start to a decline. Wawrinka was ranked No. 29 at that time.

    Nearly two years later, Wawrinka got to a Grand Slam finals for the first time and won it, beating a hobbled Rafael Nadal in four sets in the Australian Open finals. Wawrinka's ranking will jump to No. 3 in the world, ahead of the likes of Andy Murray and Swiss countryman Roger Federer.

    Wawrinka will turn 29 in March and is older than Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Murray. But he announced his arrival now.

    His rise started with a loss at the 2013 Australian Open. Wawrinka was ranked only No. 17 in the world when he nearly upset Djokovic in the fourth round at Melbourne last year. He lost 12-10 in the fifth set of that riveting match, but suddenly he was taken seriously by the tennis public. 

    Wawrinka hired Magnus Norman as his coach last April, and his ascent continued.

    He got to the quarterfinals of the French Open, then again showed promise at the 2013 U.S. Open by beating Murray and taking Djokovic to five sets again before losing in the semifinals.

    Wawrinka made his breakthrough at the 2014 Australian Open with two big victories.

    He had lost 14 straight matches to Djokovic dating back to 2006, but beat him 9-7 in the fifth set in the quarterfinals.

    Wawrinka was 0-12 against Nadal entering the finals, having failed to win a set against the Spaniard in those 12 matches. However, he knocked off Nadal in four sets to claim the title and jump into the top three of the rankings. Nadal's back injury certainly aided Wawrinka's victory, but Wawrinka had already won the first set and led 2-0 in the second before Nadal's back problem arose.

    Wawrinka, who was ranked and seeded No. 8, became the lowest-ranked man to win a Grand Slam singles title since 2004 and the lowest-seeded man to win the Australian Open since 2002.

    Perhaps more significantly, he became the oldest first-time men’s Grand Slam champion since 2001, when Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon two months shy of his 30th birthday.

    The question now is whether Wawrinka can withstand the pressure of being a star and continue to win.

    "He's the real deal," Pete Sampras said, according to the BBC.

    We will see. The big test will come at Wimbledon, an event that has brought out the worst in Wawrinka. In the past four years, he has lost in the first round at Wimbledon three times and the second round once. He failed to win a set in a first-round loss to unseeded Lleyton Hewitt at the 2013 Wimbledon.

    For Wawrinka to be mentioned in the same breath as Federer, Murray, Nadal and Djokovic, he must learn to perform well on grass.

1. Health and Injuries Change the Game

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    Rafael Nadal
    Rafael NadalGraham Denholm/Getty Images

    The 2014 Australian Open reminded us that, no matter how talented player is and no matter how well he or she is playing at the time, injuries and health can be the deciding factors.

    Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray and Serena Williams were the prime examples in Melbourne.

    Sharapova had to take time off during the second half of 2013 because of shoulder problems, and she complained of hip trouble at the Australian Open. The injuries and layoff probably contributed to her fourth-round loss to Dominika Cibulkova, especially since she went down rather meekly in the third set 6-1.

    Murray underwent back surgery in September and had played little in preparation for the Australian Open. He claimed his back was not a problem in Melbourne, but he winced and grabbed his back several times during his four-set loss to Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. Certainly, the lack of tournament matches leading up to the Australian Open had left him at less than his best. It remains to be seen if and when Murray will regain the physical and psychological health needed to compete for another Grand Slam title.

    The most significant victims of health issues were Williams and Nadal.

    After losing to Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round, Williams admitted she nearly withdrew from the tournament because of a back problem. Television analyst Chris Evert had speculated that there was something physically wrong with Williams, whose power, movement and will seemed restricted against Ivanovic.

    Presumably, Williams' back problem is a short-term issue, but only time will tell. She remains the dominant figure in women's tennis, but only when she is healthy.

    Health issues still linger for Nadal. He was sidelined for seven months in 2012 and the start of 2013 with knee problems that still require monitoring. A blister on his left palm needed attention throughout the Australian Open.

    His chance to win a 14th Grand Slam title, which would have tied Pete Sampras for the second most in history, was doomed by a back problem in the finals. Nadal might not have beaten Stanislas Wawrinka in that match anyway. He was already down a set and a service break in the second when his injury became apparent. However, Nadal nearly retired from the match because of the injury, which made a comeback attempt much more difficult.

    Now, you have to wonder whether the back problem will affect Nadal as he pursues a 14th Grand Slam title later this year.

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