Li decided to change and as result, wins first Aussie Open title

Be0cjzvCMAAuGqw

Li was willing to change, and finally saw the fruits of her labor

By Matt Cronin

MELBOURNE – Perhaps Li Na appeared capable of winning her first Grand Slam title in 2011 when she reached the Australian Open final for the first time but she was not, as Kim Clijsters was a better player than she was then and Li was way too inconsistent.

Last year, she came into the Aussie Open final against Victoria Azarenka looking just as good as the Belarussian but fell down twice, hit her head, and was too dizzy to win the three setter.

But this year she came into the final against Dominika Cibulkova as a significant favorite as she was 4-0 against the Slovakian head to head and since she looked shaky and was forced to fight off a  match point versus Lucie Safarova in the third round, she played lights out. She wasted Ekaterina Makarova, plastered Flavia Pennetta, and put down Genie Bouchard to reach the final. Under her coach of a year and half, Carlo Rodriguez, she has fiddled with  her service motion and her backhand –which has always been her biggest weapon –added a  more topspin to her forehand and developed a net game. At the age of 31 she is a better all around player than she was in 2011 and that’s what she showed Dominica Cibulkova in her 7-6 (3) 6-0 victory to win her first Australian Open title.

She was willing to change, to take risks, because she suspected that was the only way she could go higher.

“The choice always right, because if I really want to prove myself, I have to change something, otherwise I will stay the same level forever,” the 31-year-old said.

Li certainly had hiccups in the first set as her forehand went off for significant periods. She could feel the pressure of being the favorite and was concerned that the fast Slovak would run everything down. But when she was under control, Li crushed hard  groundstrokes deep, and at sharp angles. Her serve has more margin now and she can still keep her focus even when her level is up and down. Her forehand can be fragile, but she kept trying to swing through it.

Li served for the first set at 6-5, missed a make-able backhand down the line on set point, and then saw Cibulkova break back to 6-6 with hard backhand crosscourt and bellow out her trademark cry, Pome!

The result of the tiebreaker essentially determined the outcome of match. Li ripped three winners to gain a 3-1 lead and kept pushing Cibulkova back. At 5-3, it was the Slovakian who grew tense, and she committed two backhand errors that in a small event she would have handled easily. Li won the tiebreak and began to fill up with joy.

“It’s like after if you win a very tight first set, you think, ‘Okay, already one set in the pocket,’ ” Li said. “Like feeling one feet already touching in trophy.  So, yeah, of course if you have one set in pocket, second set you can play more aggressive, attack her.”

After that, Li put her nerves outside and dictated nearly every point. She was incredibly focused and lethal.

“Maybe you guys didn’t realize how hard I worked mentally to win this,” Li said later.

Cibulkova, who reached her first Grand Slam final, had the best major of her life, but she realizes she couldn’t bring her best on the day. She appeared more self-assured in besting Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska, but did not play aggressive enough in the final. The 24-year-old hopes to learn from the experience and be back in the same position again.

“These were just the most fantastic two weeks of my life and I think I’m going to cry,” she said. “It was my first Grand Slam final and I’m just proud with the way I handle it. I just went on the court.  I wanted to play my best tennis.  It wasn’t easy against her because she was playing extremely well. .. When you play a Grand Slam finals, it’s a big step.  I’m ready to take it.  I was waiting for this for a long time.  Now I want to do 100% to keep it up.”

The title was Li’s  second Grand Slam title after winning the 2011 French Open and she said it’s even more special.

“I prepare this one for already two weeks,” she said.  Every round, every day I was think about what I should do. I prepare if I play semis what I should do, if I play final what I should do, because I already have twice in the final up here.  Also in the French I was feeling I just go for it.  I didn’t think about win or lose.  But this one, I really wish I can doing well.”

