Australian Open 2016 Grade Card

By Matt Roberts

A*

Novak Djokovic – The runaway World No.1 continues to roll. After racking up a mind-boggling 100 unforced errors in a bizarre fourth round match, the Serb played near-flawless tennis for the remainder of the tournament. In particular, his first two sets against Federer – which he won 6/1 6/2 – will be the main takeaway from the tournament. Federer, so often the executioner, was left scrambling for respectability. By the confines of the computer rankings, the men’s final in Melbourne was 1 vs 2. But the match served as a reminder that the men’s tennis landscape is currently Novak Djokovic and the rest. Djokovic disposed of Murray in straight sets to equal Roy Emerson’s record of six Australian Open titles. He has a vice-like grip over his major rivals and with a lack of obvious younger threats, Djokovic appears well-positioned to hunt down Roger Federer’s record major tally of 17. The best way to describe Djokovic? British doubles player Colin Fleming came up with a good one – ‘the punch bag who punches back’.

Angelique Kerber – The name Angelique Kerber first entered the consciousness of most British tennis fans in 2011 when Laura Robson beat the German in the first round of Wimbledon. Now, almost five years on, Robson continues to be beset by injury while Kerber has gone from top-10 mainstay to grand slam champion. Sometimes, an unexpected winner emerges without having to beat anyone of real note. Not Kerber. She did it the hard way, beating both of the tournament favourites in Azarenka and Serena. Her tennis has always been solid if unspectacular, her success built upon her tremendous footspeed and clean ball-striking, especially off the backhand wing. But this year she’s added a new attacking dimension, stepping inside the baseline to take time away from her opponents. In the final, she broke the narrative that only Azarenka can go toe-to-toe with Serena.

Jamie Murray – When the older Murray brother decided to split with partner John Peers at the end of last year, eyebrows were raised. After all, the partnership had been a successful one: two slam finals, 6 titles and upward movement in the rankings. But Murray silenced doubters by opting to play with Bruno Soares, an experienced and highly talented doubles specialist with the same goal as Murray – to finally win a men’s doubles major. The pair confidently made their way through the draw in Melbourne and in the final came from a set down to beat Daniel Nestor and Radek Stepanek. Jamie is now ranked World No.2 and, with a veritable ocean separating everyone from Djokovic in the singles rankings, he looks poised to beat his brother to the top spot.

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A

Andy Murray – ‘I feel like I’ve been here before’, Murray said as he collected the all-too-familiar runner’s-up shield. The Briton now holds the unwanted record of being the only man to have a singles final record of 0-5 at the same major tournament. It’s almost three years since Murray last won a major. Whereas under Lendl he appeared to have the mental edge and the perfect aggressive approach in big matches against Djokovic, he now looks certain to come off second best. But, with his wife Kim pregnant at home and his father-in-law Nigel Sears collapsing during the tournament, this was an emotionally demanding fortnight for Murray. Under the circumstances, reaching the final was mightily impressive.

Jo Konta – A year ago, Johanna Konta was ranked 147 in the world. She was perennially fragile mentally, overcome with nerves and unable to close out matches. Fast-forward twelve months and Konta has transformed herself into a composed winner. Following her historic run to the semi-finals in Melbourne, which included wins over Venus Williams and Ekaterina Makarova, she’s now at a career-high ranking of 28. With very few points to defend until the French Open in May, the Sydney-born Brit could rise further still.

Milos Raonic – At last, the Milos Raonic is playing to his strengths. On his way to the quarter-finals, Raonic won more points at the net than at the baseline, a total which included 57 approaches in his defeat of Stan Wawrinka. With his imposing 6ft5in frame, it’s refreshing to see him embrace the forecourt. What’s more, the ultra-professional Canadian has improved his all round game – his return is deeper and more consistent, his backhand more solid and his movement more purposeful. Having already beaten Roger Federer this year in the final of Brisbane, it looks as though Raonic is distancing himself from the chasing pack and becoming a contender for the game’s biggest titles. The one question mark remains over his fitness and health. After pushing Andy Murray in the semi-finals, he ultimately left the Rod Laver heartbroken with his body failing him again. He wouldn’t be the first power-hitter to have his momentum curtailed by injury.

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B

Roger Federer – The Swiss maestro must be cursing. He strolled through to the semi-finals, playing dazzling all-court tennis while Djokovic was labouring against the likes of Seppi and Simon. But then in the final four, Djokovic’s level bordered on abusive and Federer was beaten in four sets. The wait for the elusive 18th major goes on and it’s unlikely to get any easier.

Chris Kermode – Two weeks ago, if you’d asked Chris Kermode, the ATP Executive Chairman and President, to describe his nightmare, he’d have probably outlined a situation remarkably similar to what unfolded on the first day of the tournament as the BBC and Buzzfeed released a report detailing evidence of match-fixing in tennis. Importantly, Kermode acted swiftly and arranged a press conference to deal with the issue head on. While it admittedly left a number of questions unanswered, it at least showed a willingness to act and managed to control a lot of the damage. An independent review has now been set up to analyse tennis’ anti-corruption programmes.

Serena Williams – Through rounds 1-6 in Melbourne, Serena Williams played exceptional tennis, not dropping a set and punishing opponents with her trademark combination of heavy-hitting and potent serving. With the in-form Victoria Azarenka losing in the quarter-finals, Serena’s status as tournament favourite was enhanced further. And yet, for the second successive major, Serena got the jitters and lost as a result of an error-strewn performance. Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 majors is looking harder to overhaul than most envisaged.

Lleyton Hewitt – The 2016 Australian Open was the final leg of the Lleyton Hewitt farewell tour. In truth, the Australian hasn’t been an especially relevant player since his last major semi-final back in 2005 and his impressive portfolio of 2 majors, 80 weeks at No.1 and two Davis Cup titles was put together before the emergence of the Big 4. But Hewitt’s career is about so much more than just achievements. As coach Darren Cahill told The Tennis Podcast, if you paid $20 to watch Hewitt, you got $25 worth. His tenacity, willpower and love for the game were what made him so watchable. He also had a world class topspin lob and he deployed it to seal victory over James Duckworth in the first round. Fittingly, his singles playing career came to an end against a kindred spirit in the form of David Ferrer.

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C

Kyle Edmund & Heather Watson – The promising British pair were handed favourable first-round draws but failed to capitalise. Edmund suffered cramps in a five set loss and Watson was unable to close when serving for the match.

Nick Kyrgios – Another week, another intriguing tournament for this flashy, ungraspable Australian. He looked focused in dismissing Carreno Busta and Cuevas but then imploded at the end of a four set loss to Tomas Berdych – the sort of match he needs to start winning if he’s to maximise his immense potential. Sooner rather than later, we need to see some emotional and mental maturity.

D

Rafael Nadal – At the end of 2015, there were signs that Nadal was becoming a force once again. And yet, at the first major of the new season, the problems that plagued the Spaniard throughout last year were all too obvious. Rafa was beaten in five sets from a position of strength against his compatriot Fernando Verdasco in round one. True, Verdasco was playing superbly, pummelling forehands and finding the lines. But Nadal was unable to impose his own game and allowed himself to be dragged from side-to-side. To heap more misery of Nadal, he gets the tournament’s wooden spoon: Nadal < Verdasco < Sela < Kuznetsov < Monfils < Raonic < Murray < Djokovic

Photographs: The Cauldron via Twitter, Marianne Bevis via Flickr, Christopher Johnson via Flickr

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