“It’s a dry heat, though”: These are the calming words we hear whenever the temperatures soar at the Australian Open. And it’s true, when you’re walking around in Melbourne, 100 degrees can feel less oppressive than, say, 90 degrees in muggy New York City.
But I wouldn’t recommend trying to tell that to the players who had to run around—rather than walk around—in that 100-degree heat on Thursday. Whether it’s beaming through dry air or humid air, the sun has it’s own, special, searing brutality Down Under. Last year at the US Open, I watched Gael Monfils survive five long sets on a hot day without much trouble; yesterday, after a set and a half against Novak Djokovic, he could barely stand up.
According to many of the players, it’s the suddenness of Australian heat that makes it particularly difficult to deal with. The weather in coastal Melbourne changes from one day to the next; this tournament began with temperatures in the 60s. The event also starts just two weeks after the players have finished their off-seasons. By the time the US Open rolls around in August, they’ve been on tour for eight months, and have had a chance to acclimate themselves to America’s swampy summer. Maybe, in light of this difference, the Australian Open should lower the heat-index threshold it uses to determine when it’s too dangerous to play.
Still, not everyone wilted on Thursday; here’s a look at three players, each a surprise in his or her way, whose games soared with the temperatures.
Djokovic's match point against Monfils:
The Ways of Su-Wei Hsieh
Garbiñe Muguruza’s coach, Sam Sumyk, looked a little more concerned than usual in the early stages of his player’s second-round match against Su-Wei Hsieh. He knows how to spot an off day from Muguruza from a mile away, and the scoreline—she fell behind 2-5 in the first set—indicated that this had the makings of a very off day.
The problem wasn’t so much how Muguruza was hitting the ball. It was how she was reading, and misreading, her opponent. Muguruza was caught behind the baseline when Hsieh hit a drop shot; she was caught moving forward when Hsieh cracked a backhand hard and deep; she guessed crosscourt when Hsieh went down the line; and she was hardly ready for the number of side-spinning, two-handed slice forehands that Hsieh threw at her. Who would be?
Hsieh, a 32-year-old from Taiwan currently ranked 88th in singles, has one of the most unusual, unintimidating and sporadically magical games in tennis. In between points, she tip-toes across the court, and during points she hardly seems to move her feet at all—for her, the game is all in the hands, in the timing, in the moment of contact. A former No. 1 player and Wimbledon champion in doubles, her compact strokes allow her to do anything with the ball and redirect anything her opponent sends her way.
Against Muguruza, Hsieh went up 3-0 in the crucial first-set tiebreaker with three entirely different shots: She began with a drop-volley winner, followed it with a hard-hit backhand down the line for another winner, then drew an error with one of those blithely side-spun two-handed forehands. Every time Hsieh hit the ball, Muguruza had to take a second to figure out exactly what was coming toward her before she could react.
As for her strategy, Su-Wei got a few tips from a friend.
“Hmm,” she said when she was asked what her plan was against Muguruza, “today I tried to be hitting the ball a little bit harder, because my girlfriend told me, ‘Oh, she’s hitting the ball very heavy.’ I say, OK, I gonna try to don’t let her destroy me on the court.”
As for the heat, she had a plan.
“I know the weather is going to be a little bit tough today,” she said after her 7-6 (1), 6-4 win. “...I was thinking, ‘Ah, I’m from Asia. Maybe I can handle it better than other girls.’”
So far in her career, Hsieh’s brilliance has vanished as quickly as it has appeared. She rose to No. 23 in singles in 2013, but ankle injuries have sidelined her since. And whatever tricks she can conjure with her racquet, her 70-m.p.h. second serve always puts her in danger of being blown off the court by a stronger opponent. Fortunately, that won’t happen in her next match, when she faces her fellow craftswoman—and 70-m.p.h second server, Agniezska Radwanska. That’s a match I’d sit in the sun to see.
Hsieh's match point against Muguruza:
A Retiring Kind of Guy
By now, at 36, Julien Benneteau knows how to celebrate a win. First he roars and staggers and throws off his baseball cap. Then, after he’s respectfully shaken the hand and patted the shoulder of his vanquished opponent, he blows kisses to the crowd. Finally, he walks across the court to plant a real kiss on his wife, Karen. Yesterday, after Benneteau’s win over No. 7 seed David Goffin, Karen appeared to respond with a wifely suggestion: She pointed in the direction of the French fans who had bellowed their support for him for three hours in the 103-degree heat. Julien was more than happy to walk over and thank them in person.
In the past, Benneteau has always been one shot short of greatness—he has the complete game, but not the killer weapon. And it looked like that might be the case against Goffin on Thursday. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, Benneteau double faulted twice and was broken; two games later, he nearly double-faulted his way into a fifth set. But this time he got just enough help from his opponent to make it across the finish line, 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1, 7-6 (4).
In the deciding tiebreaker, Goffin chose the wrong shot on virtually every occasion. He tried an inside-out forehand from behind the baseline and netted it, and he missed a low-percentage line-drive backhand from his shoe-tops, when virtually any safer shot would have won him the point. It was an odd loss for Goffin, a player who, after beating Roger Federer and making the final at the season-ending event in London, looked ready for big things in 2018. For now, Federer will be pleased to see Goffin disappear from his quarter of the draw.
Benneteau will march on in his place. Since announcing his upcoming retirement, he seems to have been freed up as a player. He made an emotional run to the semifinals at the Masters 1000 event in Paris, was part of an even more emotional Davis Cup victory for France, and has now pulled off the biggest upset on the men’s side in Melbourne. Benneteau may not win his long-awaited maiden title here, but it doesn’t seem to be out of the question at a smaller event this spring. He has his celebration ready.
The Name of the Game
Earlier this week, Roger Federer lamented the fact that some of his fellow players, after spending enough time in the dark reaches of the media-interview room, can retreat into robotic answers. So far in his career, Tennys Sandgren hasn’t had that opportunity. At 26, the Tennessee native has done most of his work at the Challenger level, far from the press and the TV camera. After his 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (4) upset of Stan Wawrinka on Thursday, Sandgren was more than willing to show his human side.
Here Sandgren talks about his opponent:
Q. You seemed self-contained at the moment of victory. Out of respect for him or were you processing it all inside?
TENNYS SANDGREN: Out of respect for him partly, for sure. I know he's going through some tough things physically. I've been there. It's not easy. It's really difficult. I wish him all the best and hoping that he can return back to full form and top, top level, because we know what that looks like.
I made the joke in the little presser before the match, after my first round match, I watched him play in the finals of the US Open. I think it was at a bar. I was having a few beers. I was watching the tennis. That's insane, an inhuman level of tennis.
So I hope he gets back there. I've tried to dial my emotions down, not get too high, not get too low, try to find that even keel tennis. That was just in theme with that.
And here he talks about his name:
Q: What is the best story you have about your first name?
It's always interesting. I don't give my name when I order a sandwich or a coffee. I say 'David' or something like that. I don't want to deal with the whole name thing when I get a coffee, especially first thing in the morning. I would prefer to get the caffeine, then I can maybe think about approaching the day first.
Read Joel Drucker and Nina Pantic on TENNIS.com as they report from the Australian Open, and watch them each day on The Daily Mix:
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