When the rankings are released on Monday she will be close to the No. 2 spot. She is a long way from passing Serena Williams for No.1 but has a chance to catch her at the end of the year. Her coach, Rodriguez, was able to led Justine Henin past Serena for the No.1 ranking. Perhaps he will be able to do that with Li too. First up, she will take aim at Wimbledon and the US Open. It would be even more impressive to see her go around the block at the Slams.

“Of course is very easy to say I want to win another one,” Li said.  “But I think if you are tennis athlete, you have to know how much working have to be done for only to win the Grand Slam.  So of course if I want to win another one or two, I have to go back to court hard-working and also even more tough than before, otherwise no chance.”

Picture of the day: Li Na hopes 3 times in the charm in Aussie Open final

Li USO 13 TR MALT5613

Bob & Weave: Nadal withstands Federer blitz before throwing knockout punch

Nadal USO 13 MALT8797

Nadal is now 23-10 vs Federer and is 12-0 vs final round foe Wawrinka

 

By Matt Cronin

MELBOURNE – Rafael Nadal says that he gets more emotional for his matches against Roger Federer than against any other player, which is not surprising given that when the Spaniard arrived on the scene that the Swiss was the tour’s dominant competitor and looked unstoppable when he was on.

But since the 2008 Wimbledon final, when Nadal stopped Federer in home away from home, the lefthander has seized control of the rivalry and could soon be blessed with the description of the Greatest Of All Time [GOAT]. In Nadal’s 7-6 6-3 6-2 victory over the Swiss in the 2014 Australian Open  semifinals, he sure looked like he’s ready to contender for that moniker.

Federer played fairly well during the semifinal, but still couldn’t get over the hump as Nadal simply waited out his George Foreman-like barrage early on like Muhammad Ali did against the slugger during the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ Federer threw everything he had at Nadal: huge serves, forehands, net rushes – even flat one-handed backhand as hard as he could strike them. But what he could not do was return serve consistently well enough and could not manage to get a break point on Nadal’s serves. While Federer’s whirlwind attack was eye-popping at times and had fans on their feet, Nadal was very consistent and counterpunched with authority. He moved quickly, kept his groundstrokes deep and worked the points as hard and long as he could.

He decided upon that strategy because  this is what he knew going into the match after watching the tape of their 2012 Australian semifinal in the morning: that Federer would whale away early and as long as Nadal didn’t get down on himself, eventually Federer would begin to punch himself out and then Nadal would be able to throw big  body blows of his own when the openings were there and eventually score a knockout.

Federer badly needed to win the first set in order to give himself a chance at victory. He had not dropped the first set against Nadal and come back to win the match since 2007 Hamburg so the odds were clearly against him.

Federer had chance in the tiebreaker after Nadal committed three straight unforced errors and the Swiss drew back to 4-5, but then the Spaniard stung an inside out forehand winner and Federer missed a backhand down the line. The tiebreaker was in Nadal’s pocket at 7-4 and for all intents and purposes, so was the match, as  Nadal’s two-handed backhand stood up better against Federer’s forehand than the Swiss’ one-handed backhand stood up against Nadal’s forehand. As the match grew older, Federer had a hard time hitting perfect enough approach shots and Nadal consistently passed him. Federer also could not get enough significant returns into play as Nadal’s blistered hand had improved and he had wicked spin and kick on his favored serves. Simply put, Nadal’s left hook was more powerful and effective that Federer’s right-handed cross.

‘The important thing for me is serve well, resist the beginning,” Nadal said. “I know he will try to go on court going for the winners, taking the ball very early.  So when the match is coming and the match is longer, then that’s more difficult.  Because physically is very difficult for me, for him, for everybody to play with that intensity of trying to play that aggressive during a few hours, no, because mentally and physically is very tough. So when the match is going on, I know that I will have the chance to hit a little bit more rallies.  That’s the position that I want to be.  So is very important to resist the score at the beginning.”

