By Roger Childs
He fixes my drinks, fixes my racket. So thanks a lot, you’re a nice guy. Also you’re so lucky to find me. Li Na speaking about her husband after winning the Australian Open
The wonderful Li Na
It is not often you get a sporting champion who has a combination of grace, humility and humour. The popular Chinese super star, Li Na, is a great hero in her home country and has just won the women’s title in the first 2014 grand slam, adding to her many accomplishments.
In the Australian Open last year, she won the first set of the final 4-6 against Victoria Azarenka. However a nasty fall and a determined comeback from the Belarusian saw the title slip away.
This year Li Na was seeded fourth and had a narrow escape against Lucie Safarova in the third round, having lost the first set 1-6 and facing match point in the second. However, she rallied to take the set into a tie break and then cruised through the final set to reach the last sixteen.
Meanwhile the top seeds dropped like flies and the big guns Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka didn’t even make the semi finals.
Ultimately a one-sided final
Li faced off against the twentieth seed, Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova, in the final. Much of the first set was very un-Li like and it took a comeback in the tie break for Li Na to regain her composure and play her best tennis.
- quick, accurate serving
- powerful ground strokes
- superb placement
- fine judgment at the net.
Li Na is the first woman over 30 to have won the Daphne Akhurst Trophy in 40 years, but has no intention of retiring. However she acknowledges that winning another grand slam won’t be easy.
Of course it is very easy to say I want to win another one. But you have to know how much work has to be done just to win a Grand Slam. So of course if I want to win another one or two, I have to go back to [working] even [harder] than before; otherwise, no chance.
Fans and commentators will hope that she has many more years of tennis ahead of her at the top level. She is very talented and stylish player, and although very humble about her achievements has a wicked sense of humour which endears her to tennis followers.
Stan the man
Stanislas Wawrinka is only the third player to break the Federer / Nadal / Djokovic stranglehold on grand slam men’s singles titles since 2005. A total of 34 out of the last 37 titles had been won by the big three.
The Swiss born Wawrinka has played a supporting role to his compatriot, the incomparable Roger Federer, for many years. The two have often teamed up in doubles, especially in Davis Cup matches, and in 2008 won the gold medals in the men’s doubles at Beijing.
Wawrinka has long been in the category of a useful player, but was never able to beat any of the big three.
Anyone who would have said 13 months ago that Wawrinka would shortly win a grand slam title, would probably have been classified as insane. The view of Switzerland’s Neue Zuericher Zeitung, late January 2014.
But that’s all changed now. Wawrinka has stepped out of the shadow of Federer to win the Australian Open and move up to number three in the world rankings.
A breakthrough year in 2013
The upward progression in the global rankings was plain to see last year. With Magnus Norman as his new coach, Wawrinka was able to become a more polished and disciplined player and add consistency in his ground strokes to the widely respected serve which at its fastest, peaked 230kph!
At the 2013 Australian Open last year, he met Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. In what was the game of the tournament, he lost in a gruelling five-set thriller which lasted just over 5 hours, going down 10-12 in the final set.
Djokovic warmly acknowledged the effort of Wawrinka and observed that this was one of the longest, most interesting and most exciting matches I have played in my career.
Wawrinka showed that this match was no flash in the pan, and during 2013 improved his ranking by
- winning the Portugal open against top seed David Ferrer
- reaching the Spanish Open final
- making the semi finals of the US Open
- moving up to a ranking of 8th
- reaching the semi finals of the ATP Tennis Finals in December.
California-based tennis authority Richard Childs was picking Wawrinka to have a big 2014 season before the Melbourne tournament began.
Grand slam success in a roller coaster match
Stanislas Wawrinka had never taken a set off Rafael Nadal in 13 previous matches. That dubious record was quickly broken with a brilliant performance in the first set of the final. The Swiss won 6-3 through a combination of powerful serving, working Nadal from side to side along the baseline, and deft placement of winners often with a riveting single handed backhand.
However three games into the second set Nadal had back trouble, necessitating a 7 minute break off court and two subsequent on-court massages. From then on the match stuttered along to the inevitable Wawrinka victory.
- Wawrinka took the second set easily 6-2 as Nadal seemed unable to get any power into his shots.
- The massage and painkillers obviously helped the Spaniard to regain his speed and power and he took the third set 6-3.
- The Swiss had lost his focus and the ruthlessness of his earlier play deserted him.
- However in the fourth set Wawrinka went on to the offensive and the tiring, sore Nadal was beaten 6-3.
Good for the game
The success of Li Na and Stanislas Wawrinka was unexpected, but tennis fans around the world will be delighted to see two new champions in the Australian Open.
The Aussies loved the fascinating two weeks of quality tennis and turned out in their tens of thousands to see the world’s best battle it out. They would however have been left wondering when the home country, which has had so many grand slam winners in the past, is going to see a local get beyond the fourth round in Melbourne.