Monday, February 2, 2009

Rafa Wins an Eventful Australian Open

By Luke Broadbent

The 2009 installment of an eventful Australian Open has come to a close. Over the last two weeks, fans have been treated to some memorable action. The standard of tennis throughout the Melbourne major has been of an extremely high quality, but the tournament wasn't without some controversy.

Several days before the main draws had even kicked off, events started to border on strange. After an unbeaten start to the season, Andy Murray was installed has the favorite to lift the Sir Norman Brookes Trophy. The Scotsman was the most in-form player as the tour ventured Down Under, but with that said, he has yet to prove that he is capable of winning a major.

The rather redundant question of who should be favorite took a slightly surreal turn down Djokovic Drive when the men's singles champion, Novak Djokovic, piped up. In response to a question posed by the media on the subject, Djokovic replied, "What's his ranking? And what's mine?" So by the Serb's reckoning, he wouldn't even end up victorious on the tournament's second Sunday. Djokovic had, in fact, spoiled the entire competition by telling us that Rafael Nadal would win.

Seeing as how this is the Australian Open, it was rather fitting that the first week was dominated by an Australian comeback. Jelena Dokic, once again representing Australia, quickly became the stand-out story of this year's Australian Open. The former world No. 4 made her way to the quarterfinals before being knocked out by Dinara Safina. While her navigation through a tough draw shocked a lot of people, it will be the fourth round match against Alisa Kleybanova. Having shared the first two sets, Dokic eventually emerged victorious, winning the third set 8-6 after a little over three hours on-court.

The aforementioned lack of Djokovic's media savvy once again came to the fore when he faced a barrage of questions on crowd violence. The violence had erupted outside the Rod Laver Arena in the aftermath of Djokovic's victory over Bosnian-born American, Amer Delic. Bosnian and Serbian fans clashed in scenes more accustomed to a soccer stadium. When asked to comment, Djokovic seemed to laugh it off and didn't appear to condemn the acts of violence at all, unlike Delic, who made a harrowing statement about how violence tends to take place everywhere these days.

The second week's action was tinged with an element of controversy as the tournament's extreme heat policy was utilized for the first time. Temperatures soared to a sweltering 43ºC during a quarterfinal match between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serena Williams. Kuznetsova won the first set 7-5, then the drama unfolded as the roof was closed, much to Kuznetsova's dismay, to allow play to continue. After the match, she felt as though she had some reason for complaint, but her grievances were seriously misplaced. In the second set, Kuznetsova broke the Williams serve to close in on the semifinals. The fact of the matter is when you are 5-3 up and you are serving to win the match, it doesn't matter what is or isn't above your head. Kuznetsova should've closed out the match — it's as simple as that.

Perhaps the conditions of the match shouldn't be altered halfway through, but by the same token, the conditions are the same for both players. Consequently, you can't help but wonder why the roof wasn't closed the day before when a stricken Djokovic succumbed to the heat in his quarterfinal with Andy Roddick. In no way do I want to condone the fact that Djokovic retire from yet another Grand Slam tournament, but if the roof is there to be used, why not use it?

The fortnight's competition was packed full of classic encounters. Richard Gasquet squandered yet another two-set lead in a major, eventually falling in a titanic clash with Fernando Gonzalez. Nevertheless, despite losing to the big-hitting Chilean, Gasquet helped to silence his doubters. He is often lambasted for being a "bottler," but he fought to the end, producing some of his best tennis just prior to the finale.

It's near impossible to talk about epic matches at the 2009 Australian Open without mentioning Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco. The all-Spanish semifinal produced some of the finest and most powerful strokes ever seen on a tennis court. Verdasco attacked from the first serve to the last, taking Nadal on at his own game. After hours of forehands, backhands, smashes, and lobs, it looked as though Verdasco would just about limp into a final with Roger Federer. However, Nadal showed his championship credentials by winning the Australian Open's longest ever match in five hours, 14 minutes. It was just a shame that the final point of the match was a double fault.

Serena Williams turned the women's final into a non-event as she claimed her fourth Australian Open title. She disposed of Dinara Safina in less than an hour. In the aftermath, all everyone could hope is that the men's final wouldn't follow in the same vein.

Thankfully, the two men in the final were two of the best players to ever grace a tennis court, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The Swiss maestro was targeting a record equalling 14th Grand Slam, while Nadal was seeking some history of his own. Were the Spaniard to triumph over Federer for the 13th time, he would become only the fourth male player to win a major on all surfaces. He would join the illustrious group of Mats Wilander, Jimmy Connors, and Andre Agassi.

The opening exchanges of their first encounter since Wimbledon were extremely nervy, particularly on Federer's side of the net. As time went on, Federer found his feet and the quality of tennis from both players was nothing short of sublime. Nadal raised his game towards the end of the first set to claim it. Federer picked up his game to win the second set, in spite of only managing to get a measly 37% of first serves in.

With Federer trailing in sets 2-1 and the score at two-apiece in the fourth set, tennis fans were treated to arguably the greatest game of tennis ever played. The game ebbed and flowed one way and then the other. The rallies featured exquisite shot making by both, supposedly, mere mortals. In reality, this 11-minute battle was a microcosm of the war fought beneath the lights of the Rod Laver Arena between two of the finest sportsmen ever.

After going on to take the fourth set, Federer fell away in the fifth. Consequently, the final set was somewhat of an anti-climax as Federer's charge towards history began to dwindle. On Nadal's third championship point, a long forehand from Federer extinguished the Swiss' hopes and sealed the world number one's place in history. Nevertheless, events during the breath-taking final would subsequently pale in comparison to the events that transpired during the presentation ceremony.

After receiving the runners-up plate from his idol, Rod Laver, a defeated Federer approached the microphone. He was clearly lost for words as the crowd applauded in appreciation of his efforts. Eventually, after an awkward couple of minutes, Federer gave way for his emotions to be showcased as he broke into tears. One of the greatest players ever reduced to tears, but not before he managed to deliver the heart-breaking line, "God, it's killing me." Upon receiving the winner's trophy, Nadal wrapped his arm around the distraught Federer, showing the tremendous spirit between the two men. Needless to say, the image of Federer crying will no doubt be one of the enduring images in sports history.

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