I didn’t expect another Australian Open victory for Roger Federer to be as inspiring as it was tonight. After all, it was his opponent, Andy Murray, Great Britain’s Great Hope, who had so much at stake: the chance to become his country’s first men’s major singles champion in 74 years. Federer had already achieved the career Grand Slam (at last year’s French), the all-time major singles titles record (at last year’s Wimbledon), and the unofficial “Greatest Of All Time” designation (bestowed upon him by more than one tennis authority). Where would be the drama in witnessing him extend a record he already holds?
But the championship, and its aftermath, were in fact dramatic. It may feel familiar when Federer plays brilliantly in a Grand Slam final, but it’s a familiar thrill. Tonight his genius was in full effect: He served well, retrieved well, cracked dazzling forehands, rifled impossibly-angled backhands and, in a stirring third-set tiebreaker, withstood five set points for Murray before converting championship point on his third try.
The trophy ceremony that followed did not provide the iconic image Rafael Nadal gave us last year, when the Spaniard draped a companionable, consoling arm around a crushed and weeping Federer. But this year’s edition was plenty poignant. The enormously talented Murray, still without the Grand Slam title he so ardently covets, was disconsolate—his lower lip trembling, his eyes filled with tears. In the past, the Scotsman has come across, off the court, as the world’s stodgiest 22-year-old—likeable but ornery, stoic and unexcitable, something of a curmudgeon. Tonight, he was clearly shattered, and it was moving to see him so moved, his tears rendering him unable to finish his runner-up’s speech.
“In a way it was hard to watch, but at the same time I like seeing players who care for the game,” Federer said later about Murray’s emotional display. “It’s nice to see.” Federer also credited the Scotsman’s play with raising him tonight to a level he has achieved only rarely during his remarkable 16-Slam run. “Guys like Murray—they’ve made me a better player, because I think this has been one of my finest performances in a long time, or maybe forever.”
I’m sorry to downshift so abruptly from Federer’s profound observations, but I wanted to wrap up this year’s blog with a few of my favorite quotes from the tournament:
Not thrilled with the linesman:
Andy Roddick, on the tumble he took during his first-round match:
“I ran into one of those immovable objects called a referee. … Normally they see a player running full speed, they decide to at least move or catch the player. You know, I felt like he was trying out for WWE or something, just letting me go.”
Is the Ivy League degree a requirement for that job?
Roddick, on who takes care of his dog when he’s on the road:
“Sometimes when I leave, the dog wants to stay in Austin, because it just tells us, and my friend Neal Boban, who graduated from Dartmouth, takes care of it, takes it out thrice daily, emails us updates.”
Um, thanks, I think:
James Blake, talking about John Isner:
“He’s such a good kid. We give him a hard time for saying a few stupid things, but he’s actually pretty bright.”
She knows how to hydrate:
Maria Kirilenko, when asked if she would celebrate her 23rd birthday with champagne:
“No, I don't want to get drunk before my next match.”
Did you buy anything there?
Andy Roddick, on Marin Cilic:
“He literally sets up shop right behind the baseline and isn’t going to be moved.”
No love lost:
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, when asked about his ailing quarterfinal opponent Novak Djokovic:
When did you first realize he had a problem?
Tsonga: Five years ago.
That’s one way to dodge the question:
Did you resent having to play qualifying?
Yanina Wickmayer: “What does ‘resent’ mean?”
Serena Williams, on hearing comments from the crowd during the final:
“I think everyone was for Justine tonight. This one guy was like, ‘You can beat her, Justine, she’s not that good.’ I looked at that guy and I was like, you don’t know me. And I think I won all the games after that. Because that’s just totally rude.”
Foreign language appreciation:
Serena, on Justine Henin:
“She says ‘Allez’ a lot, so I think it’s kind of fun.
Mind on the match?
Serena, on what she was thinking when she was down a set and 4-0 versus Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals:
“If I lose today, and I don’t win in doubles, I think I can catch a flight on Friday.”
