2016 Australian Open: Report Card for the Top Stars

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2016

2016 Australian Open: Report Card for the Top Stars

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    Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

    Serena Williams' surprising loss in the women's finals and Novak Djokovic's historic victory in the men's finals complicated our grading system for the Australian Open.

    Does Angelique Kerber deserve an A-plus for her stunning upset of Williams? Or does Djokovic merit a higher grade based on his domination of the Australian Open the past six years?

    We dispensed these grades based primarily on two factors: how far the player advanced at the Australian Open and the caliber of competition he or she faced. We gave some consideration to how a player fared relative to expectations and the historical significance of his or her achievement.

    We graded 20 players—the eight semifinalists and 11 others deemed to be the most famous. We also included Shuai Zhang because of her remarkable run.

    Players are presented in ascending order of their grade, with the player given the highest grade featured on the final slide.

Simona Halep

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    As the No. 2-ranked female player in the world, Simona Halep had to be considered a contender even though her history in Grand Slam events was not pretty. Halep had yet to win a major singles title, and she had reached the finals of only one, the 2014 French Open. She offered a hint that her failures at big events might be coming to an end when she got to the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year. But she followed that with a series of poor tournaments, losing to three players ranked outside the Top 60.

    Nonetheless, Halep was still just 24 years old, and she seemed to have the talent to win a Grand Slam title. Presumably, the breakthrough could come at any time.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Halep had another glorious failure in a major, losing in the first round to qualifier Shuai Zhang in rather routine fashion, 6-4, 6-3. Not only was Zhang ranked No. 133 in the world, but she had not won a single main-draw match in her 14 previous attempts in Grand Slam events. The result became less stunning when Zhang advanced to the quarterfinals, but at the time it was seen as one of the biggest upsets in Australian Open history. It was the first time since 1979 that a female player seeded first or second lost in the first round of this event.

    A sore Achilles and the effects of a cold may have affected Halep's play, but when she left the court in tears, it was evident of how devastating the loss was. Halep has now lost in the first or second round in three of her past four Grand Slam events, and she lost in the first round for the third time in the past five years in Melbourne. The Grand Slam title that seemed imminent a few years ago now seems farther away than ever.

    Final Grade: D

Rafael Nadal

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    It was difficult to know what to expect from Rafael Nadal. He had won only one of his past 20 tournaments, and that lone victory came on clay at the German Open last July when he beat no one ranked in the Top 25. His ranking was at No. 5 entering the 2016 Australian Open, and he did not resemble the player who was ranked No. 1 as recently as June 2014.

    However, he had beaten Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka at the World Tour Finals on hard courts in his final event of 2015 and had reached the finals of the hard-court event in Qatar in his only tournament of 2016. Nadal was certainly not at the top of his game, but a player who has won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, including three on hard courts, remains a force to be reckoned with.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Fernando Verdasco unceremoniously dismissed Nadal in the first round. The 32-year-old Verdasco is ranked No. 45 and is not the player he was when he was ranked No. 7 in November 2010. He also is not the player he was when he took Nadal to five sets in the 2009 Australian Open semifinals. However, the go-for-broke Verdasco still has days when he can be dangerous and had beaten Nadal in their most recent match on hard courts last year in Miami.

    What made the loss particularly hard to take for Nadal was that he seemed to be in control of the match and let it slip away. After dropping the first-set tiebreaker, Nadal dominated the next two sets to put himself in command. He dropped the fourth set in a tiebreaker but took a 2-0 lead in the fifth set and had a break point on Verdasco's serve in the third game. Again, Nadal let the advantage disappear, losing six straight games to complete a 7-6, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 loss to Verdasco.

    Nadal's age, which is 29, is starting to be significant. Nadal has failed to get past the quarterfinals in any of the six Grand Slam events he has played since winning the 2014 French Open. He has not even reached the round of 16 in his past three majors. He does not seem to have any health issues at the moment, but Nadal's career is heading the wrong way. 

    Final Grade: D

Venus Williams

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    On one hand, Venus Williams looked like a contender for a Grand Slam title again. She took a set off sister Serena before losing in the quarterfinals of last year's U.S. Open, and she won two of the final four tournaments she entered in 2015. She finished the year ranked No. 7, an impressive resurgence for someone who had dropped out of the Top 100 four years earlier.

    On the other hand, the momentum she had built at the end of 2015 was interrupted by a first-round loss to 75th-ranked Daria Kasatkina in Auckland, New Zealand, in her only tournament match of 2016. Furthermore, Williams had not advanced past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event since 2010.

