2014 Australian Open: Final Report Card for the Top Tennis Stars

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2014

2014 Australian Open: Final Report Card for the Top Tennis Stars

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    The 2014 Australian Open crowned two new champions in Li Na and Stanislas Wawrinka. Other top stars found the journey much more grueling, battling scorching heat, injuries and inspired opponents. Already, the winds of change in professional tennis are swirling in new directions.

    How much did this tournament set the tempo for the months ahead and the three remaining Grand Slam tournaments? Which of the top stars will rebound, and which will find more difficulties ahead?

    The first 10 slides in this grade report assess WTA stars. The final 10 slides grade the ATP's star attractions.

Eugenie Bouchard

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: How soon could Eugenie Bouchard make her mark for stardom in the WTA? She garnered enough pre-tournament attention, but the crucible of Grand Slam pressure could be too much for a 19-year-old.

    Post Aussie Assessment: Instead, she burst forth with winning tennis and plenty of smiles. A group of men wore tee-shirt letters spelling "Genie." They presented her with a stuffed wombat and other animals following her victories. Bouchard even said she would date Justin Bieber.

    Somewhere along the carnival ride to the semifinals, Bouchard played mature tennis. Her baseline talent shows excellent anticipation in hitting the ball early, and she has good footwork. Ultimately, she was overpowered by the more experienced eventual champion, Li Na.

    Final Grade: A

Dominika Cibulkova

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: There was not a lot of buzz around Dominika Cibulkova when the prognosticators discussed contenders for the Australian Open. For a solid player who can wear a little too much of her troubles, a second-week run would have been considered a success.

    Post Aussie Assessment: Instead, Cibulkova kept winning. She knocked aside Maria Sharapova, stifled Simona Halep and topped Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the final. She played with confidence, abrasiveness and belonging, at least until the very final set versus Li Na.

    She must build on this success and continue to work harder. Her conditioning and movement can still improve, but the past two weeks should put a spring in her step.

    Final Grade: A

Simona Halep

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: After winning six titles in 2013, Simona Halep had proven she could win mid-level tournaments. What she needed was to start off 2014 with a strong Grand Slam run and begin her tutelage with contention on the big stages.

    Post Aussie Assessment: Halep defeated eighth-seeded Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round. Then she, like other stars, crashed against the hot play of Dominika Cibulkova. At least she had pushed herself into the quarterfinals and a Top 10 ranking.

    Will this be the first set to bigger Grand Slam success? She's ready for the challenges ahead.

    Final Grade: B

Sara Errani

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Sara Errani would have undoubtedly settled for another (2012) quarterfinals appearance in Melbourne, and there was no serious discussion that her clay-court game would trump the other stars for the title.

    Post Aussie Assessment: At least few tennis fans seemed to notice Errani's first-round exit. Immediately after her loss at Margaret Court Arena, Petra Kvitova went down in flames. Somebody else could take the ignominious attention.

    When is the French Open? Errani can't jet out to Europe fast enough.

    Final Grade: D-

Petra Kvitova

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Two years ago, she looked like she could take over tennis. As long as she could harness her power, she was one of the few players who could reasonably match up with Serena Williams, even if she had never defeated her in five career matches.

    Post Aussie Assessment: But Kvitova was the first star to fall, and it came crashing onto the scorching concrete Down Under. There simply are no excuses losing to a player near the triple-digits region of the rankings. She failed to play tennis but whacked away as if this were a training session designed for one-shot winners.

    Time for a reset.

    Final Grade: F

Agnieszka Radwanska

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: The draw gave Radwanska the tough task of defeating Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. Though she has been a Top 5 player, it has been difficult to string together signature wins, especially against more powerful opponents. Could she go deep Down Under?

    Post Aussie Assessment: She conquered Azarenka by book-ending two masterful sets. She won playing her way, anticipating, using various paces and angles and demonstrating the kind of form to win her coveted Grand Slam title.

    Then she was promptly drubbed by Dominika Cibulkova in the semifinals. Her kind of tennis cannot afford to hit only 12 winners and dish out 24 unforced errors. Cibulkova also destroyed her with her return game, winning 62 percent of those points.

    So all the old questions come full circle. Sure, she can put together a near-perfect match, but how about the one after? Can finesse consistently poke its way through power and win Grand Slams? Until she does, the burden will only grow.

