Wawrinka crashes Big Four slam party

The Daily Dan for Monday, January 27, 2014

Men's Tennis Monday: 

The Big Four has been breached.  After four years that saw four players collect all of the men’s Grand Slam singles titles—and many of the sport’s other prestigious events—Stanislas Wawrinka crashed the party in Melbourne by taking the Australian Open with a series of incredible performances that made him a first-time Grand Slam champion at 28.  The victory made Wawrinka the No. 3 player in the world rankings and the highest-ranked Swiss, a spot reserved for Roger Federer every Monday since January 15, 2001.


Wawrinka’s 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Rafael Nadal in the final Sunday night is destined to be remembered as the time Nadal hurt his back.  But the real story is that Wawrinka, who carried an 0-12 record (0-26 in sets) against Nadal into the match, was taking it to the No. 1 player in the world with an array of elegant ground-strokes and well-timed approaches.  The match can clearly be split into two parts, one on either side of Nadal’s visit with the trainer.  The climax of the first part came when Wawrinka, serving for the 1st set, fell behind love-40.  He missed his next three serves, and all three times Nadal gifted him the point.  Wawrinka won the next two points to take the set, and then the next four to break at love to open the 2nd.


Nadal, champion at Melbourne Park, five years prior, bravely held serve after his back went, and trailed a break at 2-1 as he glumly left the court for treatment.  His return brought speculation from commentators he would not finish the match, but he soldiered on and dropped the 2nd set 6-2.  In the 3rd, Nadal’s back appeared to loosen up some and though his movement was clearly still hampered he was able to do enough to win the set.  Wawrinka helped, allowing his level to drop.  His energy tailed off with the rest of Rod Laver Arena, and he inexplicably spent the entire set on the baseline.


It is impossible to say what would have happened had Nadal remained healthy.  Wawrinka found enough game to close it out 6-3 in the 4th, but not before gifting his first break at love after going up 4-2.  The final two sets were played in front of a stunned crowd, part of which booed Nadal when he returned to the court following treatment.  Later, during the trophy ceremony, their thunderous applause moved Nadal to the verge of tears.


If the tournament ended awkwardly for Wawrinka, it should be considered the only awkward moment.  When he landed in the same quarter as Novak Djokovic it conjured memories if their fabulous, five-set thriller in last year’s Round of 16, won by Djokovic deep into the night.  They went give sets again in the U.S. Open semifinal with Djokovic prevailing again in a match that was only slightly less thrilling than the one played in Oz.  Both men rolled into the quarterfinal matchup with Wawrinka even getting a walkover from promising Canadian Vasek Pospisil.  Encores of classics rarely produce though, and the totality of the head-to-head was that Djokovic had a 15-2 edge, and that was after Wawrinka held it early, 2-1.


This time around though the Swiss was the man who prevailed.  He shook off losing the 4th set and going down a break early in the 5th, and won 9-7.  Djokovic’s reign ended after three years when he missed two easy volleys serving 7-8, 30-all.  The loss also ended the Serb’s run of consecutive semifinal runs at 14.


The man who holds the mark for most Grand Slam semis in a row also made headlines Down Under.  Roger Federer made a ridiculous 23 straight (2004 Wimbledon-2010 Australian Open) but 2013 marked his worst season since joining the elite more than a decade ago.  The 4-time Australian Open winner had played better in the fall, and came out in 2014 sporting a larger racket face and purported good health.  He rolled through three rounds to set up a test against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.


The Tsonga match was a visit to the Federer glory days when he often went into highly-publicized matches against tough opponents and unraveled each and every one of their tactics and defenses.  So it was against Tsonga who barely knew what hit him in a 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 Federer beatdown.  Two nights later he throttled Andy Murray in four sets using a combination of aggression, booming groundstrokes, and easy movement to end Murray’s first Grand Slam tournament since back surgery.


Next came the semifinal against Nadal.  Whereas Federer had rolled through two Top 10 players coming into the match, Nadal had struggled against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov, the latter having been an easy forehand away from a 2-sets-to-1 lead before losing in 4.  But the stars aligned in their usual format as Nadal played his best match of the fortnight, Federer his worst, in a straight-sets scoreline that gave Nadal a 23-10 career edge and 9-2 in Grand Slams.  The only good news for Federer is that he was beat on tennis and not on health or fitness, and his prospects for a solid season appear bright.


