Report from Melbourne: Americans in Oz

by: Steve Tignor | January 14, 2013

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MELBOURNE—It’s hot here at this time of year, right? Yes, but the better description for the weather might be "elusive." You can be walking down the street, feeling stifled by the warmth, only to turn the corner and get smacked in the face with a cold blast of wind. That’s kind of how it went on the first day of the Australian Open. There were low thick clouds at dawn, and gray skies through the rest of the morning, but as play progressed the sun came out and turned the afternoon into an ideal one.

But what the conditions were like, exactly, remained elusive to at least one player and reporter.

Q: On the court, it’s cold or hot?

Maria Sharapova: Cold or hot?

Q: What’s your feeling?

Maria Sharapova: You were there. Did you watch?

Q: Yeah, I watched.

Maria Sharapova: Was it cold or hot?

Q: Cold.

Maria Sharapova: Cold? It’s probably warmer when you’re playing. I felt pretty good, much colder than the other days.

Aside from that comedy team in training, here’s a little bit of what else went on during a customarily overloaded first Grand Slam session, on court and in the interview room. You could only get around to see so much of it, so I stuck mostly close to home, with three Americans.


Toughest Act to Follow

That would be Brian Baker’s own. Last year the words “feel good story” followed Baker's name wherever he went. They followed the 27-year-old, oft-injured American to Paris, where he won his first match and nearly his second. They grew louder at Wimbledon, where he reached the fourth round. But this is a new season and the first act of the movie is over. Baker had a tough summer, which ended with a second-round loss at the U.S. Open, and his ranking topped out at No. 52 in October.

The Nashville native certainly wasn’t feeling particularly good late this afternoon out on Court 20. This is the “other side” of the Aussie Open grounds, closer to the corporate tents than to the big arenas. It feels like a Grand Slam held in a parking lot, a parking lot with dance music booming nearby and spectators milling every which way as you’re about to serve.

Baker was annoyed for a reason. He was up two sets to love on Alex Bogomolov, Jr., ranked 70 spots below him. Baker also took the third set to a tiebreaker, before bombing out 7-0. This was not a match he came all the way to Melbourne to lose.

It’s the fourth set now, but Baker can’t forget the last one. He talks to himself. He points at his head after one miss. He throws his hands in the air when two fans walk past while he’s about to toss the ball. He stares at his coaches and friends. He hits an easy drop shot into the net and barks, “Really?” Even a squawking bird nearby gets on his nerves. The few fans who stop to watch do so in silence. This is the story after the feel-good story, the return to the grind, to reality. As Baker said afterward, "I don't have that, 'I'm happy to be here, let's see what happens'" mentality anymore.

But Baker is still a level-headed player at his core, and as the fifth set begins he calms down. The familiar backhand drive, the one that impressed so many in Paris and Wimbledon last summer, returns. He closes out Bogie going away, 6-2. Tennis, even in a parking lot, feels OK again.


Moodiest Match

This would have to belong to the testy war of attrition staged by Ryan Harrison and Santiago Giraldo on Court 6. Giraldo was Harrison’s opponent for his infamous Olympic meltdown last summer, so you might have thought he would dial back the intensity just a bit. You might have thought wrong. While he didn’t smash any racquets that I saw, Harrison still waved his fist in the faces of Giraldo’s (admittedly vociferous) Colombian rooting section every chance he got.

But it was Giraldo who ended melted down in the moderate heat. He screamed. He pulled his hat to the side of his head. He threw it to the court. He stood and pleaded with the umpire about one of his forehands, repeating, “But it was in,” at least 10 times until it sounded like he would cry.

For much of the match, I assumed that Giraldo would win. He was striking the ball more cleanly, and Harrison kept backing his way farther behind the baseline, until he had the linespeople ducking for cover. When he first came on tour, Harrison was billed as an all-courter. That did, in a way, prove true today, except in reverse—he backed his way all over the court. At this point Ryan is still better at scrambling than he is dictating, and he’ll never win a major playing from the line judge’s chairs.

Harrison is nothing if not a competitor, though, and this was a gritty victory. Two clutch shots won it for him.

At set point in the second, Giraldo had him dead to rights, but Harrison guessed right and reflexed a backhand pass winner. In the final game of the third, Harrison, who hadn’t hit many attacking shots all day, stunned Giraldo by stepping into a second serve at deuce and hammering it down the line.

Count it as confidence-builder, and wish Ryan luck against Novak Djokovic in the next round.


Best Battle in a Hostile Atmosphere

That belonged to 17-year-old Madison Keys, the third American I saw fight through adversity today. Serving for the match against Aussie Casey Dellacqua, in front of a highly partisan crowd on Margaret Court Arena, Keys choked and was broken. It would have be easy for her to give in to the situation. She didn’t.

There’s a lot to like about Keys. She has game-breaking power on her serve and forehand, and she can get around for someone 6-feet tall. Her dad is a basketball player, and she's a born jock. After playing a limited schedule the last few years, and switching to a different USTA training center after eight years at the Evert Academy, Keys has made a jump so far in 2013. She's still prone to wild swings in consistency—even in victory today, there was passages where she couldn’t hit the ball in the court. At all. Her weaknesses will be exposed at some point soon in Melbourne, and it might not be pretty. But winning this match the way she did could be the best reason to like Maddy's future so far.


Strangest Factually Incorrect Question

You thought the weather query for Sharapova was weird? Try this, from earlier in her presser after her 6-0, 6-0 first-round win:

Q: You have now gotten a double bagel win at every Slam. It completes your double bagel Slam or calendar Slam. Is that something you’re proud of?

Maria Sharapova: (Perplexed) I...don’t think that's very relative to anything.

OK, double bagel Slam, it’s meaningless, but at least it’s funny, right? One problem: Sharapova has never won a match love and love at Wimbledon.

Thanks to today's questioner, the pressure is officially on.


Best Answer

Venus Williams was good on court, but she was even better in the interview room. Asked if she’s a vegan, she said, "It’s pretty well known I’m a cheagan. If it’s on your plate, I might get to cheat. If you’re sitting next to me, watch out.”

She said that she hopes she doesn’t run out of money in the future, because she doesn't want to “have to commentate,” and she’s the wrong person to ask about whether a court is playing fast or slow. “I’m a very unsensitive player," she asserted.

But V was at her flip finest when she was asked, oddly enough, about the Sony Open in Miami.

Q: How important do you think it is for them to kind of upgrade that facility?

Venus Williams: Obviously you have to update, don’t be late. That’s one of my mottos. You don’t want to keep wearing the mullet when it’s not the 80s anymore.


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