    Final Grade: B+

Li Na

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: She was certainly one of the outside favorites to win the Australian Open, if she could get by Serena Williams in the semifinals. Li was close to the Aussie Open title in 2013, and she dearly wanted this trophy to give company to her Roland Garros hardware.

    Post Aussie Assessment: It was a dream performance punctuated by steady and precise groundstrokes to move her opponents from corner to corner. China is still celebrating.

    Li will be a favorite for the French Open. It would be amazing to see her continued success as one of the veterans on tour. She moved up to the No. 3 ranking.

    Final Grade: A+

Maria Sharapova

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: It wasn't going to be easy for Maria Sharapova to bounce back to competitive Grand Slam play for the first time since her summer injuries. In between she has had two coaching changes and perpetual questions about boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov.

    Post Aussie Assessment: It wasn't a total shock when she lost her fourth-round match to streaking Dominika Cibulkova. She labored with her serve and possibly is still feeling effects from her injured shoulder. Like Andy Murray, she could hardly be expected to play herself into top form and win the championship.

    How do you solve a problem like Maria? Coach Sven Groeneveld will need to help her serve improve and to help her regain the swagger she had in 2012. Otherwise, she may find herself in the bleachers more often watching Dimitrov in the men's tournament.

    Final Grade: C

Victoria Azarenka

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Seeking her third consecutive Australian Open title, Azarenka would have loved nothing more than to have defeated her nemesis Serena Williams. Losing at Melbourne  would not be acceptable, and she wanted to start her Grand Slam year with her usual boost.

    Post Aussie Assessment: So imagine how upsetting it was for her to lose in the quarterfinals to the finesse-shenanigans of Agnieszka Radwanska. Serena was already out of the way, and Azarenka had been playing her usually excellent brand of power baseline tennis.

    Quickly, her great expectations turned to no explanations, and suddenly she was slapping her thigh and screaming at mistakes. She was humiliated in the first and third sets, controlled by Radwanska's superior strategy and patience.

    Ultimately, Azarenka lost control and was booed as she left the court. Her play in Melbourne the past two years had been vintage wine, but 2014 suddenly became classless whine. This is part of our grade report.

    Final Grade: C+

Serena Williams

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: It was Serena Williams' mission to win the title, and nothing short of this would be considered a true success. The prevailing question had been if Serena was a better bet than the entire WTA field. As long as she was healthy and did not beat herself, she would win.

    Post Aussie Assessment: Serena was not herself in losing her fourth-round battle to Ana Ivanovic. Yes, her back limited her serve and mobility, but in recent years Melbourne has become her Waterloo, somewhat analogous to the sudden difficulties Rafael Nadal has had here.

    Is there a curse Down Under? Whatever it is, Serena needs the cure to wall off all maladies.

    She will likely be favored in the remaining Grand Slam venues, but the rest of the field can find more hope that her advancing age and apparent mortality could increasingly give them more opportunities.

    Final Grade: D+

Grigor Dimitrov

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: As the No. 22 seed, Grigor Dimitrov still had a lot to prove about his potential, notwithstanding his array of wonderful tennis skills. Experience, conditioning and greater results were necessary to prove to the tennis world that his time will come as the next big thing in tennis.

    Post Aussie Assessment: At least he turned the doorknob to realizing these expectations. Dimitrov dispatched 11th-seeded Milos Raonic in the third round, showing grit and patience against a huge server. He followed this up with a routine win to land in the quarterfinals.

    His impressive arsenal pushed Rafael Nadal as he won the first set and narrowly lost the next two in tiebreakers. The most optimistic Dimitrov fan could make the case that he nearly came away with a straight-sets victory over the World No. 1.

    But Dimitrov's serve, excellent retrieving and drop-shop wizardry will need to soak in more lessons about championship tennis. He found out how painful this can be but has every reason to look ahead at a promising 2014.

    Final Grade: A

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Tsonga helped France win the Hopman Cup and seemed to be ready to roll at one of his favorite venues and height of his career achievement (2008 Australian Open finalist). He had a murderous draw with potential to face Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to possibly win the title. Was this the most impossible draw in history?

    Post Aussie Assessment: He breezed through the first-week matches but was mostly helpless to combat Federer's quicker all-court attack. Federer not only dominated with cool efficiency (43-21 count of winners to unforced errors), but was a much better returner.

