"Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable." —Lord Chesterfield
"It is reasonable to have perfection in our eye that we may always advance toward it, though we know it can never be reached." —Samuel Johnson
Perfectionism Pays Off — Once an aimless slugger known mainly for mental meltdowns, physical breakdowns and high-pitched shrieking, Victoria Azarenka showcased several new strengths in capturing the Australian Open for her first Grand Slam title.
During the fortnight Azarenka displayed improved volleying, especially during her 6-7, 6-0, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over Agnieszka Radwanska when she won 20 of 25 points (80%) at net, including nine of nine in the deciding set. Against defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis, she grabbed 18 of 23 points (78%) at net.
Her rigorous off-season training allowed Azarenka to feel stronger with each successive set against Radwanska. "Yeah, it's been really, really tough—a lot of sweat, a lot of tears and a lot of blood," she confided.
Fitter and faster than ever, the 22-year-old from Belarus trounced Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the final, largely because her terrific defense nullified much of Sharapova's offense; the much slower and less agile Russian was forced to go for low-percentage shots when out of position. Not surprisingly, Azarenka committed only 12 unforced errors, compared to 30 for the frustrated Sharapova.
Azarenka's on-court work also paid dividends. Vika, as she's called on the tour, added topspin to give her forehand more consistency, and she also fine-tuned her down-the-line forehand, adroitly changing the ball direction during crosscourt exchanges. Her forehand, once a relative weakness, became yet another strength. Azarenka judiciously mixed in sharp angles and drop shots to supplement her booming groundstrokes and keep her opponents off balance.
Neither score deficits nor pressure points bothered the new, much calmer Azarenka. Down 0-2, love-30 against Sharapova, she reeled off the next four points and six of the next seven games. After a disastrous second set against the redoubtable Clijsters, Azarenka bounced back for an impressive 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 triumph. She also converted 10 of 17 break points (58%) against Radwanska and 5 of 7 break points (71%) against Sharapova.
When asked by reporters if she was annoyed by spectators mocking her shrieks and yelling "Turn down the volume," Azarenka replied, "No, I prepare for that."
Champions leave no stone unturned and are never satisfied with their performances. Less famous but far more successful than Azarenka, Esther Vergeer seized her fifth Australian Open wheelchair tennis crown and extended her astounding record of 444 straight match wins. After winning the final 6-0, 6-0, seemingly perfect Vergeer said, "I work with a team around me where every time they see me, they have something they want to improve. I can still improve in so many ways."
The Complete Game — After Novak Djokovic outlasted Andy Murray in a five-set semifinal, he paid tribute to legendary Rod Laver, the sport's only double Grand Slam winner (1962 and 1969), noting Laver's almost extinct playing style. "Even though it would be better if we played serve and volley a couple times, we don't know how to play it," Djokovic told the amused crowd.
Modesty aside, the lithe Serb is clearly adept at net, as evidenced by his winning 75% (21 of 28) net approaches against Murray in the semifinals, and 74% (23 of 31) against Rafael Nadal, renowned for his passing shots, in the final. Djokovic's technique is impeccable, his reflexes sharp, his touch delicate, and his poise constant.
Of all the tennis champions in history, only Djokovic has a game which is strong in every department. Nadal, Federer, Sampras, McEnroe and Kramer had vulnerable backhands. Borg, Lendl, Agassi and Tilden were mediocre volleyers. Connors and Rosewall had below-average serves. While Laver, Hoad, Gonzalez and Budge boasted all-court games, the competition is deeper and more talented today. In fairness, many of these superstars did not benefit from today's vastly superior rackets and strings, nor from a two-handed backhand.
However, what distinguishes Djokovic most from his current rivals and past greats (aside from Budge, Connors, Rosewall and Agassi) is his powerful, deep and consistent return of serve. After Djokovic overcame a 4-2 fifth set deficit to vanquish Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 in the record 5-hour and 53-minute final, the gracious Spaniard commented, " Is something unbelievable how he returns, no? His return probably is one of the best of the history. That's my opinion, no? I never played against a player who's able to return like this. Almost every time."
Indeed, after a flat first set, Djokovic increasingly punished Nadal's second serves, and even some of his first serves. While Nadal's wicked lefty spin and pinpoint accuracy produced a few errors, many of them came when Djokovic was pounding away, going for winners; by contrast, Nadal often struggled merely to return the Serb's serve.
Three tournament statistics confirm Djokovic's serve return prowess, which ensured he dictated most of the rallies. In seven matches, he created 109 break-point chances and converted 49.5% (54) of them, which amounted to service breaks in an amazing 46% of his return games. He was also aced only 27 times. His serve returns often came through when it mattered most: he converted an excellent 39.1% (18 of 46) in his marathon matches against Murray and Nadal.
