Australian Open Wrap: Subtle Distinctions

For me, the 2013 Australian Open marked a two-week lesson about the importance of making subtle, nuanced distinctions in analysis, words and comparisons; in the processes of making judgments, rendering verdicts, and assessing performers. This tournament, encompassing both the men’s and women’s singles events – all 254 matches and all 256 athletes – impressed upon my mind the centrality of the need to make the subtle distinction, whether or not the point of said distinction is lost on the audience.

A few things clearly got under the skin of the larger community of tennis fans in this tournament, which was not exactly a “Happy Slam” for once. Happiness was hard to find in the latter stages of the women’s singles competition, ultimately won by a crying and necessarily combative Victoria Azrenka in the face of an inhospitable Rod Laver Arena crowd in Melbourne. Indeed, the women’s event in Australia captured the essence of the past two weeks far more than the men. It was the WTA half of the past fortnight, not the ATP side, which left emotions raw and psyches seared, carving out a path defined by divisiveness and dissatisfaction.

Yet — and this is where the art of the subtle distinction first enters the picture — the women’s championship match between Azarenka and Li Na was a more impressive competition than the men’s final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.

Notice the subtlety of the above statement: It did not claim that the women’s match was a better MATCH (though I’d give such a contention a very fair hearing and might even be inclined to agree), just a more impressive competition. The women’s final might not have been superior to the men’s final in terms of quality; that much is quite debatable. However, I have zero doubt in my mind that Azarenka and Li COMPETED BETTER than Djokovic and (especially) Murray.

See how complicated and nuanced this stuff can get?

There is a difference between playing and competing. A tennis professional’s level of play refers to the shots, to the ability to wave the magic wand, to wield the stick in the hand(s). Quality of play refers to winners and errors, to serves and groundstrokes, to overheads and lobs.

Quality of competition is something substantially different.

The way in which a person competes refers to immeasurables and intangibles, to realities that can’t easily be defined by numbers or raw assessments of technique. Admittedly, Murray and Djokovic did not play in front of a hostile crowd as Azarenka did. They didn’t gain the enmity of their audience the way Azarenka did. Their match wasn’t interrupted by a fireworks display. Murray, the losing player in his championship match, did not suffer the kind of injuries Li, the losing player in her championship match, unfortunately endured. The men’s finalists, in short, were not subjected to the hardships that the women’s finalists had to walk through. Yet, when presented with a vast array of physical and psychological challenges, the point remains that the women showed so much more as competitors than the men did.

Li was by no means consistent after each of her two injuries – one in the second set and one in the third – but she didn’t fall apart. She held her wits and her body far better than most of her peers ever would have managed to do. Azarenka, say what you want about her personality, stood up to the moment, her hard-hitting opponent, and the Melbourne crowd with uncommon inner fortitude. In the first set, Azarenka’s diminished grunts suggested that the tennis world was about to see something of a replay of the 1992 Wimbledon final, in which a muted Monica Seles – not yelping the way she normally did – lost handily to a much more popular and beloved player on the other side of the net, Steffi Graf. Li was the beloved player in this match – at least in Melbourne – but Azarenka found a way out of her predicament, whereas Seles couldn’t unearth a similar answer 21 years ago at the All-England Club. What Azarenka showed in victory and Li displayed in defeat represented a more memorable response to adversity than anything Djokovic or Murray offered the next night.

The women’s and men’s finals also differed in one fundamental respect: The women actually went for their shots. In set one of the men’s final, Murray did use his beefed-up forehand to good effect, but in the final two and a half sets, the Scotsman pulled up on the forehand, especially at the very end of the second set, which is precisely when he needed to make a move and re-announce his new identity to Djokovic. Murray didn’t kill Djokovic in the second set when carrying the run of play, and as Stanislas Wawrinka could tell you, failing to kill Djokovic when in control of the match is a sure ticket to defeat. (Jo-Willy Tsonga could share the same story after last year’s French Open quarterfinal.)