The other semifinalist was Tomas Berdych who quietly cruised through, outplaying David Ferrer in the quarters a round after blasting his personal whipping boy Kevin Anderson.  He could not overcome Wawrinka in the semifinals though, failing to break serve even once.  Berdych completed a career Grand Slam semifinal, but all he has to show for it is a single appearance in the Wimbledon final where Nadal toasted him in 2010.  Berdych is also without a title anywhere since 2012.


Other revelations from Australia included Dimitrov who at 22 looks to finally be ready to have his head catch up with his considerable tennis talents.  In the 3rd round he took it to Milos Raonic, and was the better player for much of the quarterfinal against Nadal.  Better still the Bulgarian was none-too-pleased to have come out on the short end even as most of us praised his effort.  If the Dimitrov from the Australian Open sticks around, a date with the Top 10 ought not to be far away.


It was not a strong tournament for American men.  The highest seed, John Isner, came to Melbourne Park having won in Auckland but knee pain forced him out of the Australian Open via retirement, trailing Martin Klizan by two sets in the opening round.  Sam Querrey won two matches before getting knocked out in straight sets by Fabio Fognini.  Only two other men won 1st Round matches.  Jack Sock took out Tobias Kamke before falling to Gael Monfils.  And Donald Young matched Querrey by reaching the 3rd Round.  Young beat Robin Haase and then upset Andreas Seppi in a five-set match halted for several hours due to the scorching heat that dominated Week 1 storylines.  Nishikori obliterated Young in the 3rd.


Battle for No. 1:  Nadal’s run to the final combined with Djokovic’s quarterfinal exit created a 3,710 point schism between the two atop the ATP world rankings.  That is the equivalent of more than winning a Grand Slam and Masters 1000 event.  The flip side is that Nadal—who played for free points in Melbourne after missing the 2013 Open—will start defending points next month.  Djokovic meanwhile has an even greater lead at No. 2 despite now not holding any of the Grand Slam titles for the first time in three years.


The ranking news of the week concerns the two Swiss players.  Wawrinka shot up five spots to a career-best No. 3 while Federer dropped two spots to an 11-1/2 year low of No. 8.  The last time a player other than Federer was the highest-ranked Swiss was Marc Rosset in January 2001.


Juan Martin Del Potro, despite a 2nd Round exit in Australia, moved past David Ferrer and Andy Murray and is a career-high-equaling No. 4.  Ferrer and Murray slipped to No. 5 and 6 respectively—Murray’s first time outside the Top 5 since before the 2008 U.S. Open.  Berdych remained at No. 7.  The French duo of Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga remained at 9 and 10.


John Isner held sway at No. 13 to remain the top-ranked American while Querrey jumped to No. 49 to join Isner in the Top 50.  Dimitrov is now No. 19 giving him a Top 20 position for the first time.


The biggest mover in the Top 100 was Stephane Robert who ride his lucky loser entry into the main draw all the way to the 4th Round and as a result shot up 41 places to No. 78.  It is Robert’s first appearance in the Top 100 since July 2011.  The biggest dropper was injured Janko Tipsarevic who lost 17 positions and is now No. 69.


Two other players joined the Top 100, Klizan (No. 91) and first-timer Peter Gojowczyk (No. 99) who qualified for Melbourne, lost in the 1st Round, and then won a Challenger in Heilbronn, Germany.


The three players dropping out are Lukas Lacko (No. 101), Somdev Devvarman (No. 103), and Blaz Kavcic (No. 111).


WTA Update:  On the women’s side Li Na finally raised the trophy in Melbourne after falling short in finals in 2011 and 2013.  In the final she overcame Dominika Cilbulkova, the first Slovak male or female to reach a Grand Slam final.  The once mentally-soft Cibulkova dispatched Maria Sharapova in the Round of 16 and blasted Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals.  The 31-year old Li, who admitted she nearly retired last Spring, won her second Grand Slam title following the 2011 French Open.  She did not lose a set starting in the 4th round, but was a point away from not getting that far when she saved match point against Lucie Safarova in the 3rd Round.


