THE SUBLIME BEAUTY OF SPORTS – Tsonga and Woz Not Out In Oz

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Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE –

Tennis, especially in the early rounds of tourneys, can be dull and dreary. Lopsided matches hardly excite. Then out of nowhere – boom, pow, ‘Woz’ – drama and sporting excitement can roll in like thunder off the prairie.

Today, almost simultaneously and on neighboring courts, a storm of excitement descended as two wily Euro vets – Aussie Open finalist Jo-Willie Tsonga and No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki – called on all their skill sets to snatch victory from two kids – an aspiring champion with long hair from Canada, Denis Shapovalov, and a Croatian with a short resume, Jana Fett.

The 21-year Fett was playing her first Slam. Wozniacki was playing her 43rd Slam. “There is nothing like a Dane,” joked broadcaster Craig Gabriel – certainly the No. 2 seed would prevail.

Think again. The Croat may have been wearing black on a steamy day, but her first set was bright as she hit out and raced to a 6-3 first set victory.

But many weren’t exactly thrilled about the Rod Laver Arena match. Commentator Chris Bowers said the encounter was “a match without shape.” Linda Pearce said the second round battle was “just meandering along. No one is taking this match by the scruff.”

Wozniacki does not have a big weapon. She’s never won a Slam and don’t ask what her record is against her pal Serena. Okay, it’s 1-10.

But if she has one thing, it’s fight. She hates to lose. She used boxing as a training tool, is one of the game’s great defensive players and yes, she survived being more or less left at the altar by golfer Rory McIlroy, who called off their engagement at the last minute.

So it was no accident that after the Dane dropped the first set 3-6, she used a squabble with the ump to fire her up as she claimed the second set.

But Fett adeptly regrouped, attacked and sprinted to a 5-1 lead in the final set – just a game from victory.

Wozniacki told herself that her foe still had to win four points. The Croatian won three and was up two breaks and 40-15. Wozniacki told herself that she had “one foot out of the tournament.” Then Fett blinked. Her forehand stopped punishing. She played like the No. 119 player she is. Later she confided that she got tired, started to think about winning, got tight and didn’t know what to do.

Sounds like a problem, especially if your foe starts to zone. Fett failed on two match points and Wozniacki started a long methodical comeback. She would lose only seven points, as she won six straight games, to score a stunning 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory.

Tsonga’s win over Shapovalov had similarities to Wozniacki’s: veteran faces defeat in scorching heat and uses experience at crunch time to come from behind and win. Down 5-2 in the fifth set to the Canadian, Tsonga called on his will and lifted his game to score 3-6, 6-3, 1-6 7-6 (4), 7-5 win over a teen who was playing in just his second major.

In defeat, the kid said, “There’s always nerves in sports. I played a bad game – then he picked up his level. His forehand started to penetrate. This was the longest match I’ve played. I won’t sulk or get down on myself. I will learn. That’s sports.”

A relieved Tsonga offered an ecstatic, high-leaping victory dance and said, “I did a big fight today. It’s not easy to go out against those young guns…They have fire in their arms.”

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