Nadal’s record versus Federer now stands at  23-10.  He is one victory away from his second  Australian Open title, and if he manages to best Stan Wawrinka in the final, he will become the only man in the Open Era to win each major twice – which is glorified Rod Laver territory.

He may or may not go down in history as the GOAT, but with his record against Federer —  whom most people currently consider the GOAT — he will likely have something to say about it if he wins another couple of majors.

But that is a discussion for another day, as Nadal still has to best the red-hot Stan Wawrinka for the title, whom he has a 12-0 head to head record against  and whom he has never dropped a set to. The other Swiss – whom by the way will pass Federer when the rankings are released next week – has been tagging his one-handed backhand and been serving huge, but can he actually get over on Nadal if the Spaniard is playing his best? That is extremely doubtful  as Nadal is No.1 for a reason – he has been at higher level than anyone else at the majors during the past year.

However, Wawrinka did manage to upend the seemingly unbeatable Novak Djokovic in the quarters so that has to give him some belief that he can turn his rivalry around against Nadal, at least on one night. The odds are stacked firmly against him, but he will give it a go. His coach of more than year, Magnus Norman, has impressed upon him that he should try to be relaxed and at the same time go for his shots. He is going to attempt to keep his poor record against Nadal out of his head.

I don’t care about having lost 14 times,” he said. But it’s more about playing Rafa.  He’s the No. 1, the best player.  His game is quite tough for me, especially with one‑hand backhand.  But I did some good match last year against him, close one.  I find few things that I will try tomorrow. I’m playing my best tennis here; physically I’m ready.  I had two days off, so that’s perfect for me before final.  Going to try everything.  Before to beat Djokovic was the same.  I was losing 13, 14 times before that. Just the fact that I’m always trying and I always think that I can change all the statistic, that’s positive.”

 

 

 

Djokovic vs.Nadal stranglehold broken, but Rafa & bloody hand survive another day

rafa hand ao

 

MELBOURNE – Given that they essentially dominated the tour in 2013, the odds of Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic meeting in another Grand Slam final were quite high entering the 2014 Australian Open. But tennis times always change, even if they do so at glacial pace.

Djokovic has not lost a match since the 2013 US Open final to Nadal entering the event, and had taken care of his matches handily. But finally, a player with flair and courage ended his win streak when Stan Wawrinka took him out 2‑6, 6‑4, 6‑2, 3‑6, 9‑7 in a five-set classic. The Swiss was overdue for a win over the Serbian, especially after he had lost two five-setters to him at the 2013 Aussie Open and US Open. But he still had to earn it, or at least keep pushing Djokovic until he made a couple of critical and unthinkable errors, which he did in the last two points of the match.

“I had to find solution,” said Wawrinka who at times thought that he might never reach the finish line. “I had to fight within myself to fight against him and try to keep my line during the match.”

The 22-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov could have done much the same against Nadal, going deep inside himself in order to convince himself that he could actually win the match but he does not have the 28-year-old Wawrinka’s experience. So, even when he was out playing the Spaniard and Nadal’s blistered and bloody left hand look ready to fall off, he could not come up with sustained brilliance when it mattered most. The young shotmaker played poorly in the second and third-set tiebreaks and fell 3-6 7-6 (3) 7-6 (7) 6-2.

He missed two critical and easy forehands in the third-set breaker, one on his own set point and another on Nadal’s. After the Spaniard had missed an easy inside out forehand – a shot he struggled with most of the day – Dimitrov had the whole court open at 6-5 after hitting an excellent serve and he yanked an easy forehand wide. Dimitrov then put away a sweet backhand volley to 7-6, but Nadal responded with smart net rush of his own and grabbed the point with a nifty forehand volley. With Nadal holding a set point at 8-7, Dimitrov looked at a sitter forehand in the middle of the court, leaped up in the air and again yanked it wide. The set was gone and so were his chances at a win as Nadal out muscled him the rest of the way.

