Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What We Have Learned

There are tournaments going on this week - shout out to my man Peter Luczak for pulling an upset in Chile - but let's face it, no one really cares about them at the moment. It is over, but it is still, as always after a Slam, all about the Australian Open.

So let's have a look back at what we learned from this Slam, the first of 2010, and what it tells us about the year.

Let's start with the ladies. What has Australia taught us? Well, it's taught us that someone who stepped away from the game for the better part of two years can come back and reach the final. Actually, scratch that. We learned that last year when Kim Clijsters won the US Open. Justine Henin's run to the final here merely reinforced it. Not that there is anything 'mere' about Justine - her performance was mighty. She is truly talented and she has pulled off some truly spectacular results.

But there is something deeply wrong about a tour where players can come back so quickly and so hard and overcome nearly every possible obstacle in the way. If there wasn't a Serena Williams in the world, then Justine Henin would have pulled this off. The tour hasn't set out to make things easy for the Belgians, obviously, but the fact remains that both Kim and Justine have been able to pull it off, and that really, in an elite sport, shouldn't happen. There are very few women who are legitimately Slam contenders at the moment - Serena, Venus if the tournament begins with 'Wimble' and ends in 'don', Sharapova if she catches fire, Kuznetsova if she avoids erratic performers. For Kim and Justine to skip immediately into that top pool... well, that's fabulous for them, and an amazing achievement, but in a tour that was up to scratch, it really shouldn't have happened. People shouldn't be able to sail right back to the pinnacle of elite sport bam! like that.

So allez Belgium! And huge congratulations to Serena, who is really the one person holding up her end of the WTA bargain. Everyone else... lift your game. Please.

To the men now, where things are much brighter. I think the women's game looks so dull nowadays because men's tennis is undoubtedly in a golden age. Before the tournament, people were saying there were legitimately twelve contenders for this Slam. I would have narrowed it to eight - Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, del Potro, Davydenko, Roddick and Tsonga - but the fact remains that there are a lot of excellent players at the moment, champing at the bit to reach the upper echelons. There is talent and amazing tennis everywhere.

But what did Australia teach us?

It taught us that Roger Federer really still is a cut above the rest.

Don't worry, I'm not going to turn this into another slurred wineglass-waving ramble on how amazing Federer is... I think I've done that enough over the past few days! But my personal bias aside, he is one of the safest bets in modern sport. He hasn't lost before the semis in a Slam since 2004. Two thousand and freaking four. That is a long time ago. With this victory, he has now won a Slam every year for the past eight. And, oh yeah, he has sixteen Slams, which is more than anyone ever.

He was tested in this tournament by people who were definitely form players coming in - Davydenko, Murray, even Tsonga. He had a totally unenviable first round draw in Andreev. And every time - every time he was under pressure, he came up trumps. What really came to the fore in this tournament was his mental strength - yet another part of his spectacular game that is underestimated. You cannot overstate the value of calm under pressure, and that is where so many of the other men in the draw fell down.

Another thing that came to the fore was just how tough the game of tennis is. We saw Rafa's knees give on him. We saw Jo Tsonga and Marin Cilic burn out because of too many long, long matches. We saw Djokovic drive himself to vomiting... though the Djokovic constitution never seems to have been particularly hardy. This highlights, once again, the amazingness of Federer, because he just really hasn't had these problems. Whether it's fitness, or good scheduling, or just good luck... or a combination of all three! - the fact remains, and was reinforced by this tournament, that Federer, quite simply, is betterer. And the field has got a lot of chasing to do.

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