Winners and Losers of the 2014 Australian Open
This Australian Open had it all.
For the men, Stanislas Wawrinka finished as the champion after a final against Rafael Nadal that had more twists and turns than a season of Scandal. On the women's side, as Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were sent home early, Li Na walked away with the title.
This tournament cemented some legacies, put question marks around others, saw soaring temperatures and a record-breaking number of legendary players in the coaching boxes.
It was a surprising, entertaining and perfect way to kick off the 2014 tennis season. Here are the winners and losers from a nonstop two weeks of world-class tennis in Melbourne.
Winner: Stanislas Wawrinka
Stan the Man, indeed.
We've seen ATP players lately play better as they got older, but we haven't seen a career renaissance quite like what Stanislas Wawrinka has put together over the past year. Wawrinka proved that his excellent 2013 season was far from a fluke by going on an Australian Open run that took the tennis tour by storm.
His upset over Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals was one for the ages, and he was able to avoid the post-upset slump by taking care of business against Tomas Berdych in the semifinals to make his first major final at the age of 28.
Then, in one of the most bizarre matches in the history of Grand Slam finals, Wawrinka battled through his nerves and Nadal's injury to win his first Grand Slam title. Wow.
Loser: Nadal's Back
The men's final was already off to a bizarre start, with Stanislas Wawrinka absolutely zoning and taking the match completely out of Rafael Nadal's hands.
But then, early in the second set, Nadal seemed to tweak his back. He immediately called for the trainer, and after going off the court for a medical timeout, he grimaced his way through the second set.
"I felt a little bit (with the back) from warmup ... and then I started to feel worse," Nadal said, via USA Today's Douglas Robson. "I tried hard. The last thing I wanted to do was retirement. I hate to do that, especially in the final."
The third set was a different story, though. With the ending in sight, it was Wawrinka who was seizing up. It turns out that Nadal is a formidable opponent, even with a bad back. But he simply ran out of steam in the fourth, leaving tennis with a new champion.
It was bad luck for Nadal, who seemed poised for No. 14, but he showed how big his heart is when he battled back.
Winner: Li Na
In 2011 at the French Open, Li was a surprise winner, and she certainly wasn't prepared for what came next. But after a much-criticized slump, she was able to get her career back on track with Carlos Rodriguez by her side.
With a backhand that is one of the best in the game, she finally got the slam that she has been waiting to win and is now the 2014 Australian Open champion. At nearly 32 years old, she seems poised to handle the pressure that comes with being a favorite and looks driven enough to strive for consistent success.
For Li Na, No. 2 was much sweeter than No. 1.
Losers: Defending Champions
It wasn't a good couple of weeks for the two players who dominated the Australian Open over the last three years.
Two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka fell in the quarterfinals to Agnieszka Radwanska, who she had absolutely dominated over the past two years. Azarenka simply had no answers for Radwanska's crafty tennis, and now the Belarusian is in real danger of losing her No. 2 ranking to Li Na over the next few months.
Djokovic, the three-time defending champion, loves the blue courts of Melbourne and was looking for his fifth Australian Open title. But he also fell in the quarterfinals to Stanislas Wawrinka, ending his ridiculous streak of making 14 straight slam semifinals.
Better luck next year, guys.
Winners: Australian Teenagers
There are a lot of reasons for Australia to be optimistic about its tennis future.
With Lleyton Hewitt falling in the first round to Andreas Seppi, and Bernard Tomic being forced to retire due to a hip injury against Rafael Nadal on the second night, it was teenagers Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis who stole the show.
Kyrgios' go-for-broke game helped him upset Benjamin Becker in the first round and take No. 27 Benoit Paire to five sets in the second. Not bad for an 18-year-old. Kokkinakis, just 17, took out Igor Sijsling in the first round and had impressive moments in a loss to Rafael Nadal in Round 2.
With 17-year-old Ashleigh Barty having a few shining moments on Rod Laver Arena against Serena Williams and 28-year-old Casey Dellacqua enjoying a career revival and making the fourth round, there were reasons for Aussies to cheer.
Losers: American Tennis Players
Another tournament, another reason for the USTA to hang its head. This time, not even the American women could save the hopes of a nation.