“I’m a bit shattered,” Dimitrov said. “It’s tough losing that match, my first quarterfinal. I came out expecting nothing less than to win. … Of course I’m deeply disappointed. I’m not going to lie. All the credit to Rafa. I think he played a great match. He’s not one of the best, I think he’s the best player right now. Of course I shed a few tears, but it should hurt. It should hurt. And it does hurt, so …  I can take a lot of things, but at the moment I’m just a bit all over the place.”

Nadal’s left hand contains a huge blister the size of an Australian 50 cent coin. He can’t serve hard because he’s afraid that his racquet is going to fall out of his hand. He is hoping that in two days – when he takes on Roger Federer – that his hand will feel a little better and he can serve with more force, but he suffered quite a bit on Wednesday.  Not as much as Djokovic did, who has already headed back to Serbia, but enough to wear a grimace on his face all day long.

But Nadal does not  seem to mind as his desire burns deep. Next up for him will be one of his greatest rivals, Federer, who wore down Andy Murray in four sets, and who has been on fire at the tournament. However, Federer hasn’t beaten Nadal at a major since 2007 Wimbledon. Even if Nadal is dripping blood, he will fight like crazy to each the final.

“The emotion to keep playing, the motivation to win the match makes you resist little bit more and little bit more, and you always want little bit more,” Nadal said.  “You are ready mentally, you can always resist little bit more.”

Radwanska finally gets over on Azarenka again

Agnieszka Radwanska was not in the same position as Wawrinka or Dimitrov was entering their matches,  but she had been in a bad way the past two years against fellow 24-year-old Victoria Azarenka. On Wednesday she played more freely against then than she has at any time in recent memory and pulled off a 6-1 5-7 6-0 upset. Azarenka complimented Radwanska on playing amazingly well, but also said that she was too predictable and wasn’t thinking hard enough. But for Radwanska – who blew a huge chance at Wimbledon last year to win a maiden Slam–  it was a standout performance, especially from the mental side. Her creative side and quickness is always there but her confidence is elusive against the elite.

The little magician has admitted that it took her a while get over her loss to Sabine Lisicki in the semifinals of 2013 Wimbledon when she was the highest remaining seed left in he draw, but she found a way to look at the future.

“Of course, losing matches like at Wimbledon, it’s always disappointing. It’s kind of painful, as well, especially that it was the semifinal of a Grand Slam,” she said. “But I think you’re playing so many tournaments, so many very important matches, that it takes really not much time to forget. I think every Grand Slam is a different story. I’m trying not to really think about other matches, especially tough matches that I lost.”

Radwanska will face Dominika Cibulkova in the semis on Thursday, whom she says she has known since they were facing off as 8- or 9-year-olds in Eastern Europe. She will be favored in that match and will be seen as an equal to Li Na should they meet in the final, assuming Li finds away to put down Canadian teen Genie Bouchard. Then another golden opportunity will be presented to her.

“I think this is the level everybody playing great tennis,” Radwanska said. “Well, it’s a bit more pressure.  This is the semifinal of a Grand Slam.  Especially here, first time for me.  Hopefully I will play the same tennis as today.”

Berdych gains first Aussie Open final four

rsz_1006015_568667076530412_1585872996_n

Aussie Open teen semifinalist Bouchard not surprised by rapid rise

Beea1gzCMAAvEL2

Bouchard is relentless

MELBOURNE – Canada’s Genie Bouchard won the junior Wimbledon title in 2012, but is not surprised that she is already in an adult Grand Slam semifinal.

She feels like she progresses every day, every week, every month. She came into the Australian Open ranked No. 30 and has knocked of one veteran after another including former No, 1 Ana Ivanovic 5-7 7-5 6-2 in the quarterfinals.

She almost never gives up her on court position. She always seems to be going forward. She isn’t wild but hits hard off both wings. She has a very strong first serve and competes like hell. She may appear to be a just another pretty blonde to some (like the Aussie-based Genie’s Army) who have never met her off court, but she talks and acts like a standard super jock.  Tennis is her life; not only does she plays she watches a lot of pro tennis in her spare time.