And some awards:
THE ‘MAKING MOUNTAINS OUT OF MOLEHILLS’ AWARD:
Sam Querrey, when pressed on his claim he had worked out every day of the off-season:
Even on Christmas day?
Querrey: On Christmas day I went for a run. I ran up a mountain.
A mountain? Where?
Querrey: Near my aunt’s house in Marin County.
A mountain in Marin County?
Querrey: Well, really, I ran up a hill in her neighborhood.
ACHIEVEMENTS IN SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
Donald Young, on dealing with the rowdy pro-Lleyton Hewitt crowd in Rod Laver Arena during their second-round match:
“You just gotta kinda imagine they’re cheering for you, even though obviously you know your name’s not Lleyton or Hewitt, and you know you’re not Australian.”
THE ‘WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS PIERRE-YVES’ AWARD
Justine Henin, when questioned about the diamond ring she’s sporting on her left hand:
“Well, it’s not coming from a lover, if that’s the question. It’s a gift from a friend.”
THE BLUNT PRAGMATISM AWARD
Roddick, on the injury he suffered in the quarterfinals:
“Obviously anytime there’s something with an arm, a shoulder, numbness with your fingers, I’m going to be a little bit concerned. My arm is pretty much my livelihood.”
THE SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE AWARD
Maria Sharapova, who doned $10,000 to the Haiti relief fund, on her first-round loss:
“There are many worse situations in life. There are people that don’t even know what a tennis match is in the world.”
THE OFF-THE-CUFF ELOQUENCE AWARD
Roger Federer, on whether he thinks about his legacy:
“I try to be good for the game, leave it better off than when I arrived, even though that’s hard. I’m very thankful to the legends of the game who created this great platform for us.”
THE UNDERSTATEMENT AWARD
Federer, trying to explain how he’s been so successful in Slams:
“You know, I’m definitely a very talented player.”
What a difference a year makes. In 2009, the wretched women’s championship was effectively over by the time the late arrivers had shuffled into Rod Laver Arena on the first changeover. In a deflating final that saw Serena Williams annihilate a hopeless, helpless and hapless Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-3, very few points, let alone games, were competitive. When Serena, inexplicably, thanked Safina for “putting on such a good show for women’s tennis” during the trophy ceremony, the unlucky Saturday night spectators groaned at the preposterousness of her remark: The painfully lopsided laugher of a final had lasted just 59 drama-free minutes.
Happily, this year’s ticketholders got their money’s worth. The up-and-down final saw world No. 1 and top seed Serena Williams conquer comeback queen Justine Henin in three tense sets. By the end of the opening game, in which Serena fought back from double break point down to, after four deuces, hold serve, it was clear that both players were in formidable form. And the first-rate tennis that was showcased over the next two hours was evidence not only of Williams’s and Henin’s physical gifts, but also of their mental fortitude.
Though she was playing in just her second tournament back from retirement, Henin looked like she’d never been away. Her adjusted serve is still a work in progress (she got only 50 percent of her first serves in), but she hung in all the baseline rallies with Serena, matching power with power. Henin’s one-handed backhand is as gorgeous as ever, and her forehand looked even more lethal than it had in 2007.
But more impressive than the fact that her tennis wasn’t negatively affected by her absence is the fact that she is still as much of a fighter as she was pre-retirement. Competing in her first Grand Slam final in two-and-a-half years, Henin didn’t appear to suffer any emotional lapses. She could have been forgiven for getting discouraged after the first set, in which she squandered two break points in the first game, another in the third game, and two more in the fifth before finally getting a break (to even the set) with Serena serving in the seventh. Henin was broken at 4-5 for that first set, and when she went down 15-40 in her first service game of the second, one got the sense that the match might be over in a hurry. Instead, the gritty Belgian gutted out a hold and then broke Serena at love to regain momentum and rouse the crowd, which was fully behind her the whole night.