Murray grew up at the Olympics and at the U.S. Open, but in this match, he did not have the rest advantage he owned against Djokovic last September in New York. Murray should have known that he needed to attack a lot more in Melbourne, but he mistakenly felt that a New York game plan was going to work. It didn’t. That’s a big reason why the women – who played go-for-broke tennis from start to finish – fashioned a competition that was much more admirable… not necessarily better in terms of pure tennis quality, but a more ferocious and risky outpouring of effort under more difficult circumstances.

Such is the world of the subtle distinction.

What other subtleties emerged from the past fortnight in Australia? Azarenka showed that a player can exercise gamesmanship in a somewhat dubious manner yet not be seen as a cheater. As Doots took care to say a few days ago, Azarenka did nothing that male tennis players haven’t done in moments of physical difficulty. Azarenka hardly rates as worse than her ATP counterparts, yet was subjected to uncommon scrutiny. Please allow the distinctions between gamesmanship and cheating – between rule-EXPLOITING and rule-BREAKING – to enter your mind.

Azarenka – someone who wants to please everyone, but whose attempts to gain acceptance just aren’t executed very well – should be allowed to grow up, much as Novak Djokovic has grown up over the past six years. Yes, Djokovic was quite properly unbearable in 2007, as were his parents. However, Djokovic was only 19 years old when 2007 began, and his parents were drunk on the intoxicating power of a quick rise in the tennis firmament. Subsequent years have enabled Djokovic to become a fine ambassador for the sport, while enabling the Parents Djokovic to enjoy their son’s success instead of feeling the need to rain on anyone else’s parade. Azarenka deserves this same wide berth, this same spacious place of acceptance. If she’s still like this in 2017, yes, she should meet with quite a bit of disapproval. For now, the global tennis press corps needs to back off… and pro-Sloane Stephens American tennis fans should also resist the easy inclination to view Azarenka as some sort of public enemy.

The identities of Djokovic then (2007) and Azarenka today offer reason to make another subtle distinction, one that’s quite relevant for this, a tennis analysis blog that is even more centrally a Roger Federer fan blog:

By all means, you can dislike certain acts or gestures from a player; however, the fact of disliking those actions doesn’t mean that certain judgments deserve to be handed down against that same player.

Djokovic’s shirt rip after his fourth-round win over Wawrinka (who thought that the match of the tournament would be Djokovic and a Swiss guy… with the Swiss guy not being Fed?) was, as always, not my cup of tea. I don’t go for that kind of celebration, and I know most Federer fans feel the same way. However — subtle distinction alert! — there’s a long distance to travel from “not my cup of tea” to “WHAT AN ARROGANT PRICK, SHOWING UP OTHER PLAYERS AND DISGRACING THE SPORT OF TENNIS!!!!”

Is a shirt rip demonstrative and ostentatious? Sure. Does it show up the losing player? The instinctive response is to say no, but even if you might say yes, the true measure of these displays can be found in the response of the losing player. Had Wawrinka objected to the display, a fresh debate could be had, but in the absence of such disapproval, it is hard to make that leap from merely “not preferring” Djokovic’s celebrations to viewing them as definitive proof of an “intolerable arrogance.”

No, if Roger Federer gets to wag his finger in Paris — something we all quite enjoyed as Fed fans — Djokovic should get to rip his shirt after big wins. A five-hour match, even if in the fourth round and not the semis or final, is a big win. It’s not our cup of tea as Fed fans, but in the world of the subtle distinction, we don’t get to insist that a shirt rip marks Djokovic as excessively or inappropriately arrogant. No. We should merely hope that when Federer outwardly expresses the extent to which he relishes an important triumph, he shouldn’t get tarred and feathered for doing so.

