MELBOURNE—As predicted, it was a stifling Thursday here. For most of the afternoon, the temperature was north of 100 degrees. The grounds were mostly deserted, the seats on the side courts emptier than normal. Between points, whenever they could, the players in Rod Laver Arena snuck into the shade at the back of the court. Early leads were even more critical than normal—at one stage, those who won their first sets were 17-1 in their matches. At times it appeared that Bernard Tomic and Daniel Brands had made a pact to conserve energy, get each other into tiebreakers, and see what happened from there.
I was in and out of the heat and sun. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t deadly, either—it wasn’t quite humid enough for that. Here’s a look at a few of the less-heralded events that went on around the courts and in the press room on Thursday.
"Ricardas! Ricardas! Here! Wait!"
How does a tennis player who has been away know he’s back? Like, really back? When he walks off the court after winning a match at the Australian Open and a group of people ask him to take a photo with their young child. That’s what happened to Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis after a straight-set win in his second-round match today. Like a good politician, he kneeled down to get his face in the shot with the kid, and grinned for the camera.
Berankis qualified for this tournament, but he’s a better player than that. A third-round loser here in 2011, he’s Lithuania’s answer to bionic American Brian Baker. In his press conference later—being Andy Murray’s next opponent, he was swamped by the British press—Berankis went through the gory details of the groin problems that sidelined him. He was initially misdiagnosed, then rediagnosed with a sports hernia, then it was discovered that his muscles had been “torn off” and calcium had formed on them.
“Is the doctor still alive?” Berankis was asked.
“So far," he said with a smile. "We’ll see how it goes."
Berankis has also spent some time getting his name straight. Ricardas, he said today, is pronounced something like Richardas, so for a time he went with “Richard” in English. Now he’s back to Ricardas.
Whatever he goes by, it’s good to see Berankis back in the main draw here. He was part of the small wave of young ATP talent that rose up in Melbourne two years ago (and has yet to fully crash over the game). He probably won’t threaten Murray on Saturday, but he doesn’t belong on the qualifier treadmill, either.
"Am I allowed to talk?"
The chair umpire on Court 8 has just asked Philipp Kohlschreiber what he’s saying over in the corner between points.
“I’m just talking,” the irritated German responds. “I’m not allowed to do that?”
The umpire, chastened, nods. Yes, he’s allowed to do that. Kohlschreiber doesn’t have too much to mutter about at the moment. He’s up two sets on Amir Weintraub of Israel. Kohlschreiber, much like Janko Tipsarevic, is a player best appreciated from up close. He’s taller and a little more imposing than he appears to be on TV, and his backhand is even more impressive. You can see its full arc and sense the power and spin he gets on it.
Kohlschreiber is up two sets to love, but down a break point early in the third. He erases it with an ace. Weintraub, who qualified and is ranked No. 196, looks up at his camp, grins, and shakes his head. The message is: “There he goes again.”
The only thing I can think watching this is that Weintraub is destined to lose this match. His gesture says, “This guy is on another level,” but it doesn’t anger him. The surest way to win a tennis match is to feel, if you don’t win, if you don’t beat this particular opponent, that you’ll be less of a person, in your own eyes and others eyes, than you were when you stepped on the court.
Weintraub’s smile says he doesn’t feel that way about this opponent. Kohlschreiber’s irritation says he does.
"Davai! Davai! Come on! Fight! Let's go!"
If you want a quick glossary of current tennis exhortations, go watch a Yulia Putintseva match. The 18-year-old Russian, runner-up in the girls’ tournament last year and conqueror of Christina McHale in the first round this year, runs through half a dozen after most winning points (“Davai” is Russian for “Come on!”) Putintseva fist-pumps after her opponents miss their first serves, and stares menacingly into the crowd if she loses a point. She also has a reputation for smashing racquets and generally causing havoc on a tennis court, though she wasn’t that bad when I was watching her this week.
But she’s still quite a contrast with the woman who is urging her on in the stands. Martina Hingis leans forward and gently lifts her fists before big points. Hingis has been working with Putintseva, who trains at the Mouratoglou Academy in Paris, for a year. While the rest of us are sweating and suffering in the sun, she’s turned out immaculately, with a preppie striped sweater hung over shoulders, as if she’s at a regatta waiting for a cocktail.
Putintseva knows how to moonball, and it goes without saying that she’s a fighter. But she’s also in the height range of Dominika Cibulkova, without Domi’s racquet-head speed. She nearly beats Carla Suarez Navarro, but goes out, not all that quietly, in three.
Jamie Hampton is telling a ball kid to get her a towel. The Alabama native speaks so quickly that it’s hard to understand her. Hampton does everything quickly, in fact; she walks, talks, and plays at a pace that might best be described as “clipped.” And she’s making her second-round match, against Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand, move along at a very brisk clip. Up a set and 4-0 love in the second, Hampton fires away as early as possible in rallies, and connects. She wins 6-1, 6-2 and will face top seed Victoria Azarenka next.
“I played well,” is the extent of her description of her match in her presser today. Hampton gets the words out of her mouth as rapidly as possible, and keeps her eyes on the desk in front of her. As with fellow American Madison Keys, the 23-year-old Hampton has made a move so far this year. She reached the semis in Auckland three weeks ago, and lost two tiebreaker sets to Agnieszka Radwanska. More than that, she hit the world No. 4 off the court for games at a time. But she got nervous, as she did at the end today, and as she did the last time she was in this situation, against Maria Sharapova her 12 months ago.
Hampton says she’s better prepared for the big stage this time, and credits her new success with an “improved attitude.” She says the key was learning “to accept all of the criticism that my coaches had for me.”
"Nothing is impossible."
There’s been a lot of talk about teenage girls this week—Putintseva, Kumkhum, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, and 16-year-old Croatian sensation Donna Vekic have all made some waves. It has been a while since a teen made serious inroads on either tour, and many people around the game are wondering how how they can climb these days.
The best answer, if you’re a young player, came from a woman who was a Grand Slam winner in her teens, Serena Williams.
Asked if she thought it was more difficult for players that young to break through and win majors now, Serena said, “I don’t. I don’t think so at all. I think it will happen again, soon maybe...If the person is strong enough physically and mentally, I think it’s completely possible.”
“I’m one to believe nothing is impossible, so I think anything can happen.”
Take it from one who knows.