As good as it is for the game to have Henin’s talent and tenacity back on center stage, it was Serena’s mettle that ultimately won her a fifth Australian Open title tonight. There’s no doubt that Serena is a superior player. But for all her weapons—the serve, the bludgeoned groundstrokes, the athleticism—her steely resolve may be her most important asset. Serena has established a stellar 12-3 record in Grand Slam finals largely because she has the ability to summon her best tennis when the match is on the line. Tonight, fighting a sore hamstring and facing an ardently pro-Henin crowd (and a fitter opponent), Serena still managed to bring her best tennis in the decisive points of the third set.
After Henin had reeled off 15 straight points, a run that started in the seventh game of the second set and lasted into the second game of the third, Serena was able to quell the momentum and reassert her game, firing one of 12 aces on the night for an emphatic hold for 1-1. Henin and Serena exchanged breaks in the next two games, but from 2-2 forward, Serena played championship tennis, winning 16 of the final 22 points against a fading Henin. Serving for the championship at 5-2, Serena hit two aces and a service winner.
“My mental game is really strong,” she explained afterwards, when asked about the source of her competitive resolve. “My dad always said that tennis is 70 percent mental, and I believe that mentally I’m probably one of the toughest on the tour.”
That toughness has now won Serena 12 Grand Slam singles titles, a mark that ties her with Billie Jean King for sixth on the all-time list. Tonight, Serena was correct to express her admiration for King during another otherwise unfortunate victory speech, which was bookended with references to God and Gatorade. But though her poorly timed plug for her sponsor was as distasteful as last year’s Federer-Nadal ceremony was poignant, the night was ultimately a triumphant one for Serena. She and Henin are athletes who perform best when the competitive stakes are highest. And that ability to be clutch is the reason Williams is the 2010 Australian Open champion.
“You have this [determination] at the beginning, but you can improve a lot,” a disappointed but composed Henin said afterwards when discussing her mental game. “I was quite fragile when I was younger, then got really stronger in the important situations. And Serena proved again that she has it.”
The Chinese women’s historic run here came to a rather anticlimactic end in the semifinals this afternoon. Li Na played well for stretches of her 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) loss to Serena Williams, raising her level and going for her shots in the bigger moments. But though Li fought off a total of four match points when serving at 4-5 and at 5-6, she was overwhelmed in the second-set tiebreaker, which Serena closed out emphatically with an ace.
The second semifinal was never competitive, as Justine Henin dominated Zheng Jie to win 6-1, 6-0, in just 51 minutes. (“I never had a chance,” a resigned Zheng said afterwards.) It was by far the fastest and easiest of the six victories Henin has collected here; even her 6-4, 6-3 dismissal of countrywoman Kirsten Flipkens took an hour and a quarter.
So now we have the A-list final many fans and pundits have been eyeing since Kim Clijsters’ ignominious third-round exit. Serena has a 7-6 record against Henin, who a month and a half after their most recent meeting—a 6-2, 6-0 demolition by Williams in Miami in March 2008—announced her abrupt retirement from tennis. (Henin said today that the Miami loss was not a contributing factor to her decision to retire, but a product of the fact that she was already considering it. “It was the proof to me that I was tired of [tennis] at that time.”) But of those 13 previous meetings, none has come in the final round of a major. Williams and Henin are the world’s two best players of the past decade, having to date amassed nearly four years (204 weeks) at No. 1 between them. They have made a combined 24 major singles finals and won a combined 51 hardcourt singles titles (26 for Henin, 25 for Serena). A Grand Slam title showdown feels overdue.