    The 35-year-old Williams is still capable of beating anyone on a given day. Whether she can maintain a high level of tennis through two weeks of stiff competition and capture an eighth major title was another issue entirely.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    The eighth-seeded Williams had a disappointing showing, losing to 47th-ranked Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-2 in the first round. As the ESPN.com report noted, Williams "looked all of her 35 years as she labored around the court with a heavily taped left thigh and struggled with the serve (one ace) that was once her greatest weapon."

    Williams obviously was not satisfied with her effort, as she skipped her mandatory post-match news conference. 

    Konta went on to advance to the semifinals, which made Williams' loss less embarrassing. However, the fact remains that Williams has not reached the semifinals in any of the last 18 Grand Slam events she has entered. You wonder how many more chances she will get.

    Final Grade: C-

Petra Kvitova

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Petra Kvitova is always considered a contender at majors because she owns two Grand Slam singles titles. But both were at Wimbledon, and grass is by far her best surface. She had never reached the finals at either of the two hard-court majors and got to the semifinals only once in her 15 tries at the U.S. and Australian Opens.

    In her only 2016 match before Australia, she lost the first set to 72nd-ranked Saisai Zheng before retiring from the contest with an illness at the Shenzhen Open. As a result, Kvitova was not coming into the Australian Open with any momentum. Still, as the No. 7-ranked woman in the world and the No. 6 seed in Melbourne, Kvitova was expected to reach the second week of the Australian Open.

     

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    After breezing by 158th-ranked Luksika Kumkhum 6-3, 6-1 in the first round, Kvitova was ousted in the second round by Daria Gavrilova, losing 6-4, 6-4. The 21-year-old Gavrilova is ranked 39th, and she had wins over Maria Sharapova, Lucie Safarova, Samantha Stosur, Sara Errani and Ana Ivanovic, among others, last year.

    This loss was not as embarrassing as the ones that other seeded players experienced, but it was a match Kvitova should have won. She played like a person who had not played many matches lately and was not tournament-tough. Her comments afterward suggested the same. "I felt a little bit tired and without the timing on the court," Kvitova said, according to Marc McGowan of the Melbourne Herald Sun," so I was missing easy shots and not doing what I should."

    It was the third time in the past four years that Kvitova had failed to reach the third round in Melbourne.

    Final Grade: C-

Garbine Muguruza

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Garbine Muguruza had burst into prominence by reaching the quarterfinals of the French Open and the finals of Wimbledon last year. Her ranking had shot up from the No. 21 spot she occupied last June to its current No. 3 slot. She had reached the round of 16 at last year's Australian Open before losing to Serena Williams in three sets, and she beat Williams in the 2014 French Open 6-2, 6-2. The 22-year-old Muguruza seemed ready for something big.

    The only concerns were a foot injury and a lack of recent competition. She had to retire midway through her first-round match in Brisbane in early January because of a sore left foot. That was her only tournament match since October, and she said after pulling out that she had been bothered by plantar fasciitis for much of 2015, according to Tennis.com.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Muguruza failed to reach the fourth round, losing to 48th-ranked Barbora Strycova in rather decisive fashion 6-3, 6-2 in the third round. Muguruza seemed fine in her first two matches, easing past Anett Kontaveit 6-0, 6-4 in her opener and blowing by Kirsten Flipkens 6-4, 6-2 in the second round.

    However, Muguruza looked nothing like the world's No. 3 player against Strycova, a player Muguruza had beaten in straight sets in their only two previous meetings, both in 2015. "Well, clearly not my best, for sure," Muguruza said after the loss, according to the Australian Open website. “I think today is a very bad day at the office."

    The foot injury did not seem to be a problem for Muguruza, who said after her first-round match that she was healthy. It was simply a disappointing performance, and it came after she lost in the second round of last year's U.S. Open.

    Final Grade: C

Marin Cilic

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Marin Cilic was not the favorite at the 2016 Australian Open, but as one of six participants in this year's Australian Open who has won a men's Grand Slam singles title, he could not be dismissed. He had done nothing of note the past few months, and he entered the Australian Open ranked No. 13 after being as high as No. 8 following his victory in the 2014 U.S. Open.

    However, Cilic seems to play his best in Grand Slam events. After missing last year's Australian Open with a shoulder injury, he reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year. He had not done particularly well at the Australian Open the past few years, but he did get to the semifinals in 2010, when he beat Andy Roddick, Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin Del Potro. Hard courts seem to be his best surface.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Cilic got by two players ranked outside the Top 60, Thiemo de Bakker and Albert Ramos-Vinolas, before losing in straight sets in the third round to Roberto Bautista Agut, who was ranked No. 21 when they met.

