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Friday, January 25, 2013

Murray, Djokovic, Stephens, Li Na, Azarenka Breaking New Ground

The Australian Open again is the starting grounds for a new season. And, just maybe the ground breaking to new heights of performance for Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Sloane Stephens, Li Na, and Victoria Azarenka.

This Open was supposed to be the continuation of Serena Williams' charge for the Serena Slam. I guess Sloane Stephens got the memo and choose to rewrite history. Stephens bursted on to the scene this week and made a statement that she is going to be a top 10 player and a threat to win a Slam.

Stephens was supposed to be a road bump for Serena. Stephens instead flipped the script on her way to her first Grand Slam semi final. Serena was not 100%; her serve was significantly slower and less impactful in the quarters. Nonetheless, Stephens was able to bounce back down 3-4 in the third set. I love to see that moment where a player reveals their resiliency and confidence at a higher level.
Stephens' defeat of Serena and then subsequent tough match against Azarenka in the semis should serve to give her the confidence to take the next step:

I'm obviously coming out of the Australian summer with amazing momentum, knowing I can pretty much hang in there with anybody and even beat some of the best players.
So for me, it's definitely a good feeling, I think. (from Australian Open.com Sloane Stephens interview 1-24-13)
As we head in to finals weekend we have Azarenka v. Li and Djokovic v. Murray. It will be entertaining for sure. And, each of the players is looking to make a breakthrough. So, while Stephens was making major news, Azarenka made news of her own by taking a medical timeout for breathing difficulties in their semi. That aside, Azarenka has positioned herself as maybe the best hard court player in the world. A victory over Li Na in the Final would plant Vika as the #1 player in the world and two-time champion of the Aussie. To me, that is breaking new ground.

It will be interesting in the Final to watch Azarenka's breathing and nerves. She should definitely be the favorite and the burden of the expectations could get to her. She knows that Li Na is a tough competitor who is ready to make her own breakthrough - a second Slam.

Li who has also struggled with the pressure at times as well seems poised to move beyond the "one Slam wonder" potential label that all Slam champions want to avoid (by the way I would love to have that tag). Whomever wins this Final will have stepped beyond their nerves in to a new level of greatness. The journey to get there ought to be entertaining!

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic seemed destined to meet in the Aussie Open final, and they may be the new great rivalry in Men's tennis. Both are age 25, healthy, in excellent shape, and have the ability to adapt to a changing game. I expect them to be threats to win Slams at least the next five years, maybe even seven.

For Murray, winning the Australian Open over Djokovic would place him in the stratosphere of multiple grand slam winners. Furthermore, he would have two straight victories in Grand Slam finals over Novak which would give him a case as the best player in the world - and the confidence that comes with knowing you can beat anyone on the big stage.

Andy Murray has vaulted his game to a level where he can offensively hurt Federer, Djokovic and Nadal with his serve and backcourt game. He also has learned to manage his emotions on the court.

I think you have to trust yourself that when you are tested, you’re going to play better. I haven’t lost a set here yet, so maybe I’m expecting to play too well. But I’ve done a good job so far. I can’t be disappointed with where my game’s at. I feel a little bit calmer than usual. But I still understand how difficult it is to win these events. (from the Sun.com "Read It N' Weep")
Do not underestimate the importance of emotional control. It allows a player to perform their automated tennis skills under intense pressure. When emotions jump up and down your body reacts, muscles become too tense, energy drops too far, the mind wanders... Emotional control is absolutely necessary to be successful in tennis.

Novak Djokovic, if he can win the Aussie, will have three-peated. This puts him in the realm of the greatest all-time.  It would also be his sixth grand slam and he would be cementing his case as the #1 player in the world after winning the end of season championships. So, while it may seem "old hat" for Novak to be playing in a slam final he too is playing to go to the next level.

So much at stake this weekend in Australia... History, legacy, breakthroughs, career moments - I can't wait to see it unfold.

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