Li moved up to No. 3 in the rankings behind Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka who were upset by Ana Ivanovic and Radwanska respectively.  Williams complained of an ailing back after losing in three sets to Ivanovic.  Azarenka, two-time defending champion, had little answer for Radwanska’s superior movement and thoughtful shot making in an entertaining quarterfinal.


The darling of the draw though was Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard.  The No. 30 seed reached the semifinals where Li’s ground game was too much for her to handle.  Serenaded throughout the tournament by Genie’s Army—who threw a different Australian stuffed animal to the court after each match—Bouchard showed maturity beyond her 19 years by rallying from a set down to beat Casey Dellacqua in the 16s and Ivanovic in the quarterfinals.  And beyond her tennis Bouchard continued to insist she was not surprised by her success which she attributed to a lifetime of hard word.  She waked up Monday No. 19 in the world and filled with expectations for the future.


This Week:  There are not ATP events this week in lieu of the Davis Cup Round of 16.  The United States hosts Great Britain at PETCO park in San Diego.  Isner and Querrey are in the team with the Bryan brothers while Andy Murray is expected to lead the British side in its first World Group appearance since 2008.  The British squad is rounded out by James Ward, Kyle Edmund, and Colin Fleming.


Holders Czech Republic open their bid for a 3rd straight Davis Cup trophy at home to Holland.  Canada, fresh off an historic visit to the semifinals, are away to Japan.  The Serbia-Switzerland tie will be missing Djokovic and Federer but will represent Wawrinka’s first official match as a Grand Slam champion.  A more detailed preview is ahead later this week.


Women’s Week:  The WTA moves to Paris and Pattaya City.  Sharapova is top seed in Paris and Sabine Lisicki in Pattaya City.

Other thoughts, news, happenings, and tid-bits

PGA:  Scott Stallings birdied the 72nd hole to win the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.  It was the 3rd career win for Stallings and the final hole birdie prevented a six-way playoff.  The quintet of K.J. Choi, Graham DeLaet, Jason Day, Pat Perez, and Marc Leishman all finished a shot behind Stallings.  Neither of the two top names played Sunday.  Phil Mickelson made the cut but withdrew late Friday saying a sore back was forcing him into bad swing habits.  Tiger Woods missed the secondary cut Saturday after a 79 in a round that began with a double bogey followed by five straight bogeys.


LPGA:  Jessica Korda birdied the final hole to win the season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas after Stacy Lewis’ birdie putt stopped a role short of the hole.  It was Korda’s 2nd LPGA win.  The tournament went off without a hitch after the inaugural event last May was limited to 36 holes over three days when rain wiped out 1st Round play and made some holes unplayable the rest of the weekend.  Korda’s birdie came with help from an LPGA official a Golf Channel analyst who held up camera wires while she putted through fringe onto the green to set up her tournament-winning putt.


NFL:  By all accounts the new Pro Bowl format where Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders drafted teams was a rousing success.  In the end Rice’s team won 22-21 when Mike Tolbert ran in a two-point conversion following a DeMarco Murray touchdown reception from Philip Rivers.  Justin Tucker missed a 67-yard field goal at the buzzer to win it for the Sanders team.


NHL:  The Stadium Series got underway with the Ducks beating the Kings 2-0 Saturday night at Dodger Stadium and the Rangers routing the Devils 7-3 at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Stats Corner

NHL:  Jaromir Jagr had two assists in the Devils’ 7-3 loss to the Rangers.  The first of them passed Mario Lemieux for 10th place in NHL history.  Jagr has 1,033 assists and has passed Lemieux in goals, assists, and points this season.


NBA:  Tim Duncan now has more blocked shots than Shaquille O’Neal.  Duncan swatted one against the Heat Sunday and is now in sole posession of 7th place all-time.  The Spurs big man has blocked 2,733 shots.

The Archive
1/27: Wawrinka wins Aussie Open
1/28: Charting older dirt routers
1/29: Media Day overwhelms, underwhelms
1/30: Mickelson will play
1/31: Super Bowl highlights weekend
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