Aus Open: A bloodless coup and a bloodbath!

Andy Murray may still be No. 2, but the gap with Novak Djokovic has widened as the Serb took his 10th victory in their last 11 meetings and fourth straight at a major. With Djokovic also dominating Federer and Nadal, who else but heavy-hitting Stan Wawrinka can take down Djokovic? Since the start of the 2015 U.S. Open, Djokovic boasts a near-perfect 17-1 record against top-10 foes. As for Serena Williams, who will replace her at the top, and when?

Djokovic expresses his love for the surface that has given him six Grand Slam titles.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Angelic is Kerber after doing what was deemed impossible... that of dethroning Serena Williams.   -  AP

Novak Djokovic had cruised to a 6-1, 7-5, 2-0 lead in the Australian Open final when he erred on a backhand serve return. It’s his signature shot and the best in the sport. Djokovic looked irritated even though the formidable kick serve pulled him way outside the court. “It’s almost like Djokovic is playing against an imaginary opponent,” observed ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. The actual opponent was Andy Murray, the No. 2 player in the world. The imaginary opponent was perfection.

This quest for perfection started very early. Novak, then five, was captivated watching Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, and Andre Agassi on TV during the 1992 Wimbledon. Two years later, Novak was on TV himself. His tennis progress rapid and his potential enormous, an adorable Novak with his cap on backward was interviewed by another seven year old. Asked “Is tennis a game or duty for you?” Novak earnestly replied, “Tennis for me is a duty.” Asked “What is your goal in tennis?” he matter-of-factly replied,” The goal for me is to be No. 1.”

Steeled in the crucible of war-torn Serbia during the 1990s, Djokovic has never wavered from that mission. Whether it’s diet, stretching, mental toughness, stroke technique, tactics, rest, yoga, meditation, fitness or assembling the best team, this quest for perfection is epitomised by thoughtful, meticulous preparation. “It’s not the will to win that makes a winner,” he once asserted in Melbourne. “It’s the will to prepare. That’s what I do well.” Competing in the Golden Era of men’s tennis and ranking No. 3 from 2007 to 2010 behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has reinforced Djokovic’s notion that constant improvement must be his mantra.

“Both Roger and Rafa have contributed a lot to my career and to my success,” Djokovic noted after dismantling the legendary Federer 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in the Australian semifinals. “Because of these two rivalries I’ve had and playing those two guys a hundred times combined, it’s obviously made me a better player. I’ve worked very hard to get myself in a position to challenge them. It wasn’t easy, but right now I’m feeling I’m at the peak of my career.”

That peak — highlighted by Djokovic’s annus mirabilis of 2015 when he came within a match of the Grand Slam — continued when he outclassed Murray 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3) to seize his sixth Australian title, tying Roy Emerson for the men’s record. His 11th overall major title equalled the career totals of all-time greats Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. It also left the lithe 28-year-old within striking distance of Nadal’s and Sampras’s 14. Still missing though on the Djokovic resume are a French Open title and an Olympic gold medal, both of which he can claim this season.

As dominant as Djokovic proved in his last three matches, which included a decisive 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 quarterfinal victory over No. 7 Kei Nishikori, he stumbled badly against the frustratingly steady No. 14 Gilles Simon in the fourth round. The champ survived that close encounter 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, despite making an ungodly — or rather un-Djoker-like — 100 unforced errors, including numerous injudicious drop shots. Asked how he escaped defeat, he explained, “It’s important that in the end of the day, that your convictions are stronger than your doubts.” That’s wise advice all athletes should heed.

Would that Murray adopt this optimistic attitude. After coming back for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-2 semi-final victory over rocket-serving, No. 13 Milos Raonic, the Brit offered, “Five finals is a great achievement. You can’t take that away from me. I should be happy about that. There’s very few players that will have made five Australian Open finals, so I have to be proud of that achievement.” Murray also strangely claimed, “My job isn’t to win the Australian Open. My job is to give my best effort.”

Contrast that shocking self-satisfaction and low expectation with the way Sampras recalled his disappointing 1992 U.S. Open final loss to Stefan Edberg, which changed his attitude and fuelled his desire to become a great champion. “It made me realise just how bad it feels to lose a Grand Slam final,” Sampras said. “How the only player people care about is the one who gets his name engraved on the trophy.”

In fairness, Murray was stressed out by his father-in-law Nigel Sears collapsing in the stands early in the tournament and by his wife Kim’s expected birth of a baby in mid-February. He also had less than two days to recover from a four-hour, five-set victory over Milos Raonic, while Djokovic had three days after his semi-final. Even so, downbeat Murray will be saddled with a dubious record: the only player to lose all five finals at a Grand Slam event. Murray may still be No. 2, but the gap between Djokovic has widened as the Serb took his 11th victory in their last 12 meetings and fourth straight at a major.

With Djokovic also dominating Federer (4-0 in their last four major matches) and Nadal (9-1 in their last 10 matches), who else but heavy-hitting Stan Wawrinka (who prevailed at the 2014 Australian and the 2015 French) can take down Djokovic? Since the start of the 2015 U.S. Open, Djokovic boasts a near-perfect 17-1 record against top-10 foes. Rising stars Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, Hyeon Chung, and Borna Coric aren’t yet mature enough to win a major.

