Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Who would have thought that the second weekend in Melbourne would be spent sans Federer, Henin, Nadal or a Williams sister?
Well, that was exactly the case this past weekend at the Aussie Open, where the singles titles were decided by Novak Djokovic, giant-killer Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. Half of the four finalists hailed from the small nation of Serbia.
The 20-year-old Djokovic broke through for his maiden major title by outdueling the upstart Tsonga in four sets in the men's final, while the powerful Sharapova served her way past seven women Down Under, including the great Justine Henin in the quarterfinals and the surging Ivanovic in the final. It marked Maria's second straight Aussie Open finale, as she was lambasted by Serena Williams in last year's lopsided title bout.
Novak Djokovic stunned Roger Federer in the semis en route to his first Grand Slam title.
Twilight Zone: The winner of the second set in the men's final has gone on to win the Aussie Open title 16 years running. Djokovic won the second set against Tsonga on the second Sunday in Mel-town.
Djokovic may have beaten the 22-year-old Tsonga in the final, but his sexiest highlight came when he stunned the amazing Federer in straight sets in the semis. Federer, of course, was the reigning two-time and three-time overall Aussie Open champ, and trying to become the first man in the Open Era to capture three straight Aussie Open crowns.
The emotional Djokovic foiled the sublime Swiss' plans and headed into his second straight Grand Slam final without dropping even one set in Melbourne. The only set the Serb lost at the fortnight was the opening one against Tsonga, on Day 14.
Djokovic was last year's U.S. Open runner-up to Federer and has now reached at least the semis in his last four majors. The still-world No. 1 Federer remains the reigning U.S. Open and Wimbledon king.
"The Djoker" became the first-ever Serbian Grand Slam singles champ, and also the first man not named Federer or Nadal to claim a major title since Marat Safin turned the trick at the 2005 Aussie Open (for his, believe it or not, last title on the ATP). Federer and Nadal had combined to win the previous 11 Slams among the men.
Maria Sharapova has now won three of the four major titles.
And it's Djokovic, not Federer, who is the only player in the world, male or female, to perform in the last two Grand Slam finals. The Fed, however, has appeared in no less than 15 straight major semifinals, which is quite a feat.
The most exciting match of the 2008 Australian Open came in the third round on the men's side, where Federer was pushed to the limit by little-known Serb Janko Tipsarevic. The super Swiss actually lost the first set and was down two-sets-to-one before rolling to an easy fourth-set win, at which point we all assumed the maestro would then cruise in the fifth on a rainy day in Melbourne.
But the Fed didn't cruise in the fifth set, and needed a whopping 18 games to finally pull it out, at 10-8, under the roof at Rod Laver Arena. After 4 1/2 hours of compelling tennis, Federer went on to win his next two matches in straight sets, but there was a roadblock named Djokovic lurking in the semis.
And on the same day as that classic Federer-Tipsarervic marathon -- the first Saturday of the fortnight -- James Blake came all the way back to beat Sebastien Grosjean in a five-set test of endurance after losing the first two stanzas; Aussie fave Lleyton Hewitt snuck past 2006 Oz Open runner-up Marcos Baghdatis in a grueling 4-hour, 45-minute five-setter that ended at a Grand Slam-record 4:35 in the morning; and the reigning Melbourne runner-up, Fernando Gonzalez, lost to young Croat Marin Cilic in four sets.
Not to be outdone for drama on the women's side, that same crazy Saturday at Melbourne Park saw two of the top-six seeds bow out, as No. 2 Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 6 Russian Anna Chakvetadze were each shown the door.
And all of the wild and crazy action that day was staged on only two courts, due to the rare inclement weather there.
By shocking Henin in relatively easy fashion last week, Sharapova propelled herself towards a third Grand Slam title, as she's now three quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam, with only the French Open championship eluding the blonde bomber. In addition to her spanking new Aussie hardware, Sharapova was the Wimbledon champion in 2004, and U.S. Open winner in 2006.
She's makin' good money.
Ana Ivanovic was one of the two Serbian singles finalists in Melbourne.
FYI, Serena Williams is the only active player to have won all four Grand Slam singles titles. I believe they called it the "Serena Slam."
Sharapova made a statement in Week 1 at "The Park" when she throttled fellow former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport in two easy sets in the second round. Davenport did, however, manage to become the all-time leader in career prize money, eclipsing the $21.897 million mark to surpass the legendary Steffi Graf by a couple of grand. As a matter of fact, Davenport's financial success is not just limited to the sport of tennis, as she is the all-time prize money leader in the history of women's sports...period!
The Williams sisters failed to reach the second weekend in Melbourne, as Serena was knocked out by tough Serbian Jelena Jankovic in the quarters and Venus succumbed to Ivanovic in the same round. The world No. 4 Jankovic was fortunate to even be around in the QFs, as she barely escaped her first-round bout against promising Austrian Tamira Paszek, who held match points before ultimately losing to the hard-hitting Serb 12-10 in an epic final set.
By the way, the rising Ivanovic, who is now up to No. 2 in the world behind only Henin, has reached the finals in two of the last four major events, as she finished as the Roland Garros runner-up to Henin last season.
Back over on the men's side, the brash Tsonga almost stole the show completely, as he soared all the way to the final by ousting four of the top-15 players in the world. He opened his fortnight by stunning ninth-seeded Brit Andy Murray in the first round, and added eighth-seeded fellow Frenchman Richard Gasquet, 14th-seeded Russian Mikhail Youzhny and the world No. 2 Nadal to his pile of victims. The reigning three-time French Open champion and two- time Wimbledon runner-up Nadal was overwhelmed by Jo-Willy in the semis, as the excitable Le Mans native came out on top in straight sets to stun all onlookers.
Tsonga tried to give France its first Grand Slam titlist since Yannick Noah prevailed in Paris 25 years ago, and became the first player since Brazilian star Gustavo Kuerten (1997 French Open) to make a Grand Slam final his first ATP-level title bout.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took out four of the world's top-15 players on his way to the Oz Open finale.
A big disappointment came when former world No. 1 Andy Roddick was bounced in only the third round by dangerous German Philipp Kohlschreiber. Roddick was fresh off his exhibition event title at Kooyong (in Melbourne) and led the United States to its first Davis Cup title in 12 years just last month, only to be brushed aside by a game Kohlschreiber in the first week Down Under. Many so-called experts, including yours truly, expected the massive-serving American to go deep in the draw, especially since he's been a three-time semifinalist in Oz.
FYI, crafty French veteran Fabrice Santoro established a new Open Era record by playing in his 62nd Grand Slam event, including the last 38 in succession. The previous mark was held by one of the all-time greats -- Andre Agassi.
By the by, why is David Nalbandian so gritty and talented but has only ever reached one Grand Slam final (lack of fitness)? And that was six years ago at Wimbledon. This guy's tough to figure out. He can beat anybody on the planet on any given day, but loses to a clearly-past-his-prime Juan Carlos Ferrero in the third round in Melbourne? You'd have to consider Nalbandian as the best active player without a Grand Slam title (sorry, Nikolay Davydenko and Tommy Haas).
Nalbandian joins Roddick, Murray, Kuznetsova and Chakvetadze on my all- disappointing list for the '08 Aussie Open.
FYI, when next season rolls around, the Aussie men's drought at the Aussie Open will be at 33 years, while the women's will be 31. Mark Edmondson was the last Aussie male champ, in 1976, while Chris O'Neil was the last Aussie women's titlist, in 1978.
The next major event -- the French Open -- will commence May 25, and I suspect that the clay-court royalty of Nadal and Henin will be the favorites heading in. Don't you?