As Murray’s final feeble forehand faded into the net, our thoughts wasted little time in turning towards the events that unfolded at the season’s first major.  We review the most dazzling success stories, the most courageous overachievers, and the most tepid underachievers of the 2011 Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 31, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Djokovic:  Rarely forced to summon his finest tennis in the final, the third seed earned his second Slam title not only with his celebrated groundstroke offense but also with his often overlooked defense.  Frustrating the easily frustrated Scot, Djokovic not only tracked down potential point-ending shots but placed them in awkward positions that restored the rally to equilibrium.  Before the second straight anticlimactic final in Melbourne, however, the Serb had relied upon more familiar weapons and his enhanced serve to overwhelm Federer in a semifinal less competitive than the score suggested.  A round before that victory, Djokovic cruised past the ball-bruising Berdych with superior athleticism and versatility.  Gliding among his manifold talents as smoothly as a figure skater, the 2011 men’s champion stayed calmly confident throughout a fortnight that revealed his renewed self-belief.  Has he finally learned how to sharpen his focus at crucial moments?  Or was it merely the presence of Ivanovic in his box that lifted his morale?  We’ll find out on the North American hard courts that mirror his balanced style so well.  A+

Clijsters:  Whereas a Williams or an Henin can race effortlessly past their opponents, the four-time Slam champion has honed a meticulously constructed game perhaps more complete than any of her peers.   Absent from her arsenal during her first career, though, was the steely determination that defined the rivals who snatched Slam trophies while she meekly raised runner-up plates.  Still far from savage in her comeback, Clijsters nevertheless has found the mature poise to outlast adversity.  This trait emerged when she overcame unsteady sets against Cornet, Makarova, and Radwanska to comfortably ease through tiebreaks.  It emerged again when she raised her level several notches against a far more formidable Zvonareva in the semifinals.  But it emerged most strikingly when she patiently outlasted a surging Li after dropping the first set and struggling to hold serve in the second.  Gradually quelling the doubts that besieged her, this once fragile competitor navigated to a victory less gorgeous than gritty.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam, she might reconsider her retirement plans if these triumphs continue.   A

Li:  Shouldering the expectations of a nation with aplomb, the Chinese veteran dispatched her first five opponents with an efficiency that evoked a much more fabled champion.  When she confronted world #1 Wozniacki, Li delicately toed the line between exploiting opportunities to launch a swift strike and gradually maneuvering the Dane out of position.  After she seized the momentum late in the second set, she refused to relinquish it to an adversary renowned for her resilience.  Remarkably unflustered by the magnitude of the occasion, the Chinese star edged relentlessly towards her historic, hard-earned victory.  Li then dropped the first eight points of the final but clawed her way into the contest one penetrating groundstroke at a time.  Through the first set and a half, she comprehensively outplayed the three-time US Open champion before the nerves that she had suppressed for so long finally surfaced in a few tentative overheads and swing volleys.  Unless injury intervenes, one suspects that a second opportunity might not elude her.   A

Murray:  Nestled in a comfortable section of the draw, the two-time finalist enjoyed a relatively tranquil route through the first four rounds.  Despite a third-set lapse against Dolgopolov, Murray conquered the sort of bold shot-maker who has troubled him at previous hard-court majors.  Less convincing against Ferrer, Murray nevertheless relied upon his seamless movement and court coverage to outlast the Spaniard who lacked the ability to overpower him.  After Murray escaped an epic opening service game in the final, we expected him to draw confidence from the reprieve.  Instead, one poor game at 4-5 in the first set derailed him for good, leading to a slovenly comedy of errors in which even a bemused Djokovic participated at times.  While the first six rounds illustrated Murray’s vast reservoir of talent, the seventh round demonstrated his urgent need to dispel the negativity that continues to undermine his potential.  Flinging away an opportunity to win his first major without defeating either Federer or Nadal, he may struggle to recover from a Sunday debacle even more dismal than his defeat here last year.   A-

