Commentary

Serena, Novak, Rafa on a roller coaster

The Aussie Open sets sail several questions and few answers for Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, writes Bonnie D. Ford.

Originally Published: February 3, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- We've just concluded two weeks of what you might call Australian rules tennis. Only those who were fit and in top-notch psychological shape prospered in the literal and figurative crucible of the first Grand Slam of 2009.

Newly crowned champion Rafael Nadal outgutted Roger Federer on hard court, the last frontier of their rivalry. Serena Williams' Slam count clicked over into double digits, with no end in sight, and she and sister Venus added a doubles title for good measure. The Bryan brothers won their first back-to-back Slam titles in a while to give them a total of seven and inched ever closer to the record of 11 set by iconic Aussies Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge.

Here are a few random, leftover observations from what was a great kickoff to an intriguing season.

The ghost of Serena past

How does Serena Williams' game compare to this time seven years ago, when she began the rampage that brought her the non-calendar-year sweep of the majors henceforth known as the Serena Slam?

"I think I'm a little bit of a better player," Williams told a small group of reporters three hours after her crisp finals win over Dinara Safina, her voice slightly hoarse from a crowded interview schedule. "I have more of an all-around game. I actually have a slice, and I volley now. I didn't volley that much before, I don't think. I don't remember. I wouldn't necessarily want to play me in 2003 or 2002, but nonetheless, I'm better."

Well said, but the difference between Serena v.2009 and Serena v.2002 is even simpler: She has had the experience of winning on every surface. Back then, too, more players in the top 10 were capable of giving her a run for her money, notably Justine Henin and Jennifer Capriati.

Now, having won the hard-court Slams back to back, Williams is halfway to her second Serena Slam, with her two biggest obstacles ahead. The French Open is the lone Slam she has won "only" once, a relative statement that shows just how extraordinary her career has been. Clay neutralizes some of Williams' power, and she's still a little off-put by the cool reception she gets from French crowds. "I just have to get over it," she said. "Last year, I put way too much pressure on myself. I couldn't even hit an overhead in my match, I was so tight."

Williams might feel more at home in Paris now that she owns an apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower in the upscale 7th arrondissement. She loves the city, its fashion and vibe.

Sister Venus is Williams' chief problem at Wimbledon, and Serena expressed optimism. "I know I can win," she said confidently.

Retirement account

Novak Djokovic's most recent aborted landing in a big match -- he retired trailing 2-1 in the fourth set of his quarterfinal against Andy Roddick -- accelerates his drift in a disturbing direction. To use a basketball metaphor, Djokovic might not have any more fouls to give. Few have taken him to task publicly, but widening doubt about Djokovic's competitive staying power is being expressed privately.

It's one thing if a player sprains an ankle or pulls a muscle. Retiring in the heat with a non-crippling case of cramps, as Djokovic did, could mean a few things: (a) He still hasn't found the right way to prepare his body for extreme conditions, (b) he lacks the mental strength to battle through them, (c) he doesn't want to lose on the court. Or all of the aforementioned.

Here's Djokovic's response to the initial question in his news conference: "Well, the main reason is cramping and soreness in the whole body. I think the people could see that I was struggling with movement. I couldn't serve the way I served in the first two sets. That third set I just started dropping 20, 30 kilometers per hour first serve. Obviously wasn't … it was much easier for him to return. He saw that longer rallies are not comfortable for me at that point, so he was using it wisely."

Yes, Djokovic had played a long and late match in the previous round, and yes, there was record-breaking heat in Melbourne last week. We can't read his mind, but his comments leave behind the perception that he made a judgment call instead of truly being unable to continue.

Among other things, it's discourteous to deny an opponent the chance to play out a win he or she deserves, unless it's absolutely necessary. But the most important consequence of all this is for Djokovic himself. All great players -- a group he clearly aspires to join -- have the ability to push themselves beyond ordinary limits when the occasion calls for it, and are admired for this. Djokovic needs to find a way to solve the mind-over-matter equation. Otherwise, the person he'll wind up cheating is himself.

Reporting for duty

Nadal has been the epitome of an endurance player in tennis for a while, but he's just starting to deal with what athletes in pure endurance sports have been coping with for a long time -- the hassles that go along with being part of the solution in anti-doping efforts.

Nadal's gripes about the strictures of the so-called whereabouts system in drug testing were widely publicized last week. Under the World Anti-Doping Agency code, athletes use an online database to provide authorities with a one-hour-a-day window during which they can be found for out-of-competition testing.

Frequency of testing in tennis is just beginning to catch up with sports such as swimming and track, and its numbers would look puny compared to cycling. There's no doubt the system is an intrusion that sometimes results in unfortunate invasions of personal space, including one infamous incident last year when testers showed up at a crematorium where a Belgian cyclist was making funeral arrangements for his infant son. But there's a strong consensus worldwide for more unannounced and targeted testing (as opposed to, say, a routine test after a Grand Slam final), and the database is the foundation for that philosophy.

Any successful athlete will have to accept this as part of the job, the flip side of making millions of dollars off competition that people want to believe is not enhanced. Venus Williams expressed that viewpoint after she and sister Serena won the Australian Open doubles title.

"We're both on the [WTA] player council," Williams said. "We all work through these issues. Obviously, we want integrity in tennis and in sports. So we think that drug testing is good for sports. That's really how we feel. Any details of that that may need to be worked out or that are a little bit confusing for the players, we continue to work on that as player council members."

When a reporter followed up by asking, "Has it been a challenge for you at any time?" Venus responded primly, "You really just take a cup," referring to actual sample donation, then laughed, tossed her unbound braids over one shoulder and exited the room. That sums it all up. Any real commitment to meaningful testing starts with being able to physically locate athletes. Tennis players are just going to have to man up (or woman up, as the case may be) like everybody else.

Parting shot

"If it was me, I'd be in a body bag." -- Bob Bryan, commenting on Nadal's prospects for recovery after a five-hour, 14-minute semifinal against Fernando Verdasco.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.