Great Champions, Great Escapes

Australian Open 2010
By Matthew Zemek, January 28th, 2010

On a memorable Wednesday afternoon at the 2010 Australian Open, a lot of tennis fans had very good reason to think that Serena Williams and Roger Federer were both going to be knocked out in their respective quarterfinal matches.

Yet, those same people should have realized that when champions are getting outplayed, they can and do find ways to change the flow of a given competition. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be champions in the first place.

Whether you wrote off Serena and Federer or not, it’s impossible to any longer ignore the fact that the two top seeds in the women’s and men’s singles tournaments are simply made of rare and special stuff. Yes, a big comeback does require an adversary to step off the mountaintop and come back to earth, but that same comeback also demands the ability on the part of the champion to ride out a storm, stay close enough to remain a factor, and use a few turning points as emotional fuel for a defining and decisive surge.

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Plainly put, Serena and Federer – both in deeper-than-deep trouble inside Rod Laver Arena – used solitary mistakes by their formidable but frail foes to turn matches on a dime. In so doing, these two giants of tennis – with a combined 26 Major championships to their names (11 for Serena, 15 for Federer) – reminded Australian spectators and global TV watchers why they should never be discounted, even in the midst of the deepest and darkest valleys imaginable.

How bleak was Serena’s outlook in her round of eight match against seventh-seeded Victoria Azarenka? The younger Williams sister – moving horribly and using terrible footwork – blew a number of game points in the first set  and created a negative vibe for one and a half sets. With Azarenka storming to a 6-4, 4-0 lead, many tennis watchers assumed that the even-year jinx which has afflicted Serena Down Under (she won the Australian Open in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009) would continue.

But just when you might have thought it was safe to mentally advance Victoria Azarenka into the semifinals, the competitive pride and ruthlessness of Serena Williams returned. The best closer in women’s tennis seized on a brief moment of weakness from her Belorussian challenger to author a comeback for the ages.

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With Serena serving at 0-4 and deuce, Azarenka tried a drop shot that didn’t work. Though trailing by a mile and on the verge of defeat, Serena found fire and focus after that one errant play by the No. 7 seed. Serena promptly won that game to get on the board, and before very long, the American was blasting winners all over the court and not making the unforced errors that had sabotaged her whole game for the first one and a half sets. Serena stormed through a second-set tiebreak, and before anyone could adjust to this match’s transformed dynamics, Serena had walked off with a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win and a spot in the semifinals against China’s Li Na.

For Federer, the pattern was oh-so-similar to the one Serena experienced.

After getting crushed in a set and a half by Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko, Federer gained his reprieve and made the most of it. Already down a set, Federer – serving at 1-3 and 30-40 in the second set – watched Davydenko race inside the service box and net a sitter that should have produced a winner and a double-break 4-1 lead. When Davydenko missed that shot, however, the Russian began to doubt himself, and Federer – being the accomplished performer he is – realized that such a shift had taken place.

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Federer turned on the afterburners and acquired the flow and feel that had been missing in the first one and a half sets. The Swiss superstar raced through the back end of the second set and a bagel in the third, giving an increasingly nervous Davydenko absolutely nothing to work with. Davydenko woke up midway through the fourth set and erased a 3-1 Federer lead, but when the chips were on the table, Federer broke “Kolya” at 5-all and then – at 6-5 – served out the match thanks to a barrage of untouchable first serves. It all started with a costly missed volley from Davydenko in the fifth game of the second set.

One moment became a turning point in a crazy quarterfinalk, but that’s largely because Roger Federer was able to see that brief lapse as a gateway toward victory, and not a reason to fade away into the night.

Serena Williams. Roger Federer. They’re in the final four in Australia. Underestimate them at your own considerable peril.

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