    Particularly disappointing for Cilic was that he fell apart at key moments in the loss. Bautista Agut broke Cilic's serve at love in the seventh game of the first set in the only break of the set. Cilic then held a 5-2 lead in the second set and proceeded to let it slip away, losing the second set in a tiebreaker after being ahead in the breaker too. Bautista Agut recorded the only service break of the third set in the 12th game to complete a 6-4, 7-6, 7-5 victory. Cilic finished with 55 unforced errors.

    Cilic had won his only two previous encounters with Batista Agut, both on hard courts.

    Final Grade: C

Stan Wawrinka

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Stan Wawrinka had turned himself into a consistent contender for Grand Slam titles over the past two years, and he was a threat at the 2016 Australian Open. He had reached at least the semifinals in three of the four majors last year, including winning the French Open.

    Wawrinka had his greatest success at the Australian Open, beating Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to the 2014 title and losing in five sets in the semifinals to eventual champion Djokovic last year.

    Wawrinka had won his only 2016 tournament, a hard-court event in India, although he did not have to beat any Top 15 players to do it. The one thing in Wawrinka's favor was that he seemed to be the only player who could challenge Djokovic on a consistent basis. He had won two of his last five matches against Djokovic in Grand Slam events and took the Serb to five sets in the other three.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Wawrinka lost in the fourth round, which constitutes a disappointment at this stage of his career.

    He did not lose a set in his first three matches, rolling past Dmitry Tursunov, Radek Stepanek and Lukas Rosol with little difficulty. He then had the misfortune to run into a red-hot Milos Raonic in the fourth round.

    Wawrinka, who had won all four of his previous matches against Raonic, fought back from a two-set deficit to force the match to a fifth set. Wawrinka even saved a match point at 2-5 in the deciding set, but Raonic prevailed 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3.

    Losing to the 13th-seeded Raonic the way he was playing was certainly no embarrassment. But Wawrinka is ranked No. 4 in the world at the moment and was as high as No. 3 in 2014. Losing in the round of 16 at a Grand Slam event is an unsatisfactory result at this point. It was the first time in the past seven majors that he failed to reach the quarterfinals.

    Final Grade: C+

Victoria Azarenka

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Although Victoria Azarenka was seeded only 14th and ranked 16th, she began the Australian Open as the second choice of oddsmakers, behind only Serena Williams, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. That has to count for something in terms of expectations.

    It is easy to see why Azarenka was getting so much pre-tournament support. Her only two Grand Slam singles titles came at the Australian Open, in 2012 and 2013, and she had rolled through her only 2016 tournament, losing no more than five games in any match while winning the hard-court event in Brisbane in early January. She was beginning to resemble the player she was through most of 2012 and the early part of 2013, when she was ranked No. 1, before injuries took their toll.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Azarenka did better than her seeding by reaching the quarterfinals, but this must be considered a missed opportunity for her. With both No. 2-seeded Simona Halep and No. 3-seeded Garbine Muguruza eliminated early, the bottom half of the draw opened up nicely for Azarenka, who would not have to face Serena Williams until the finals.

    Azarenka breezed through her first three matches, losing no more than three games in any of them and looking very much like a player who could reach the finals. After knocking off Barbora Strycova 6-2, 6-4 in the fourth round, Azarenka had only No. 7-seeded Angelique Kerber and one of two unseeded players (Johanna Konta or Shuai Zhang) in her path to the finals.

    Azarenka had beaten Kerber all six previous times they met, including a 6-3, 6-1 thrashing just three weeks earlier in Brisbane. But Azarenka could not get it done in Melbourne, losing 6-3, 7-5. The most disappointing aspect was that Azarenka let a 5-2 lead in the second set slip away, as Kerber won the final five games to complete the match.

    Azarenka's recent play bodes well for her 2016 prospects, but this was a wasted opportunity. 

    Final Grade: B

Tomas Berdych

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Tomas Berdych has been hovering in the Top 10 for years, but he has yet to make a major breakthrough as an elite player. Currently ranked No. 6, Berdych got as high as No. 4 last March and had not been out of the Top 10 since June of 2010. However, he is seldom talked about as a contender at Grand Slam events and was not among the favorites at 2016 Australian Open either. The 30-year-old has never won a Grand Slam singles title and got to the finals of only one, the 2010 Wimbledon.

    He typically beats the players he should beat but rarely defeats anyone ranked ahead of him. Since losing to Andy Murray in the semifinals of last year's Australian Open, Berdych had played 12 matches against the five players currently ranked ahead of him: Djokovic, Murray, Roger Federer, Wawrinka and Nadal. Berdych lost all 12.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Berdych once again did as expected, knocking off the players ranked below him to advance to the quarterfinals before bowing out to a player ranked ahead of him, Federer.

