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Serena & Rafa: Wizards of Oz

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When the smoke finally cleared in Oz, newly-crowned women's No. 1 Serena Williams and men's top-ranked superstar Rafael Nadal were your 2009 Aussie Open champs.

Rafa is the clear-cut top player in the men's game right now, and he has a 13-6 record against Roger Federer to prove it. He's beaten Federer five straight times, including a gutsy victory over the Swiss great in this past Sunday's men's finale at Melbourne Park. The relentless Spaniard prevailed in a lengthy five-setter to claim his first Aussie Open title and a third major championship in his last four tries.

Rafael Nadal now has a stranglehold on the Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open and Olympic titles.
Nadal currently holds the Wimbledon, French Open, Australian Open and Olympic titles, leaving him just a U.S. Open title shy of the career Golden Slam, which has been captured by only five men all-time, with Andre Agassi being the most-recent performer to do so.

By the way, Agassi is also the only man to win four Aussie Open titles in the Open Era (since 1968).

Moving along.

Nadal, who entered an Australian Open as the top seed for the first time in his career, needed 4 hours, 23 minutes to stave off Federer in the blockbuster finale, which he barely reached by sneaking past fellow Spanish lefthander Fernando Verdasco in an Australian Open-record 5 hours, 14 minutes in the semis.

Meanwhile, Serena needed a title in Melbourne to reach No. 1 for the third time in her brilliant career, and that's exactly what she did, culminating with a comprehensive beatdown of rising Russian Dinara Safina in the women's final on the Plexicushion at Rod Laver Arena.

Always a Bridesmaid: Safina is currently the reigning Aussie Open, French Open and Olympic runner-up. Not quite the Nadal credentials.

Moving along, again.

The big victory put Serena in the land of double digits, as she corralled Grand Slam singles title number 10, with four of them coming in Australia.

That's Odd: Serena has now won the Aussie Open crown in each of the last four odd-numbered years (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009).

Serena Williams captured the Aussie Open for a fourth time and now boasts 10 major titles overall.
The reigning U.S. and Aussie Open champ has reached three straight and won two consecutive Grand Slam finals to solidify her status as the top women's player on the planet (with a tremendous amount of help coming from Juju Henin, who suddenly retired while still in her prime last season).

Serena joined some, needless to say, select company by becoming only the seventh woman to reach double-digit major singles titles, joining Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert (18), Martina Navratilova (18) and Billie Jean King (12). Serena is actually fourth on the Open Era list, behind only Graf, Evert and Smith Court (11).

And just for the record, Serena paired with Venus to also claim the women's doubles championship in the land of Oz.

Serena will now try to become the first woman to win an actual Grand Slam (all four majors in one calendar year) since Graf did it back in 1988. The sturdy American has held all four majors at one time, but it was spread out over two seasons, back in 2002 and 2003.

Back to Nadal.

Roger Federer couldn't hide his emotions after losing to Nadal in a Grand Slam final for a fifth time.
Nadal is now 6-2 in his career Grand Slam finals, with his losses coming against Federer at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007. Five of his six victories have come at the expense of Federer in finals, including three straight at the French Open, where Rafa is, of course, the reigning four-time titlist.

Note: Federer still needs one more major to title to tie Pete Sampras for the men's record at 14. The super Swiss fell to 13-5 in his career Grand Slam finals, with all five losses coming at the hands of Nadal, including three of the last four majors.

More notes: Federer has reached six straight Aussie Open semifinals and has played in a record 19 straight major semis, dating back to Wimbledon 2004.

That's fairly amazing.

By the way, Nadal owns the six major titles and is still only 22 years (and eight months) old. Federer had captured only two major titles at the same age.

Maybe it's Nadal who will end up being the best ever? He certainly has the upper hand on the Fed, who, by the way, has appeared in four straight Grand Slam finals, going 1-3. Federer appeared in 10 straight major finals at one point from 2005-07.

Another Note: Nadal and Federer have combined to win 19 overall and 15 of the last 16 Grand Slam titles. Sounds like the "Big Four" (Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) is still actually only the "Big Two."

Nadal will now try to become the first man to win the actual Grand Slam since Laver last turned the trick 40 long years ago. Laver captured all four majors in 1962 and 1969.

How did last year's champions fare at this year's Aussie Open? Well, Djokovic quit in the fourth set of his quarterfinal match against American Andy Roddick, while Maria Sharapova missed the event due to some ongoing shoulder issues.

Congrats to Roddick for reaching his first Grand Slam semi in two years last week.

Dinara Safina can't seem to get over the hump, having lost in the Aussie Open, French Open and Olympic finals over the last eight months.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Elena Dementieva in this piece. The two-time major runner-up and reigning Olympic gold medalist headed to Melbourne off back-to-back season-opening titles in Auckland and Sydney and pushed her winning streak to 15 matches before finally losing to Serena in the semis.

Dementieva has dropped only five sets in her first 16 matches so far in 2009.

Among the big disappointments in Melbourne were U.S. Open runner-up Jelena Jankovic, the aforementioned Murray, Ana Ivanovic and Venus Williams. The previously-world No. 1 Jankovic lost to 2007 Wimbledon runner-up Marion Bartoli in the fourth round; the fourth-seeded U.S. Open runner-up Murray, considered by many to be the favorite in Oz, succumbed to a 14th-seeded Verdasco in the fourth round; the French Open champion and 2008 Aussie Open runner-up Ivanovic bowed out against 29th-seeded Russian Alisa Kleybanova in the third round; and the seven-time major titlist and reigning two-time Wimbledon champion Venus was shocked by scrappy Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round. The currently-struggling Ivanovic lost to Sharapova in last year's Down Under finale.

Yet Another Note: Murray has never advanced beyond the round of 16 in Melbourne.

Here's the part where I say an Australian man hasn't won his national Open since an unseeded Mark Edmondson did it back in 1976 and an Aussie woman hasn't titled there since Chris O'Neil in 1978.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley

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