The names engraved on the honour’s board after the 2010 Australian Open may be familiar but the eventual winners aside, the year’s first Grand Slam suggested a changing of the guard may soon be upon us.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams lived up to their ranking as the best male and female tennis players on the planet, but for them, life at the top of the food chain is starting to get very competitive.
Federer won his fourth Australian title and his 16th Grand Slam by beating Andy Murray 6-3 6-4 7-6 (13-11) in the final. It was the second time Federer had beaten Murray in a major final, despite the Scot boasting a 6-4 career record heading into the match.
“I think his level is a lot more consistent in the slams,” Murray said of the champion. “Maybe in the other tournaments he tries a few more things out. But the shots that he hits are great all year round, they’re still great. You know, he just makes fewer unforced errors I think than he does the rest of the year.”
But at 28, Federer, the dad of twins, acknowledged he faced a new challenge in the shape of father time – the ages of the other three semi-finalists were 22 (Murray), 24 (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) and 21 (Marin Cilic), with five of the eight quarter-finalists aged 24 or younger.
“The question is, do I have it in my mind and in my legs,” Federer said. “That’s something I had to work extremely hard at. Now I feel like obviously I’m being pushed a great deal by the new generation coming up.
“I always feel sort of tennis changes sort of every five years. Because when I came on tour, matches were played very differently. It was more of a bluff game, guys serving well, but there was always a weakness you could go to.
“Today that doesn’t exist anymore. I think that’s also thanks to guys like Murray. They’ve made me a better player, because I think this has been one of my finest performances, you know, in a long time, or maybe forever.”
Injury forced last year’s champion Rafael Nadal to retire during his quarter-final with Murray. The player many considered the heir apparent to Federer’s crown has not beaten a top-10 player since May last year and now Murray, along with US Open champion Juan-Martin Del Potro, leads the serious challenge to Federer’s dominance.
However, Federer, who droped just two sets on his way to the title, may not be ready to go quietly into the night just yet. When the Swiss offered Murray a piece of advice in his post-final press conference, it was something all his challengers would do well to heed.
“It’s not an easy thing to do to win your first Grand Slam, he said. “That’s not mental, you know, trying to screw with his head. It’s just a tough thing. The next one is not gonna get any easier. But his [Murray’s] game is so good that I’m convinced he will win one. And I thought he did really well tonight because conditions were tough. I think I played a great match. So someone’s got to win, and I’m happy it was me.”
In the women’s draw, Serena Williams claimed her fifth Australian Open and the 12th major title of her career to draw level with Billie Jean King. “I feel really special that I was able to tie Billie Jean King. Because in my heart of hearts, I’ve been going for it and I haven’t been able to quite achieve it. Billie Jean is a really big mentor of mine. She was a Fed Cup coach at one time, which was super cool. We had so much fun. She even visited me before the match.”
Serena beat Justine Henin 6-4 3-6 6-2 in two hours and seven minutes. Henin may not have equalled compatriot Kim Clijsters, who won the US Open in her first Grand Slam back from retirement, but ominously for her opponents, the 27-year-old said she had a room for improvement.
“It’s been a long time. I haven’t been in this situation. Everything went pretty fast in the last four weeks, so it wasn’t that easy for me to deal with. So I haven’t been in my best, of course. I kept fighting a lot.”
Henin’s return alongside Clijsters puts Belgium back on the tennis map, and the Australian Open established another country, not normally associated with tennis, as a super power: China.
Na Li and Jie Zheng both reached the semi-finals, the first time two Chinese tennis players advanced to the last four of of Grand Slam. “I think it’s important because you have a lot of people watch television for the semi-final. I think that will give junior players belief they also can do like this one.” Jie said after losing her semi-final to Henin 6-1, 6-0.
There were few surprises elsewhere in the tournament, although the biggest upset belonged to Maria Kirilenko, who opened the tournament by defeating 2008 champion and 14th seed Maria Sharapova in the first round. Kirilenko then accounted for Dinara Safina in the fourth round before she lost to Jie in the quarter-finals.
Elsewhere, Bob and Mike Bryan beat Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic in the men’s doubles final, the Williams sisters claimed the ladies doubles crown by beating Cara Black and Lisel Huber while Black paired with Leander Paes to claim the mixed doubles over Ekaterina Makarova and Jaroslav Levinský.