    Berdych showed grit in getting past 29th-ranked Nick Kyrgios in four sets and ousting 24th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals. Berdych put up a fight in the first set against Federer but then succumbed 7-6, 6-2, 6-4. It was Berdych's fifth straight loss to Federer, and the last four have been in straight sets.

    Berdych deserves credit for his consistency, as he reached at least the quarterfinals of the Australian Open for the sixth consecutive year. But until he breaks through with a Grand Slam title, he will remain an afterthought in discussions of the world's top players.

    Final Grade: B

Maria Sharapova

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Maria Sharapova figured to have a shot at her sixth Grand Slam title, so long as she didn't have to face Serena Williams.

    Sharapova came into the Australian Open with limited competitive preparation, so there was some uncertainty about how well she would play. She had missed three months of tournament activity last year when a leg injury arose following Wimbledon, which forced her to withdraw from the U.S. Open. She lost in the first round of her first tournament back but had five wins over players ranked among the Top 11 in her final two competitions of the year.

    She pulled out of her only scheduled warm-up event of 2016, claiming an arm injury. But the biggest problem arose when the Australian Open draw was made, as the fifth-seeded Sharapova would meet Williams in the quarterfinals if both got that far. Williams is Sharapova's Kryptonite, so she had to hope someone would beat Williams before the quarterfinals.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Sharapova played well, winning her first four matches to advance to the quarterfinals. But awaiting Sharapova in the quarterfinals was Williams.

    Sharapova started well against her nemesis, winning the first two games, and for a moment it appeared she had a chance to end Williams' run of superiority against her. Then reality set in as Williams dominated the rest of the match in a 6-4, 6-1 victory. It was Williams' 18th consecutive victory against Sharapova, who has not beaten Williams since 2004, when Sharapova 17 years old. She has also lost 16 consecutive sets to Williams, whose serve and groundstrokes are simply too powerful for Sharapova to handle.

    What should not be forgotten is Sharapova's performance leading up to that loss. She turns 29 in April, and she still looks capable of winning a sixth Grand Slam title. Her 7-5, 7-5 fourth-round victory over Belinda Bencic, a rising 18-year-old player seeded 12th, indicated Sharapova has not yet been passed by the next generation of players.

    Final Grade: B

Kei Nishikori

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Kei Nishikori had shown great promise when, at the age of 24, he beat Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic to reach the finals of the 2014 U.S. Open. However, he failed to build on that, losing in the quarterfinals of his next two Grand Slam events and the second round at Wimbledon before suffering a disappointing first-round loss to Benoit Paire at the 2015 U.S. Open.

    A hip injury may have been a factor in his loss to Paire, but Nishikori had done nothing in the meantime to suggest he was ready to challenge at the Australian Open. In his only tournament in 2016, he had lost to Bernard Tomic in the quarterfinals. Nishikori came into the Australian Open ranked No. 7, after being as high as No. 4 five months earlier.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Nishikori performed well while reaching the quarterfinals, offering hope that he can regain the form he showed at the U.S. Open two years ago.

    He faced a tough first-round opponent in Philipp Kohlschreiber but got past him in straight sets. Nishikori was extended to four sets in his third-round win over 26th-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, but Nishikori played his best match of the tournament in the round of 16, when he dominated ninth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.

    Nishikori was unable to challenge Djokovic in the quarterfinals, losing 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. Djokovic has now defeated him five straight times since Nishikori's win in the 2014 U.S. Open. 

     

    Final Grade: B

Agnieszka Radwanska

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Agnieszka Radwanska had never won a Grand Slam event and had reached the finals of only one, the 2012 Wimbledon, losing to Serena Williams in three sets. However, she had had good success at the Australian Open, with three quarterfinal berths and a run to the semifinals in her past five trips to Melbourne.

    Radwanska had won her only tournament of 2016, the Shenzhen Open, although she did not have to face anyone ranked in the Top 90 to do it. She also won her final tournament of 2015, the WTA Finals in Singapore, beating three Top Five players in that event. She entered the Australian Open with a No. 4 ranking after being No. 15 just five months earlier. At age 26 Radwanska seemed to be playing the best tennis of her career and figured to perform well in Melbourne. Being in the same half of the draw as Serena made a berth in the finals unlikely, though.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Radwanska did exactly as expected, reaching the semifinals before losing to Williams in rather routine fashion 6-4, 6-0.

