Into the Blue

Monday, January 13, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

If you tuned into the Australian Open shortly after noon, Melbourne time, you could be forgiven for thinking that the tournament was getting off to a wild and unpredictable start. 

There was Evgenia Manyukova, Ekaterina Makarova’s coach, screaming at her protégé, who had just dodged a pair of break points that would have given Venus Williams a commanding, 6-2, 4-2 lead in the opening match of the tournament on Margaret Court Arena.

Makarova held, but she allowed Williams to break back in the next game, which begat great weeping and gnashing of teeth in the player-guest box. Meanwhile, ESPN commentators coolly debated whether calling out, “Toss hit high and go up and get it!”—David Witt’s audible plea to Williams, emanating from the opposite player-guest box—could be construed as coaching.

Did Williams hear Witt, or was it merely an anguished, insuppressible, and inappropriate outcry from someone with a rooting interest? Tennis is touched by the bizarre. The only individuals jammed into a huge arena who are supposed to be heard these days are the combatants, who shriek and scream and grunt like barnyard creatures enveloped (ideally) in sublime, worshipful silence.

Meanwhile, elsewhere around the pressure cooker known as Melbourne Park, Andrey Golubev became the first casualty of this edition of a gentleman’s war. 

Facing the burly, muscular No. 8 seed Stanislas Wawrinka, Golubev pulled a muscle somewhere in his calf or lower leg and ran up the white flag, giving Wawrinka a 6-4, 4-1 pass to the second round. It seemed a fitting if long-deferred gift for Wawrinka, who had given the fans such a fantastic show in last year’s spectacular, 12-10 in the fifth loss to top-seeded Novak Djokovic.

Incidentally, a few days ago Wawrinka was named Switzerland’s “Sports Personality of the Year” for 2013, and somewhere Roger Federer must have been thinking, “How soon they forget.”

While Golubev was getting his leg wrapped, Angelique Kerber was losing her mind. After her opponent Jarmila Gajdosova rolled an ankle and paused to have it examined and wrapped, Kerber seemed to utterly lose interest in the proceedings and lost the second set without winning a single game.

Gajdosova, a Slovak who emigrated to Australia and now lives in Melbourne, seemed on the cusp of winning her first singles match at the Australian Open in eight frustrating attempts. Kerber looked like she was figuring out which afternoon bus to catch in order to take part in the daily tourist ritual of watching the penguins of nearby Phillip Island waddle ashore. 

On yet another battlefield, Belinda Bencic—the second-youngest player in the women’s draw at 16—was suffering from abuse inflicted on her by the oldest woman in the mix, 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm. After losing the first set, Date-Krumm had a break in the second and was rolling toward a win.

With the mercury in the thermometer rising almost visibly, habitués of the press room began to Google “Wet Bulb Globe Temperature,” to re-acquaint themselves with the tournament’s “extreme heat policy.” Who knew it could get so complicated when, really, you could just get on the PA system and declare, “Wow, it’s awfully hot out there, let’s pack it in for a little while.” 

The temperature in Rod Laver Sauna rose 13 degrees between the 11 AM start of play and 1:40 PM, to 84-fahrenheit. And there was worse to come. 

*****

If it wasn’t exactly crazy in Melbourne, it was at least incredibly sloppy—but by the end of the day a measure of order was restored. Much as the draw gods predicted, Makarova, the No. 22 seed, ruined hopes for a run by the Williams sisters as she weathered Venus’ erratic blasts and wore her down in three sets. That win signaled that this was not to be an opening day of upsets Down Under.

And so it came to pass. The most notable upset of Day 1 was created by Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand, and it was a real doozy—the 20-year-old outlasted No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. This was a shoot-out: Kumkhum hit 28 winners and made 27 errors, while Kvitova, a former Wimbledon champ, went 32 and 40, respectively. 

In other notable women’s results, it was a bleak day for Italy. Julia Goerges beat No. 7 seed Sara Errani while Zheng Jie easily knocked off swooning No. 12 seed Roberta Vinci. The Italian women won a grand total of 12 games between them.

As for Kerber, the No. 9 seed, she re-located her game over time and added to Gajdosova’s record of frustration in her adoptive home, and Bencic struck a rare blow for youth by mastering Date-Krumm, 6-3 in the third. 

Perhaps the biggest piece of news for the Australian crowd is that No. 17 seed Samantha Stosur actually won a tough match in the Antipodes—and it wasn’t even against qualifier or punk wild card. Pause and read that last sentence once again and allow it to sink in. 

Stosur took out the Czech Republic’s Klara Zakopalova. 

The Downer of the Day in the women’s draw for American fans might have been the failure by Williams, but in the broader picture it probably was No. 18 seed Kirsten Flipkens’ ugly beatdown of Laura Robson, who won just three games—all of them in the first set. 

That’s not just a bad match, that’s a humiliation. Of a theoretical Grand Slam contender. In the first round of a major. And what may have made it harder to bear is that Robson’s friend, WTA Newcomer of the Year, No. 30 seed Eugenie Bouchard, cruised to an easy win at roughly the same time. 

American women had a pretty good Day 1, with the hero being 18-year-old bombardier Madison Keys, who rebounded from a dispiriting 10-8 loss in the second-set tiebreaker—and five missed match points—to wear down Patrick Mayr-Achleitner, 9-7 in the fifth.

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The pickings for the vultures on the men’s side were equally slim. The only seed who floundered was the Load from Lodz, No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz. He lost the first two sets to 19-year-old Australian wild card Jordan Thompson; ranking No. 321.

One thing about a free-swinging behemoth like 6’8’ Janowicz, though, is that whatever happens, it’s going to be quick. He lost those first two sets in an hour and 17 minutes, then spent two more hours reeling in the enthusiastic young Aussie to win it 6-1 in the fifth. Janowicz ought to recover from his exertions with little trouble.

On a day when top contenders Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, and Tomas Berdych all advanced, 32-year-old veteran Nikolay Davydenko put up a win over Lukasz Kubot, and 31-year-old Tommy Robredo knocked off Lukas Rosol.

Clearly it was a bad day to be named Lukas, even if you had a bonus “z.”

The notable thing, though, is that Kolya the Obscure and Disco Tommy both won in five sets—Robredo having to go into overtime, 8-6. Tommy Haas, the elder elder statesman in the game at 34 years of age, might have joined Davydenko and Robredo in glory, but the No. 12 seed was forced to retire with a bum shoulder before two sets were out during his match with Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

The American men did not fare nearly as well as the women. Five of them went into the breach, and four were swiftly ejected. The long bright spot for the U.S. men was Sam Querrey, who showed signs of a revival as he put together a neat and impressive four-set win over Santiago Giraldo. 

The Downer of the Day among the men was Steve Johnson’s loss to Adrian Mannarino. Johnson hung in there and showed plenty of grit, as usual, but once again he came just short. Johnson has now played six five-set matches in majors (out of 14 overall), and he’s lost five of them. 

If and when Johnson figures out how to win that elusive fifth set, watch out, world!

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