Like Federer, Djokovic "reads" his opponent's serve extremely well and reacts quickly. The other keys to his success relate to his swing and footwork. He almost always hits through the ball—as opposed to a glancing blow—and instinctively shortens his backswing to handle the most powerful serves, much like Agassi. But Djokovic's 6'2" height, reach and superb hand-eye coordination give him a large knee-to-shoulder "strike zone" in which he can attack serves. Finally, his speed, agility and balance enable him to plant his front (right) foot early and securely on his backhand. That allows him to lean into the vast majority of his returns with a closed stance to produce maximum power and control.
Some of the greatest shots in tennis history are idiosyncratic, such as Nadal's forehand, and therefore are difficult to emulate. However, all tournament players would do well to study the Djokovic serve return, particularly on the backhand side, and try to copy it.
How Do the Contenders Rate? — Despite losing his third straight major final and seventh straight match to nemesis and No. 1-ranked Djokovic, Nadal said, "Very happy with my level during both weeks. Is the moment when I realize the whole tournament did I well. I did a lot of very positive things, much more than in 2011 for the most of the time. I played more aggressive. I played with more winners than ever. My serve worked well. The mentality and the passion were there another time better than probably never another time."
While Nadal's self-evaluation is mostly true, his first serve averaged only 172 kmph (106.9 mph) against Federer and a more respectable 183 kmph (113.7 mph) against Djokovic. Those stats are still significantly lower than during the 2010 US Open, when he defeated Djokovic in a four-set final. Then his first serve averaged a potent 192.7 kmph (119 mph) in the first six matches, and he averaged 187.9 (116 mph) against Djokovic in the final, making it a weapon that helped him win an impressive 73% of his first serve points.
What is more worrisome for Nadal, though, is his backhand. While Federer can exploit it only occasionally, Djokovic pummeled it relentlessly until Nadal either erred or was forced to resort to a slice, which he typically stroked softly and without enough depth or accuracy. Djokovic combined the grinding style of Agassi with the finishing shots of Federer so that Nadal was far too often out of position and on the defensive. With Djokovic stalking the baseline and Nadal retreating frequently 8' to 12' behind the baseline, Nadal was doomed. Nadal's flawed backhand hurt him even more on serve returns in the deuce court where Djokovic's slice serve, like Federer's, repeatedly won points outright. As we witnessed, Nadal's formidable forehand simply cannot offset his backhand liability.
Federer, an extraordinary athlete with a dazzling repertoire of shots, is far from over the hill at 30. While Nadal has his number on clay and hard courts, he has a real chance to win Wimbledon and the Olympics (also on grass). Federer always likes his chances against Djokovic, and his narrow losses, after having two match points at the last two US Opens, justify his belief. Even so, Djokovic keeps improving, his confidence is boundless no matter what the score, and his rock-solid game can eventually break down Federer's backhand while defusing enough of Federer's offensive brilliance.
Like Nadal, Murray can take heart from his 7-5 in the fifth-set loss to Djokovic, which Martina Navratilova called "one of the greatest matches in the history of the Australian Open." It marked the first time the 24-year-old Scot has really gotten into a match against the Big Three since he upset a worn-out Nadal at the 2008 US Open. Murray demonstrated poise under pressure by escaping three set points, then taking a 7-4 tiebreaker in the crucial third set against Djokovic.
"I can really see a big change in his attitude, [he has] positive emotions," praised ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. "Murray took a huge step forward here," said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe.
Thanks to the savvy, no-nonsense guidance of new coach Ivan Lendl, who lost his first four Grand Slam finals before capturing eight such titles, the new and improved Murray displayed more aggression, particularly on his forehand. Equally important, he was a model of resilience rather than resignation when things got tough.
But Murray's forehand is still nowhere near the consistent weapon that Djokovic, Nadal and Federer possess. His second serve averaged only an attackable 139 kmph (86.4 mph) against Djokovic. And his questionable ability to seize the initiative, especially on mid-court balls, to win big points was reflected by converting only 29% (7 of 24) break point opportunities against Djokovic.
"We all believe Murray can win a Grand Slam [title], but he has to believe," said Cahill. But will even Murray's growing self-belief and considerable assets be enough this year?
Last March, after Djokovic knocked off Federer and Nadal to win Indian Wells, he acknowledged, "The challenge [of beating them back to back] is as hard as you can get in this sport."
Murray's challenge—beating both Nadal and Djokovic, paragons of mental and physical strength as well as consummate ability—will prove even harder.
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Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.