    She beat only one seeded player along the way, but she eliminated several good unseeded players. Her second-round victim was 37th-ranked Eugenie Bouchard, a 2014 Australian Open and French Open semifinalist and Wimbledon finalist. Radwanska then got past 52nd-ranked Monica Puig 6-4, 6-0 before having unexpected trouble in the fourth round against 82nd-ranked Anna-Lena Friedsam. The latter's third-set cramps were as influential as Radwanska was in the 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 victory.

    Radwanska's best performance of the tournament came in her 6-3, 6-1 quarterfinal victory over 10th-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro. She had beaten Radwanska in their only 2015 meeting, but Radwanska committed just 13 unforced errors this time while taking advantage of Suarez Navarro's erratic play.

    In the semifinals, after getting blown away in the first set by Williams, Radwanska was competitive in the second. But an error on break point in the ninth game gave Williams a 5-4 lead, and she then hit three aces to close out the match.

    Final Grade: B+

Roger Federer

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Roger Federer had experienced a career resurgence in 2015 and seemed capable of earning his 18th Grand Slam title, and first since 2012, at the 2016 Australian Open. Although he was not the tournament favorite, Federer looked like a contender based on his recent work. He was a finalist at the final two Grand Slam events last year, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and had reached the finals of his last two tournaments before the Australian Open.

    More significantly, he had handed Novak Djokovic his two most recent defeats, although one was in a round-robin segment of the ATP Tour Finals. 

    Federer had four Australian Open titles to his credit and had reached at least the semifinals of the event in 11 of the past 12 years.

    Working against the third-seeded Federer was the fact that he was in the same half of the Australian Open draw as Djokovic, who had beaten Federer in the finals of both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon last year.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Federer played well while reaching the semifinals, but again Djokovic ruined his bid for an 18th major championship. A delay to close the roof at Rod Laver Stadium also seemed to play a role in his exit.

    Federer lost only one set in his first five matches, dropping the second set against 27th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov before completing a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, third-round victory. Federer dominated his next two opponents, blowing by 15th-seeded David Goffin 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, and easing past No. 6-seeded Tomas Berdych 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals.

    In the semifinals, Federer was whipped badly in the first two sets, but he then changed his strategy a bit and played his best tennis of the tournament to win the third set and get back into the match. Federer had the momentum and the crowd on his side, but that came to a screeching halt when the match was delayed for 10 minutes as officials decided to close the roof because of the threat of rain.

    By the time the match resumed, Federer had lost the bounce in his step and played poorly in the fourth set. Djokovic did not play great but played well enough to finish off a 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory.

    Ultimately, the conditions were the same for both players, and sports are a bottom-line endeavor. Federer lost, and his grade reflects it. However, his play demonstrated that hope for another Grand Slam title still exists.

    Final Grade: B+

Serena Williams

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Despite an absence of recent tournament competition, Serena Williams was a heavy favorite to win the 2016 Australian Open. Anything less than a title would be considered a disappointment. The 34-year-old had won four of the past five Grand Slam events and was the defending champion at the Australian Open, a tournament she had won six times. She has been ranked No. 1 for 154 consecutive weeks, dating back to February 2013, and the current points gap between her and No. 2 Simona Halep was huge.

    The only concern was a lack of tournament competition. Her only match of consequence since losing to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the U.S. Open on Sept. 11, was a Jan. 5 match in the Hopman Cup. And Williams failed to complete that one, retiring when trailing Jarmila Wolfe 7-5, 2-1 because of a knee injury.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Williams' bid to win her 22nd Grand Slam title, thus tying Steffi Graf for the Open era record, was thwarted in shocking fashion by Angelique Kerber in the finals. Kerber's 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory was nearly as surprising as Williams loss to Vinci in the U.S. Open. Williams' status is such that a runner-up finish in a major counts as a subpar performance.

    Williams had looked unbeatable in her matches leading up to the finals. Not surprisingly, she struggled a bit in her first-round match after her long layoff before getting past Camila Giorgi, a good player ranked 36th. But after winning that match 6-4, 7-5, Williams began to roll through the draw. She did not lose more than three games in any of her next three matches and then took out fifth-seeded Maria Sharapova for the 18th consecutive time 6-4, 6-1, winning 12 of the final 15 games.

    After blowing by fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-4 in the semifinals, Williams seemed primed to crush Kerber, a player Williams had beaten in each of their past four meetings, all on hard courts and all in straight sets. But she could not complete the run against the sixth-ranked Kerber. Williams committed 46 unforced errors compared to just 13 for Kerber, who had nearly as many aces (five) as Williams had (seven).

