The Rally: Hot Days, Wild Nights
Fresh off an epic first Thursday, fellow editor Richard Pagliaro and I discuss some of the happenings from the first week of the Australian Open.
So what do you make the of the early goings? The story down here has obviously been the heat, and I'm guessing it's the story there as well. It has been hot enough to suck a good deal of the life out of the tournament during the day sessions. So far, the grounds have been drastically less crowded than they usually are. The action, at least yesterday, was all at night. Hopefully a lot of people in the States woke up to see some of the scene in Margaret Court Arena from last night. Nick Kyrgios, Benoit Paire, the Aussie Fanatics, the Greek chorus: It was what tennis should always be about.
How is the heat being covered back in the States? It may be more controversial there than it is here, where hot weather at this time of year is pretty much par for the course. And what has surprised you most so far, Richard? Del Potro going out to Bautista Agut? Tomic going out after a set? Hewitt losing in five? Stosur on a roll? Federer in Hisense?
When ESPN2 showed the images of Peng crumbling and Dancevic dropping to the court it felt more like reality TV than a Grand Slam—like a sporting version of Survivor.
The big surprise has to be Delpo. Honestly, I did not expect Bautista Agut—a guy with only five prior major appearances—to upset him, especially when Delpo got up two sets to one. He looked strong winning Sydney and was within striking distance of possibly passing Murray and Ferrer with a deep run. You can view it as a case of squandered opportunities—Delpo was only four of 17 on break-point chances—but I felt Bautista Agut was more aggressive in the final set and deserved it.
Remember at the U.S. Open, Del Potro didn’t close a two-sets-to-one lead over Hewitt, either. He served well too, but sometimes when his bigger blasts come back he just looked befuddled about what to do next, or surprised there even was a next shot to play. Before the tournament, Del Potro, who’s a creature of habit, said he was down to two Wilson racquets; you wonder if this will persuade him to settle on a new variation of that stick—or perhaps he's so accustomed to the worn frames that feel has become standard for him.
Simon also surprised me, as I figured that between the sprained ankle that had him on crutches last week, and the creaky knee and wear and tear from his four-hour, 31-minute second-round win, he was a better candidate to wind up in the ER than the third round—amazing effort from him. With the heat, I thought ESPN's Brad Gilbert (still “fitter than a fiddle” himself) made a good point: Why is enacting the extreme heat treated different from response to a sudden rainstorm? Why not get the players off the court immediately when that decision is made? I know many people are old school with the hard-core “go hard or go home” mentality, but I still think the players, fans and quality of play suffers from scorching days.
Like you said, the heat gave way to the frenzy last night, seeing how many Aussie fans stuck around to exhort Kyrgios, who pushed Paire to five sets. Even the last few points, Paire’s skidding forehand drop volley winner for match point and Kyrgios’ crushing cross-court return winner to save the first match point, were exhilarating. A tremendous curtain closer to a wildly dramatic day.
Steve, have you has any run-ins with the legendary coaching brigade? Have you found a way to stay cool with Becker?
I think Andy Murray may have had the most sensible response—he won his match as quickly as possible, then said that tennis doesn't need to risk something awful happening to a player. I agree: That kind of heat makes the tournament feel less like tennis and more like plain survival. There's nothing unmanly about not wanting to fall over and become delirious when you play; competition doesn't have to be, literally, last man standing. Of course, the Aussie way is usually the macho way. Rod Laver said that the country's famous coach, Harry Hopman, "trained us to run through a desert."
As for Delpo, you're right, what a stunner. I walked away from that one when he won the third set. Del Potro said afterward that Bautista Agut was just too good over too long a time, and that he had an answer for everything he threw at him. And from what I watched, Delpo's not wrong. The guy hit 72 winners, and he’s not a nobody—we’ve been hearing about his exploits on the Challenger circuit for a while now, and he improved in 2013.
But it’s still true that Del Potro lost, and traditionally, the guys who he wants to be like, the Big 4, don’t lose to guys like Bautista Agut at Slams. Yes, the Spaniard played well, but Del Potro had no way to take him out of his game, no variation, nothing other than hard-hit baseline drives, which by the end were like batting practice for Baustista Agut. I feel like each of the Big 4 would have been versatile enough to adjust. Playing Sydney may have been a mistake for Del Potro, but he said that wasn’t why he lost—it’s not like he had an exhausting final against Tomic there. Like Delpo said, it’s just one match, and the other guy was on fire. But it’s still a surprise and a disappointment—table all of the “Del Potro is going to win a Slam” stories one more time.
Regarding the ATP coaching “ledges,” I was part of a media scrum that tracked Stefan Edberg down on his first day. He seems, if anything, cooler than ever in his shades, even on the hottest of days. I can see where he would exude an appealing air of calm and confidence if you were a player. But I think the guy who is most in his element down here is Ivan Lendl—the old Foreign Legion hat is back in action on the practice court.
A question for you, Richard. In the press room, I occasionally flip past a channel that carries ESPN. I'm amazed by how much chatter I see there; I see more of Chrissie and Pat McEnroe than anyone playing. It's more noticeable when you're here, and you know that matches are being played all over the grounds. Does that bother you, or do you like the talk? I know ESPN likes to create story lines, and I understand the reason—to draw in casual fans and put the matches in context for them. But I've always believed the only thing that viewers—whether they're hardcore or casual fans—really want to see when they tune in is live tennis.
ESPN: I do think there needs to be some chatter. I like when they go to the set immediately before and after a match, because it gives every analyst a shot to preview and summarize the match. I’d rather get right into the action and use the set to supplement the matches, rather than anchor the broadcast like a SportsCenter set where matches become highlights for analysis. The network’s coverage windows are so wide, they probably feel compelled to update viewers so that jumping straight into coverage isn't jarring, but I'm already disorientated from sleep deprivation so I'd rather get to it.
It’s the spontaneous moments when they show or tell me something I couldn’t have experienced being there that resonate. Like Djokovic stretching and talking to Becker right before walking on court, or a courtside Darren Cahill saying Bernard Tomic revealed that he preferred playing Rafa to Roger because Tomic is a taller guy and isn’t as comfortable bending for Federer’s low shots. Those are worth having. When ESPN cut to Nishikori-Matosevic, Pam Shriver summarized the instances of ongoing gamesmanship so you jump into the match knowing the back story, which is something I can't always get watching over the internet.
Next time you’ll have to tell me about the television coverage in Australia. I heard Dokic doing commentary during some of the tune-up tournaments, who are the primary analysts? I always liked Fred Stolle’s analysis because of the candor and humor: Barking "He's gone off the boil!" Still remember him saying he believed Michael Stich's service motion was more technically efficient than Sampras' was—I reminded him of that at the Open and he said "I still believe it!"
Regroup and rehydrate for tomorrow, Steve. The heat wave may subside, but the tournament seems to be picking up steam at the right time.