    It was a step back from the 2013 Australian Open when Tsonga tenderized Federer in five grueling quarterfinal sets. Tsonga has to wonder if he is "Stuck in a Moment (He) Can't Get Out Of," to paraphrase a U2 song. That's his career right now. He is a fringe Top 10 player who doesn't have enough defensive tenacity and big points audacity to win a Grand Slam title.

    Final Grade: C

Stanislas Wawrinka

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: In 2013, Stanislas Wawrinka produced two epic five-set losses on the Grand Slam stage to Novak Djokovic. Could he get over the hump this year in Australia, if they met in the quarterfinals?

    And what about Wawrinka defeating the likes of Djokovic and Rafael Nadal? Bleacher Report tennis fans gave their opinions in December, and for the most part Wawrinka was admired for his backhand and grit but was considered a long shot at best.

    Post Aussie Assessment: Then Wawrinka delivered, this time on the winning side of another five-setter with Djokovic. Even more impressive, he did not succumb to the semifinal pressure in playing the role of favorite against Tomas Berdych. He won crucial points in taking two tiebreakers for his four-set victory.

    His Grand Slam title will be remembered in several ways. First, he came out firing and dominated Nadal with a set and a break. Then he had to battle a wounded Nadal and his own self-inflicted errors. It was a conquest of himself as well as Nadal.

    His victory was deserved 100 percent. He showed courage and mettle to finish this off, something that other second-tier stars like Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych likely would not have finished.

    This is Stanislas Wawrinka from Switzerland, the new No. 3-ranked player and Grand Slam champion.

    Final Grade: A+

Tomas Berdych

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Tomas Berdych had what was perceived to be an easy draw to the semifinals, if only he won his expected matches and defeated Mighty Mouse David Ferrer. There are always questions about when he can play his best tennis, and when he will inevitably collapse when the moment is big.

    Post Aussie Assessment: Berdych exceeded expectations. He vanquished Ferrer in four sets and had to close out a fourth set after Ferrer has clawed his way back. He also battled Stanislas Wawrinka in three tiebreakers but ran into a hotter, better player at this time

    Unfortunately, Berdych's success could mean that tennis fans may see more of his latest and awful tennis attire. The striped Argentine-soccer look, replete with painter's hat and red shorts, could possibly embolden Berdych to stock up his wardrobe with referee jerseys and other clashing combinations. We won't dock him for this on the grade report, but it's tempting.

    Final Grade: A-

Roger Federer

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: There were plenty of questions about Federer. Will the larger, 98" racket pay off? Are his 2013 injuries behind him? Will new adviser-coach Stefan Edberg make a difference? Should he be applying for retirement benefits? Why did he lose to Lleyton Hewitt at Brisbane?

    Looking at the draw, most observers reasoned that Federer would run into trouble by the fourth round and quarterfinals, where the real competition would begin with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray. Realistically, many tennis fans and Federer followers hoped he could build positive momentum and make progress in returning as a Grand Slam contender.

    Post Aussie Assessment: No question that Federer showed his championship mettle. His aggressive all-court tennis was augmented by more intelligent chances and finishes at the net. He was brilliant versus Tsonga and dominated Murray. By the time the Nadal semifinal match came around, plenty of media reports tagged Federer as the favorite.

    Honestly, Federer did not play poorly against Nadal. He attacked, held his serve and nerve and forced Nadal to respond with great tennis. There were plenty of unforced (Unforced is still a relative term; more often, the opponent is forcing these unforced errors, but that's another discussion) errors, but Nadal was simply too great with his own breathtaking angles and shots.

    Federer looks trimmer and has his athletic bounce back. He should be very optimistic going forward and might have already established himself as the Wimbledon favorite. Not a bad two weeks, even if the Nadal puzzle takes a little air out of the memory.

    Final Grade: A-

Juan Martin del Potro

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Tennis fans have all but pleaded for Juan Martin del Potro to realize his potential. Many thought, once again, that he could be the dark horse to win the tournament. Never mind that four years, one wrist injury and no Masters 1000 titles have been the interim since his stunning Grand Slam title at the 2009 U.S. Open.

    Post Aussie Assessment: It wasn't fun for Del Potro to endure the scorching heat of the first week, but perhaps adding an "r" as the fourth letter of "heat" is the real problem. He lost in the second round to Roberto Bautista Agut, not exactly the top Spaniard in the draw.