She is no-nonsense player and appears to be a no-nonsense person. She sees her rapid rise as part of the plan and not very surprising at all.

“When I played the juniors, I was 18, so I still felt a little bit of pressure being kind of older and still playing in the juniors,” she said. “But that was my choice.  I still think I did well winning a [junior] Slam.  But it’s definitely another level in the pros, definitely mentally tougher I think.  But I think winning junior Wimbledon gave me a lot of confidence.  Right away I transitioned into the pros really well.  A year and a half is a long time, too.  It’s not something that surprises me.”

Bouchard might not be surprised but it’s very rare for teens to make a major impression at Slams these days. Sloane Stephens did as a 19-year-old last year and now one of her peers has accomplished it.  Madison Keys, who is a year younger than Bouchard, is not ready yet, nor is Bouchard’s good friend Laura Robson.

Bouchard has a good disposition and isn’t easily rattled, even after Ivanovic banged away at her during the first set.

“I tried to stay calm. I tried to for sure show I was calm.” she said. “I did feel confident.  Having lost the first set and things like that, I just tried to focus on what I had to do during the point to try to win, really just try to keep pressing her and moving forward.  That’s what kept me really calm.  I felt like my game kind of got a bit better as the match went on.  I feel like in the first set I was close, but I was kind of missing shots just by a little bit, hitting the tape of the net, just a bit out.  I felt like my game was there and I just needed to relax a little bit and play.”

With her victory over Ivanovic on the raucous Rod Laver Arena and her fourth round win over home countrywoman Casey Dellacqua on the same court, Bouchard has shown she’s ready for the big stage. But as good as she’s been, she is going to have to take big step up to best her semifinal foe, Li Na, who has been on fire her last two matches and smoked Flavia Pennetta 6-2 6-2 in their quarterfinal. Li has reached two Aussie Open finals before and seems overdue for a title.

Li is a better player than Ivanovic and will be a bigger challenge for Bouchard, but there are times when China’s top player loses focus, which could make her vulnerable to an upset.

She’s a great champion,” Bouchard said. “She’s won a Slam.  It’s going to be really tough.  I played her once in Montreal two years ago.  We had a close match.  But it was one of my first bigger matches.  It will be interesting to play her.  I know she’s very solid, very good from the back.  It’s going to be hard, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Time wasn’t on Nadal’s side, but overcomes Nishikori anyway

Nadal USO 13 TR MALT7648

Rafa doesn’t think time violations should be called at crucial moments

MELBOURNE – Rafael Nadal was upset that he was called for multiple time violations in his 7-6 (3) 7-5 7-6 (3) fourth-round win over Kei Nishikori but he’s been a serial offender of the rule, even if he is one of the tour’s greatest and most exciting competitors. He takes a lot of times between every point and consistently pushes the Grand Slams’ 20-second rule.

Nishikori played perhaps the best Grand Slam match of his life at the Aussie Open as he whaled away against Nadal all day long, but could not capture enough big points to even win a set.

With the third set tied at 4-4 and deuce, chair umpire Eva Asderaki gave Nadal his second time violation and he had to forfeit his first serve. The Spaniard rarely shows anger on court, but he was infuriated on that occasion and threw a ball in disgust. Nishikori took the next two points to break, but Nadal would break back, recompose himself and eventually win the contest.

But that did not cool his jets as he felt like Asderaki should have shown more flexibility given how tough the points were in the game and because of the stage of the match. Umpires are told to call the violations when they occur regardless of what stage the match is in, although they can be flexible if they choose to if the prior point is extremely long. But, if Asderaki  has chosen not to call the violation on Nadal at that juncture (and he really did violate the rule), is that is fair to his opponent and would it open the door to even more violations?

