by Pete Bodo
We're about to embark on the Slam-within-a-Slam, the second week of a major. It's hard to accurately describe just how dramatic the impending shift always is, especially when you're on-site (in this regard, television is a great leveler). To me, it's like the first week is the real qualifying event, although the qualitative difference is obvious.
It seems like ages ago that Brad Gilbert and Cliff Drysdale (or was it Pat McEnroe and Chris Fowler?) were saying how that tremendous fightback by Fernando Verdasco was going to live with Janko Tipsarevic for weeks and maybe even months, implication being that we might be looking at an extended period of poor play from Tipsarevic.
Granted, we're not the ones who absorbed that loss, but does it really seem that consequential, this far out? And given how Verdasco was crushed yesterday by the suddenly dangerous—very dangerous—Tomas Berdych, doesn't that second-rounder with Janko seem that much less relevant? If the poignancy of that heartbreak has been so easily overtaken by other events, maybe Tipsarevic himself isn't quite as shattered as we imagine. Maybe he's just shrugged and moved on. He certainly showed no lingering ill effects on the doubles court, where he and Bjorn Phau battered a fine team in Xavier Malisse and Jamie Murray, before succumbing in the third round to Jurgen Melzer and Philipp Petzschner.
Well, the great wave of week one has receded, and the sands have been washed clean; the next wave hits the beach tonight. So let's take a quick look back at the first seven days and pass out our gold stars and pink slips to those highlighted in bold face.
Jurgen Melzer. That's right. I'm leading with him for a reason; he's the man nobody seems to want to talk about, the guy at the party who doesn't successfully connect with anyone, even though he's nicely dressed, in good spirits, and is adept at making conversation.
Melzer had a career year in 2010. Starting just inside the Top 30, he was knocking on the door of the Top 10 by the end. It's no secret that Austria has a remarkable—and mystifying—track record when it comes to producing unbeloved or even just plain weird players (remember Horst Skoff?). But Melzer is in the second week at another major, having forced Marcos Baghdatis (who suffered a a groin injury) to his knees. Melzer gets Andy Murray next. Tough draw.
And how about the Australian Open website. Boy, I love the way you can navigate it, especially when it comes to getting an individual player's portfolio. Just click on the pro's name wherever you come across it and the page opens up has tabs taking you anywhere you want to go, including up-to-date round-by-round statistics. We have something similar here, but kudos, Tennis Australia.
But getting back to the men: Roger Federer gets a gold star, even though there's no more room on his bulletin board, for equaling Jimmy Connors' record for having made 27 Grand Slam quarterfinals in a row.
Young guns Alexandr Dolgopolov and Milos Raonic get stars for their most recent wins, over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mikhail Youzhny, respectively.
Stan "Manislaus" Wawrinka gets recognition for justifying—if the word can be applied here—his decision to leave his family to make the most of the five years he believes he has left as a top pro. Like I said before, I find it hard to imagine that there isn't a lot more to this story than we know, easy as it would be to condemn Wawrinka's actions. In any event, he would look pretty silly if he played like crap Down Under. He's responded to the pressure inherent in his situation admirably.
Tomas Berdych also gets a star for pulling himself out of his late 2010 tailspin; had he gone out in week one, it would have made it that much easier to dismiss his results from the first half of last year as a career run, destined not to be repeated. And Novak Djokovic gets a star for doing a fair impersonation of Fabio in that shirtless dance turn he did with Aussie hoofer Kym Johnson.
"We have some things in common, like footwork," Djokovic remarked. True enough, and Djokovic's foot—and racket—work has been outstanding so far. Oddly enough, he's flying under the radar here despite his late 2010 resurgence. That's probably because Djokovic encountered a lot of turbulence early in the event, while his rivals dominated. But Novak is flying straight and true now. Watch out for him.
Turning to the women: Francesca Schiavone, that soulful Italian, has again demonstrated her capacity for making headlines and history. Her 16-14 in-the-third win over two-time Grand Slam champ Svetlana Kuznetsova set a women's Grand Slam record for time of play, clocking in at four hours and 44 minutes. And you have to love this quote from Schiavone's presser, which ought to be painted onto a board and nailed up over the entrance to every center court in the world: We work every day to do this kind of—not work—but to give the best when you really say, 'No, I can't do it.' But at the end you have something more, always something more.. .
Looking back on how John Isner performed in the round after his epic, record-shattering first-round win over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon (he had nothing left in the tank and got just five games of Thiemo de Bakker), you have to fear for Schiavone when she goes out to play the newest WTA model grinder, top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.