Beyond their obvious physical gifts, Serena and Henin are both remarkably tough competitors, capable of summoning their best tennis as the tensest times. I don’t see Serena losing, as long as she serves reasonably well, but I’m curious how many of you think Henin’s dream comeback run will continue in the final. (Please vote in the poll on the TENNIS.com homepage.) In the meantime, here are a couple of notes to consider in advance of Saturday’s showdown:
The Fatigue Factor—Serena: Serena’s had her right hamstring taped throughout the tournament (as a preventative measure, she says) and this week she’s had tape around her left calf as well. She appeared to be hobbling at certain points early in her quarterfinal with Victoria Azarenka, but either she’s not particularly hurt, or else she doesn’t want to acknowledge that she’s hurt by withdrawing from doubles. (Serena and Venus, the defending champions, are going for their fourth title here.) Regardless, it’s been a long haul of double duty for Serena over the past 48 hours. Though she breezed through the first four rounds of her singles draw—the longest of those matches lasted just one hour, 21 minutes—she’s put in a lot of time on court since then. She played her quarterfinal and semifinal, both two-plus-hour matches, on consecutive days with little rest: She played in the second women’s match on Wednesday and the first women’s match on Thursday. And she’ll have played two doubles matches (today’s semifinal and tomorrow’s final) in between her semifinal and final in singles. Henin didn’t have to play her quarterfinal and semi on back-to-back days, and she’ll be resting up for the singles final Friday while Serena’s playing doubles.
The Fatigue Factor—Henin: All that doesn’t necessarily mean that the single(s)-minded Henin will have the physical edge in the final. Her first four rounds of singles here were much more taxing than Serena’s, as Elena Dementieva, Alisa Kleybanova and Yanina Wickmayer each gave the Belgian tough tests. Henin’s total time on court in her first five matches was ten and a half hours, more than three hours more than it took Serena to get through to the semis. Yes, Henin had the luxury of a rest day in between her quarterfinal and semi. And certainly the fact that she doesn’t have two doubles matches in between the semis and the final works to her advantage. But given that this is just her second tournament back, Henin may be having a tougher time recovering than she did in the 1.0 version of her career. Returning to the intensity of tournament play after a year and a half absence has been a shock to her system, a fact she alluded to on Thursday.
“It took me a lot of energy in the last few weeks to come back and play my first matches and face all of this again,” she said. She later added, “But my body’s fine, I think. I’m gonna give everything, of course.”
History at Stake for Serena: If Williams adds the 2010 title to the ones she won in Melbourne in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, she would become the first player to win five Australian Open crowns in the Open Era, breaking a mark she currently shares with Margaret Court, Yvonne Goolagong, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. (That “most Aussie Open titles” distinction would be somewhat diluted by the fact that Court won 11 total singles titles, but only four in the Open Era.) More significant: With a win Saturday, Serena would tie Billie Jean King for sixth on the Grand Slam singles titles list with 12. She’d have five Aussie Open crowns to go with her single French title, three U.S. Open titles, and three Wimbledons. And she’d improve her record in Grand Slam finals to a phenomenal 12-3. But of those feats, moving up to sixth on the all-time Slams list would have the biggest magnitude for Williams, 28.
History at Stake for Henin: With a win Saturday, Henin would become just the second woman in history to win a Grand Slam singles title as a wildcard. And remarkably, this would be the second consecutive major at which that phenomenon occurred; another Belgian, Kim Clijsters, was the first to accomplish the feat when she made her own return from retirement to win the U.S. Open last fall.
A win Saturday would give Henin, 27, her eighth career Grand Slam singles title and move her into a tie for tenth place on the all-time list. It would also improve her career record in major finals to 8-4.
Back From the Brink: Li, Serena, Federer
A few hours ago, Roger Federer extended his never-to-be-broken record for consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances to an otherworldly 23, a mark whose origin dates back to George W’s first term. Federer was in dire straights tonight, down a set, 1-3, 15-40 against a zeroed-in Nikolay Davydenko, before the Russian imploded and Federer reeled off 13 straight games to take control of the proceedings. The fourth set was extremely competitive, and when Federer served for the match at 5-4, Davydenko hit two incredible returns (“Why now?” Federer said he was thinking) to even the score at 5-all. But the 15-time Grand Slam singles winner was able to hold at 6-5, his second time serving for the match, and book his semifinal berth.
