The Tennis Phile

January 27, 2010 3:57 AM

Federer and Serena's Great Escapes Continue; Venus Chokes

3986508.jpgThe 2010 Australian Open continued to stamp itself as one of the most exciting, yet strangest, Grand Slam tournament in some time. On one day, three champions with 33 Slam titles among them were all faced with daunting challenges and mental lapses - two survived and one choked. It was clearly one of the oddest days of tennis in recent memory.

Perpetual world number one Roger Federer (he's finished on top of the rankings six of the last seven years) has, arguably, accomplished more than anyone in the history of the sport. With the record for most Grand Slam titles (15), he owns history.  So how does he appreciably add to his legacy? Simply, by having a thrilling final act to his career. And that is what is playing out in Melbourne as The Roger rallied from a set and a break down (and a 15-40 hole to go two breaks down) to rally against his latest nemesis, Russian Nikolay Davydenko 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5. After being literally pushed around the court for a set and a half, the Swiss stylist managed to weather the storm of Agassi-like power and precision from the diminutive Davydenko. And though Roger choked a bit towards the end as he was broken while serving for the match, he broke right back to claim victory. To Davydenko's credit, he made it a fight at the end after seemingly disappearing in the middle stages of the match - at one point he went a full hour without winning a game.

It was obvious to this viewer that Davydenko was intimidated a bit by the occasion. Though he's been highly ranked for several years, this was the first time in a Slam that he was taken seriously as a threat to claim the title. And with his recent victories over Federer it seemed a legitimate thought. But you can never overestimate how much nerves play a role in sports and he seemed overwhelmed in the latter stages of the second and the entire third set.

Federer will have to step up his level if he is to make it to yet another Slam final - he's been to 21 of them  - as he will not be able to survive a prolonged lull against either Novak Djokovic or Jo Tsonga, his future opponent in the semifinals - Djokovic beat Tsonga for the 2008 Australian crown. If the winner is Djokovic I think Federer's tournament will end as the former champion has moved steadily and forcefully through the draw with little notice and he desperately wants to make a statement that he is the heir apparent to Roger's Reign. And with the wise choice of former American top 10 player Todd Martin as his adviser, Djokovic has become a smarter and more consistent player. 

Arrogance is a necessary component for those wildly successful in sports - or any venture for that matter. And top ranked Serena Williams is in no short supply of such. Her ability to just will herself to victory seemingly on command is one of the attributes that makes her an immortal in the sport. And Serena recorded yet another win when she was well behind, coming from a set and 0-4 down to defeat 20 year old Victoria Azareknka. The steady Azarenka, hailing from Belarus, was the steadier player as she let Williams makes mistakes for the first hour of the match. But a significant aspect to Serena's greatness is her willingness to play with confidence and go for her shots. And that proved the difference as Williams began to hit winners from all over the court, proving that tennis is unlike other sports - a great offense almost always beats a great defense.

Just as Serena is overflowing with that aforementioned arrogance, her sister Venus seems more human, more prone to mental and emotional letdowns. And that is what happened earlier in the day. Dominating Ni La from China, Venus won the first set with ease and was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second before her game broke down. Rushing her shots and going for the lines too often, Venus fell prey to the suddenly daunting play of the 27 year old veteran and unlike her sister, couldn't find a way to regain control of the flow of the match. For Ni and her country, this has been an extraordinary event - the first time ever that two Chinese players have reached the semi of a Slam with Jie Zhang joining her in the penultimate round. But China's hopes for tennis domination will end without much drama on Thursday as the tournament will get the two finalists that every fan wanted to see - Serena and Justine Henin. If form holds for this Australian Open, the final should be a thriller. 

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