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Monday, January 28, 2013
Djokovic and cohorts going nowhere


The first Grand Slam of the year is over, and the message seems pretty clear: It could be a long, long year for the line of contenders stacked up behind the ATP big four, while the tripod on which the WTA Tour is balanced, consisting of Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, may be a little shaky, and it could tip over.

Let's look at the men first. Once again, we had no surprise Grand Slam finalist -- heck, we didn't even have what was once the the familiar "surprise semifinalist." David Ferrer, Rafael Nadal's replacement as the No. 4 seed at the Australian Open, may not have been as formidable an opponent for Novak Djokovic in the upper half of the draw, but Ferrer put the hammer down almost as authoritatively as Nadal usually does on anyone who might have had designs on his final four berth.

Roger Federer, seeded No. 2, was theoretically upset by the No. 3 seed, losing finalist Andy Murray. But the Mighty Fed was more convincing in his sprint to the semis than all but the player who beat him. The only man among the elite big three who was truly endangered in the runup to the semis was the top seed and, ultimately, champion, Djokovic. He had a five-set close call against Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round.

As for the other top players -- it seems as though it has been unchanged for a geological age -- the only one who seems to be making perceptible progress is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who gave Federer trouble but faded near the end of their five-setter in the quarterfinals. But Tsonga is improving incrementally, and the full impact of his coaching alliance with Roger Rasheed has yet to be felt.

In fact, the big four minus Rafa contributed the most resonant of the storylines that are likely to play out in the coming months. And that was Murray's hard-won victory over Federer in the semis. Federer's tournaments these days really begin in the quarterfinals, and he has struggled in those last rounds. He has won only one major since the 2010 Australian Open -- at Wimbledon last July. He has been in only one other final in that same span.

It would be disrespectful to rule out the all-time Grand Slam champ Federer as long as he's able to walk out there and swing the stick, especially at Wimbledon. But it seems that Djokovic and Murray are putting a little distance between themselves and the rest of the pack, although Nadal may have a lot to say about that by the time the French Open is in full swing.

One of the high points so easily overlooked in the hubbub over Djokovic, Federer and Murray was the doubles performance by the Bryan brothers, who established a new Grand Slam mark with 13 titles -- and counting. And the low point for many was the sight of Brian Baker leaving the court in a wheelchair after tearing up his knee, a mere eight months into a comeback that remains one of the most inspirational -- and unlikely -- stories of our time.

The women produced a much less predictable tournament than the men. The steadiest hand was that of Azarenka, who successfully defended the first Grand Slam title she earned, and that's no small feat. She also managed to hang on to the No. 1 ranking by virtue of her three-set win over Li Na. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't without controversy, but Azarenka's trials also underscored the volatility in the WTA these days.

The result most emblematic of the state of the WTA was the failure of No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova, who was just crushing anyone in her path -- until she was crushed by a resurgent Li.

Many of the usual suspects of yesterday -- Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur, Ana Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, all Grand Slam champions or former No. 1s -- fell by the wayside. Agnieszka Radwanska, undefeated in sets as well as matches from the start of the year until the quarterfinals in Melbourne, donated her projected semifinal slot to Li.

The WTA draw also produced the only real breakout story of the tournament in Sloane Stephens, the 19-year-old American who stunned fans and pundits with her quarterfinal win over her friend and mentor, Serena Williams. If you were looking for stability, you had to go to the doubles. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci claimed the title; it was their third triumph at the past four majors. Watch out, Bob and Mike!

Given Serena Williams's performance in 2012 -- two major titles and a 58-4 record, including a perfect 7-0 against the top two women, Azarenka and Sharapova -- it looked as though she might make it a big one in the WTA for 2013. But along came Stephens to quash what had been a lively and realistic discussion about Serena's plans to go for a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Another ambitious champ has stepped into the breach to keep the idea of a Grand Slam alive, only this pro is of the other gender. Shortly after he manhandled Andy Murray in the four-set Australian Open final, Djokovic declared that he wants to complete his career Grand Slam in June in Paris, an accomplishment that also would leave him with two legs of a calendar year Grand Slam completed.

"I want to go all the way at [Roland Garros]," Djokovic said in his news conference after the final. "I went to the final last year and had a great match against Rafa, but he's always the favorite on that surface and he's the ultimate player to beat on clay. But I think if I continue on playing well, stay healthy, I can have a chance."