THERE WAS KIND OF A HUSH ALL OVER THE WORLD: Around the world, throngs of Rafa fans turned off their TVs in the middle of the night. All was well – they could sleep with ease. Their muscular man was muscling his foe. He was comfortably up 6-3, 6-2 against the dangerous world No. 5, Stefanos Tsitsipas. Rafa had won 35 Grand Slam sets in a row. Presumably he would now tie Federer’s record of 36 straight sets. Nadal had dropped only one match in his career after being up two sets and he had a commanding 6-1 head-to-head edge over his young rival.
The last time they’d played in Australia, the Spaniard had given Stefanos a beatdown. The reeling kid had confided, “My brain was used to certain angles. But tonight against Rafa I was always on the wrong foot…He has a talent to make you play bad…I felt empty in the brain.”
So last night many otherwise fine brains presumed that Nadal would take an important step toward securing the Aussie title, a victory that would give him the most coveted record in tennis – the most Grand Slam singles ever won. Plus broadcasters were clear. “Tsitsipas has no sense of urgency,” noted Pat McEnroe. “He’s got to go to plan B,” added Brad Gilbert. “He hasn’t done anything to threaten Nadal. He has to hit the reset button.” No wonder it made sense for Rafa’s late-night fans to turn off their TVs and rest up for their man’s semifinal.
But in tennis, you can’t run out the clock.
Earlier in the day, the beloved Aussie icon Ash Barty had also been cruising. Up 6-1, 2-0 she, too, was advancing on history. It was more likely than ever that she’d be the first Aussie woman to win the Happy Slam since Chris O’Neil in 1976. Her opponent, Karolina Muchova, seemed hapless. But the Czech took a nine-minute medical timeout, and then came back and totally rewrote the script.
She sprinted to a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 shock upset to reach the semis, where she’ll face Jen Brady, who came back to beat her pal and fellow Floridian Jessie Pegula in three sets. Tsitsipas provided even more comeback magic. He was greatly helped when Nadal played a shockingly loose third-set tiebreak. Twice he blew overheads, and he committed almost unbelievable groundstroke errors. Late in the third set, he let the Greek off the hook.
Tsitsipas relaxed and recalibrated. He was disciplined, his backhand was on fire. Rafa, who hadn’t really been tested in Melbourne, winced and grimaced. He seemed a little tired. Tsitsipas used all his considerable athleticism, adept instincts, and quick-twitch anticipation to battle back. Late in the fifth set he broke Nadal at love and soon scored a 3-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory that set off celebrations in towns and villages throughout the Greek peninsula. Stefanos was elated. But the young long-haired bard next next faces a challenge that’s hard. In his third ever Slam semifinal he’ll face the streaking Daniil Medvedev, who swept aside his fellow Russian Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals and is on a 19-match winning streak.
SOUNDS RIGHT: Jesse Pegula’s dad is worth $4.7 billion. So it’s not exactly shocking that broadcaster Kate Kearns commented, “This is not a woman who needs to work.”
CIRSTEA’S COMPLAINT: In a warm-up tourney before the Aussie Open Sorana Cirstea’s coach kept on talking and talking, so the Romanian asked the chair umpire to give her own coach a warning for coaching. Daniil Medvedev got into a fourth-set feud with his coach Gilles Cervara, who promptly left the court. But they kissed and made up.
SOFIA’S DOWN UNDER JOURNEY GETS WORSE: Abdomen injuries have plagued Melbourne. Think Novak, Matteo Berrettini and Caspar Ruud. But poor Sofia Kenin. The defending champion, who quickly lost three different times in three different Melbourne tournaments, was rushed to an Australian hospital, where she lost her appendix. Thank goodness she’s recovering well.
THE PLANE TRUTH: It used to be that when a plane flew over a tennis stadium during a match it was an annoyance. What an imposition on the sacred serenity of our game! Now when a plane flies by, it’s a wonderful, welcome sign of normalcy.
JUST WONDERING: What’s harder these days, to try and claim that a Hawkeye line call was wrong or that fans are making too much noise?
WE ALL HAVE DEMONS: Novak Djokovic explained why, the other night, he smashed his racket. “You go through inner battles. I have my own demons that I fight with. Everyone has their own way of dealing with that. It’s just an accumulation of things that happen in big moments. I just kind of let it go. Poor racquet.”
THE BARTY PARTY MAY BE OVER, BUT… The Barty Party may be over in Melbourne, but Ash again proved she’s very much a product of Australia’s down-to-earth mindset. This, of course, is the culture that produced the humble icon Rod Laver and the US Open winner Pat Rafter, who once told us that winning that title wouldn’t change him a bit. He would still be “the same old bag of shit.”
