After a long off season, the tennis community geared up once again for a promising 2011, kicking off in style with the Australian Open. There were many questions marks surrounding some of the tour’s top players at the end of last year, but they came out swinging, proving that they’re willing to put up a fight in 2011.
This Australian Open seemed relatively typical at its onset: nearly all of the seeded players continued through their matches with little struggle. However, it was a completely different story for several stand out new faces down under. Young Canadian Milos Raonic made a splash when he first took out 22 seed Michael Llodra of France, and again when he took out 10th seed Mikhail Youzhny of Russia in the third round. It took a fiery Ferrer to finally stop him. Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine also made a name for himself. Not only did he have commentators and sports fans tripping over his name as he fought his way through the draw, but he unexpectedly took out the likes of Tsonga and Soderling on his way to the quarterfinals where he was beaten by Andy Murray.
On the women’s side, all bets were off. Dinara Safina’s hopes were quickly dashed when she lost to Kim Clijsters in the first round. Former Serbian stars Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic both failed to impress, losing in the first week. As for the Russians, Maria Sharapova bowed out early as well. Following a tough loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova, Justine Henin announced her retirement from professional tennis for a second time. After a year plagued by injuries and poor results, it seems that Justine’s come back failed to live up to expectations. Over all, the women’s draw seemed quiet, and wide open.
The depth of the draw unfolded as Li Na of China became the first ever Asian woman to compete in a Grand Slam final, after defeating world number 1, Caroline Wozniaki in the semifinals. Carrying an entire continent, Li was confident going into the women’s final, where she faced 3 time grand slam champion Kim Clijsters. What ensued was a power struggle in the first set, with each player going toe to toe, coming up with big winners. Li won the power battle in the first set, but Clijsters came up with a new game plan, making strategic use of the slice and floating ball, which helped her frustrate her opponent to win the second set. With everything on the line in the third set, Clijsters maintained her composure and her game plan, giving Li more variety and less pace. Li was ultimately frustrated by the change ups and grew annoyed with the crowd and photographers. Ultimately, Clijsters came through in the third set to win her first Australian Open 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.
On Sunday night, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray took the court to contest the final match of the 2011 Australian Open. A much anticipated match, Murray and Djokovic didn’t fail to entertain in the opening set. A lengthy and physical first set had fans convinced they were in for a battle. However, Andy Murray’s playing skills quickly dropped off as he was broken early in the second set, finding himself in a serious hole. Lazy foot work and a lack of energy brought about the end for Murray. Djokovic was able to maintain his high level of play and earn himself a second grand slam championship, defeating Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Despite there being two players in the men’s final, the match was really ended up being about Andy Murray. His performance leaves fans questioning whether or not he will ever be able to win a grand slam title. This Australian Open final marked the third championship he has contested and lost in straight sets. It was also the first final in three years that neither Federer nor Nadal competed for. Djokovic demolished Federer in the semifinals, simply playing better than his opponent. Nadal, on the other hand, dealt with a hamstring injury he suffered early in his quarterfinal match against fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. With both of the top players out, the final was wide open, and Djokovic took advantage. Unlike Murray, he was able to overcome his nerves to claim another title. For Andy Murray, a grand slam title remains an elusive feat.
While there were many high quality matches, it was a disappointing Australian Open for the American tennis fan. Sam Querrey saw an early demise, losing in the first round, after looking completely out of sorts. Mardy Fish made a heroic effort to win a five-setter in his opening round, making it his first effort ever to come back from being two sets down. However, exhaustion and a lingering virus, later attributed to a thyroid problem, Fish packed his bags in the second round. All hope it seemed, as is becoming increasingly usual, would lie on the shoulders of John Isner and Andy Roddick. Isner looked like he would make a promising show at the Australian Open. Coming off of a big team win at the Hopman Cup with partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Isner appeared strong in his opening matches. He overcame Radek Stepanek with fair ease, but was rewarded with a more difficult match in the third round against the 15th seed, Marin Cilic, who he lost to in a heart-breaking fifth set. Roddick managed to make it a round further, but eventually lost in straight sets to Stan Wawarinka. The Bryan brothers were able to salvage some hope, winning the men’s doubles championship 6-3, 6-4 against Bhupathi and Paes.
As we look ahead to the rest of the 2011 season, many questions linger. Will Andy Murray ever break through to win a slam, or will nerves continue to get the best of him? Can John Isner or Andy Roddick revive American men’s tennis? Will Federer win another slam? How will Nadal recover? The next nine months shall tell.