    Tennis legend Mats Wilander, for Eurosport, opined that Del Potro needs to work harder and improve his conditioning.

    His conditioning does need to improve. His mental toughness needs to arrive. His defensive play can improve with better anticipation, if not footwork. He can look to implement more offensive variety than his predictable diet of hard groundstrokes.

    Is it more a question of talent or desire?

    Final Grade: D

Andy Murray

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Murray himself tried to quell expectations to win the Australian Open. He had only played a couple of matches since being sidelined from back surgery and was searching for the confidence and form he would need to be at this best again.

    Post Aussie Assessment: He cruised into the quarterfinals against Roger Federer, but was dominated in the first two sets. He lacked the punch and efficiency to keep Federer off the net, and it was clear that this was not the same Murray that had won two Grand Slam titles.

    After the match, Murray projected a blend of optimism and self-deprecation, telling 10sballs.com that "I’ve come a very long way in just a few months and I wasn’t expecting to come in and win the event; that would have been completely stupid to think that."

    Going forward, Murray will look to regain his top form and confidence. All in all, it was a fairly successful run considering the context, and it's no shame to lose to Federer.

    Final Grade: B

David Ferrer

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: Third-seeded David Ferrer was defending a semifinal appearance and, as usual, was fortunate to avoid the likes of Andy Murray and Roger Federer in his draw. That's the perception of the pint-sized Ferrer, that he is a wonderful fighter but not a serious Grand Slam contender.

    Post Aussie Assessment: As usual, Ferrer won the matches he should have but then could not find a way past inspired and hard-hitting Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals. His energy needed a boost, and he played with frustration.

    He also gets cited for a misconduct on our grade report. Sure, it wasn't a full-fledged push, but nevertheless a classless gesture to bump aside a linesman. It's also against the rules, and he will likely be fined. Not the best way to go out.

    Final Grade: C

Novak Djokovic

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: The three-time defending champion came into the tournament without a loss since September's final at the U.S. Open. He recently added new coach Boris Becker to help him with tactics but also to keep building his champion's edge.

    There was plenty of self-imposed pressure to win another title Down Under, and also to stay in striking range of Rafael Nadal's No. 1 ranking. Anything less than the title would be a disappointment at least, and a failure at worst.

    Post Aussie Assessment: This time he was on the losing side of a five-set final versus Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. His Grand Slam semifinal streak of 14 is now history.

    For the first time in three years, he does not own a Grand Slam title. He has been a tireless champion, but the strain of playing in an ultra-competitive field is showing. Nobody questions his work ethic and heart, but he can have hiccups in the midst of brilliant play, and it costs him.

    Can Djokovic regain his invincible aura to succeed in winning his elusive French Open title?

    Final Grade: C+

Rafael Nadal

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    2014 Australian Open Expectations: For Rafael Nadal, the plan is to look ahead with great respect for his opponents and honest preparation for each and every match. As long as he plays his best tennis, he always has a chance for more Grand Slam hardware.

    For the rest of the tennis world, there was the matter of Nadal chasing down Slam No. 14 to tie Pete Sampras. He would also have a double collection of the career Grand Slam, something no other player had accomplished in the Open era, let alone on three different surfaces and two types of hard courts.

    So, yeah, there was at least all of this at stake, let alone the present-day reality of surviving a stacked draw and the likelihood of defeating three-time defending Australian Open champion, Novak Djokovic.

    Post Aussie Assessment: The first week was a metaphorical breeze through literal heat. He arrived at the quarterfinals with only a sore on his hand, but it quickly became the blister seen around the world.

    He struggled through a challenging onslaught from young Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals. Then he rose above the Fedal hype of the semifinals and played his best match since summer by once again conquering the Swiss Maestro. There were breathtaking shots, but his resilience and spirit will always take top billing.

    Then along came Stanislas Wawrinka, seemingly a gift-wrapped replacement for his arch rival Djokovic. But Nadal was dominated; then he was demoralized. His back seized up early in the second set and played on as only a shell of himself, unable to move, retrieve or play the inspired tennis we take for granted.

    It was difficult to watch him gamely compete, and another ominous warning that the end of a legend's career can happen at any time.

    Final Grade: A-