Serena Williams fell in the fourth round to Ana Ivanovic, Sloane Stephens didn't even push Victoria Azarenka in their fourth-round encounter and Madison Keys failed to take advantage of a great draw by losing to Jie Zheng in the second round.
Meanwhile, John Isner was forced to retire from his first match with an ankle injury, Sam Querrey went down meekly to Fabio Fognini in the third round and, once again, up-and-comers Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock failed to impress, both of whom were knocked out by Frenchman Gael Monfils.
The only somewhat bright spot was Donald Young's trip to the third round.
The middle of this tournament felt a little bit like a domino act, with Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray, among others, falling one after the other.
Outside of the semifinalists, Ana Ivanovic was perhaps the most inspired tale, taking out Williams in the fourth round with a brilliant display of powerful tennis.
Other players such as Roberto Bautista-Agut (d. del Potro, Benoit Paire), Grigor Dimitrov (d. Milos Raonic), Donald Young (d. Andreas Seppi) and Garbine Muguruza (d. Wozniacki) got their day in the sun as well.
There's nothing like a few unexpected results to keep us all on our toes!
Loser: Australian Open Heat Policy
The first week of the Australian Open was earth-shatteringly hot. I mean, Canadian Frank Dancevic fainted during his first-round match and claimed he saw Snoopy as he did so.
But as the temperatures soared to record highs, the tennis went on. Ice towels became the No. 1 accessory as players complained of literally getting sick during the match. The crowds were sparse, and the tennis wasn't spectacular, but it continued.
On Thursday, the Australian Open officials finally decided to stop play, but their ridiculous heat policy meant that, as most players got to stay in the cool lounges inside, everyone who was out playing had to finish their sets.
Maria Sharapova and Karin Knapp had to complete their third set, which didn't have a tiebreak, meaning they were out in the dangerous heat for nearly an hour after everyone else left.
It's time for the Australian Open to rethink how it deals with the heat.
Loser: Juan Martin del Potro
Sigh. Another slam, another disappointingly early exit for 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.
The No. 5 seed, who began the year with a title in Sydney and seemed poised to have a good run, fell in the second round to unheralded Spaniard Roberto Bautista-Agut in five sets.
Bautista-Agut played inspired tennis, but del Potro allowed him to do so by playing passively and defensively—the exact opposite of the game that the big man should be employing.
With all of his potential, it's hard not to circle Delpo in draws and expect great things out of him. But the more he performs like this, the harder that is to do.
Winner: Dominika Cibulkova
Sometimes players have slam breakthroughs because the draw bursts open for them and they take advantage. Other times players, like Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova, choose to bulldoze their own path.
In her phenomenal run to her maiden final, No. 20 Cibulkova took out No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 11 Simona Halep and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska. Despite falling in the final to Li Na, she still made quite the impression.
At just 24 years old, tennis fans are left hoping that Cibulkova uses this tournament as a chance to build the top-10 career that she has the talent for. Pome!
Winners: Genie and Her Army
Seeded No. 30, 19-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard started her first Australian Open main draw on an outside court, very far away from home. But a group of Australian fans adopted her from the first match and made her feel at home.
This Genie Army, considered by Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim to be a bit "creepy," ended up getting a lot of screen time as Bouchard had the tournament of her life and made it all the way to the semifinals.
Bouchard, who upset Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals, is certainly one to watch in the years to come, and her army will likely grow to rival the actual national one in Canada. It was a tournament debut that won't be forgotten for them both.
Losers: Legendary Players-Turned-Coaches
The big storyline headed into the tournament wasn't the players—it was the coaches.
Andy Murray had his constant companion, Ivan Lendl, by his side, but now Boris Becker was with Novak Djokovic, and Stefan Edberg was with Roger Federer. Michael Chang was even around with Kei Nishikori.
But as fun as it was to see all of these legendary players in the coaching box and to have them hanging around the game, none ended up coaching their pupil to the winner's circle. And, as Becker and Edberg were particularly brought in to help with volleying, it's worth noting that bricked volleys hurt both Djokovic and Federer in crucial points during their matches.
It's far too early to tell whether Becker or Edberg will be the next Lendl of coaching, but for all the hype it wasn't a good start.
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