    Typically, a berth in the finals of a Grand Slam event earns the player some form of an A grade. But the grading curve is different for Williams, who is still one major title shy of Graf's Open era record and three major titles short of Margaret Smith's all-time record of 24 Grand Slam crowns.

    Final Grade: B+

Shuai Zhang

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    Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Only the most ardent tennis fan had heard of Shuai Zhang before the 2016 Australian Open. She was ranked 133rd, had never won a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament, had lost in the first round in seven of her previous eight WTA events, had failed to qualify for either the U.S. Open or Wimbledon in 2015 and had lost 16 matches to players ranked outside the Top 100 in 2015.

    She had already exceeded expectations when she won three matches in the qualifying rounds to earn a berth in the main draw of the Australian Open.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Zhang stunned herself and the rest of the tennis world by upsetting No. 2-seeded Simona Halep 6-4, 6-3 in the first round. It was one of the biggest upsets in Australian Open history, as a woman seeded first or second lost in the first round for the first time since 1979.

    Zhang had played in the main draw of a Grand Slam event 14 times before and had never won a match. In addition, she had lost in qualifying at 13 other Grand Slam events. She cried tears of disbelief after beating Halep, discovering what it felt like to win a match in a major.

    It was assumed Zhang's victory over Halep was a fluke until she went out and won her next two matches against former Top 20 players Alize Cornet and Varvara Lepchenko, both in straight sets. Zhang's extraordinary run seemed at an end when No. 15-seeded Madison Keys easily won the first set in the fourth round. But Keys was then struck by a leg injury that got progressively worse as the match wore on. By the end of Zhang's 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory, Keys could barely move.

    Nonetheless, Zhang had advanced to the quarterfinals, where the magic finally disappeared in a 6-4, 6-1 loss to Johanna Konta.

    Zhang had only reached the quarterfinals, but she deserved a high grade for exceeding expectations.

    Final Grade: A-

Johanna Konta

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Johanna Konta had advanced past the first round only twice in her eight previous Grand Slam tries. That and her No. 47 ranking suggested she would not be a factor in the 2016 Australian Open.

    However, there were hints that she was improving and could provide a challenge at some point. The 24-year-old had reached the round of 16 as a qualifier in her most recent Grand Slam event, the 2015 U.S. Open, and she beat No. 2-ranked Simona Halep in China a month later. It helped her ranking jump from 146th last June to No. 47 by the end of 2015.

    The rise ended at the start of 2016, though, as Konta lost in the first round of both of her 2016 hard-court tuneup tournaments, which dropped her off the radar as the Australian Open began.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Konta continued her impressive upward surge by reaching the semifinals. She beat two seeded players on her way to the best Grand Slam performance of her career before losing to No. 7-seeded Angelique Kerber.

    Konta's most impressive win came in the opening round, when she dismissed eighth-seeded Venus Williams decisively 6-4, 6-2. Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, had been playing well recently, but she could not handle Konta, who improved her record against Top 10 players to 4-2.

    Konta breezed by Saisai Zheng and Denisa Allertova to earn a fourth-round match against 21st-seeded Ekaterina Makarova. Konta had beaten Makarova in their only previous meeting last year on grass, and she did it again by pulling out a tense three-setter 4-6, 6-4, 8-6.

    She got a break in the next round as 15th-seeded Madison Keys was hindered by injury in her three-set loss to qualifier Shuai Zhang, which allowed Konta to avoid Keys and face 133rd-ranked Zhang with a berth in the semifinals on the line. Konta ended Zhang's magical run with 6-4, 6-1 victory.

    Konta had never faced Kerber before their semifinal match in Melbourne, but Konta's success against Top 10 players indicated she might have a shot. Konta could not handle the moment, however, committing 36 unforced errors in a 7-5, 6-2 loss. Nevertheless, she was the first British woman in 33 years to play in a Grand Slam semifinal.

    Final Grade: A-

Milos Raonic

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Milos Raonic came into the Australian Open not as the favorite but as someone nobody wanted to face. He had been playing the best tennis of his career and figured to be a threat on the hard courts in Melbourne because of his big serve.

    Raonic was only ranked No. 14 when the Australian Open began, down from his high of No. 4 achieved last May. But the ranking was deceiving. Injuries had plagued him for much of 2015, but he was healthy again and had won his only 2016 tournament, beating Roger Federer in straight sets in the finals at Brisbane.

    "His consistent power is something that's so impressive," said Federer of Raonic after that match, according to the ATP World Tour report. "The focus he brings to every single serve. I've always said it's amazing that he can do that. For a big guy he moves well. He's improved his fitness the last few years. Also tactically he's better now than he's ever been."