Next on the Subtle Distinction Tour, it’s worth saying that Andy Murray is an indisputably better player than he once was, but not a fully transformed player. This seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. It merely represents the coexistence of two uncomfortable truths, side by side. In the realm of analysis and commentary, inconvenient truths do need to be allowed to sit next to each other.

Murray is indisputably a better player than last year because he outplayed Federer over five sets in the men’s semifinal round, using the attacking game that he was unwilling to unsheathe against Djokovic two nights later. Andy Murray was able to win the 2012 U.S. Open, but he did so because the windy conditions played into his defense-first style. In Melbourne, Murray unleashed a newer, stronger forehand and a slightly but noticeably better second serve. His first serve held up better under pressure, while his other longstanding gifts – tactical acuity, court coverage, and returning prowess – remained in place. Murray’s win over Federer enabled him to reach a third straight major final, making him less of a peripheral figure in this golden era of tennis. He’s better.

Yet, Murray is not transformed — not fully. The final watched him revert to a passive mindset in man-making motivational moments against Djokovic. Murray needs to learn the right lessons from this loss. If he doesn’t, the summer could deal him a set of heartbreaks that might erode the gains he’s made since this past August at the Olympics.

A final subtle distinction to make after the past two weeks is this: Diving into a well-worn subject should not be seen as inherently problematic or unacceptable in and of itself. Doing so without fresh ideas or constructive points to make is the unpardonable sin of tennis (and, on a larger level, sports) commentary.

When Wawrinka played the match of his (singles and non-Olympic) life against Djokovic, a flurry of comparisons with Lukas Rosol flew across Twitter. Yes, if said comparisons directly stated that Wawrinka and Rosol are similar players or the owners of similar resumes, such comparisons deserved to be laughed out of the building. However, there were and are salient points to make in comparing the two players. They played above their respective pay grades. YES, their pay grades that are different, but the reality of playing above them still very much existed! Wawrinka and Rosol both face the need to make more of their careers after playing so well on the big stage. YES, Wawrinka and Rosol inhabit different levels of stature and reputation, but the reality that they both need to build on them still very much exists in the present tense! There are 6,898 ways in which Wawrinka and Rosol — OR ANY TWO PLAYERS — are different. However, if item No. 6,899 and item No. 6,900 offer points of similarity, there’s nothing wrong with making a comparison.

Similarly, the press’s relentless focus on the issue of medical timeouts in the aftermath of the Azarenka-Stephens match was not wrong in and of itself. There’s much worth discussing about the rules and policies of tennis as they relate to MTOs. The problem with the press’s coverage is that it was far too driven by the desire to generate emotional heat as part of personality-centric pot-stirring. Had the press instead chosen to shed light on the nuances of MTO rules and policies, creating an illuminating debate, nobody in the tennis world would have much of a complaint.

The tennis press shouldn’t avoid or steer clear of the MTO issue. No, the problem with the press is that it aimed (and still is aiming) for heat more than light. That’s the issue… and that’s also the final subtle distinction to be made after an Australian Open that tested just about everyone’s patience in the wide – and wild – world of professional tennis.


About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

2 responses to “Australian Open Wrap: Subtle Distinctions”

  1. Alex (@FedFanForever) says :

    Doots – consider that a big reason Murray didn’t play well in the final was that Fed took a big chunk out of him in the semifinal.

  2. Katarina_YYZ says :

    some great points there, Matt 😉
    In Stephens/Serena match, Serena took an MTO right as she was losing her grip on the match in the second set. We all saw Serena injure her ankle badly earlier in the tournament. But this MTO wasn’t even for her ankle! It was for some sudden back injury! Anyways of course the ESPN commentators didn’t suggest she was “icing” Sloane’s momentum (while they started to suggest it about Azarenka before the match was over; before her oncourt interview).

    Stan also took a few MTOs or got rubdowns during the changeover breaks, for what appeared to be cramping. No one really mentioned it but it seems like he got quite a bit of help just for being tired. So there are a lot of issue around MTOs, for sure.

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