AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Worst Day in U.S. Slam History?

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Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

TWELVE U.S. PLAYERS GET OUT OF MELBOURNE ON OPENING DAY

By John Huston and Bill Simons

During one notable Muhammad Ali bout, the late, great Howard Cosell shouted, “Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier!”

On opening day in Melbourne, the few American reporters on hand didn’t shout. Instead they muttered, “Down goes Sloane. Down goes Venus. Down goes Coco. Down goes Isner. Down goes CiCi. Down goes Sock.”

While we Americans were elated after four American players reached the US Open woman’s semis in September, there were gloomy Yankee faces today in Melbourne, and questions abounded.

Yes, Serena and Venus once lost on the same day at Wimbledon. Still, this was the worst seven hours for the US in any Slam in history. And, more to the point, why the implosion?

One wise-guy tennis historian blamed it on Oracene Price. Serena’s mother once advised her struggling daughter Serena to “Get out of Melbourne!” i.e. move away from the Melbourne sign on the back of the court. Today it seemed as if the entire American contingent was getting out of Melbourne.

Others crossed a line and got political. For instance, following her loss today, Sloane Stephens talked all about karma, explaining that it was a matter of “doing the right things and being rewarded.” Translation: there are some who have been saying that the US hasn’t exactly been doing wonderful things of late.

Of course, as John Isner, Jack Sock, three of the four US Open woman’s semifinalists (seeded No. 5, No. 10 and No. 13) and other Americans went down, the fall-back explanation was that tennis is a cyclical kind of thing.

Sock told IT, “It happens. It wasn’t my day. It wasn’t John’s day. It wasn’t the day for a lot of American women.” Still, you just want to ask, “Can we have a do-over?”

Going into Day One of the Australian Open, American women’s tennis was dancing happily on the crest of a wave. Yes, Sloane Stephens is still the reigning US Open champion and thirty-seven-year-old Venus Williams had reached the finals of two Grand Slams last year. For the first time in 25 years, the US had won the Fed Cup, due largely to the heroic efforts of Coco Vandeweghe, who made the semis of the US Open and the Aussie Open in 2017. And our bench is strong: There are more than a dozen American women in the top 100.

But what a difference a day makes. In fact, much less than a day. Not even halfway through Monday, Sloane, Venus, Coco and CiCi Bellis were all out.

In Sloane’s case, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise. She’s an incredible 0-8 since her shock win at the US Open. Still, she stormed out of the gates against China’s Shuai Zhang, rifling forehands and passing shots to take the first set 6-2.

Then the wheels came off, at first gradually, then quickly. Sloane fell behind immediately in the second set against Zhang, another player with a beautiful, aggressive forehand – and one who had beaten her in the first round of this event a few years ago. Stevens fought back to force a tiebreak, but after collecting a meager two points in the breaker, she meekly ceded the third set 6-2 to China’s No. 2 player.

Perhaps it wasn’t even a surprise with Venus. Last year’s finalist here in Melbourne, today she faced the Swiss Belinda Bencic, a former junior world No. 1 who has a defeat of younger sister Serena on her resume, along with, more threateningly, a 15-match winning streak. Bencic served strong, redirected the ball with canny precision and slammed the door without any hesitation to secure a 6-3, 7-5 victory. Miserable Monday was now a thing.

Matters only got worse with Vandeweghe, who was combative with umpire Fergus Murphy before her match even started, arguing that she needed time to eat a banana before taking the court and securing her first violation of the day in the process. By the time certain doom was at hand and she was down 5-1 in the second set, she yelled an obscenity at her opponent and was rewarded with a point penalty. Not that Hungary’s Timea Babos needed free points. Urging herself on loudly, she was knife-sharp through most of her 7-6(4), 6-2 dismissal of the surly, swaggering Californian. Grasping for humor from the grim results, the media promptly note that Day One was “Bananas!”

If the US hasn’t exactly been winning friends on the global affairs front this past week, American players have been making new friends – opponents happy to beat them – at the Happy Slam in Melbourne. Within minutes of Vandeweghe’s loss, NorCal poster girl CiCi Bellis was out in three sets to Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, whom she’d upset at the French Open last year. Others were equally unfortunate: Taylor Townsend got a first-set bagel in her loss to 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia. UCLA product Jennifer Brady, who reached the fourth round here last year, lost in three to Poland’s Magda Linette. Alison Riske fell to Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens after reaching the brink of victory in the second-set tiebreak. And the feisty Floridian Sofia Kenin couldn’t stop Germany’s Julia Goerges from extending her 14-match winning streak to 15.

Three hundred minutes into the Australian Open, the US was batting 0-9, with John Isner faring no better on the men’s side, falling in four sets to Aussie Matthew Ebden. And then Jack Sock, who had surged to reach the ATP Finals in London, fell to Japan’s Yuichi Sugitawho, ranked No. 41, 6-1, 7-6, 5-7, 6-3 and Kevin King fell to Jo-Willie Tsonga.

In fact, Ryan Harrison, who beat Dudi Sela, and Mackenzie McDonald, the pride of Berkeley’s Claremont Resort, who scored his first Slam match win, defeating Sweden’s Elias Ymer, ended up as the day’s only American success stories on the men’s side. Stanford grad Nicole Gibbs countered a hard 2017 that included struggles with depression to notch the one and only win on the women’s side. Cumulatively, the American men went 2-3, with both seeds falling. The American women went a jaw-dropping 1-9. 

Amazingly, Madison Keys and Sam Querrey are the only American seeds still alive – but neither of them has played yet.

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