G'Day. . .For the USA
With just two days of play completed, you might say there's "insufficient data" for making sweeping generalizations about the Australian Open, so of course I'm going to make a sweeping generalization. The tournament has gotten off to a very quiet start, but in a good way. All of the usual suspects seem to have been locked and loaded for the start of the year; that's something you couldn't have said about the first major in years past.
The biggest upset thus far was Sam Stosur's loss last night to Sorana Cirstea, a partial talent from Romania. It was, in some ways, this was a worst-case scenario for the No. 6 seed, because Cirstea has plenty of game, she just misplaces it too often. Not against Stosur, though. It was as if Cirstea sensed this opportunity to make a statement more easily produced in Melbourne than anywhere else. And so it went. By the middle of the first set, as Cirstea got dialed in, you almost wished that those sunglasses Stosur wears had rose-colored lenses—anything to help her overcome the heebee-jeebees that afflict her when she's playing in her homeland. Instead, she played like the lenses were the wrong prescription.
This orderly progress of the tournament would not have been much affected by the fate of the American players in action, win or lose. That's about all you need to know about the current state of the U.S. game. But it turns out that the U.S. contingent had an excellent day and evening in Melbourne Park, so let's review.
Andy Murray (No. 4) d. Ryan Harrison, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2
Nobody can say that Private Ryan isn't paying his dues, even if that means getting spanked by a Top 10 player rather than, say, peeling potatoes or digging latrines. He's 0-10 against those elite men but, as Roger Federer might cheerfully rationalize, "gathering information."
Harrison was on fire in the first set, displaying the most improved element of his technique—the backhand. His two-hander (he also hits an effective one-handed slice, although I'm not sure that's a great play on the relatively high-bouncing courts in Oz) is becoming a weapon, and he's not afraid to pull the trigger and go down the line with it.
If you want to get all wonky, Murray's ability to adjust and neutralize Harrison's backhand was a key feature of the match, at least according to Harrison, who later said:
"He (Murray) started placing his forehand a little better. In the first set he was playing a lot more through the court. It was in the zone for my backhand. (Then) he started getting it a lot higher up. He made that adjustment. I didn't make the adjustment of going back or coming closer to get it in my strike zone."
That's a neat, subtle piece of analysis by the loser; this kid clearly has a big heart, but he also an excellent tennis brain.
Andy Roddick (No. 15) d. Robin Haase, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1
Having picked this one as my potential "mind-blowing upset" of the first round, I happy and relieved to see that—with all due respect to Haase—it did not come to pass. And if you're partial to U.S. players or just Roddick himself, the scores have to make you pretty happy because Haase is a talented player who might have had his own Cirstea moment if Roddick were vulnerable.
After the match, Haase suggested that one of the great challenges in playing Roddick is his quickness, his court coverage. It was an eyebrow-raising comment, given how Roddick's relative lack of great mobility has always been seen as a major factor in his reluctance to build an attacking game around that monster serve of his. Apprised of Haase's remark, Roddick said:
"I'm certainly not fleetfooted. I'm not naturally gifted as far as foot speed. But luckily that's something you can work at. That's something that is largely a matter of putting in time. It's certainly something that I've been conscious of. It's definitely the way the game is going. Especially it seems like the conditions are slower sometimes now. That will lend itself to more roadwork."
Marcel Granollers (No. 26) d. Jesse Levine, 6-0, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 5-7, 6-3
Given that he's ranked No. 158, Levine gave a good accounting of himself, coming back from two sets down to push a seed the distance. Levine is only 24, so he still has time to get into the safe harbor enjoyed by players who have direct entry into majors (the cutoff is No. 104, if all eligible players enter). Who can forget those back-to-back majors on 2009, at which Levine upset former No. 1 Marat Safin in the first round of Wimbledon, and then let a two-sets-to-none lead against then-No. 17 Marin Cilic slip away at the U.S. Open?
Juan Ignacio Chela (No. 27) d. Michael Russell, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4
Russell is 33 and ranked No. 97. You will hear the last of him when they hook him up to a team of Lipizzaner Stallions and drag him off court No. 24 at some tournament, somewhere in the world. God bless him.
Ryan Sweeting d. Matthias Bachinger, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2
Sweeting has been sneaking up through the rankings; he's presently No. 68. Maybe sneaking is the wrong word, because his ATP rankings graph shows that he's been in a steady upward arc, which is a very good sign no matter where this late-maturing 24-year-old eventually levels off. He'll have his hands full with No. 5 David Ferrer in the next round.
Last word on the U.S. Men: Russell met reasonable expectations; all the others exceeded them.
This was a solid match by Williams, if not the kind of horrific slaughter she so often produces in early-round play. Having to stay out there a little longer may even do her some good, given how little match play she's had—provided that her recently-rolled ankle can bear the stress of match play. She said afterward: "Physically I felt fine. I was definitely moving better than, you know, I suspected. I still think I can move better, though, and just get that confidence. It would be great."
Zheng Jie d. Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-1
The score may make you wince, but keep in mind that Keys is still just 17, and ranked No. 272. She was a wild card entrant, and already had a wildly successful tournament coming in. I say that because Keys (along with Levine on the men's side) earned her place by winning the always-hotly-contested USTA playoff tournament a few weeks before this major. That battle for the wild card is a great test for any young player.
Vania King d. Kateryna Bondarenko, 7-6 (3), 6-3
King is still just 22, and she's a solid No. 66 (and No. 6 in doubles). Granted, she probably won't evolve into the next Serena, but I get the sense that there are a few big statements yet to come from her. In any event, this is a solid win and a building block.
Urszula Radwanska d. Alison Riske, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2
At No. 137, Riske slashed her way through the qualifying draw. Getting into the main event was already a fine accomplishment, and she handled herself well against her experienced Polish opponent. She has something to build on.
Sloane Stephens d. Silvia Soler-Espinosa, 6-4, 6-2
Just 17 and already ranked No. 95, Stephens has positioned herself for a year of making moves. This was a good start, partly because she it was a winnable match. Those can be tough sometimes, and how promising youngsters do against players they can be expected to beat is a very good yardstick for measuring potential. This was a tight, neat, authoritative win.
Jamie Hampton d. Mandy Minella, 6-1, 6-1
She's no up-and-coming prodigy, but the 22-year-old journeywoman who may be hitting her stride. Okay, you say, so she won a round at the Australian Open. Whoop-dee-do. Well, she also had to qualify, and she didn't have the easiest of Q-draws. She won two of her three qualifying matches in straight sets, and the third with a 6-0 third set. One of her victims was WTA veteran Kirsten Flipkens.
Last word on the U.S. women: Outstanding results, 4-2 on the day and none of the winners lost a set.
Next question: Who, among them—men or women—will still be riding the bronc in two days time?