It was grand while it lasted. Grand Slam tennis, some of it nothing less than dazzling, played before a respectable number of fans at the Australian Open.
Alas, those fans are banished again, at least for a few more days, due to the pandemic. But the appetite of the remaining players is undiminished. Their collective spirit was nicely summed up by the recently departed Iga Swiatek, who was asked on the eve of the tournament to reveal the most surprising thing about her overnight transformation into a major champion (she was outside the Top 50 at this time last year).
“The biggest surprise actually isn't really ‘positive,’” Swiatek said. “I would say I was always imagining that when I'm going to win a Grand Slam, I'm going to just enjoy it for the rest of my life—it's going to be rainbows everywhere, I'm going to be some kind of at peace in myself that I already won a Grand Slam and I reached my goal. The truth is that humans aren’t like that: they just want more.”
That’s quite an observation, coming from a 19-year old. It’s also one of the many remarks that made the first week in Melbourne so memorable.
So here’s a ramble through the first seven days of the Melbourne major, in quotes.
Serena Williams, following her 6-1, 6-1 first-round rout of Laura Siegemund:
"I like my job. No matter what happens to you in life, you always hold your head up high and give 100 million percent. And that's what I do every single day, and that's something I can be proud of.''
Denis Shapovalov, who had words with the chair umpire who denied the No. 14 seed’s request for a bathroom break after the fourth set of his lengthy five-set, first-round win over Italian wunderkind Jannik Sinner:
“I do think it's a dumb rule. Especially for me, I've got the smallest bladder ever, so I literally got to [use the bathroom] every set. It's difficult, especially when you're on that court for so long. Before the match I'm trying to hydrate as much as possible, so yeah, I gotta pee, man.”
Nick Kyrgios, after his first-round win:
“I actually think talent-wise Nadal and Djokovic aren't even close to Roger. Talent-wise, just purely based on talent the way Federer plays, his hands, his serving, his volleys, untouchable. It's funny, because I think Roger is the greatest of all time but not the greatest of the era because his head-to-head against Rafa is not great. But it's a tough one.”
Bianca Andreescu, 20-year old former US Open champion, after eking out a three-set win in the first round. It was her first official match after being sidelined by injury for 15 months:
“I don't know what to expect when I'm nervous. Sometimes I'll cry, sometimes I'll be laughing uncontrollably. It's really weird. But last night I did cry, and I'm not afraid to say that because everyone cries sometimes.”
Milos Raonic, the No. 14 seed, on the hard times brought on by quarantines and other pandemic-related restrictions for lower-ranked players:
“... It's tough because if you're not winning any matches, then you have to provide yourself accommodation in between events, you can't go home necessarily most of the time, or even if you do you might not make it to the next event, all these kind of things, it is a very difficult time. I think the business side of what's been going on is a little bit broken.”
Djokovic, top-seeded and top-ranked, on his running feud with Kyrgios:
“Off the court, I don't have much respect for him, to be honest. That's where I'll close it. I really don't have any further comments for him, his own comments for me or anything else he's trying to do.”
Kyrgios, responding to Djokovic’s comment:
“He’s a very strange cat, Novak is.”
Tennys Sandgren, after he lost to Alex de Minaur, on the plight of the players who were unexpectedly obliged to endure a two-week hard lockdown in their hotel rooms—a quarantine that ended just days before the start of the tournament.
“I don't know if the whole tournament is a joke. The tournament from my perspective might be. I've never walked on to a court in a Grand Slam knowing that I'm probably not going to be able to win. . . There's 75 other players in the men's and women's field that are in the same boat. It's a hefty number of people, and very good players.”
Heather Watson, when asked what she might have taken for granted in normal, pre-pandemic life:
“It's things that you'd never think of, like just fresh air. We couldn't wait to get fresh air. Our hotels didn't have windows. Just something so simple like that. Every time I'm in the car now on the way to Melbourne Park or back to the hotel, I always make sure I open the window just to have fresh air.”
