What You Missed from Melbourne, Day 1: Shapovalov out; Gauff advances

What You Missed from Melbourne, Day 1: Shapovalov out; Gauff advances

The young Canadian made an early exit, and tried a novel theory; Coco kept the torch from Venus; and U.S. teen Annie Li won a wild one between rain drops.

What was bad news for the Australian Open was good news for Australia. Rain came to Melbourne on Monday; while it forced dozens of matches to be postponed until tomorrow, it provided a little relief to that fire-ravaged corner of the country.

The rain also meant that, if you happened to be on the other side of the world and fast asleep while the tournament was being played, you didn’t miss as much as you normally would. For the most part, the completed results took place on Melbourne Park’s three covered show courts, and most of those went according to form: Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Petra Kvitova, Naomi Osaka, and Caroline Wozniacki all won comfortably. Djokovic did drop a set to Jan-Lennard Struff, which qualifies as a newsworthy event—that’s as many sets as he lost all tournament last year. Does this mean he’s not as sharp in 2020, and is ripe for an upset? Or does it mean he won’t lose another set this fortnight? If I had to put money on one of those answers, I’d take the latter.

Still, even with the washout, there were some notable results, and a few entertaining contests. Here’s a look at two of the former, and one of the latter.

“That’s when I really got nervous”

Denis Shapovalov’s 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-1, 7-6 (3) loss to Marton Fucsovics was the most noteworthy scoreline on the men’s side. Numerically, it was a major upset; Shapovalov was the No. 13 seed, and Fucsovics is ranked No. 67. But was it really a surprise? At his best, the Hungarian is an exceedingly solid ball-striker, and while the Canadian has been ascendant over the last six months, he’s not a Grand Slam stalwart just yet.

Shapovalov himself sensed trouble early. He said that after he was broken early in the first set, he “really got nervous.” To me, he seemed to be suffering from newly raised expectations. No one wants to play good tennis coming into a Slam, and then flub the Slam itself. If Shapovalov was worried about that, his worries soon turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fuscovics was the steadier, calmer, and more creative player throughout, and could have won in straight sets. Shapovalov’s mentality aside, his return of serve was what held him back, particularly on his backhand side. His one-hander can be a highlight-reel shot during rallies, but Fucsovics won a lot of important points by directing his serves toward it.

Shapovalov claims he’ll likely get over the loss in a few hours, and that might be true; the season’s young, and overall he’s playing with more confidence. His expectations, and the nerves they produced, were a testament to that. Most memorable, though, may have been his theory of what constitutes “racquet abuse.” After Shapovalov slammed his racquet to the court for a third time, chair umpire Renaud Lichtenstein hit him with a warning for racquet abuse. Shapovalov went semi-ballistic, calling it a “horrible call” and claiming that because he hadn’t cracked his racquet, he couldn’t receive a code violation. Yes, cracking your racquet is an automatic penalty, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only time you can be penalized. By this logic, if a player slams his frame down after every lost point for five sets, but avoids breaking it, he can never be warned. The infraction is called “racquet abuse” for a reason—it’s the abuse, not the destruction, that counts.

“I definitely felt more confident this time.”

Coco Gauff’s win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon last year felt like a passing of the torch, from one great American champion in her late-30s, to another potentially great American champion in her teens. After all of the hoopla, real and symbolic, surrounding that first-round match, it was a little awkward to have them meet in another first-rounder, at another Slam, six months later. If Venus won, were we going to say that Gauff had passed the torch back? If Gauff lost, would she feel as if she was already taking a step back in 2020?

Fortunately for her, and for tennis writers everywhere, we didn’t have to worry about that. Gauff won again, 7-6 (5), 6-3. More important, she looked like she had made some improvements to her shots, particularly the all-important serve and forehand—each looked a little more fluid than they had in 2019. It’s rare to say that about a pro, but it’s also rare to watch a pro who’s 15 years old, and still capable of making significant technical improvements. As Gauff’s sometime-coach Patrick Mouratoglou told me last year, once a player turns 18, she’s probably going to have to live with what she has.

What Gauff already has is an ability to recognize important points and play them correctly and nervelessly. Up 5-3 in the first set against Venus, she lost three straight games to go down 5-6, and trailed 15-30 on her serve. The set, which seemed to be hers, was suddenly on the verge of being lost. So what did Gauff do? She refused to miss, and won the longest rally of the match.

Something similar happened in the tiebreaker a few minutes later. Up 5-3, Gauff let Venus get back to 5-5. This time she swung Venus wide on her serve, forced her to move the other way with a crosscourt backhand, and closed with an easy forehand winner. Gauff won the points she needed to win, and held onto the torch that Venus passed her last year.

Annie Li, a 19-year-old child of Chinese parents, grew up in suburban Philadelphia. Lizette Cabrera, a 22-year-old child of Filipino parents, grew up in Townsville and Brisbane, Australia. Neither is well-known, neither is ranked in the Top 100, but they came together to play what may have been the most entertaining two sets of the day. Both ended tiebreakers; the second one went to 12-10, and was decided, on more than one occasion, by millimeters.

Cabrera-Li was a good way to ease into the Australian Open, and back into a new season. Just when you thought the match was going to go in one direction, it would turn around and go the other way. China and America vs. Australia and the Philippines: How tennis is that?