Mind and Matter in Melbourne

This year’s Australian Open proves that tennis players’ bodies can break down and make them lose big matches, but to win the biggest matches one needs to be the stronger player mentally. In both the men’s and women’s finals, the top seed and defending champion faced an experienced challenger who played brilliantly to score an upset in the semifinals. In both cases, the top-ranked players lost first sets to the players who physically had the hot hands. In both cases, they had the presence of mind to adapt their tactics and home in on the consistency it took to deny opportunities to their challengers and defend their titles.

Djokovic d. Murray, 6-7(2) 7-6(3) 6-3 6-2

As he did in his semifinal against Roger Federer, Andy Murray started aggressively, hitting with greater force and depth than Novak Djokovic and dictating points with his forehand. Whether Murray’s attack put him on his heels or he just needed time to fully warm up, Djokovic was passive and erratic by comparison. But Nolé served well enough to deny Andy a break point in the set. Murray struggled with his first serve early on and lost his focus somewhat in the middle of the set, but saved four break points and finished the set strongly. Djokovic double-faulted to open the tiebreak, and his composure didn’t recover until well into the second set.

Murray held serve much more easily in the second set, not facing a break point. Djokovic struggled, but crucially played bravely when behind, hitting his groundstrokes with more intent and finding his way to the net to save three break points. Failing to seize key opportunities, Murray began to play more tentatively, lifting the pressure and allowing Djokovic’s confidence to surge. This time Murray double-faulted in the tiebreak and was unable to recover.

Early in the third set both players appeared to be saving energy when receiving. But just as another tiebreak looked inevitable, Nolé suddenly exploded with the kind of baseline winners he used to destroy David Ferrer in the semifinals. With the help of a dropshot that floated way too long and a forehand error by Murray, Djokovic broke to 5-3 and easily served out the set.

Playing with more aggression and accuracy by this point, Djokovic broke Murray’s serve again in the third game of the fourth set. Murray never threw in the towel, but his hopes and his footwork were fading, leading to a string of backhand errors. He double-faulted on break point to give Djokovic a 4-1 lead, and Nolé cruised to victory with little trouble.

Some commentators have overemphasized the feather that fell from the sky in front of Murray and delayed the second serve that turned into a double fault in the second-set tiebreak. Some overemphasized the treatment Murray received for a blister before the third set. But as Murray pointed out after the match, players deal with superficial foot problems all the time, and “it had no bearing at all on the result.” The match had already turned before either of these minor events, as Djokovic had raised his level of play and was starting to control the majority of points.

When Murray failed to convert his break points in the second set, and then gave Djokovic breathing room, Nolé took the opportunity, hitting more freely, and winning more points from the net. Andy failed to recognize in time that he needed to resume the aggression he showed in the first set, or that as the more accomplished volleyer, he should be the one playing more points at the net. Once Djokovic had the momentum, as the player with more slam final experience, he kept the pressure on and didn’t give Murray a chance to find a solution.

Djokovic made more unforced errors in the match than Murray (61–46), but also hit far more winners (47–29). More significantly, Djokovic made nearly half of his unforced errors in the first set (25), while Murray hit only 7 of his winners after the second set.

Azarenka d. Li, 4-6 6-4 6-3

Both players had reason to be nervous at the beginning of this match. Li Na had played exceptionally well from start to finish in her semifinal victory over Maria Sharapova, but has a long track record of struggling with confidence she can keep her high-risk game together in big matches. Victoria Azarenka had struggled to close her semifinal win over the less experienced Sloane Stephens, then spent her day off defending herself from the press’ criticism over her medical time-out late in that match, and now had the stadium crowd firmly against her. The nerves showed in both player’s games, but Li recovered faster. While making more errors than she had against Sharapova, Li nevertheless took control of the first set by outhitting Azarenka from the baseline and profiting from Azarenka’s own errors.

With both players returning better than they were serving, Li essentially won the first set by holding serve twice—once more than Azarenka. In the second set, Li’s backhand faltered, making 5 errors in 8 consecutive points early on and helping Azarenka hold serve for a 2-0 lead. The two exchanged breaks again.

And then Li rolled her left ankle, tumbling to the court. It took several minutes for her to get up, gingerly start to put weight on the ankle, and limp with assistance to her chair, where she took a medical time-out to get the ankle taped. To everyone’s relief, she moved well after play resumed, holding serve and earning three break points.

Azarenka played aggressively and cleanly, however, taking her opportunities to get to the net. She saved the break points and held for a 4-2 lead. Li held serve and played an excellent, aggressive return game, blasting forehands to get back to 4-4. But backhands and an overhead let her down in the next game. Azarenka broke again and held to love to take the second set.

Through the third game of the third set, the outcome of the match was still utterly in doubt. Azarenka was gaining a better sense of when to move forward and how to find the right balance of aggression and consistency, but was also repeatedly showing frustration when points went Li’s way. Li was still hitting shots from the baseline that surpassed what Azarenka could produce, but lacked rhythm, her errors coming in bigger bunches.

And then, with Li leading 2-1, on serve, the fireworks came. Literally. It baffles me why the Australian Open doesn’t schedule its matches around the annual Australia Day fireworks show. Instead, every year players have to stop in the middle of a big match to wait for the pyrotechnics. After sitting for ten minutes, Li’s injured ankle undoubtedly stiffened, and she seemed to trip over it sideways on the very first point after the fireworks, falling to the ground so suddenly that the back of her head hit the court surface. The brain’s visual cortex is at the back of the skull, and Li said after the match that her vision blacked out for two seconds.

The doctor and trainer examined Li for a few minutes, clearing her to play after checking for signs of a concussion. She fought on, but whether her ankle was getting worse or she was merely shaken by the repeated calamities, her footwork became more tentative, her tactics more reckless, and her shots more erratic. To her credit, Azarenka didn’t let the multiple mishaps perturb her own game. She played steady and solid tennis to win 5 of the remaining 6 games, defending both her title and her #1 ranking.

Her reaction was nothing like the joyous disbelief of last year. This time she sobbed uncontrollably, overcome with relief and the release of the tension generated by the aftermath of her controversial semifinal. That she managed those emotions long enough the win the match in a thoroughly professional manner shows she is mentally a tougher competitor than many of us expected.

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