The Overnight: Why America wasn't so great at the Australian Open

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Venus Williams and Jack Sock, two Top 10 seeds, both lost in the first round of the Australian Open. (AP)

If you’re a U.S. tennis fan who went to bed at your normal hour on Sunday night, you didn’t miss much at the Australian Open. In fact, you did exactly the right thing.

On the sport’s unofficial opening day of 2018, America sent 15 players into battle, and only three came back alive. These weren’t just any players, either. Five of them—Venus Williams, Jack Sock, Coco Vandeweghe, Sloane Stephens, and John Isner—were seeded. Three of of the women—Sloane, Coco, and Venus—had reached the semifinals at last year’s US Open. One of the men—Sock—had finished 2017 on a career high note by winning his first Masters 1000 and cracking the Top 10.

It was possible to find reasons or excuses for each of these defeats. Venus is 37 and was facing a highly-skilled opponent in Belinda Bencic. Vandeweghe had the flu. Stephens has had knee problems. Sock has had hip problems. Isner was playing an inspired Aussie.

But their losses had something else in common, something dull and simple, but overwhelmingly important: a lack of consistency. In each case, the American was more powerful than his or her opponent, but in each case the American failed to put in as many balls as his or her opponent at the crucial stages.

The Daily Mix: Joel Drucker and Nina Pantic, from Melbourne

Sock’s defeat may have been the most disappointing, considering how he finished 2017. In Paris last fall, he played with a new sense of determination and resourcefulness, and his win there vaulted him to a Top 8 seeding in Melbourne. He even landed in a promising quarter. The three seeds nearest Sock—Philipp Kohlschreiber, Lucas Pouille and Kevin Anderson—all lost yesterday as well.

At times against 41st-ranked Yuichi Sugita, Sock grabbed the right hip that he injured earlier this month. But he also began the match with little sense of urgency. Sock lost the first set 6-1, spent much of his time well behind the baseline, and at one point had 19 errors and no winners. Only when he was on the verge of going down two sets did Sock come to life, but by then he had given himself no margin for error.

Sock has survived his share of high-wire acts, but you can only play so many before you fall off. If Sock comes out with a focused attack from start to finish, you have to think he beats Sugita four times out of five.

Sugita's match point against Sock:


Match of the Day: Andrey Rublev d. David Ferrer, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-2

If you like slugging and running and grunting, and more slugging and running and grunting, and a little more slugging and running and grunting for good measure, you were in heaven during this three-hour and 50-minute baseline barrage. Ferrer won points from outside the TV screen, while Rublev turned himself into a ground-stroke-slapping machine. The Russian’s lean game reminds me of John Lennon’s performances on early Beatles records—Lennon sang in a controlled scream; Rublev hits his forehand with a relentless, all-out aggressiveness that somehow seems completely under control.

“Seems” is the operative word there. Rublev made 91 unforced errors and blew numerous, ostensibly unblowable leads, yet in the end his win felt like a breakthrough. Instead of melting down, this volatile young player kept forging new leads. In the end, the match was a microcosm of the Russian’s and Spaniard’s careers at this moment. The 20-year-old grew stronger mentally in the fifth set, while the 35-year-old Ferrer found that giving everything he has doesn’t get him as far as it once did. But it can still make a match fun to watch.


Shot of the Day: The Belinda Bencic down-the-line forehand

Serena Williams never hesitates to shoot a glare in the direction of her opponent, but it takes a lot to get her sister Venus worked up enough to do the same. By the end of her 6-3, 7-5 loss to Bencic, though, Venus could only stop and stare at the 20-year-old Swiss after she had directed another winner past her. Late in the second set, Bencic swung a forehand crosscourt, and Venus swung an even better forehand back crosscourt. But Bencic was there to guide a forehand up the line for a winner. It was a shot that she had used effectively the whole evening; this time, when the ball went past her, Venus looked up at the sky and across the net in frustration.

As Venus said later, Bencic’s tennis was “above and beyond.” It was a welcome return for a player who had reached the Top 10 two years ago, before being sidelined by injury and surgery. Bencic has won seemingly hundreds of lower-tier matches in recent months, but this one represented her graduation back into the game’s elite. Now she takes over Venus’ draw, and it’s a promising one. I doubt we’ve seen the last of that down-the-line forehand Down Under.

Bencic's match point against Williams:


Win of the Day: Denis Shapovalov d. Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (5)

This was billed as a Next Gen battle to watch, and why wouldn’t it be? Shapovalov and Tsitsipas are both teenagers, and both made inroads on tour last year. But from the start it was obvious that the Canadian and the Greek are in different leagues at the moment.

Shapovalov, looking a little sturdier than he did last summer, was too strong and too physical for the skinny Tsitsipas. Only a late-match lapse in concentration from the Canadian made the third set close. Last year, Shapovalov’s energetic swagger and left-handed attack reminded me of a young Rafael Nadal; in this match it was his easy strength that seemed Baby Rafa-esque. But Shapo won’t have that advantage in his next round, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He beat the Frenchman at last year’s US Open, which means the Frenchman should be up for the rematch.


Kit of the Day: Monica Puig's old-fashioned bright stripes

Amid all the pink and teal, I liked the Puerto Rican's ensemble from Ellesse. Maybe she liked them, too, because she came back to beat Sam Stosur in three sets.


Section to Be In: The bottom half of the men’s second quarter

With Sock, Anderson, Pouille and Kohlschreiber all gone, one of these players will be a quarterfinalist: Kyle Edmund, Denis Istomin, Ruben Bemelmans, Yoshihito Nishioka, Andreas Seppi, Ivo Karlovic, or Yuichi Sugita.


Conversation of the Day

Q. A couple people left your box during the [match].

DARIA GAVRILOVA: They had to go to the toilet. It distracted me. But I just think of the worse things that could happen. I was like, Is someone sick? Did someone have to get out of the stadium because of something? I just create really weird stories in my head.

Q. Who was it?

DARIA GAVRILOVA: My dad. Kate, I think she left as well. My fitness trainer.

Q. Strict instructions not to move from now on?

DARIA GAVRILOVA: If they had to go, they had to go.


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