Jennifer Brady, when asked after a win if she liked the all-electronic line-calling employed by the tournament:
“I would rather not argue with people. I think the electronic line calling is good, it's great. There's nobody to argue with. If it's out, it's out. If it's in, it's in.”
Frances Tiafoe, when asked the same thing as Brady:
“It's technology, right? It's gonna make mistakes. That's just a fact. . . .. It is what it is. I think there will be misses. . . I get technology is at a crazy high level. I'm just not a believer in it. That's just kind of what it is.”
Nadal, when asked if it was worrisome that his third-round opponent and heavy underdog Cam Norrie had nothing to lose:
“Well, that's a philosophy, nothing to lose. But at the same time, he has a match to lose or to win—the same like me.”
Fabio Fognini, when asked by a reporter if he would air things out with Salvatore Caruso following the heated argument they had on court following Fognini’s five-set win over his fellow countryman:
“We're going to spoke, don't worry. I'll let you know. If you give me your phone, I text you.”
Djokovic, after he recovered from an abdominal injury mid-match to log a grueling five-set, third-round win over American challenger Taylor Fritz:
“This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life. Doesn't matter what round it is and against who it is. Under these kind of circumstances to pull this through is definitely something I'll remember forever.”
Fritz, when asked after losing to Djokovic if he would ever develop a Novak-like mental strength and desire:
“I think that I want it, I think I want it just as bad, and I have the passion and desire just as much. . . You know, it doesn't matter how bad you want it if you're not better than the other person.”
Felix Auger-Aliassime, when asked about his fourth-round opponent Aslan Karatsev, a 27-year-old who had only three tour-level wins before he qualified for the Australian Open:
“Well, in my perspective he's not a Russian qualifier now. He's more a Russian playing in the round of 16. It's a tough task.”
Nadal, following the incident in which a fan disrupted play and appeared to flip the bird to the No. 2 seed during his match with Michael Mmoh:
“For me was funny. Honestly, somebody doing the [middle] finger to me. I don't know the reason, but I was surprised, yes. At the same time, I was thinking, ‘Poor girl’ Because probably she was drunk or something.”
Casper Ruud, the No. 4 seed, on equaling his father Christian’s best Grand Slam result:
“He was happy.. Now he has done it himself [reached the fourth round at a major] and as a coach. That was kind of the last inch he kind of had on me when it comes to Norwegian records in tennis, I’ve beaten him on everything else—the ranking, winning a title. He kind of liked having that last inch on me and now he can't anymore, so it's a good feeling [for me].”
Daniil Medvedev, the 6-foot-6, 182-lb, No. 4 seed, on his slender build:
“Even now, when I have a week off or something, I like to eat, so many, many people when they see me, they say, ‘Okay, I never saw anybody eat so much.’ I like desserts and I cannot get up even one kilo, I swear. Many people hate me probably for this.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 5 seed, on whether he watches matches featuring his Big Three rivals:
“I might watch them a little bit on TV if it happens that the TV is on, or the right channel is on. Otherwise I just switch to History Channel.”
Shelby Rogers on being one of the fortunate players who were able to practice for a few hours daily before the AO, referring to some of the 72 players who were forced into hard lockdown:
“I had a couple players in the rooms next to me that were stuck in their rooms. I'd walk by and say, ‘Hi, guys.’ They were like, ‘It's so nice to have some interaction.’”
Serena on what it’s like to be restricted to traveling only between the hotel and tennis courts during the pandemic:
“I've been doing that for 20 years, so... I think I've been pretty much quarantining for my whole career.”
We’ll also give Williams the last word. She said, referring to the effects of the pandemic:
“There's always a tomorrow. I feel like we have been, as the world has gone through so much, you just have to stay positive more than anything. As hard as that may be. It's so hard sometimes. But there's always a tomorrow and we just have to keep going no matter what it looks like.”
Enjoy Week Two, everyone!
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).