Some reflections on the 2012 Australian Open and tennis' current, awesome state (as long as you ignore any sort of American influence).
1. Victoria Azarenka Is Quirky, And Pretty Awesome
She wears headphones onto the court, she bounces around to her own beat, and she literally struts around the court when she's doing well. The 22-year old from Minsk provides a unique viewing experience … and she's also really good at tennis. Like Petra Kvitova last year at Wimbledon, she responded well (eventually) in her first slam final, showing some early nerves -- two double-faults and a couple of easy errors in the first game -- before wiping the floor with Maria Sharapova.
Azarenka is an interesting player, primarily because of the way she appears capable of taking your game away from you. She possesses a well-rounded skill set, does a wonderful job of avoiding patterns, puts all sorts of different spin on the ball and can both overpower a scrappy opponent and neutralize a powerful opponent with some scrappiness.
Now she just has to show she can keep it up. As I documented recently, the women's game has suffered greatly from breakthrough-then-collapse routines recently. Everybody from Ana Ivanovic to Sam Stosur has shown enough potential to take over the women's game, and they have all proceeded to take a few steps backwards following their success. Now it's Azarenka's turn. The temperamental 18-year old has turned into a mature, fascinating 22-year old; now it's on her to prove that she's not like all the rest.
2. The Men's Game Has Never Been Better
Let's put it this way: of the tournament's final three men's matches (two semifinals, one finale) a gripping four-setter (which included two 7-5 tie-breakers) between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal -- Federer and Nadal! -- was easily the least-entertaining match. And it was fabulous.
I officially became obsessed with tennis in 1988. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were fading but still relevant, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander were at their peak, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg had come on very strong, and a nice crop of Americans (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang) was on its way. For about the next decade, men's tennis was consistently interesting and fun. And aside from MAYBE Agassi and Lendl, none of those players would have been able to even think about cracking the top five today.
You are not allowed to have any weaknesses in today's men's game. None. You are not allowed to be one-dimensional. You are not allowed to specialize on one type of surface. Edberg, a serve-and-volley master, would have ranked about 15th today. Becker would have been Andy Roddick, good enough to make a few slam semifinals and maybe a couple of finals, but never good enough to consistently break through. Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten might not have won even one title at Roland Garros if he were 10 years younger. I idolized so many of the men in the above paragraph, and they just could not hold a candle to the quality you see today.
You see "passing of the torch" situations quite often in individual sports like tennis. When Federer surpassed Sampras, it was a big deal. But then, Nadal surpassed Federer. And Djokovic surpassed Nadal. And anybody who watched the men's semifinals knows how close Andy Murray might be to surpassing Djokovic. We have had two pass-the-torch situations in recent history and might be on our way to a third; only, the torch-passers are still really, really good. Federer, clearly past his prime, is still better than everybody on the tour not named Nadal or Djokovic. Nadal is still an absolutely amazing tennis player even though he hasn't figured out how to get back ahead of Djokovic. Murray is still only 24 and hasn't yet peaked.
Honestly, it makes you feel bad for players like Roddick, Jo-Wilifried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, all of whom would have won multiple slams had they chosen to peak in the late-1990s.
From 1998 to 2001, clay court specialist Marcelo Rios held the No. 1 ranking for six weeks, while Carlos Moya (two), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (six), Patrick Rafter (one) and Marat Safin (nine) all alternated with Sampras and Agassi at the top spot. Then, from 2001-03, Kuerten (43 weeks), Lleyton Hewitt (80), Roddick (13) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (eight) all took turns. The men's game was in serious flux, with one group of players dominating on clay, another group dominating on grass, and a free-for-all taking place on hard courts. It was interesting in its own right, but it in no way held a candle to the quality that we see today. Not even close. The men's game is deep enough to produce even a wonderful set of quarterfinal matches like Nadal-Berdych and Djokovic-David Ferrer. It is going to be one ferocious year on the men's tour.
3. The Women's Game Might Be Close
It is very easy to make comparisons between today's women's game and the men's side in the late-1990s. Six players have won the last six slams -- the last four have all gone to first-time winners -- and barring a sustained surge from Azarenka, we could spend the next year with a few different No. 1s. But we're getting somewhere. While quite a few of the world's top women's players are likely past their athletic peaks (Kim Clijsters is 28 and preparing to retire, Serena Williams is 30, Sam Stosur is almost 28, Na Li is almost 30, Vera Zvonareva is 27, Mario Bartoli is 27, Francesca Schiavone is 31), we have seen enough potential out of enough young players to get excited. Azarenka is 22, Wozniacki is 21, Petra Kvitova is 21, Sharapova is somehow only 24, Agnieszka Radwanska is 22, Sabine Lisicki is 22, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is 20, Julia Goerges is 23, and Ana Ivanovic is somehow still 24. All have shown powerful, interesting games, but none have managed to break through and stay broken through.
Azarenka and Kvitova, in particular, seem to have some incredible upside. Now they just need to start one-upping each other like Federer, Nadal and others have begun to do on the men's side.
4 .U.S. Tennis Is In Dire Straits (But You Probably Knew That Already)
You'll notice that none of the women's players in the above list are American. Christina McHale, is 19 and interesting, but she probably lacks the athleticism necessary to break into the top 10, at least any time soon. Vania King is a scrapper and only 22, but she is relatively one-dimensional. And neither are ranked in the top 40 (though McHale might sneak in when the next rankings are released). The only other women in the Top 100: Williams, No. 67 Bethanie Mattek-Sands (almost 27 years old), No. 81 Irina Falconi (21) and No. 95 Sloane Stephens (18). McHale and Stephens are both interesting players to watch, but putting a country's hopes on two players leaves little margin for error.
And this says nothing of the men's side. Yes, there are eight American men in the Top 100, but three (Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick, James Blake) are at least 28, and three others (John Isner, Ryan Sweeting, Sam Querrey) are already 24. No pressure, No. 42 Donald Young and No. 77 Ryan Harrison. Harrison in particular is an interesting, well-rounded player, but again, placing all of your hopes in one or two players is never good … especially when none of them can survive past the midway point of the first week of the Australian Open. Tennis has never been stronger, but it has left the U.S. behind.
5. Nole Still Has It … And So Does Rafa
They put on an absolutely ridiculous show in the finals, just as they, Murray and Federer all did in the semifinals. If they promise to continue putting on a show like this, can we accede to their "fewer tournaments/lighter workload" demands? Please? Let's make sure they're full-strength as much as possible this year, huh?