For residents of the Northeast, it was a long, blustery, bitterly cold weekend—that is, if you consider 25-degree temperatures bitter, which I most certainly do. For tennis fans, however, the last few days have been a lot warmer.
Watching many hours live through the night and many hours on DVR through the day, I began to think this Aussie Open might be better seen at home than in person. If I’d been in the press room, I may not have walked out to see the grandly tumultuous fifth set between Fernando Gonzalez and Richard Gasquet on Friday, which ended with Gonzo’s Chilean fans trying to burn down Melbourne Park—I don’t want to think about what they would have done if he’d lost. I felt like a fan again: In part that’s because I was rooting hard for Gasquet, a terminal lost cause; but it’s also because the Aussie Open always appeals to the unjaded tennis lover in me. Here are a few other thoughts from a very eventful three days.
—It was hard to watch Gasquet lose to Gonzalez. As you may know, Gonzo has never been my favorite player. His serve and backhand aren’t pretty, and even his forehand winners seem vicious rather than exhilarating. Plus, even in defeat I gained a measure of respect for Gasquet. After blowing the third-set tiebreaker, he didn’t completely fold up his tent. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that lasting so long into the fifth will, paradoxically, help his confidence in his ability to fight in the future. It was also fun to see the French fans get feisty for once. A classic match, one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in a long time, Gonzo-Gasquet offered a positive view of the nationalistic fan fervor that the Aussie Open inspires. It’s too bad it came so early in the first Slam of the year. We’ll be hard-pressed to remember it by season’s end.
—Jelena Jankovic was beaten by a red-hot player in Marion Bartoli, but it was clear that JJ's flaws will continue to haunt her matter how fit she is. In practices at Bollettieri’s this winter, she was working on recovering well for her opponent’s return of serve. A good idea, but if you want to win a Slam on the women’s side these days, there doesn’t seem to be a substitute for a better-than-decent serve. Jankovic’s is merely decent.
—If anything, 15 fewer pounds on Andy Roddick’s frame has helped his defense. He tracks down balls more easily behind the baseline, but what incentive does he have now to come forward? He may be the purest defender in men’s tennis at the moment. I have to think that isn’t Larry Stefanki’s ultimate goal for him.
—For two sets against Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych reminded me of why I had once, long ago, enjoyed watching him. His power may be the most effortless around. At one point, I thought, wrongly, that it might be the future of the sport. It was nice to see that future again, even if didn’t last long. Too bad the sun got in his eyes. But that doesn’t mean Berdych is hopeless; it’s been said for years that he needed a new coach, and now he’s got one.
—McWilliams wine and “male enhancement” products—this is the advertising that tennis generates. McWilliams says its wines are “surprisingly affordable”—are they surprised that no one pays more for them?
—This was the first time I’d gotten a good look at Victoria Azarenka, and she was impressive. The sharp, heavy-spinning serve, the clean contact on the backhand, the wiry athleticism, the attention to the fundamentals—the WTA has a potential new star on it hands. The tour just has to find a way to keep her from sounding like a peacock when she hits the ball.
—Remember what I was saying about the not-quite-perfect footwork of Amer Delic? I saw it crop up again on both sides of the net in the Monfils-Simon match. Each of them gets to the ball in time, but not a millisecond sooner. This makes them stereotypically smooth and stylish Frenchman, but you wonder if they would be even better if they weren’t so smooth. They might benefit from watching how Azarenka sets up for a ball.
As for Monfils, I knew I couldn't trust the guy—his injury was in his mind?
—Once upon a time, I thought that Fernando Verdasco had a stronger upside than Rafael Nadal. I’ve always liked the forehand technique and his balance as he sets up for it. It’s just that it was no fun to watch him set up so well and then hit the ball 5 feet out. Now his forehand is starting to look a little like Nadal’s when he goes inside-out and curls the ball into the corner.
—What did we learn from Andy Murray’s defeat? He looked curiously loose and passive through long periods of it, as if he couldn’t settle on a tactic. Like Jankovic, no matter what Murray does to shore up his serve and strength, the fact that he isn’t a first-strike player will always leave him vulnerable to a guy who is taking the first strike, and making it.
—Seems like old times on the men’s side, right? Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are back in the saddle, and Nadal is suddenly leading the way, as the world No. 1 should. He isn't hitting his backhand better, but he’s hiding it well, which these courts allow him to do. If he continues to make his serve a point-ending weapon, the sky’s the limit.
—We’ve got a couple more possible corkers tonight. First there’s Marion Bartoli vs. Vera Zvonareva: The Frenchwoman is sui generis, and the Russian a one-woman emotional roller-coaster. We might just see one of them playing for the title in a few days. The night session is headlined by Roger Federer vs. Juan Martin del Potro—the Argentine may be the most impressive man in the draw so far other than Nadal. He played without doubt or fear in beating his fellow young gun Marin Cilic.
Winding up the day session is Roddick-Djokovic, a rematch of their raucous, vengeful, hilarious tussle at the U.S. Open. Remember that night? How can anyone forget Djokovic laying down the ultimate insult by saying that Andy “wasn’t nice”? Oh, it is going to be on.