It's over Down Under. This weekend Novak Djokovic took the Australian Open men's title in four sets over Andy Murray, and Victoria Azarenka beat Li Na to become the women's champ after a controversial semifinal match against Sloane Stephens. But this is just the beginning of what should be a great year for tennis -- and there are still many questions that need answering.
What does this title do for Novak Djokovic?
For one thing, with six Grand Slam titles, he elbows alongside some hallowed names, including Boris Becker and Don Budge and the ever-under-appreciated Stefan Edberg. It leaves Djokovic one shy of John McEnroe, John Newcombe, Mats Wilander, Rene Lacoste, among others. It means that after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal rocketed through all that company toward 17 and 11 Slam titles in recent years, it appears this golden era might have a shot at a third double-digit guy -- in all of tennis history, there have been only seven, counting Federer and Nadal.
Does it matter to you that four of Djokovic's six come from one tournament (Australia)?
Does anything distinguish this one from his others?
Well, he used to take breezier routes. For each of his first two Australian titles, in 2008 and 2011, Djokovic lost only one set among 22. For these last two, he has gone through the meat grinder, including last year's closing-weekend five-set psychodramas and this year's fourth-round, fifth-set, 12-10 win against Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, plus a challenging four-set final against Andy Murray. Not only has the Serb long since bulldozed his outdated image as a brittle competitor who might just retire from a match, he has buried it deep. "I'm just trying to play this game with one hundred percent of devotion, love, passion and fun also," he said.
Does he win any other Slams this year?
Maybe one. He won none last year after winning Australia, losing the French final (to Rafael Nadal), a Wimbledon semifinal (to Roger Federer) and the U.S. Open final (to Murray). He looked a little like the game had caught up to him and his impenetrable defense. Now he edges out to the forefront again, ahead to the only Grand Slam he has never won -- the French, which figures to feature the return of Nadal.
While we were learning all these things watching TV at 4 in the morning, did we learn anything about Murray?
Absolutely. The five-set win over Federer in a semifinal gave yet another accounting of Murray's stability in the top mix. That is one gifted, dogged, beautiful player whose 1-5 record in Grand Slam finals no longer illustrates his fight. And here's another thing: Federer's first Grand Slam title was Wimbledon 2003; at the ensuing U.S. Open he lost in the fourth round to David Nalbandian. Djokovic's first was the Australian 2008; at the ensuing French he lost a straight-set semifinal to Nadal (no pratfall there). Nadal's first was the French in 2005; at the ensuing Wimbledon, while still only 18, he lost in the second round to Gilles Muller. Said Murray, whose first came last September in New York: "I know no one's ever won a Slam, the immediate one after winning their first one. It's not the easiest thing to do. And I got extremely close."
On the women's side, what did you think about Sloane Stephens before the Open?
I thought she probably would become another of those numerous women from around the planet who crush tennis balls and reside fairly permanently in the 30s and 40s and 50s of the rankings, sometimes the 20s. Nothing wrong with that, but players like that don't usually distinguish themselves when compared with the general population.
Well, she's already No. 17, so you blew it?
Yes. I believe I was unduly cranky.
I can't wait to see her again. I can't wait to see her for the next 15 years. When 2013 finally closes down, even after 11 more months of sports drama, her 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 Australian Open quarterfinal win over Serena Williams will remain among the year's most stirring sports moments. It was so compelling that it drowned out Stephens' fine third-round win over Laura Robson.
What impressed you the most about Stephens?
Some note the speed, some the guts, but I loved her stinging precision on these strange little shots that in ancient times were known as "volleys." At opportune junctures through the second and third sets against Williams, she would glide in and dictate the point with some volleys that had some impressive zip on them for a woman not so imposing physically. It gave perhaps a picture of the way volleys can be used in a game that has stamped them out with baseline power, and it had a certain loveliness. She had none of the let-me-just-get-through-this discomfort that many 21st-century players display; her volleys carried a rare polish as if she had practiced them; and the points she got from them seemed to bleed over into other points in tone and pressure upon her mighty opponent.
Was that the best you saw anybody play in those 4 a.m.'s spent dozing intermittently and hearing thwacks during brief naps?
No. The way the almost-31-year-old Li Na dismantled Maria Sharapova in the first women's semifinal was jaw-dropping.
What did you think about how Stephens handled the globally controversial 10-minute timeout that eventual champion Victoria Azarenka took before the last game of their semifinal?
Perfect: "It didn't go my way, but I wouldn't say at all what happened affected the match . . . I did lose the next game, but I wouldn't say that's because of the medical timeout."
Was the timeout legit? Hordes of tweeters seemed to wonder.
I don't know what Azarenka was thinking after getting none of five match points as Stephens broke to pull within 5-4 in the second set (after Azarenka won the first). But let's put it this way: No No. 1 player should panic in such a situation.
What's your overall conclusion about everything that happened in Melbourne?
It means that, once Nadal returns, you have four first-echelon guys you cannot knock for much of anything (the other three being, of course, Federer, Murray and Djokovic). It's stunning, the regularity of these four making final fours. Tiny margins mark their meetings, so Murray defeats Djokovic in New York and then Djokovic defeats Murray in Melbourne. It is one incredible era, and now all it needs is the refreshed presence of a certain human blast furnace from Mallorca, just as the women's game awaits fresh energy from a bright light named Sloane.