Give Wozniacki and Kuznetsova gold stars, too. Wozniacki looked ripe for a Jelena Jankovic-grade disaster when she set out to justify her No. 1 ranking this year, but she's responded beautifully, and at the end of the day it isn't her fault that Schiavone probably will be easy pickings in the quarterfinals. Sveta gets her star for her third-round quality win over Justine Henin.
Brad Gilbert. Yeah, I know, he's too much of a motor mouth, too relentelessly upbeat, too unabashedly American, too whatever...but two things I really like about Gilbert that aren't often remarked upon are the genuine compassion that shines through in his commentary and the sense he creates that he's your best buddy. Plus, he coins some really imaginative expressions, and who cares if they're jockspeak?
How can you not smile when Gilbert described a service return winner as having been marked, Return to Sender? Or when, contemplating Guillermo Garcia Lopez's boneheaded insistence on serving to Andy Murray's backhand, he observed, That's a yellow card in the coaching department...
Although the broadcast times are too heavily shaped by other sporting events on ESPN2 on a day-by-basis, the network has done a great job addressing the most common complaint in the history of tennis on television—the tendency of broadcasters to stick with lousy matches that feature stars, especally those from their own nations, instead of cutting to the most interesting matches going on at any given moment. A gold star to the entire ESPN2 team.
Li Na (my pick to win the event) gets a star for having a great run, and so does dancing fool Andrea Petkovic—this time, her star isn't for her bust-a-move antics, but that decisive beatdown of resurgent Maria Sharapova. Ouch. That one had to hurt Maria.
In the bottom half of the draw, Ekaterina "Hey" Makarova gets a star for that gutsy 8-6 win over Nadia Petrova; she gets Kim Clijsters next. Clijsters earned her gold star for crushing poor Dinara Safina in a double-bagel train wreck of a match. You had to feel for Safina after that one, but we've been feeling for her for a fair amount of time now and it doesn't seem to help her cause.
Now, for the pink slips, as if being sent packing in week one isn't humiliating enough...
Does anyone else roll his or her eyes every time that silly tourism promo for Melbourne comes up on ESPN2? The song is A Heart Divided, by Aussie chanteuse Holly Throsby. Why do I keep thinking that Throsby is a Starbucks barista with a pierced nose and tatoos? The "precious" factor in this promo is off the charts, so it gets a pink slip. I am not being rational here, I know, but there it is.
Also, how about that Live with Chivalry commercial? I cringe at that overdone British accent, the cheesy narrative, and the cast of characters—all of them Tim Henman wannabes, but not in a good way.
Turning to the draws, I don't want to belabor the negative, so the less said about some of these performances the better. Was anyone else disappointed by the way Jo-Wilfried Tsonga just faded away against Dolgolopov? Wonder why Tsonga can't stay dialed in and energetic for a five-set, first-week match these days? Okay, he's been injured, and seemed to have a problem with a hip as the match wore on, but still...Time is passing, Jo, and you have to exploit a window when you have one.
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez also gets a dressing down. He just didn't seem all that into his match with Andy Murray. Fine, Murray is playing very good tennis. But GGL seemed not at all interested in making it a competitive battle. Remember the words of Schiavone: We work every day to do this kind of—not work—but to give the best...
Some of these fellas and ladies, don't realize that, all in all, they could be working at more stressful, dangerous, unrewarding and soul-killing jobs.
With some reluctance, Slammin' Sammy Stosur gets a pink slip because she works hard and says and does all the right things. But this was, potentially, a big moment for her, and many observers felt she had a good shot at winning the title here, on a court that suits her game. Sure, her standing as the native hope and No. 5 seed created pressure, but every great player will tell you that pressure is a privilege as well as a burden, and if you want to triumph you have to accept and use pressure in your favor. Lleyton Hewitt at least always inserted himself into the second week conversation, usually late in the second week. It can be done.
Petra Kvitova is my dark horse pick to win the tournament, but Stosur might have found a way to produce stiffer resistance to the No. 25 seed after losing a close first set in a tiebreaker. "It was so close," Stosur said. "I mean, that first set. Don't really know how I lost it, to be honest. Felt like I started playing a bit better and was probably on top of her and then all of a sudden it was gone and I was a set down."
True enough. And while letdowns are beyond our control, the situation called for a better response to adversity than Stosur managed in that ho-hum second set.
I'm tired of giving Jelena Jankovic pink slips; I can't hand these out like candy or else they lose their meaning. So the last one I'll give out today goes to Victoria Azarenka. When you've lost just 16 games and no sets through three rounds of play, you need to step up, not back, when you run into a quality player like Li Na. Once again, Azarenka lost her way, but you have to admit, Li Na is on fire. She hasn't lost a set, or more than three games in any set, so far in the tournament.
That's all folks. Go Jets!