Three days in, and the Australian Open is starting to feel like a Slam. We haven’t seen any stunning results yet, but some potentially intriguing stories have begun to be written. Yesterday in Melbourne, one veteran champion staved off retirement for at least a couple more days; a 15-year-old gave her elders—i.e., all of us—a lesson in how to compete; and a talented but seemingly star-crossed American finally showed what he can do in front of the world.
In case you missed any or all of those events while you were asleep, here’s a recap.
Always Be Doubting
Why has Caroline Wozniacki won 30 titles and more than 600 matches, and spent 67 weeks at No. 1? Why is she a future Hall-of-Famer? Before she retires at the end of this tournament, the 29-year-old gave us what may be her final reminder in her 7-5, 7-5 win over 19-year-old Dayana Yastremska.
Yesterday, I wrote that I expected Wozniacki to lose this match, and that Yastremska was destined for bigger stages very soon. For six games, I seemed to be on solid ground. The Ukrainian came out firing, and even the ever-determined Dane couldn’t keep up with her baseline missiles. But Wozniacki—and this is always the key with her—didn’t hang her head or show any negativity or act as if she was destined to lose the set. She asked the question she has always asked of her opponents: “Can you keep hitting winners until the match is over? Because I don’t think you can.”
This is what sets Wozniacki apart: No matter how far behind she gets, or how many winners the other player hits, she never allows herself to believe that her opponent can keep it up. She knows that nerves will inevitably come into play, that players go through streaks, and that perfect shots are hard to hit over and over. So she never stops trying to force the person on the other side of the net to hit them. This method hasn’t worked all that well for Wozniacki at the majors, because her opponents tend to be sharper, hungrier, and more stubborn at those events. Overall, though, her always-doubt-your-opponent system has won her 70 percent of her matches (she has a 625-259 career record) and earned her $34 million in prize money. Sounds like a pretty good system to me. We’ll see how many more times Wozniacki, who plays Ons Jabeur next, can make it work.
And a Child Shall Show Them
Watching Coco Gauff come storming—literally storming—back from 0-3 in the third set to beat Sorana Cirstea, my mind flashed back to the scene in Old School where Will Ferrell’s character shouts, “That’s the way you debate!” Gauff could have walked out of Melbourne Arena after her 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 win and shouted, “That’s the way you compete!” to all of the wannabe tennis players, children or adult, in the audience.
The 15-year-old is a pro now, but she still fights with the unswerving, near-maniacal fervor of a junior. Stare downs, moonballs, head games: juniors will do anything to win, and so will Coco. With Gauff serving at 3-4 in the third set, Cirstea held her racquet up to call time. Gauff, not seeing her, served anyway. For some reason, this annoyed Gauff to the point where she screamed in Cirstea’s direction after winning the next two points. Hey, whatever works, right? She held for 4-4.
But Gauff didn’t win because she got angry. She won because, when she fell behind, she became more aggressive and took the points into her own hands. One shot in particular stands out. Down 0-3, 15-30, she was on the verge of falling behind by two breaks. Sensing that it was do-or-die time, Gauff didn’t mope or become unsure of herself. She did the opposite. On the next point, she barged toward the net and won the rally with a forceful backhand volley. She hit it just the way they teach it, by keeping her legs moving forward all the way through the shot and finishing on top of the net. It was an energizing moment, and one that changed the atmosphere in the arena, and the momentum in the match. Gauff still trailed, but suddenly she was the player who was making things happen. Half an hour later, she had come back to win, and she finished the last point—guess where?—at the net.
“If this was a fight, the ref would give him a standing eight count,” ESPN’s Brad Gilbert said. “He’s dazed and confused”
Gilbert was referring to Tommy Paul, and he wasn’t wrong. After four hours, Paul was two points from defeat at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov. The American had been hobbled by a leg injury since early in the third set; now it was 5-4 in the fifth, 30-0, and Paul seemed destined to fall a few inches short of the finish line in this marathon.
But he did have at least one more shot in him. In the middle of the next rally, Paul hauled off on a 100-m.p.h. crosscourt forehand for a blazing winner that Gilbert’s booth partner, Jason Goodall, described as a “hypersonic missile.” It won him the point, and planted a seed of doubt in Dimitrov’s brain. The Bulgarian tightened up, and Paul pepped up. Swinging from his heels, he came back to record the biggest win of his career, and just his second at a major, 10-3 in a fifth-set super-tiebreaker.
Paul is just 22, but it has been a long time coming for the Philadelphia area native. Injuries and dips in confidence have kept this most talented of tennis athletes from joining the other members of his generation of U.S. men—Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka—at ATP-level events. But now Paul is healthy, he’s working with well-respected coach Brad Stine, and he already has five main-draw wins in Adelaide and Melbourne this season. Has he finally arrived?
Let’s hope so, because from a shot-making standpoint, he would make an excellent addition to the tour. He has a liquid-whip forehand—no wonder Roger Federer’s agency signed him as a teenager—and he can take his backhand on a short hop and flick it for winners. He even knows his way around the net. Now he’s gritted his way through his first Slam epic, in a style that would have made his fellow Philadelphian Rocky Balboa proud. We’ll see how many more bouts Paul has in him in Melbourne. Either way, he looks like he’s here to stay.