The tournament confirmed the Serb's domination right at the start of 2012. His achievements in 2011 seemed barely human, and many wondered if he could continue in that mould: he answered any doubts with his run to the final and subsequent victory over Rafael Nadal - the seventh final win in a row over the Spaniard. But he seemed to be in top shape too quickly. During the first week he was impressive: accurate, taking the ball early and moving well. But at the end of the event he looked out of breath: firstly during the third set against Lleyton Hewitt, when he wasted a 3-0 lead with many unforced errors before losing the set; then against Andy Murray, who dominated him for two sets before breaking down physically; and finally against Rafa, where the general level of play was average. Yet Nole was highly impressive in two ways: physically, his ability to maintain a high intensity was too much for Murray and he followed that five-hour contest with a six-hour battle with only one day of rest; and he showed that he is, alongside Nadal, mentally the strongest player around because he found a way to win despite being way off his best level against two top-four players.
Nadal is in the same situation that he found himself in in 2011: the major titles are escaping his grasp because of that man Djokovic. However, worries over his shoulder injury and a general lack of preparation were dispelled, while the Mallorcan displayed a high level of tennis. He tried to change some aspects of his game, with an excellent serve percentage (close to 70 per cent) and a change in the swing weight of his racquet in order to gain power and length. Rafa played and won two high-level matches against Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer, but lost against Djokovic after a fight to the last point in a match where his weaknesses were again obvious: the depth of shots was found wanting, he did not have an aggressive enough backhand and his second serve was too weak. Knowing his mindset, I do not doubt that he will get to work quickly in order to come back stronger against his No.1 rival.
The Swiss's streak of victories, lasting back to September, unfortunately came to an end in Melbourne. The reason? Rafa, as is often the case. Federer played great tennis during the tournament but was unable to go the next step against Nadal, despite winning the first set. Once again, he was unable to maintain the required intensity, unlike Nadal. The Swiss did improve his backhand on high balls and was also able to move forward and strike the ball early, but wasn't successful enough at the net. His physical limitations resulted in many unforced errors. He looked fit after suffering from back problems, but if he is to win more Grand Slams, he must increase his fitness level further to keep up that intensity.
The Scot was hotly tipped to do well in Australia after enlisting Ivan Lendl in his quest to win a first Grand Slam title. Andy may not have reached that goal just yet, but in the first month with Lendl he has already improved markedly. Mentally, he was better able to deal with his frustration in the earlier rounds and played with an iron will and authority. On the return, he was further inside the sideline than before and really looking to attack his opponents; he also remains closer to the baseline and does not move back even when in trouble. The duo need more time together before they produce the required goods: Lendl remains for now in a period of observation rather than interaction. Like Roger, Andy was physically diminished during his semi-final against Nole: Lendl is a professional and workaholic so there is no doubt that he will work on Murray's fitness in the coming months to give him the best chance of going all the way in the remaining Slams.
The other top-10 players
The players I have already talked about are now very close to each other: we are probably witnessing the most intense top-four battle in tennis history. It is tough for the other players in the top 10 to break into their circle. There is Berdych, who played a great match against Rafa but lost once again. He is improving. Juan Martin del Potro is back in the top 10 and will go on climbing the rankings even if, for now, he lacks the footwork and confidence needed against the top players. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is always very dangerous, but seems stuck in terms of his level: he needs a coach to give him fresh impetus.
The next big things
Australian Bernard Tomic had a great tournament, displaying control, movement, intelligence and ability to change the pace of a game. American Ryan Harrison took a set off Murray with attacking tennis which was helped by a good serve and a tendency to go to the net. Japan's Kei Nishikori is now a top-20 player and entertained us with his efficient backhand - both cross-court and down the line - his speed, his taking of the ball early and ability to turn around his backhand. Canadian Milos Raonic was ousted by Hewitt, but there is no doubt that his amazing serve and attacking ability will see him threaten at major tournaments. Alexandr Dolgopolov was a revelation, speeding up games brutally way when necessary and also owning a special chopped backhand. And Grigor Dimitrov played three sets of high-level tennis against Nicolas Almagro before losing in five sets: the crowed enjoyed his perfect technique, the variety on his backhand and the way he can speed up a rally with his forehand.
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