That match capped a dramatic day session that saw No. 16 seed Li Na upset No. 6 Venus Williams, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5, in a match of dubious quality which “featured” (or, more accurately, was marred by) more breaks of serve (17, including six straight in the deciding set) than holds (15). Not long after Venus’ expulsion, it looked like her sister, top-seeded Serena, would also be bowing out in the quarterfinals. But down a set and 0-4 to dangerous No. 7 seed Victoria Azarenka, Serena started striking the ball with fury, firing winners with lethal ferocity. She won five consecutive games and 12 of the next 16, plus a tiebreaker, to advance 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Serena’s sudden, sharp upshift in level was reminiscent of what happened in the quarterfinals here last year. In 2009, she was down a break in the third to Svetlana Kuznetsova when the heat rule was invoked and the match paused so the roof could be closed. The resolute Williams who reemerged in Rod Laver Arena after the delay played dominating tennis the rest of the tournament, dispatching with Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, and a hapless (and teary) Dinara Safina en route to her fourth Aussie Open title. During that run, and again in the second half of her match today, Serena made it clear that she’s the best women’s player on the planet.
Azarenka is prone to the occasional mental lapse, but it was her fitness, not her psyche, that let her down this afternoon. Winded and wilting throughout the third set, the Belarussian could do nothing to impede the force of nature that is Serena when she’s steely-eyed and playing well. But though Azarenka could have perhaps made the third set more competitive if she’d been less fatigued, the outcome was not up to her. Serena’s third-set level today would’ve rendered any opponent helpless.
Year of the Ox on the Women’s Tour
So the 13th Grand Slam edition of the Williamses’ serial family drama did not materialize; there will be no Serena-Venus semifinal. Instead, a fresher and arguably more compelling storyline has emerged here in the form of the success of the Chinese women. While Russia, the deepest nation in women’s tennis, has no women left in the draw, half of the remaining final four are Chinese.
On Monday, Li Na ran through U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, and in so doing ensured that for the first time in history, China would have two quarterfinalists at a Grand Slam. Now both Li, the No. 17 player in the world, and Zheng Jie, ranked 35th, are into the semis. Though they both had some tough early-round matches—Zheng won three straight three-setters to open the tournament, and Li faced down two match points against Agnes Szavay in the second round—Zheng’s quarterfinal matchup was by far the easier of the two. The diminutive and uber-speedy Zheng rolled past an overmatched Maria Kirilenko (ranked No. 58), 6-1, 6-3, on Tuesday. Today, by contrast, Venus seemed to be cruising to a routine victory; she served for the match at 5-4 before Li found her game. (Li will crack the Top 10 for the first time when next week’s rankings come out.)
No Chinese player has ever made a Grand Slam final, and Zheng has the better chance of the two here, simply because she doesn’t have to face Serena. Unseeded but undaunted, the 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the occasion when she plays Justine Henin on Thursday. (She pushed Serena to a second-set tiebreaker in that semi at the All England Club.) Zheng's cream puff second serve is a liability that Henin, unlike Kirilenko, should be able to exploit. But the 5-foot-4½ Zheng, fleet of foot and long on confidence, is by no means a gimme for Henin. The Belgian has played ten and a half hours of tennis through her first five matches—a tough run for just her second tournament back from retirement.
Zheng, who lost to Henin four years ago in their only previous meeting, doesn’t plan to hold back. “It’s tough for me, but I’m so happy I can play against her, because [she] is my favorite player,” the 26-year-old said of Henin Tuesday. I don’t have anything [to lose], I just want to do my tennis.” And colleague Pete Bodo, for one, thinks her tennis will be enough for the win; he picked Zheng to take out Henin in this podcast. Zheng, whom a Chinese reporter told me is friendly and chatty with the national press, should have some crowd support on Thursday. She’s had a loyal local fan base since her victory in the women’s doubles with Yan Zi here four years ago.
As for Li, her hard-fought, come-from-behind win gives her a 2-0 career record against Venus; she also beat the American in the quarterfinals of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But the 5-foot-8, hard-hitting baseliner should have a much harder time against Serena, whom she’s beaten once in four tries. The two-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist is strong and poised, but will be the clear underdog, given the fearsome form Serena showed in the second half of her match today.