The French Open is very much on Djokovic’s mind. “[I’m] very hungry [for Paris],” he said. “But the wolf needs to eat a lot of different meals to get to Paris. Paris is a dessert.” If Djokovic feasts at Roland Garros, where he’ll be favoured, the odds increase sharply that he’ll do what no man has done since Laver in 1969: capture the Holy Grail of tennis, the Grand Slam.

Kerber Upsets The Odds

“How can you say Serena is not the greatest player of all time when she plays like this?” insisted Chris Evert, the ESPN analyst and former superstar. Williams had just overwhelmed No. 4-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska in the 21-minute first set of their lopsided 6-0, 6-4 Australian Open semi-final.

The GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate is based solely on the record, though, not breathtaking shot-making; and Williams, with 21 major titles, was still trailing legends Margaret Court, with 24, and Steffi Graf, with 22. But there’s no debating that when Williams, in peak form, unleashes her ferocious power and fierce competitiveness, no woman — past or present — can withstand the onslaught.

Williams had won her last eight Grand Slam finals, had never lost in six Australian finals, hadn’t dropped a set going into this final, and boasted a 5-1 career record against Angelique Kerber. But you can throw out all those numbers for 34-year-old Williams in high-stakes matches these days. We learned that five months ago at the U.S. Open when she choked away the shocking semi-final against Roberta Vinci, a 300-1 pre-tournament longshot.

The 28-year-old Kerber, ranked No. 7, had what every heavy underdog needs: self-belief. “I know I can beat you,” she proclaimed before the final. She also gained momentum and confidence after escaping a match point against Misaki Doi in the first round — “I was one leg on the plane to Germany,” she quipped later — and knocking off two-time Australian champion Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 7-5 in the quarter-finals. Getting advice and inspiration from Graf, her girlhood idol, added to her belief.

Although Kerber was solidly entrenched in the top 10 for the past four years, this was her first Grand Slam final. Would she collapse nervously as her compatriot Sabine Lisicki did in the 2013 Wimbledon final? Or rise to the occasion as Francesca Schiavone did in the 2010 French Open final?

To upset Serena, the strongly built 5’8”, 150-pound Kerber had to do several things. Most importantly, she had to absorb and defuse Serena’s power, yet strike the right balance between offence and defence. That meant attacking whenever possible while keeping her unforced errors to a minimum, getting her first serve in often so Williams couldn’t punish her second serve, and keeping Williams off-balance with body serves and change-of-pace ground-strokes. Although she sometimes used to be a moody, negative player, she had to stay positive and un-intimidated.

Williams faced a different kind of pressure. She needed to regain her status as the undisputed No. 1 after her U.S. Open debacle. And, as she acknowledged, she wanted to equal Graf’s 22 major titles here and then break that Open Era record later in the year.

Surprisingly, the defending champion started nervously while the challenger played with composure. Williams had said, ‘I’m trying to get rid of the drama in my life,” but she got plenty of it in the opening set. She didn’t hit an ace, committed 23 unforced errors (versus only three for Kerber), dropped her serve twice, and lost it 6-4. Kerber faltered midway in the second set when she nervously double faulted twice to get broken for 3-1. That was all Williams needed to take the set 6-3.

Williams could add to her perfect 8-0 career record in the third set of Grand Slam finals only if her nerves and technique held up. Neither did. Off-balance footwork and flawed racket work produced weak and errant shots, particularly on her volley, and she was broken at love in the second game. That was the first of five service breaks in the final set, in which the gutsy Kerber belted 12 winners and committed only three unforced errors.

The decisive break came with Williams, who possesses the greatest serve in women’s tennis history, serving at 5-4. She whacked one ace, going 121 miles per hour, but unlike so many times in past matches, her serve wasn’t enough to bail her out of trouble. At 40-all, she stroked an off-balance forehand into the net. And on championship point, she mis-hit a forehand volley past the baseline.

But Kerber, whom no one had picked to win the Oz Open, had won the title just as much as Williams had lost it. “Kerber is one of the smartest and fastest players we’ve ever seen. She can return every single ball if she has to,” praised former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. “How she handled her nerves and this occasion is just remarkable.”

Only the second player to win the tournament after losing in the first round the previous year, Kerber ascended to No. 2 in the world. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” best describes the still No. 1 but uncertain Williams now.

“Every time I walk in this room, everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life,” said a humble Williams after her second straight shock defeat at a major. “As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not... I do the best that I can. I try to win every single time I step out there, every single point, but realistically I can’t do it... I think it’s good to know that if I want to win some tournaments, I have to play better.”

The memorable final provided the last upset in the surprise-filled women’s event which saw a record 18 of the 32 seeds knocked out before the third round. “It’s been a bloodbath,” 1980s superstar Martina Navratilova said during the first week.

This bloodbath ultimately dethroned Queen Serena in Australia. Who will replace her at the top, and when? Those are the questions now.