What You Missed from Melbourne, Day 2: Halep advances; FAA grounded

What You Missed from Melbourne, Day 2: Halep advances; FAA grounded

The Romanian fell but got up; Rublev showed he's ready for his next-big-thing star turn; and Auger-Aliassime failed to get airborne.

After a rain-shortened opening day, it was all hands on deck at Melbourne Park on Tuesday. Play began at 10: 30 in the morning, and is still going as I write this 16 hours later. For all of the matches on the schedule, though, there weren’t a lot of newsworthy results. Of the highly seeded players in action—Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Gael Monfils, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Belinda Bencic, Madison Keys—only Medvedev dropped a set.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there was nothing worth watching, or noting for future reference. Here’s a look at a two-time Grand Slam champion with a chance to win a third; a player seemingly ready to take his turn as the ATP’s next hope; and another who may be destined for a sophomore slump.


Simona Gets Off the Mat

Simona Halep had seen this movie more than once before. She comes to a major event as a contender for the title, runs headlong into a power player in the first round, and gets bounced before the tournament has even begun. Four times Halep had lost her opener at the Australian Open. One of those defeats came at the hands of a heavy-hitting American, Shelby Rogers; on Tuesday Halep must have felt a queasy sense of déjà vu as she walked out to face another U.S. player of a similar ilk, Jen Brady. The last time they met, in Canada last summer, Halep was lucky to escape in a third-set tiebreaker. Since then, Brady, who opened this season with wins over Maria Sharapova and Ash Barty, had only improved.

In short, an upset seemed to be in the making. Brady went up an early break, and reached set point three times on her own serve at 6-5. But Halep, who had taken a tumble a few games earlier and walked away with a bruised wrist, wouldn’t let this set go. She saved one set point with a brave, brilliant drop shot-pass combination, and saved the other two by outlasting Brady in long rallies.

Halep, who was recently reunited with coach Darren Cahill, says she felt “weird” in her first tournament, in Adelaide, but that she feels “good” now. She also said her wrist issue didn’t seem “dangerous,” but she won’t know for sure until she wakes up tomorrow morning. Halep has survived tough opening rounds and gone on to win Grand Slam titles before, and she has to like where she is in this draw—Serena, Barty, Osaka, and Kvitova are all in the other half. After losing a heartbreaker to Caroline Wozniacki in the final here two years ago, Halep says she wants an Australian Open title more than any other. Let her campaign, which is sure to be an eventful one, begin again.


Time to Count Your Rubles?

Dominic Thiem. Alexander Zverev. Nick Kyrgios. Karen Khachanov. Denis Shapovalov. Stefanos Tsitsipas. Daniil Medvedev. Matteo Berrettini. Jannik Sinner. The list of Next Gen hopefuls gets longer each month. Andrey Rublev has been part of that youth brigade for a few seasons now. The 22-year-old Russian reached the quarterfinals at the 2017 US Open, and we know all about his early love for Rafael Nadal and his boy-band ambitions.

After an injury-plagued 2018 and a slow recovery in 2019, is Rublev finally ready for his star turn? He has started 2020 with nine straight wins and two straight titles, and he’s up to No. 16 in the rankings. He also plays with the compact strokes and relentless aggression that many of us have wished we could see from his old junior friend and rival—and fellow hair apparent—Alexander Zverev. Rublev won his first-round match over Australia’s Christopher O’Connell in four sets yesterday, and he’s had the good fortune to land in a quarter headlined by Medvedev and Zverev, rather than one of the Big 3. He’s a dark horse to make the semis.

But as good as Rublev has looked recently, his win over the 119th-ranked O’Connell came with warning signs. If things go south for the Russian, he can have trouble finding a Plan B, or putting a halt to the negative momentum. After winning the first set over O’Connell, he lost the second 6-0. Rublev’s relentlessness can also work against him. He hits his ground strokes pretty much at one speed and with one spin; if his opponent likes pace, he can find a groove against Rublev. By the middle of the fourth set, O’Connell, despite being ranked 103 below him, was going toe to toe with Rublev and gaining confidence with each game.

Rubble was lucky to escape, 7-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Was this the test he needed to overcome any early jitters? Or was it a sign of danger to come? We’ll find out more if Rublev goes up against David Goffin in the third round.


FAA Stays Grounded

 

While Rublev’s star tentatively rises, that of another young gun, Felix Auger-Aliassime, sank a little farther on Tuesday—at least for the moment. The Canadian earned more than his share of opportunities against Ernests Gulbis, but he couldn’t capitalize, and eventually walked away a four-set loser to a player whose best days seemed decidedly behind him.

It has been a tough six months for FAA. After stellar results on clay, grass, and hard courts to start 2019, he staggered through the second half of the season and ended it with a defeat in the Davis Cup Finals to Spain. He started 2020 much the same way, by going 1-3 in ATP Cup, and exiting in the first round at the year’s first major. His career record at the Grand Slams now stands at 2-4, with three first-round losses.

All of that said, of course, Auger-Aliassime is still 19, still ranked in the Top 25, and still the possessor of a promisingly powerful all-around game and helpfully even-keel mentality. He’s succeeded at every level so far, and there’s no reason to think he won’t reach the Top 10, the way we’ve all predicted.

But some cracks have started to show in his ultra-solid veneer. Against Gulbis, he squandered break chances; went for all-or-nothing forehands from behind the baseline and came up with nothing; and missed regulation mid-court balls for no discernible reason. FAA can do everything well, but for the moment he lacks a reliable point-ending shot. When Gulbis had an opening, he could add a little juice to his forehand or backhand and open up the rally; Auger-Aliassime seemed stuck in third gear by comparison.

If we’ve learned anything about the Big 3 era, it’s that getting to the top—or just near the top—requires making a long, steep ascent, and dealing with plenty of turbulence along the way. FAA will get airborne eventually.