The Longest Day(s)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 /by

I wrote an email to my colleagues yesterday afternoon to say I thought the second day of first-round play would produce a bonanza of upsets. After all, the menu was certainly tantalizing, from Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sabine Lisicki right on down to Roger Federer vs. the spectacularly talented and unpredictable head case, Benoit Paire.

As it turned out, it was a relatively quiet day on the men's side. The women, though, produced a flurry of upsets, starting with Carla Suarez Navarro’s elimination of No. 7 seed Sara Errani, the 2012 French Open finalist.

But the most striking upset was one that just had to make even a sourpuss break out a huge grin: Kimiko Date-Krumm simply demolished Nadia Petrova, seeded 12th and champion of Sofia’s Tournament of Also Rans in late 2012, by the bone-crunching score of 6-2, 6-0.

At age 42, Date-Krumm is now the oldest woman to win a singles match at the Australian Open since the dawn of Open tennis.

In fact, time-traveler Date-Krumm had not won a singles match at this tournament since 1996, a year when the youngest singles player in the main draw this year (Donna Vekic) wasn’t even born. Date-Krumm has learned to take such details and facts in stride with a smile and a wink. As she said in her presser after she felled Petrova, who’s not only 12 years younger, but more than six inches taller:

“Some people, the player's mother is younger than me—so it's like (I’m playing) my daughter,” she said. “Everybody is almost half age as me, so it’s not easy but I’ve got nothing to lose so I just try to keep going. . . I don’t have a target or a dream, so I’m just enjoying the travelling and talking to the young players. It is fun.”

So much for the schmaltzy “follow your dream!” industry, eh? I’ll have what Kimiko’s drinking, thank you very much.

On the men’s side, it’s almost as if the announcement that Brad Drewett, the ATP Executive Chairman and President, is suffering from Motor Neurone disease put a dampener on scoreboard as well as on people’s spirits. His affliction is also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the legendary American baseball player who died from it.

Let’s be frank about this. ALS probably is the athlete’s ultimate nightmare illness, because it entails a comprehensive loss of muscle control and movement—the lifeblood of a former ATP pro like Drewett, who is just 54 years old. This is a particularly vicious manifestation of fate, for nine of the 10 people who suffer from ALS contracted the neuro-muscular disease mysteriously. That other “one” represents genetic pre-disposition to the condition.

When the ATP hired Drewett (he took office almost exactly a year ago, after working his way up through almost every other position at the organization over the years), they were finally heeding a chorus of critics—and many active players—who felt that they ought to be led by a former pro and experienced organizational hand.

Drewett was a Top 40 player who won two titles and once made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, losing to top-seeded Ken Rosewall. While stocky and thick-legged, he had a surprisingly deft serve-and-volley game; were he a little faster on his feet he would have had even better results. Drewett justified the call for the players to be led and governed by one of their own rather than a bloodless marketing expert, or refuge-seeking corporate CEO who wouldn’t know a rally from a volley. Drewett gained great prize-money concessions from the Australian Open in particular and thoroughly succeeded in earning the trust of his fired-up ATP base.

The pall that lingered over the corridors of power and the locker room was reflected in the fairly predictable results. One upset that did catch my eye, though, was qualifier Ricardas Berankis’s straight-sets upset of Sergiy Stakhovsky. Berankis, a 22-year-old Lithuanian who developed his game at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Academy, is a former Orange Bowl champion who’s been sidelined by injuries since 2010, when he was the youngest player in the Top 100. 

With a little luck, 110th-ranked Berankis might have been a direct acceptance into the main draw; instead he faced the challenge of qualifying—truly one of the more pressure-laden of tasks, especially for a guy on the cusp of direct entry. He got through it, though, with a 6-2, 6-1 final-round win over Paul Capdeville. Now he ought to have earned enough points to rise into that haven of direct entry, at least into 128-draw majors.

At the end of the first day of play, I thought we had a pattern developing: Almost exactly a third of the matches in both draws went the distance. That seemed like an unusually large number of five- and three- setters to me, although I can see where every player might be moved to fight extra hard in the first round of the first Grand Slam of the year. If the trend held up in the second day, it might suggest a tournament of unprecedented drama and unpredictability.

But yesterday, only three men’s matches went to five sets, led by No. 19 seed Tommy Haas’ heartbreaking, 8-6 in-the-fifth loss to Jarkko Nieminen. The women did more to match their first day combatants: Eleven mathes went three sets (just one shy of yesterday’s even dozen), and that included two that went into extra time in the third set: Garbine Muguruza’s 14-12 win over Magdelena Rybarikova, and Kristina Mladenovic’s 11-9 mastery of Hungary’s top player, Timea Babos.

Perhaps the most disappointing of the maximum-set losers were the USA’s Christina McHale (to Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva) and No. 24 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (to Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko, 7-5 in the third). And I can imagine many seeded players are breathing a sigh of relief now that Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova, Ms. Golden Set and the No. 28 seed, is out of the running—thanks to a three-set loss to Germany’s Annika Beck. Watch out for Beck; she’s an 18-year old prodigy and already ranked No. 71.

So at least one pattern from the previous year seems to be continuing for the women, and that’s the improved depth below the very top of the game. But the problem for the men remains the same as for the women pros: Who is going to step up to dislodge the three or four elite players from their positions at the top?

For all the talk about the second week at majors, for me the meaningful sorting takes place over the next two days, as the second round is completed. The fireworks cascading from the women’s draw are likely to continue, let’s see if the men can rekindle their Day 1 volatility following the sobering news of their leader’s ill fortune.

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