Handing out grades for the Aussie Open - NBC Sports

Handing out grades for the Aussie Open
American teen Stephens proves she has the game to hang with the best
AFP - Getty Images
While she probably should have lost to Serena, and she wasn't quite ready for Vika, you could see that 19-year-old Sloane Stephens has the power and speed to stay with them
January 28, 2013, 3:01 pm

Unlike last year, the 2013 Australian Open didn't have an ending for the ages. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The upside of last night's anti-climactic four-set final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray is that it spared us another round of chatter and pomp about how lucky we are to be living in this most golden of all possible golden eras.

While the men's final is unlikely to be talked about much in the years to come, this was still a worthy two weeks in Oz. Any tournament that gives us an immediate candidate for best match of the year (Djokovic vs. Wawrinka), most loathed match of the year (Monfils-Simon), and breakthrough moment of the year (Sloane Stephens over Serena Williams) is worth remembering.

Let's start with some snap grades. The usual caveat applies for these pieces: I don't cover everyone. If a player is missing whom you don't think should be missing, go ahead and give your own assessment of him or her in the comments.

*****

Novak Djokovic
It's telling that the race on the men's side is now for No. 2. After Djokovic's win here, it's a given who is No. 1. Over the fortnight, he showed off all of the reasons why. He did his back-to-the-wall thing against Wawrinka. He put on an exhibition of everything in his repertoire against Ferrer. And he finished by beating Andy Murray, perhaps his closest competition at the moment, by working through an early funk and finding his range midway.

Djokovic comes out of Melbourne at a new career peak, and joins Boris Becker, among others, with six career Slams. At the moment, there's no ceiling in sight. A+

Victoria Azarenka
To condemn her, you need to believe that she either faked or exaggerated her "locked rib" for the doctor during her semifinal. That's not impossible, but I think her physical discomfort was real. What I didn't like was that Azarenka believed that walking away for 10 minutes before her opponent served to stay in a Grand Slam semi, and right after she herself had blown five match points, "wasn't a big deal." Hopefully she'll learn from the (overheated) reaction. Vika wondered why she didn't get "the benefit of the doubt" after her win over Stephens, and she probably should have from the press, once she explained herself. But a lot of tennis fans consider her most famous attribute, her unnecessarily long grunt, to be a form of gamesmanship. They might suspect there's more where that came from.

That said, Azarenka's performance in the final was worthy of a champion and a No. 1. It was as individual-i.e. done with virtually no help-as this individual sport gets. (I considered docking her another half grade for foisting RedFoo on us, but she's been through enough already.) A

Andy Murray
He didn't win, but he took a step forward with his strong and steady victory over Federer in the semifinals, his first over him at a Slam. Murray's coach, Ivan Lendl, says that despite the loss, Muzz is on the upswing. I think he's right. The next steps are (a) keep the momentum going through the spring, which has been tough for him after past Aussie Open defeats; and (b) find a way to attack and hurt Nole on courts like these. A

Li Na
The runner-up, who was tighter than her opponent when it counted in the final, comes away a winner as well. Her spills, her tears, her excellent play, and most of all the strength behind her smile when it was all over, reminded us that tennis is a game. A heartbreaking game, but a game nonetheless. She hasn't crossed the mental Rubicon into serenity and total confidence yet, but this was a tournament to build on. A

Sloane Stephens
We'll see if the future has indeed arrived; Sloane's rise is sure to have more ups and downs along the way. While she probably should have lost to Serena, and she wasn't quite ready for Vika, you could see that the 19-year-old has the power and speed to stay with them-that's the key at this point. And while she already seems to know exactly what to say to the press, that doesn't rob her of any of her charm, or any of the star power that the world is waiting to exploit. If she can learn a puncher's, rather a counter-puncher's, mentality, Grand Slam titles could be hers. A-

Roger Federer
Do the "peRFect Roger" signs and glossy Rolex commercials do him any favors? In his loss, and his words, to Murray, Federer was less of a perfect gentleman than he was a fiercely competitive human being and athlete-which is what, hagiographic ad campaigns aside, he's always been. Over the two weeks, Federer excelled at putting the kids (Tomic and Raonic) to bed, but in the end another of his younger rivals got the better of him at a Slam for the first time. All in all, Federer looked very good, and he gave us two of the most thrilling moments in the tournament, his soaring comeback in the second-set tiebreaker against Tomic, and his hellbent break of Murray when he served for the match in the fourth set of their semifinal. Federer seemed less down after this loss than he was after his U.S. Open defeat to Tomas Berdych last fall. He's right to leave Oz feeling good about the rest of the year. But even he can't "f-----in' stop" time. A-

Andre Agassi
It looked like he was talking everyone's ear off during the final, but AA, as usual, had interesting things to say to the press Down Under. He talked doping, told us to get off Vika's back, picked Djokovic to win the final, and had an interesting assessment of Tomic (he "plays down" to his opponent's level, according to Andre). Why, again, is Agassi not in a commentary booth somewhere? A-

Sam Smith
Smith, a former player from the U.K., does color commentary for the women's matches on Australia's Channel 7. She became semi-famous for asking the post-match question that Azarenka apparently couldn't understand (it didn't seem all that ambiguous to me). I mention her here because, in her knowledge and love for the game, Smith is sort of a British version of Mary Carillo. Now that ESPN and Carillo have parted ways, she could fill her old spot nicely. A-

David Ferrer
He's as impressive as everyone says, but watching him (attempt to) play Djokovic in the semifinals really made me want to see Rafael Nadal back on a court again. For two weeks, Ferrer told us that he doesn't belong in the Big 4. Now we know why. B+

Bernard Tomic
Bernie gave his career what it needed, a reboot. Now the real work, and hopefully progress, begins. B+

Gael Monfils
He's exasperating, an unfulfilled talent, and, worst of all, a shameful waste of star quality. But the sport is better with him in it. With music in my headphones, I found his much-maligned push-fest with Gilles Simon soothing, not boring. B+

Jamie Hampton
Nerves aside, this young American can smack the ball with anyone; including, as she showed in Melbourne, Azarenka. B+

Madison Keys
She has the athleticism and hitting skills of a young Venus, but not her sense of destiny. We'll see if it matters. B+

Agnieszka Radwanska
Does she care more about Melbourne than she does Sydney or Auckland or any other random event on the calendar? It didn't sound like it after her quarterfinal loss here. I love to watch her play, but wish I could see her do it for longer at the majors. B-

Nicolas Almagro
Painfully, he couldn't close out Ferrer in the quarters. Did you really think he would? B-

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Nice job on the court, not so nice off of it. With new coach Roger Rasheed in his corner, there may be a real reason to believe in Jo's improvement this year. He was part of a scintillating quarterfinal with Federer. Then, for some reason, he told the media that "girls" are "more unstable" because of "hormones," and that men "don't have these bad things, so we are physically in good shape every time and you are not."

I give you Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, paragon of tennis stability. C-



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