Anyway, since Kim Clijsters, there hasn’t been a WTA players who’s been more down to Earth than Barty. She recently shared that she Face Times with her dogs every day, and they are completely spoiled. When asked if she’s going to win the Aussie Open she quipped, “I’m going to give it a crack.” As for her fitness following the shutdown she said, “I’m fit as a fiddle.” And when she lost to Muchova in the quarterfinals she could have complained about the Czech’s nine-minute medical timeout that changed everything in the match. She didn’t.
CANDID CHRISSIE: Broadcaster Jason Goodall put Chris Evert on the spot. Deep into the Jen Brady–Jessie Pegula quarterfinal he asked his adept broadcasting partner, “Who’s the fitter of the two players?” The candid, often humorous Evert replied, “How do I know? We’re here in Bristol [Connecticut] and they’re in Australia.”
CANDID SERENA – NOT SINCE 1926: After her feel-good win over Simona Halep, Serena offered some curious quips. We thought she’d played great. But she complained about her performance, saying, “Who hits into the net at this level of professionalism? Serena, get it over the net!” She referred to an old injury as “that silly Achilles that kept me sidelined.” As for her motivation for doing well in Melbourne, she confided, “I knew I had an insane outfit to look good in, so that was my motivation [to come back].” Williams also joked that she hasn’t dominated long rallies so well since the summer of 1926.
FAIR TRADEOFF: Daniil Medvedev, 25, may be losing a bit of hair, but he’s gaining a lot of cred in the locker room, and many consider him the Melbourne favorite.
WALLPAPER WONDER: After her win against Ash Barty, Karolina Muchova recalled, “I actually have one memory from here when I was a kid and got my first notebook. I put as a wallpaper Rod Laver, the stadium. I was just like, ‘I hope one day it would be nice to play there, or to look at the arena.’ Now I make it to semifinals. It’s amazing.”
“I categorize myself as a troll on the net. I like to give people shit.” – Jen Brady
“She’s figured out life faster than most people on this planet.” – Lindsay Davenport on Naomi Osaka
“People came to Australia hoping that this would be the Happy Slam – at least that it was a big step toward normalcy. Then, ‘Boom!’ [fans were banned from the stands].” – Chris Fowler
“Twenty-four is very much alive.” – Pam Shriver on Serena’s ongoing effort to tie Margaret Court’s mark
“If Serena is going to win one, it’s going to be here.” – Renae Stubbs
“It was the most surreal match I’ve ever commented on in my 14 years of doing this.” –Robbie Koenig on the extraordinary Nick Kyrgios vs. Dominic Thiem match before a raucous crowd
“We are great friends, so there is no rivalry.” – Daniil Medvedev on his Russian friend Andrey Rublev, whom he has never lost to in their 5 matches
“It was just me being dramatic.” – Serena Williams on her expressions after she slightly twisted her ankle while playing Sabalenka
“It’s fun when I’m not really angry.” – Naomi Osaka on playing the often frustrating Hsieh Su-Wei
“More than anything, it’s about enjoyment.” – Brad Gilbert on the key to having a long tennis career
“This is the greatest generation in sports.” Luke Jensen
ART UPDATE: Even though the ATP’s leading art connoisseur Milos Raonic didn’t have much to say about the museum scene in Melbourne, Serena told us why she likes to go to galleries and loves modern African-American art. And commentator turned art historian Steve Weissman pointed out that a leading Russian 15th-century icon painter was named Andrei Rublev.
THE GREAT GIBBSY STEPS ASIDE: Nicole Gibbs, 27, who emerged out of Ohio to become a Stanford star and has long lived in Southern California, announced her retirement. The former NCAA champion, who won seven titles and reached No. 68, was a beloved figure who survived a bout with oral cancer and was known for her courageous commentaries on life and sport. She’s now applying to seven law schools and hopes to continue having an active presence.
GO FIGURE: Aslan Karatsev is into the Australian Open semis but doesn’t have any endorsement contracts for gear…Serena, who reached her ninth Australian Open semifinal, won her 362nd Slam match to tie Federer’s record. Naomi Osaka, with a 13.31 UTR, has the highest such ranking in women’s tennis.
NUMBERS CRUNCH: Since Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003, the Big Three have won 57 of 69 Slams, with eight other players winning the other 12 titles…Since Serena won her first Slam in 1999, 24 other women have won slams. Twelve are retired.
TIP OF THE DAY: After noting that Nick Kyrgios doesn’t have a coach, Martina Navratilova said, “If you want to get the most out of your game, you need a coach or three.”
TENNIS SPIKE: Last year, tennis participation was up 22%. Nearly 3 million Americans picked up a racket in 2020, a 44% increase over 2019. And four million more people in the US played tennis in 2020 than in 2019.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY: Just a while ago Nadal’s teenage nephews, Toni and Joan, won their first pro matches at the ITF level in Manacor, Spain…Both Jesse Pegula and her dad’s Buffalo Bills football team had great runs but fell short.