What You Missed, Day 5: Serena, Osaka ousted in stunners Down Under

What You Missed, Day 5: Serena, Osaka ousted in stunners Down Under

In a trilogy of US Open rematches, the losers in New York—Federer, Gauff and Wang—became the winners in Melbourne. Should we call it Rocket’s Revenge?

The first Wednesday of Wimbledon in 2013—forever to be known as Wimblegeddon—was famous for its carnage. Six current or former No. 1 players were ushered out of the tournament that day, which ended with Roger Federer’s earliest defeat at a Grand Slam—in the second round—in nine years. The first Thursday of this year’s Australian Open, while it wasn’t quite as apocalyptic, had a similarly astonishing vibe, right down to Federer’s night-session nail biter with John Millman. It wasn’t Wimblegeddon, but for those of you waking up to see the results this morning, it certainly was a stunner Down Under.

Qiang Wang, who had lost to Serena Williams 6-1, 6-0 in their only meeting, beat Serena  in three sets. Ons Jabeur, who had never reached the fourth round at a major, did just that by sending Caroline Wozniacki into retirement. Maria Sakkari took care of 10th seed Madison Keys in straight sets. 15-year-old Coco Gauff knocked out defending champion Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4. Milos Raonic, the 32nd seed, made routine work of No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Tennys Sandgren did the same to his more-accomplished countryman Sam Querrey. Finally, Federer himself teetered on the brink of defeat at the hands of Millman, before winning the last six points to steal away with a victory, 10-8 in a fifth-set tiebreaker. Call that one the Miracle in Melbourne.

In my Friday preview, I looked ahead at three rematches of recent US Open contests: Qiang Wang vs. Serena, Gauff vs. Osaka, and Federer vs. Millman. In all three cases, the matches were played in Rod Laver Arena, and the loser in New York became the winner in Melbourne. Should we call it Rocket’s Revenge?

Here’s a look at how those turnarounds went down.

“I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today”

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How do really feel about your performance, Serena? She’s still a professional athlete, obviously, but she did make a lot of errors. Fifty-six of them, against 43 winners, in a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 loss to Wang. Serena started slowly, with off-pace serves and erratic ground strokes, and she only escaped a straight-set loss because Wang couldn’t quite shut the door when she led 5-3 in the second set.

But that temporary brain cramp only made Wang’s victory in the third set more impressive. Nothing brings out a player’s pride and determination like a blowout defeat, and Wang played this match with both; her game was as error-free as Serena’s was error-filled. And how about her running crosscourt backhand? It’s a shot she seemingly can’t miss, and a thing of flicky beauty that Rocket Rod himself would have been proud to hit.

“Can you believe what you’ve just done?” Sam Smith asked Wang in her post-match interview, likely expecting the answer to be “No.” Instead, Wang said, simply and clearly, “Yes.”

What does this mean for Serena and the quest for 24 (and, let’s face it, 25) Slams? It has now been three full years since she has won a major. More ominously, this is Serena’s earliest exit at a non-clay Slam since Wimbledon in 2014. She said that even after she fell behind, she fully expected to win this match, and you can understand why. It was a classic first week test, the kind she has only failed to pass at the French Open in recent years. Losing in Grand Slam finals makes getting to 24 seem doable—you just need to win one more match to get there. Losing third-round matches? That makes the hill look considerably steeper. We all know Serena can still climb it, but she won’t get another shot at a Slam until May, and she won’t get a shot at her favorite Slam, Wimbledon, until June.

“What is my life? Like, omigosh”

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Those were the first words out of Coco Gauff’s mouth after her 6-3, 6-4 win over Osaka. Gauff has reached the third round or better at the last three majors, but winning still hasn’t ceased to amaze her. And why should it? As she said, two years ago she was a 13-year-old who lost in the first round of the girls’ event. Now she has beaten the defending Australian Open champion in a Laver night session to make the fourth round. “This is crazy,” Gauff said, summing up her win, and the day as a whole.

Gauff, it seems clear, can play up or down to the level of any competition. She was as solid against Osaka as she was shaky for long stretches of her last match, against Sorana Cirstea. What’s remarkable about Gauff is that at 15 she already has physical skills that match the world’s best players. She snaps her serve off with enough spin and pace to handcuff them, and she’s quick enough on her return to reflex their fastest serves back in play. When she gets a mid-court backhand, she can quickly dispatch it for a winner, and she covers the court well enough to make even her most powerful opponents have to hit another ball. Early in the match, Osaka sent up a very good lob that she may have thought was going to go for a winner. Instead, Gauff leaped backward and uncorked a howitzer overhead—it sounded like a gunshot coming off her strings. It also sounded like Coco’s way of telling us what she can do to a tennis ball.

But as dynamic and composed as Gauff was, this result was more about Osaka’s poor play. As each set progressed, she unraveled. She was late on her forehand, she drilled her backhand into the net, she couldn’t come up with the bailout serves she needed. She rolled her eyes, stared angrily at the sky, and sat with her chin on her hand, contemplating where everything had gone wrong.

But I liked how, afterward, Osaka peered into the wreckage and made an honest assessment of her own vulnerability.

“You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old,” she said.

“I don’t really have the champion mentality yet, which is someone that can deal with not playing 100 percent [and still win]. And I have always wanted to be like that, but I guess I still have a long way to go.”

“It’s just something that I think some people are born with, and some people have to have really hard trials and stuff to get it.”

The fact that Gauff is only 15 can obscure the fact that Osaka just turned 22 in October. There’s a long way to go, and a lot to learn, for her too.

Banishing the Demons

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When he fell behind 8-4 in the fifth-set tiebreaker to Millman, Federer said he began to prepare his concession speech for the press—the “demons” of past defeats were haunting him. It was a bold admission, but not a shocking one. Federer was two points from defeat, to a player who had just come up with three of the most brilliant winners of his career. It also didn’t help Federer’s confidence that he had lost five-setters at the last two Slams he played, to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon and Grigor Dimitrov at the US Open. Even someone like Federer, who has won dozens of five-setters over the course of his career, is only as confident as his most recent results allow him to be.

So how did Federer win anyway? You’re supposed to believe you can win to have any chance at doing it, right? Federer may not have had much confidence, but he did have his experience and his tennis IQ to fall back on.

After watching Millman make two running forehand passes in a row, Federer knew what he couldn’t do—let him make another one. So he began, at 4-8, by sending a backhand crosscourt into Millman’s backhand, pushing him into the doubles alley and forcing an error. On the next two points, Federer rallied; he hit deep and moved the ball around, and Millman, now nervous, obliged by sending a backhand long and a forehand long. At 7-8, Federer had a chance to smack a backhand and move to net, but having been burned up there a few points ago, he used a drop shot instead. Millman tracked it down but couldn’t make a difficult pass. At 8-8, Millman hit a lob long, and at 9-8, Federer maneuvered Millman around the baseline and eventually guided a forehand into the open court to complete his miracle escape.

It’s good to believe you can win. It’s even better to know how to do it.