The Rally: An Awesome Aussie Open

Thursday, January 23, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Richard,

Since we talked last, the Aussie Open has gone from hot and maybe a little dull to one of the more exciting Grand Slams we've seen recently. Even after last year's wacky Wimbledon, upsets are welcome in this era of top-down dominance. I'm enjoying the new faces in the late rounds, especially on the women's side. It's seems OK once in a while to have your world turned so far upside down that you're contemplating Dominika Cibulkova winning a Grand Slam. The world isn't as narrow as we might think.

What have the highlights been for you? Here are a few that come to mind for me.

(1) Agnieszka Radwanska's magical third-set performance against Victoria Azarenka. I thought Vika might win 6-0, but it was Aga who served up the bagel. I own only one tennis match on tape—Borg vs. Gerulaitis 1977 Wimbledon final—but this is another I'd like to have. Too bad she came back with a such a dog of a follow-up match on Thursday.

(2) Ivanovic beating Serena. There was an excitement in the crowd, that this impossible thing might just happen, that kept building through the afternoon.

(3) The rise of Genie Bouchard. Here's a tennis player who can appeal to the casual fan with her presentation, and the serious fan with her intelligent game.

(4) The rise of Grigor Dimitrov, the Bouchard of men's tennis. There really is substance with the style; he hung with Rafa as if he were Top 5 in the world, and the middle two sets were about as intense as anything I can remember seeing live. Plus, he's a nice guy.

(5) Stan the Man finally making it happen. Try and fail and try and fail and try again, and finally, maybe, if you're lucky, win.

It feels like a tournament where the game has been refreshed—Domi reaches the final; Aga and Stan finally turn the tables on their nemeses; Dimitrov and Bouchard show that there's a future after all; and Federer reminds people why they loved to watch him.

*****

Steve,

I like your list—the absence of wet bulb, ice towels and meltdowns is refreshing—and concur with your choices. Here are some of mine, in no particular order.

*The Dimitrov-Raonic fourth-set tiebreaker. Thrilling to get a glimpse of perhaps a future Grand Slam rivalry, and seeing both guys rise at different times. Dimitrov drilling that running backhand pass down the line to save a set point—and the look of relief on his face when the call was confirmed—was a reminder of how much emotion and energy they invested in every point.

*Ana beating Serena. I realize Serena was hampered, but that was the best I’ve seen Ivanovic hit her backhand since her days as No. 1, and the fact she was able to sustain her serve and such positive energy throughout was impressive, particularly since we’ve seen her look haunted trying to seal some major wins it the past.

*Rise of the Undersized. Remember when some were saying women’s tennis had entered the Glamazon Age of power-based clones with one-note games? Seeing the 5’3” Cibulkova, the shortest woman in the Top 50, facing the craftiest in Radwanska in the semifinals, Simona Halep contesting her first major quarterfinal and the tireless Italians, Errani and Vinci, back in the doubles final, reinforced how much timing and technique still matter.

*Players for the Ages. Watching bits of 43-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm battle 16-year-old Belinda Bencic or Patrick Rafter pull off a few vintage volleys playing doubles with Hewitt reminded me how essential elements—footwork, fitness, high-percentage play—never go out of style even while the game keeps moving forward.

*The final stages of Stan beating Novak. It had some wild twists in action—that brief rain interruption near the end, Novak tightening on the final two points—but the fact Stan stepped up and took more risk in the fifth (he went to the net more in the decisive set than any other) it was a fitting win for a guy who has come so close before.

Steve, the Australian Open website posts player interview transcripts faster than just about any other major. What are some of the interview highlights—and lowlights—you witnessed in pressers?