Wozniacki:  Unlike so many Slam-less #1s before her, the Dane marched resolutely through a moderately imposing section of the draw.  Disproving those who believed that she would wilt under the intensified scrutiny, Wozniacki secured the top ranking after Melbourne with a comeback quarterfinal victory over Schiavone.  That collision represented a triumph for her conservative, often criticized style against one of the most imaginative shot-makers in the draw, who acquitted herself impressively despite her starring role in the next entry on this list.  And one should recognize that Wozniacki came within a point of victory before Li Na snatched a finals berth away from her.  While playing percentages still has not won the Dane a major, it will propel her deep into most important draws.  But the 20-year-old may find her precocious maturity tested by the disappointment of failing to convert a match point in a Slam semifinal.  A-

Francesca Schiavone Francesca Schiavone of Italy is congratulated after the fourth round match by Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during day seven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

4:44:  Just two majors after Isner-Mahut, Kuznetsova and Schiavone collaborated on a labyrinthine encounter that featured 50 break points, nearly 500 serves, and a third set longer than several five-set matches at this year’s Australian Open.  Vindicating the equal prize money system, this duo managed to maintain their scintillating all-court tennis as day turned to dusk while spectators  stayed transfixed by the suspense.  Buoyed by her upset over Henin a round earlier, Kuznetsova showed flashes of her Slam-winning form as she carved out six match points, only to watch the Italian methodically erase one after the next.  The Russian then resisted valiantly when Schiavone twice failed to serve out the match before rallying from a 0-30 deficit to capitalize on her third opportunity.  Unlike the Isner-Mahut exercise in futility, these long-time rivals accompanied their gaudy scoreline with engaging rallies that showcased a variety of talents.  One nearly forgot to watch the clock.  A-

Zvonareva:  Like Wozniacki, she largely vindicated her elevated stature by reaching the semifinals, although the world #2 looked less convincing than the Dane for much of the fortnight.  Extended to a third set by Bojana Jovanovski in the second round, she regrouped to ease past three consecutive Czech lefties (see below).  But then she offered little meaningful resistance to Clijsters after a horrifically shanked smash prevented her from reaching 4-4 in the first set.  A solid player with no glaring flaws, Zvonareva should continue to dominate the journeywomen of the WTA, but she seems to lack the self-belief to break through at a major.  Nevertheless, her meltdowns clearly have grown both less frequent and less extreme, suggesting that she will contend for the top non-majors.  A-/B+

Ferrer:   A point and a set away from a debut Slam final, the Spaniard profited from the injury incurred by Nadal early in the quarterfinal.  On the other hand, he demonstrated his underestimated hard-court prowess before that stage with a series of resounding victories.  Also impressive was his ability to blunt the raw power of Milos Raonic, conceding just a dozen unforced errors across four sets.  Although his tiebreaks against Murray disappointed, he challenged the Scot more vigorously than one might have expected considering the gulf between them in talent and accomplishments.  A-/B+

German women:  Reaching her first career Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic extended the momentum of her second-week appearance at last year’s US Open.  Handed a walkover by Venus, she profited from a lackadaisical performance by Sharapova but deserves credit for withstanding the Russian’s predictable eleventh-hour surge.  Armed with a similarly combative attitude and fierce groundstrokes, Julia Goerges upset top-20 resident Kanepi in the second round before collaborating with Sharapova on one of the tournament’s most scintillating exercises in unvarnished baseline might.  Will they eventually restore their country to the limelight in a sport where it once stood tall?  B+

Dolgopolov:  We found much to appreciate in his insouciant swagger and audacious ball-striking, although his technique and focus require some refinement.  After consecutive five-set victories over Tsonga and Soderling, he sank his teeth into a quarterfinal against Murray with admirable confidence.  Even if his shot selection remains a bit puzzling at times, he should strike fear into the leading contenders on fast hard courts where he needs to hit fewer winners in each rally.  His peers may wish that they shared his effortless serve and a court coverage surprisingly comprehensive for an offense-oriented player.  B+