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Raonic was having the tournament of his life before an injury played a major role in ruining his bid to reach the finals of a Grand Slam event for the first time.

    He did manage to reach the semifinals of a major for only the second time, which hints that the 25-year-old Canadian is now capable of beating the best at the biggest events. But for Raonic this Australian Open was more about a lost opportunity.

    He got past his first two opponents, Lucas Pouille and Tommy Robredo, without the loss of a set, and then knocked off 21st-seeded Viktor Troicki in impressive fashion 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. Raonic next produced the best Grand Slam win of his career, eliminating fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3 in the fourth round.

    Raonic eliminated Gael Monfils in the four sets in the quarterfinals and continued his run of strong play in his semifinal match against No. 2-ranked Andy Murray. Raonic won two of the first three sets but suffered a groin injury in the third set, which he won in a tiebreaker. By the fourth set, Raonic needed attention from a trainer for his injury, and by the fifth set he was visibly hobbled.  

    Murray finished off Raonic 4-6, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2. Murray might have won the match even if Raonic had not been injured, but the Canadian certainly would not have submitted as meekly as he did in the final set, when he had trouble moving.

    "It's unfortunate," Raonic said, according to Greg Baum of the Sydney Morning Herald. "It's probably the most heartbroken I've felt on court."

    Final Grade: A-

Andy Murray

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Andy Murray was the second choice of oddsmakers to win the 2016 Australian Open, behind only Novak Djokovic, according to the Melbourne Herald Sun.

    Murray had not won a major since capturing the 2013 Wimbledon title, and he had reached the finals of only one of the nine majors since then. However, he had played consistently well over the past year, regaining the No. 2 ranking in October and holding it heading into the Australian Open. That was important because it put him in the other half of the draw from Djokovic, the one player Murray had little success against.

    Murray had played some of his best tennis in Melbourne, reaching the finals of the Australian Open in four of the past six years. There was every reason to believe he was capable of matching that result this year.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    For the fifth time in the past seven years Murray reached the Australian Open finals. For the fifth time in the past seven years he lost in the finals. In each of his last four Australian Open finals, Djokovic was the man who stopped Murray one victory short of his first Australian Open crown. This time, Murray got behind early and was never able to recover in a 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 loss to the No. 1 player.

    Murray played consistent tennis from the start of the tournament. He blew by his first two opponents, Alexander Zverev and Sam Groth, without losing more than six games in either match. He dropped a set while winning his next three matches, against 32nd-ranked Joao Sousa, 16th-seeded Bernard Tomic and eighth-seeded David Ferrer, winning all three in four sets.

    Murray caught a break in his semifinal match against 13th-seeded Milos Raonic. The Canadian was playing the best tennis of his career and held a two-sets-to-one lead over Murray before a groin injury slowed Raonic in the fourth set. Murray finished off the fourth set to tie the match, and the hobbled Raonic offered little resistance in the fifth set of Murray's 4-6, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory.

    Against Djokovic, Murray dug himself an early hole by losing the first five games of the match. Giving Djokovic a head start almost always spells doom for his opponent, and such was the case this time. Murray finished with 40 winners to Djokovic's 31, but Murray's 65 unforced errors were too much for him to overcome.

    Since Murray's victory over Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon finals, Murray has dropped 11 of his 12 matches against Djokovic. Murray has gone 10 consecutive Grand Slam events without a title. This time, at least, he can go home to a wife who is expecting their first child.

    Final Grade: A-

Angelique Kerber

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Angelique Kerber was one of a number of Top 15 players who figured to win several rounds but did not look like serious contenders to win the 2016 Australian Open. She had never done particularly well in the majors. Kerber, whose 28th birthday would fall on the second day of the Australian Open, had never reached the finals of a Grand Slam event in 30 tries, and she had failed to reach the fourth round in any of the five previous majors.

    She had won four tournaments in 2015, and although she was the No. 7 seed at the Australian Open, her ranking had risen to No. 6 by the time the tournament began. A stomach virus had forced her to withdraw in the second round of her first tournament of 2016 in Sydney, but she played well in her final tuneup event for the Australian Open, reaching the finals at Brisbane before losing decisively to Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 6-1.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    Kerber had the tournament of her life, reaching the finals of a Grand Slam event for the first time and then pulling off the major upset of Serena Williams in the finals. Her stunning 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory over Williams ended Kerber's memorable two-week journey that began with her having to fight off a match point in the first round against a relative nobody.