It should be noted that it appears that the umpires have been tougher during this fortnight than they have been at any other Grand Slam, even warning some of the women players, which they rarely do. Jelena Jankovic received a warning come off a changeover on Monday in her three-set loss to Simona Halep.

Nadal was not pleased, although he said he would try to quicken his pace.

“The negative thing in my opinion is not the warning,” Nadal said. “The negative thing is the moment, 4‑All, deuce.  You can choose another moment to do it, not that one.  Another thing is she didn’t advise me before the second warning that I was still going slow.  So normal thing, if the referee is say, ‘Rafa, you are going too slow.’  So I try to go quicker, before the second warning.  But she didn’t make it. The rule says you can do it.  But, in my opinion, that goes against the show.  But that’s fine.  If she wants to do it that way, she did.  She did, and that’s why we are talking.”

What is unclear is whether Nadal knows how experienced Asderaki is. She may call matches slightly differently than other umpires, but she has overseen thousands of them, including Grand Slam finals. He does not seem to be too impressed, even though she is a real pro.

“I going to try to go quicker for the future,” he said. “But is important to have people on the chair that really understand the game and people who manage this sport who understand the game, and that’s it.  Because, if not, every time with Hawk‑Eye, the referee just start watching the watch, 25 seconds, then warning, so then we don’t need any more referees.  We only need lines.  That’s fine. Because if not, the referees don’t need to do all the rules.  That is my feeling.  We are making the referees worse than before with all the things that we are making for them easier.”

Next up: Dimitrov

Nadal will face the 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals, who bested Spain’s Roberto Bautista  6-3 3-6 6-2 6-4. Dimitrov is in the final eight for the first time and is playing more patiently than he did last season, which helps him overall because, even though he is an impressive shot-maker, he does have the tendency to become sloppy. At a Grand Slam in three out of five set matches, players don’t get away with that over the long haul. Dimitrov does not appear to fear the match-up, but he will be the underdog for sure.

“We all know that he has won tons of Slams,” Dimitrov said.  “He’s been a tremendous competitor.  He’s Rafa.  We all know him.  But that’s what I’m playing for, to put myself in position to play those guys.  I had tough battles with him in the past.  Played a couple times on clay.  There were always little things missing.  But I’m quite happy with the way I’m performing so far.  So I like my chances.”

WTA roundup

Serena Williams and Maria  Sharapova are both out of the tournament now, Sharapova to Dominika Cibulkova on Monday in a great effort by the Slovakian, but not two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka who took a very impressive 6-3 6-2 victory over Sloane Stephens. The 20-year-old American contested a very decent first set but not win enough of the big points, was slightly out steadied and didn’t take enough risks. Azarenka was better off the ground and more ambitious. She’s the highest seed left in the event. She will play the winner of the match between Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbine Muguruza. Halep reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal and will play  Cibulkova.

“I don’t consider anybody as the favorite, I just go out there and play my best,” said Azarenka. “We’ve seen over the last couple of days that somebody can bring their best game on any given day. You have to stay alert.”

Aussie Open Day 4: Sharapova survives marathon in heat, Azarenka settles down

rsz_1560590_10151815801137680_902785600_n

While rehabilitating from a shoulder injury last season Maria Sharapova spent five months getting into tip-top shape, and it more than paid off on Thursday when the Russian outlasted Karin Knapp 6-3 4-6 10-8 at Rod Laver Arena. MORE HERE

 

Victoria Azarenka prefers a straight-ahead attack, but she had no choice to adjust her strategy against the wily and creative Barbora Zahlavova Strycova MORE HERE

 

Donald Young is somewhat of a mystery man. He’s had such and up and down career since he first came on tour in 2007 that how he is going to perform during any given week is unpredictable.  MORE HERE

 

Refreshed Querrey ready to take more risks

Querrey IW 11 MALT4133

Australian Open: Fitter, more mature Keys looks to make push

keys, madison 2013