Radwanska:  Seemingly doomed against Date in her opener, the Pole climbed out of a double-break deficit in the final set and later would save two match points before outlasting Peng.  A canny counterpuncher with almost no first-strike power, Radwanska never will win a major but has earned her return to the top 10 with one of the most distinctive and nuanced games in the WTA.  Additional credit for reaching the quarterfinals of a major from which she tentatively had withdrawn last fall.  B+

WTA lefties:  Since virtually all of the last decade’s Slam champions have swung with their right hand, one found the first-week success of the southpaws surprising and a bit refreshing.  Running aground on the shoals of Zvonareva, the Czech lefties Benesova and Kvitova combined to dispatch no fewer than four seeded players, while their compatriot Safarova held set points against the world #2 in the second round.  The most likely to leave an impact on the WTA, Kvitova relied upon a versatile forehand and a harsh combative energy to topple Stosur and Pennetta.  And one should not forget the exploits of Russian lefty Makarova, generally considered a doubles specialist.  Before stretching Clijsters into a first-set tiebreak, she won two final sets against Ivanovic and Petova that totaled 32 games.  B+

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland wipes his face with a towel in his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day eleven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Federer:  Beginning another Slam semifinal streak, the defending champion oscillated between the divine and the mortal realms throughout the first week.  Two rounds after he squandered a two-set lead to Simon in a draining, nerve-jangling encounter, Federer needlessly tossed away a set to the unprepossessing Robredo.  Dominant against Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, he shifted from predator to prey in his semifinal against Djokovic.  Had he found a way to win a second set in which he led 5-2, that encounter could have veered onto an entirely different trajectory.  At that stage, however, Federer proceeded to lose eight of the next nine games, a sin that he never would have committed in his prime.  Having heard similar statements after a similar loss here three years ago, we hesitate to proclaim the end of the Federer era, but for the first time since 2003 he holds none of the major titles.  B+/B

Berdych:  Having reached the final two majors ago and crashed out in the first round one major ago, the enigmatic Czech struck a balance between those two extremes in a quarterfinal run that included a victory over Verdasco.  Utterly unable to disturb Djokovic in the quarterfinals, though, he won just eight games from the eventual champion and remains vulnerable to anyone who can expose his monochromatic style.  The draw will need to unfold in his favor in order for him to win a major.  B+/B

Wawrinka:  Jettisoning his wife and child in order to extract as much as he could from his career, the Swiss #2 looked stronger than the Swiss #1 during a first week in which he did not drop a set to Monfils or Roddick.  Buttressed by pugnacious coach Peter Lundgren, the gentle Wawrinka seemed on the verge of igniting an inner fire.  Then he played the Swiss #1 and wilted again, winning just seven games.  B

Azarenka:  In our 2011 preview, we predicted that the Belarussian would rebound from a wildly erratic 2010 campaign.  From one perspective, reaching the second week of a major constituted a small step forward from her premature Slam losses last year.  From the other perspective, she should have found a way to muster more than perfunctory resistance to Li Na, an opponent whom Azarenka had severely tested and even defeated in the past.  Counterbalancing her outstanding backhand, footwork, and movement, her forehand disintegrates more readily than it once did, and her serve remains more a liability more often than a weapon.  B

Soderling:  Never having won consecutive matches the season’s first major, the Swede finally reached the second week  and appeared to struggle with a foot injury during his five-set loss to Dolgopolov.  While his embarrassingly error-strewn performance that day may have stemmed from the ailment, we expected more determination and less listlessness from a player who had dominated the Brisbane field and just captured the #4 ranking from Murray.  Soderling retains that status after the tournament, but the Scot has effectively regained fourth place in the ATP food chain for the moment.  B/B-

