Taken to Extremes

Thursday, January 16, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—Some day, Australia should really consider holding a sporting event with no athletes at all. On this day of heat and rain and protracted delay, the rowdiest cheering came from inside a player-less Margaret Court Arena while the raindrops fell. As they waited for their new teen hero, Nick Kyrgios, the famed Aussie fanatics led full-throated chants as they sent a beach ball spinning around the stadium. When the ball finally fell to the court, an attendant swept it up and took it away, much to the consternation of the gold-painted Aussies. They bellowed, loud and long, “Give-us-the-BALL-back! Give-us-the-BALL-back!" Finally, the attendant reappeared and granted them their wish. Satisfied, the fans went on chanting and cheering and singing in the rain, above an empty court, for hours. After that spectacle, watching actual matches under the roofs in Laver and Hisense felt a little dull. I wanted to go back to MCA and listen to them sing.

It was a day when the fans killed time, while the players tried not to get themselves killed. Extreme, 111-degree heat forced a three-hour delay on the outer courts in the afternoon, and lightning and rain did the same for two more hours in the evening. Here’s a look, in case you happened to be sleeping through the din, at a few of the notable matches that did get played.

*****

Rafael Nadal d. Thanasi Kokkinakis, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2

Before the tournament, the 17-year-old Kokkinakis was asked to do a promotional interview with his fellow Babolat user, Rafael Nadal. The cheeky Aussie ad-libbed a question about whether Rafa would be nervous if they played. Rafa being Rafa, he said yes.

He didn’t look very nervous. Nadal had this to say about the way he started the match: “I think I played a great first set, not many mistakes, serving well, finishing the set playing aggressive with my forehand.” When Rafa is that upbeat, it's hard not to believe him.

Nadal also finished well, hitting his forehand down the line crisply, as he said. He finished with 39 winners, 19 errors, and seven aces. He says “the serve is very important here,” and it seems that he has concentrated on it. For the second straight match, he was getting more slice on it than he has in the past.

Next opponent: Gael Monfils (Nadal leads their head-to-head 9-2)
Positive: More slice on his serve; down-the-line forehand clicking
Concern: Rafa is still talking about how fast the courts are. “Is very difficult to adjust,” he said today.

******

Roger Federer d. Blaz Kavcic, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (4)

Like Nadal, Federer started well, and like Rafa, he knew it.

“It was a good first two sets,” Federer said. “I played really aggressive and it worked out.”

Federer won 23 of 29 points at net, a high total and a high winning percentage. One play in particular stood out as especially aggressive from him: A forehand return of a first serve that he drilled inside-out, and then followed to net for a swing volley putaway. 

Next opponent: Verdasco or Gabashvili
Positive: Pop on his shots, spring in his legs
Concern: He started extremely well here the last two years, and lost in the semis both times. Also, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, hit potential fourth-round opponent, is a lot tougher than Kavcic
Quote of the day: Asked what he knew about the Australian Open’s somewhat mysterious heat policy, Federer said, “I know it’s at their discretion, I think.”

*****

Gael Monfils d. Jack Sock, 7-6 (5), 7-5, 6-2

La Monf is really slipping. Tennis’ master of ceremonies has won six straight sets in stunningly straightforward style. If it weren’t for the insane amount of sweat he’s spilled while he was at it, I might even dare to call his wins over young Americans Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock efficient. Monfils did a little clowning around the edges tonight—he got an appreciative kick out of one of Sock’s supersonic forehand winners. But for the most part, he played quickly and looked to end points as early as possible, on his own terms. Monfils hit 39 winners and made 30 errors.

As for Sock, he wasn’t overwhelmed, but the most memorable part of his performance may have been his shorts—they were as drenched as bathing trunks in the Hisense humidity.

Next opponent: Nadal 
Positive: He’s playing fast, and playing to win.
Concern: He’s playing fast, and playing to win. What will we do for fun if La Monf gets...serious?
Quote of the Day:

Interviewer: “What was so amusing out there?”
Monfils: “Well, everything was amazing out there.”

*****

Sloane Stephens d. Ajla Tomljanovic, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5

Poor Sloane. She was rolling, up 3-0 in the third, when the rains came and the Aussie crazies gathered in Margaret Court Arena to wait for their new boy, Kyrgios. When the two players returned, the fans chose to back Tomljanovic, and Sloane promptly dropped five straight games. But the 20-year-old Croat had never beaten the 20-year-old American, and it showed at the end. Tomljanovic double-faulted on break point at 5-4, and went away from there. At the same time, Sloane did what she does at majors—instead of moping, she fought. Maybe that’s why, by the end, the Aussies were roaring for her.

Next opponent: 19-year-old Elina Svitolina
Positive: Stephens is back in her element, at a Grand Slam, and after today she knows she can stage a comeback
Concern: Sloane was run off the court in the first set, and for five straight games in the third, by the 67th-ranked player in the world.
Quote of the Day: Asked if she liked her matches to be exciting or dull, Sloane said, "I think now that I'm young, I can handle all the excitement. When I'm 25, I'd rather be: 'Let's just go home'"

*****

Donald Young d. Andreas Seppi, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5

There have been a lot of bad moments in the career of Donald Young. Really bad. Excruciatingly bad. And it looked like another one was on the way today when he served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth and made four straight horrid unforced errors. But DY turned bad into brilliant a few minutes later when he broke serve by playing a scrambling point that would have made Jimmy Connors proud. In a career of downs, this was one undeniable up. 

Next opponent: Kei Nishikori
Positive: It’s DY, in the third round of a major
Concern: It’s DY, in the third round of a major
Quote of the Day: “I want to feel like this more often.”

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