Like Zheng, the 27-year-old Li is an appealing character with a rebellious spirit. She sought independence from the Chinese national tennis federation, an arrangement that she says accommodates her “lazy” nature: “Right now if I didn’t want to practice, I just tell my team, ‘We take day off.’” She sports a large tattoo of a rose with a heart on the left side of her chest; it’s a symbol of love she got for her boyfriend (now her husband) when she was 16. She has funky red highlights, and a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Her standard reaction, when asked if she’s capable of making the Top 5 or if she’s close with Zheng Jie: “Why not?”
I spent the better part of a decade as an Olympics researcher, and most of the Chinese gymnasts and figure skaters I encountered were stoic and unforthcoming in interviews. (That was largely a product of the language barrier; it’s hard to get a good glimpse into an athlete’s personality when every sentence must be run through a team-appointed translator. And it’s not surprising that a young athlete who has spent most of his childhood and adolescence in a skating rink or gymnasium would not have had time to develop many outside interests.) By contrast, Zheng and Li are warm and outgoing. They’re both grown and married women, worldly and savvy, and both speak passable English. The western media might not be paying them much attention (ESPN continues to confuse their given names and family names on their full-screen draws), but it’s good for women's tennis that these semifinalists have big personalities to match their big games.
In particular, Li, who studied journalism at a university in her hometown of Wuhan, doesn’t miss a chance for a joke. Today, when the follicularly-challenged Ubaldo Scanagatta, an Italian journalist who looks like he hasn’t had a hair day—good or bad—in 30 years, asked her why she dyes her tresses so often, Li gave him an impish grin and suggested he try it.
A Quarterfinal ‘Birth’
Quick update to one of last week’s posts: According to his Twitter page, second-round loser Taylor Dent made it home from Australia in plenty of time for the arrival of his first child, a baby boy. Declan James Phillip Dent, who arrived Tuesday in the States, weighed in at 8 pounds, 12 ounces. Congrats to the proud new papa and his wife, Jenny, on their new addition.
On Saturday evening I caught up with former pro Mary Carillo, who is working as an analyst for ESPN here. I had time to ask her a few questions about the women’s tournament—then still in the third round—before she dashed off to call the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga–Tommy Haas match. Here’s what she had to say:
AL: Who’s your pick to win the women’s at this point, now that Kim Clijsters is out?
MC: Serena. It was always Serena anyway. At her best, she’s still better than anybody and she’s had a nice quiet first week. She’s serving very well, which as you know I think is paramount. So I’m sticking with Serena. I always think that’s a pretty good bet. But it has been a pleasure to see Justine Henin back in the game. That Dementieva match was really fun.
I’m surprised Henin survived against Alisa Kleybanova because she looked so tired there in the second set.
She looked tired, but she also looked smart. That’s been the big difference, I think, and it’s so nice to have back that kind of player who wants that moment. Who welcomes it and says, "give me the ball, this is what I train for, this is what I practice for, I can get out of this." And she goes about it aggressively. Even against Dementieva, her serve wasn’t working that well for her, but even on match point—she was serve and volleying, [looking at the ball kid] and saying, "give me that ball."
In Henin’s absence—when Sharapova was gone, when Clijsters was gone, Dementieva had that window open. But she couldn’t take advantage of it. Neither could Safina, neither could Jankovic. And now it’s closing again.
So is Dementieva done, now that the Belgians are back?
Not done, but you remember when [coach and former pro] Harold Solomon said to Dementieva, “You have a great opportunity”? She did, and she played in the two best matches I’ve seen in the last year, the Wimbledon semi against Serena and that match the other night. But she wasn’t the one who said give me the ball, the way that Henin and the way that Serena did.
Two days later, on Monday afternoon, I tracked down Mary to continue our chat. We popped a squat on a patch of lawn outside Rod Laver Arena, where Nikolay Davydenko was finishing off Fernando Verdasco.
