Whatever will be, will be

QUE SERA SERA (Whatever will be, will be....) goes an old song. And this was brought to life at the 2002 Australian Open tennis championships. In a tournament that had innumerable twists and turns, the final match went on to be a surprise as Thomas Johansson upset Marat Safin for his maiden Grand Slam victory. And the women, not to be outdone, played a very exciting final in which Jennifer Capriati defended her title against Martina Hingis after being down by a set and 4-0 in the second set and facing four match points before coming through. This is the first time that a Ladies singles final in a Grand Slam has been won after the contestant had been down four match points!

Just last year, the Grand Slam tournaments had made a major change in their events by seeding 32 players instead of 16. Everyone felt that this would do away with a lot of the early round upsets - which is when the top seeds are most vulnerable. The expanded seedings meant that the favourites were protected early in the tournament. That theory went out of the window very quickly as seeds were dropping left, right and centre in Melbourne.

Much was expected from Lleyton Hewitt, the top-seed from Australia. This was the first time an Aussie was seeded No. 1 in more than a quarter of a century and what is more, he was the newly crowned No. 1 player in the world. But tragedy struck just prior to the tournament as Lleyton came down with chicken pox. Though he did play, his preparation was obviously cut short and he lost in a tough four-set first round match to Alberto Martin of Spain.

To go down the seeding list, the No. 2 seed Gustavo Kuerten has never done well in the Australian Open. He went out in the first round. The No. 3 seed, Andre Agassi (defending champion) withdrew with a wrist injury, No. 4 Yevgeny Kafelnikov and the No. 5 Sebastian Grosjean lost in the second round. By the time the tournament was three days old, Tim Henman was the highest seed at No. 6.

The British press in Melbourne got very excited. While Henman has done well at Wimbledon every year, he has not gone past the round of 16 in any of the other Grand Slams and the scribes from England felt at long last, they had found a saviour. Henman did stay around till the first weekend, but he also failed to survive the upset-filled bottom half of the draw through which Johansson came through.

Despite all the upsets, the top half was somewhat playing to form. Both Safin and Pete Sampras, (seeded 9 and 8 respectively) gave it respectability. But the problem was they faced each other in the round of 16. Only one of them would progress.

In a match that was pitted as the final, the only two Grand Slam titlists left in the draw played a memorable match, at least the second half. Sampras started a bit slowly, maybe a bit sluggish from the exertions in his third round five-set late night marathon. But once he found his rhythm, he stayed even with Safin for the rest of the match.

The third and fourth sets both went to tie-breakers and there was very little separating the two. While it is getting tougher for Sampras, he showed enough to say that come July, he is going to be the player to beat at Wimbledon.

Once Safin got through Sampras, the rest of the tournament was supposed to be a formality for him. Fortunately or unfortunately, matches are won on court and not on paper. Safin made very heavy weather of his win over Tommy Haas (Germany) in the semi-final. Haas went up by 2 sets to 1 and was clearly in the driver's seat when it started raining. The retractable roof on the centre court had to come on and this took some time. This gave Safin enough time to regroup and he coasted through the fourth and fifth sets.

Germany has been having a lean run in the past few years. They were very spoilt with Boris Becker, Michael Stich and Steffi Graf all winning at the same time. I am sure they are all thrilled to see the progress of Haas. He has steadily climbed up the rankings and is firmly established within the first 10 players in the world. He showed enough in Melbourne that he is not very far off from a Grand Slam title.

Roger Federer was one of the other youngsters who had an impressive outing. He reached the quarter-final and held match point against Haas. Federer is only 20 years old and is bound to improve. He is one of the players to watch in the Grand Slam events in the years to come, irrespective of the surface.

As he looks back at this tournament, Safin will only have himself to blame for letting slip a Grand Slam title. He won his maiden Slam at New York two Septembers ago. But then, he had the luxury of swinging freely against the higher ranked players. All that has changed quickly and he now is the hunted instead of the hunter. And Safin showed that he is not quite ready for the new role. There is no doubting his talent and ability. But what is in question is his temperament and commitment to get the job done. Safin turned 22 on the final day of the tournament. He is young enough to learn from this, but it will take him a while to get over how he spoiled his own birthday party.

Johansson became the unlikeliest winner at a Grand Slam tournament since Petr Korda won this title in 1998. Of course, Sweden has given us such an array of outstanding champions. Johansson joins Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg as Grand Slam titlists from Sweden in the past 25 years. I did see him play in Chennai recently and was disappointed in the way he threw away his quarter-final match. He did seem to have temperamental lapses during the match. But I guess, he learnt his lesson quickly. But in the end, we will have to say it was destiny.

Que sera sera whatever will be, will be The future is hard to see Que sera sera.