    Kerber benefited from a draw that opened up for her when No. 2-seeded Simona Halep and No. 3-seeded Garbine Muguruza were early upset victims. In fact, Kerber did not have to beat any players ranked in the Top 15 to get to the finals. Still, getting to the finals of a major, regardless of the means, is a significant accomplishment. And beating Williams on any surface at any tournament is a major achievement, one that is magnified when it comes in the finals of a Grand Slam event.

    Kerber's first match did not suggest she was destined for a deep run, as she nearly lost her opening-round match to 64th-ranked Misaki Doi. Her opponent held a match point at 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, but Kerber won the next three points to take the second set en route to a 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 victory.

    Kerber got past her next three opponents without too much trouble, ousting Alexandra Dulgheru, Madison Brengle and Annika Beck to set up a quarterfinal match against Victoria Azarenka.

    Azarenka entered the quarterfinals with a 6-0 record against Kerber, including a decisive 6-3, 6-1 victory in the Brisbane finals three weeks earlier. However, Kerber pulled off the upset, rallying from a 2-5 deficit in the second set for a 6-3, 7-5 victory. A 7-5, 6-2 semifinal victory over 47th-ranked Johanna Konta put Kerber into the finals.

    Kerber was an overwhelming underdog against Williams, who had beaten Kerber the last four times they met, all on hard courts and all in straight sets. Kerber took advantage of numerous Williams errors and won a 16-point sixth game of the third set to take control. 

    Though Kerber was aided by the draw, her ability to beat both Azarenka and Williams earned her an outstanding grade.

    Final Grade: A

Novak Djokovic

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    2016 Australian Open Expectations

    Novak Djokovic was not quite as heavy a favorite in the 2016 Australian Open men's singles as Serena Williams was in the women's singles, but it was close. Djokovic has been ranked No. 1 since July 2014 and was coming off one of the best years in men's tennis history, having won three of the four 2015 majors and reaching the finals of the fourth.

    A semifinal berth could almost be guaranteed for Djokovic, who had reached at least the semifinals in 21 of the last 22 Grand Slam events. Five of his 10 Grand Slam singles titles had come at the Australian Open, which he had won four of the previous five years.

    Djokovic came into the 2016 Australian Open having won his last six tournaments in a row, including his only 2016 event in Qatar. He had won 14 matches against Top 10 players in that five-month stretch; his only loss came against Roger Federer in a round-robin segment of the ATP Tour World Finals that did not affect his ability to win the tournament. He beat Federer in the finals.

    2016 Australian Open Performance

    By beating Andy Murray in straight sets for his sixth Australian Open title and third straight Grand Slam crown, Djokovic entered a new realm of historical significance. With his 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 victory over the second-seeded Murray, Djokovic tied Roy Emerson for the most Australian Open men's singles titles. His 11th Grand Slam singles titles tied Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg for fifth place in that category. At age 28 and playing the best tennis of his career, Djokovic is within reach of the 14 major titles owned by Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer's record 17 men's Grand Slam championships has become an attainable goal.

    Djokovic has replaced Serena as the most dominant force in tennis. He has won five of the past seven majors, and the thought of him completing a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2016 should not be dismissed.

    As usual, he overwhelmed his early-round opponents, brushing aside Hyeon Chung, Quentin Halys and 28th-seeded Andreas Seppi in straight sets, although Seppi had two set points in the third-set tiebreaker.

    Things changed in Djokovic's fourth-round match, as he struggled to subdue 14th-seeded Gilles Simon in five sets by a score 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. Djokovic often attempted ill-timed drop shots and finished with 100 unforced errors, a remarkable number for the No. 1 player in the world.

    Djokovic regained his touch in the quarterfinals with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory over seventh-seeded Kei Nishikori, the player who beat Djokovic in the 2014 U.S. Open. That earned him his 45th meeting with Federer.

    Djokovic played his best tennis of the tournament in the first two sets of the semifinals, completely dominating his third-ranked foe. Federer rallied to win the third set, at which point Djokovic was handed a gift as officials decided to close the roof because of a threat of rain. After the 10-minute delay, Federer had lost his momentum and surrendered without much resistance in the fourth set of Djokovic's 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory.

    In the finals, the Serb raced out to a 5-0 lead and held on for his 11th victory in his last 12 matches against Murray. Five of Djokovic's Australian Open titles have come in the past six years, and he owns the Australian Open much like Nadal owned the French Open.

    All this suggests Djokovic should get an A-plus for his performance and its historical significance. But it is impossible to award the ultimate grade to a player who commits 100 unforced errors in a match, regardless of the round it occurs.

    Final Grade: A