MC: Step into my office.
AL: You’re so high maintenance, insisting on doing this interview in the dirt here. So, let’s talk about the biggest themes of the fortnight first. Are you worried about Brad and Angelina?
MC: What’s going on there? I’ve read conflicting reports. Sounds like they’ve had some big… well there’s no prenup, I guess, because they were never ’nupted. Angie just sounds like trouble. That sounds like… talk about high maintenance.
Do you give Hewitt any chance to win tonight?
Only because he’s so… I think he’s playing better than I’ve seen him in the last couple of years, so yes. Obviously, you’ve always got to give a guy like that a look. But I think Federer has so much respect for him, that it would make it hard for Hewitt, because I can’t imagine Federer letting up. He’s got too much respect for Lleyton.
Did you notice how many people are in Justine’s box now?
Yeah, who are those people?
I don’t know but it’s so nice to see it. She used to come down here and it would be Carlos [Rodriguez], and her husband for a while, but it was always empty. To me it’s very nice to see. Everything she has said about her comeback has come true so far, the way she’s playing and the way she’s reacting. Carlos came through and talked to Mary Jo [Fernandez, an ESPN analyst] yesterday, and he described how they changed every part of her game, just looking over tapes. They added more weight to her racquet, so she’d get a little more stick on the ball, a little more topspin. They changed her backhand, they changed her forehand. I thought they were pretty snappy [already]. More aggression… her serve is clearly in a state of transition, because she’s trying to make it more forward-leaning. So that impresses me, obviously. But then the fact that she’s got all these smiling people in her box.
But do you think she’s smiling more than she used to?
No (laughs). Kind of. When she’s describing her journey. Obviously she’s always going to be very private, but you can tell that she gave this a long, hard think, and she decided that she’s going to smile the rest of the way through. And that’s nice. It’s very nice.
This is incredibly cynical, but a Swiss journalist said to me that he thought it was sad that she came back to tennis, because it indicates that she couldn’t find fulfillment in her other endeavors. Is there any element of truth to that?
I haven’t talked to her yet. I understand what that guy’s saying because it sounds as though, to hear her describe it, she wanted to make sure that… I guess she felt that she had given over everything to this game for so long, and obviously you question that kind of stuff at night. And so I think the conclusion she arrived at is that she is very much still a tennis player, with a lot of the game left in her, and I’m glad she decided that, frankly. I think if you feel as though you’re putting everything on hold.
Especially because she had such a long year [in 2007]. I think the length of that campaign, when you’re that tired physically and emotionally, and that mentally drained. That match she played to secure the year-end championships against Sharapova, I just remember Robert Lansdorp saying, even though Maria lost that match, he said "[Sharapova] is back, she could win the Australian next year." I mean, he could tell just from that match. And Henin, she had already played so much, she had already reconciled with her family, she had won two majors [the French Open and the U.S. Open] without dropping a set. Then she held off Sharapova in that great final. I think after a year like that… she had gotten a divorce. I think after a year like that she had to take stock. And then she took stock again [in deciding to come back]. That’s my sense of it.
Does Nadia Petrova have any chance against Henin?
I’ve always been a big fan of Petrova. I thought when she and Clijsters got to that semi, back at the  French, even though Clijsters won that match, I thought Petrova had the bigger future. More upside. I just liked her strokes and I liked her serve and I liked how she seemed to go after the ball. And obviously a lot of things have happened. One year she had five different coaches (laughs). She’s a headcase and sort of a career seeker in a lot of ways. I think her biggest problem is going to be that Justine is going to be able to get back a lot of her firepower and get her on the move. I still haven’t seen Petrova really run by anybody. Clearly when she has a little bit of time to hit her strokes, she can hit as clean a ball as is out there. But her problem to my mind has always been mobility. I’ve always wished she were a little faster. If she can play the kind of game that doesn’t demand that [movement], then maybe she beats Henin. But my sense of things is that Justine’s going get her on the run.