*****

Richard,

You're right, the Aussie Open puts up the pressers pronto, which is great—for everyone but the press who has made the trip here. I don’t support keeping transcripts off the Internet, which the French Open has done, but I think a 24-hour embargo before posting them would be fair. Let the press here use the quotes they've gotten for their stories that day, before those quotes flood the web. Then set them free. As you probably know, the tennis writers' association, ITWA, has tried to get the Aussie Open to delay posting pressers, but the tournament sees it as a way, obviously, to drive traffic to its site. It’s probably way too late to complain about this; instant access, reaction, and comment is the way now with every event, and I like it when I’m a fan as well. Soon the interviews will probably all be broadcast online anyway, and we can all ask questions from our couches.

When you are here, though, the interview room becomes a kind of secondary tournament; what happens there is followed as avidly, if not more so, than what happens on court. Here are a few memorable moments from there this year:

—Andy Murray starting the tournament looking like he actually missed his tormentors in the press. He was loose, talkative, smiling, and he came up with this line about trying to impress a famous coach. "It's kind of like any relationship that you have. If it's with a woman, I would try to impress my girlfriend a lot more the first few months I was with her than I do now." Then Murray admitted that he never really got Kim flowers in the early days, either.

—Maria Sharapova telling a local journalist that she "was admiring his form" after he asked a question. I've seen Maria use the interview room as a kind of therapy session after a loss in the past—she'll come in angry and leave laughing—but I'd never seen her flirt with a reporter.

—Roger Federer describing what he was doing while he watched his buddy Stan Wawrinka beat Novak Djokovic. "At the end, I was standing up, hands in the air like him."

—30-something Li Na being asked whether playing teenagers made her "feel like an old lady" and answering, correctly, "No, I think I'm younger than most in this room, right?"

—Tomas Berdych being asked whether his clothing sponsor, H&M, knows that it can't put blue stripes on his shirt at Wimbledon. "Yes, they are very sad," he said.

—Grigor Dimitrov being almost unable to speak when asked about the two crucial forehand errors he made against Nadal in the third-set breaker. That's a lot of emotion for two shots; I hope he uses that passion well in the future.

Richard, who do you have in the big semi between Federer and Nadal? Roger is in better form, but it always seems like Rafa finds a way against him, doesn't it? I've become a Federer believer again their week, but I'm going to go with the historical pick and take Nadal.

*****

Steve,

I have to admit, even watching from thousands of miles away, I still get that craving for the immediate reaction. Watching the Serena vs. Ana match, for instance, I wanted to hear Serena’s thoughts in the aftermath. ESPN2 cut live to her post-match so you get that sense of context rather than the stunned, “How the hell did that happen?” feeling. As a fan I want the instant fix, but as a media member I understand the importance of at least a little bit of exclusivity for journalists who make the trip Down Under to tell the stories.

It's impressive how the Big Four can reconstruct the points when responding to questions afterward. Federer can talk through his thought process on a point-by-point basis when asked, and Nadal is very good as well (he’s also good about discussing how conditions play a part in his decision making). I remember Agassi and Hingis both had exceptional recall to the point where they could discuss points in depth from matches years earlier, whereas champions like Evert and Capriati, sometimes you could tell they just didn’t remember. I remember Graf once saying when she was playing her absolute best, she had no idea what the score was because at that moment her entire focus was playing and winning the point at hand.

It’s a good point about Sharapova using the interview room as sort of “therapy session”—ever notice how she will rarely refer to an opponent by name, instead using the phrase "my opponent"? Safin was a completely different personality, of course, but sometimes interviews seemed cathartic for him as well—other times more like room to rant.

Funny you bring up the Federer-Nadal semifinal, as I’m working on my preview now. On recent form and current confidence level, I do favor Federer. He’s moving beautifully, serving better than he has in some time (aside from the wobble against Murray), and attacking vigorously. I also think Nadal is banged up with the blister and he looked a little fatigued and defensive at times vs. Dimitrov. But I keep coming back to two factors I can't get past: Nadal always seems to produce the level required to prevail, and the last time I doubted him Down Under was when he played Federer after the five-hour semifinal epic vs. Verdasco in 2009. I thought he’d be running on empty if the final with Federer went five. I was wrong, of course.

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