Sharapova:  Easily surpassing her abysmal performance here in 2010, the 2008 champion showed glimpses of her once-majestic form in the second set against Razzano and the last two sets against Goerges.  Defeated for the first time in a Slam night session, however, she never quite arrived on the court against Petkovic until she trailed by a set and 5-1.  Although (as Petkovic discovered) she remains a difficult foe to finish, her chances of winning seven straight matches at a major in the near future seem remote at best.  Can new coach Thomas Hogstedt rekindle the focus and intensity in a competitor who now seems sporadically disinterested?  B/B-

Samantha Stosur Samantha Stosur of Australia serves in her third round match against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Stosur:  With the eyes of Australia upon her, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist crumbled embarrassingly against Kvitova in a Rod Laver night session.  Unable to sustain multiple leads in the first set, Stosur failed to test the Czech lefty thereafter and continues to struggle with self-belief.  We may not find out until the clay season whether this congenial veteran will stagnate or continue to climb.  B-

Roddick:  A principal reason why no Americans reached the quarterfinals at the season’s first major, he may have found himself fortunate to escape Robin Haase in the second round, when the Dutchman struggled with an ankle injury.  No such deus ex machina descended to save Roddick in the fourth round, though, when Wawrinka routinely menaced his serve and regularly outhit him from the baseline.  Unable to win as many points on his first serve as he once could, the American has not quite regained his energy after a bout of mono last year.  But at least he didn’t flame out in the opening round like the frustrating Querrey.  B-

Davydenko:  What a difference a year and a wrist injury make.  Last year, commentators labeled him a legitimate contender for the Melbourne crown.  After a first-round defeat at this year’s Australian Open, the Russian looks ready to recede into obscurity as his ranking dips outside the top 30.  C

Jankovic:  Still a threat on clay and the slowest hard courts, the Serb has a losing record since Wimbledon and must reverse her fortunes dramatically in order to mount a somewhat decent title defense at Indian Wells.  Always ill, injured, or exhausted, she may spend the rest of her career paying for her foolishly workaholic schedule during her peak.  C

Rafael Nadal - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Nadal:  At least for now, Rod Laver remains the only men’s player who has won four consecutive majors in the Open era.  Entering the tournament depleted by illness and an overextended offseason, Nadal nevertheless accelerated steadily through the first four rounds and seemed on the verge of launching  yet another second-week surge.   Rivals and fans alike must wonder what might have happened had his ever-beleaguered body not betrayed him as it did here in 2010.  Incomplete

Milos Raonic:  Charging out of nowhere through the qualifying draw, he won as many matches as did the eventual champions, conquered US Open semifinalist Youzhny, and took a set from a top-10 opponent (Ferrer).  Can this virtual unknown consolidate that success, or will he become the Gilles Muller of Melbourne?   Visitor Permit

Ivanovic:  Undone as much by an untimely abdominal injury as an inspired Makarova, the 2008 finalist competed doggedly throughout an epic first-round defeat far more creditable than last year’s second-round fiasco.  Having not reached a Slam quarterfinal in three years, she nevertheless showed sufficient self-belief to battle deep into the third set and save five match points.  If Ivanovic can restore her health, this setback should not derail her for long.  Guarded optimism still seems appropriate for Ana, although she must capitalize upon the impetus of her  impressive fall campaign before it dissipates.   Temporary leave of absence

Venus:  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men might not be able to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again after accumulating injuries forced her first career retirement at a major.  We have not yet penned her tennis obituary, but we have compiled preliminary notes.  Permanent leave of absence?

Henin:  Some loved her.  Others hated her.  Everyone will miss her.  Nobody should miss our retrospective article on her, coming soon in Australia Tennis Magazine.    Honorary degree

***

Still a trifle knackered from the first Slam of the season, we return by the end of the week with a Fed Cup preview of all World Group and at least some World Group II ties.  Until then, we wave a fond farewell to Melbourne!

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

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