It’s too bad, because her mother was an Olympic sprinter.
I know it. But in track you run in one line. You run in a straight line. That’s just so, so different.
Some TENNIS.com readers said they thought your on-air comments about Serena’s U.S. Open tirade were harsh. To clarify, why do you believe she should have been suspended?
I don’t know how you don’t sit down somebody who does that. I remember Pam [Shriver] saying that Serena’s treatment was much harsher than it should’ve been and that players talk that way to officials all the time. I have never heard a player threaten somebody, like physically threaten somebody, so I don’t know what Pam’s referring to there.
You don’t think there’s an element of sexism to the outrage her tirade provoked?
I don’t think Serena’s ever going to make millions of dollars off of her reputation the way John McEnroe did. You know John and Jimmy and Nastase, they were playing a long time ago when the rules weren’t as defined. In fact, the rules got more and more defined because of them. And that was a time when antiheroes were revered—people thought it was cool. And they got away with too much. Look, my lifelong friendship with John was compromised because of the stand I used to take on him (laughs). I mean I’ve been saying this for a long time. I don’t think you can hurt somebody like Serena with a monetary fine. You’ve gotta sit ’em down.
Sit them down for a major?
Her complaint was that it was the highest fine… Whatever her official complaint was, she got to keep all of her prize money from the U.S. Open. She got to play in, and then win $200,000, for winning the U.S. Open doubles. I can’t believe she got to play that. And then she played another tournament, lost in the third round, and I think she won about $36,000 there, and then she won the year-end championships, which was more than a million and a half dollars. So I’m not sure she should be complaining about a $92,000 fine when that fall she made over $2 million. I’m not sure she’s going to win over people like me with that kind of an argument, that’s all.
And again, as bad as those guys were. Maybe there were threats like that in the past. But I’ve never seen a physical threat, very specific, on one of the biggest stages in tennis. I’ve never seen that, so I don’t think it’s comparable to what those guys did. And I don’t think she wants to be putting herself in that kind of company anyway.
And if you’ve ever listened to me, you know I have spent years saying that both Venus and Serena were the two classiest performers on the court, that they never wanted one point that they didn’t earn. I bet I’ve said that a couple of hundred times about both of them, and I’ve always meant it. Always. So this was a different situation.
I wish it had been handled better. I really wish it had been handled differently. Then maybe I’d feel differently about it, because [the incident] really was an aberration.
The investigation seemed to take a long time, when it seemed like everything was right there on the tape.
That was my point all along. What’s to review? Three months? And I do think it gives the message that obviously nobody wanted Serena to be out of the game. But my understanding is that the ITF meeting—you know, they had representatives from all four majors—that this tournament said, “if [suspension] is what the decision is, we’ll abide it.” You know how [agreeable] Aussies are. They were willing to allow that the integrity of the sport… that one person is not bigger than the sport.
If you had to pick now, Monday night, for a men’s winner, who’s your pick?
I guess you still gotta go with Federer. I guess you just have to. Just trying to think of a reason why I shouldn’t. I see more great men’s tennis here than anywhere, than at any other major certainly.
This year, or in general?
In general. I say it every year. This surface, and this time of the year, brings out some of the best men’s tennis I see all year. I think Rog is probably still a very solid choice. But I mean, I’ve called a couple of Tsonga matches, he’s looked magnificent. [Note: this interview was conducted during Tsonga’s match with Almagro.]
What did you think of how Djokovic looked today?
Djoko had a pretty easy time of it. He was through in under two hours, so I haven’t really been able to gauge his form too much. He’s had a pretty good run. At least he’s fresh. Last year obviously in the quarters he couldn’t finish against Andy. I’ve liked Murray too. God, I thought Murray—he’s just really on it. I guess I would say Federer, and then my second choice might be Murray.
And I still think Serena—as well as Henin’s playing—I still like Serena. I think she’s serving beautifully and very focused. I’m very happy to be talking about her tennis. Truly she can equal and pass Billie Jean’s record of 12 majors this year.