Australian Open: ‘I Know That Nick Kyrgios Can Win’

HIGH DRAMA ON HISENSE

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Too often tennis burdens us with desperately routine matches.

But then it explodes with pure unfiltered emotion, high drama and a sporting ferocity that shakes bones—such glee, and a sense of wonder. What else matches it?

It’s Saturday night and life is summer-good Down Under. Fish are jumping.

So welcome to the Australian Open’s third show court — the oddly named Hisense Arena.

The place has a white techno roof like Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It only has 10,000 seats in a contained square that rumbles loud. Decibels approach Ashe Stadium’s New York roar, and when emotions soar, steel beams relent and offer a wobbly shake. Here you can reach out and hug the action. Intimacy is good.

So is the strapping young lad before us. Volatile and alive, wild Aussie boy Nick Kyrgios teases us with abundant talent. “I could be the next great one, ” the kid appears to promise.

But he is not at all like your grandfather’s Aussie champ, classy in white gear and by the book — “Well done, lad.” Unlike the great Aussie Pat Rafter, he is not a stylish net charger with a ponytail. Nor is he “Rusty. ” That would be Lleyton Hewitt—feisty, fierce and kind of mean—yelling “C’mon!” as his foe double faults, then grabbing victory by the throat.

For Kyrgios is his own man, new, modern, confidently irreverent—not Ken Rosewall. He cares (and wants to win) but doesn’t care (what others think). He is interesting and drips charisma. He’s doing it his way. Few others have a better roar.

He’s young, lanky, emotional. His haircut is cool, emotions hot. He dresses in bold splashes of neon. His shoes are beyond bright. So is his future.

Some celebrate Federerian grace. For Nick, it’s grunt and blast: blur serve, howitzer forehand, hit and miss. Whatever consistency is, it’s not Nick Kyrgios. Brilliance and blunders mix with a maddening frequency. Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes.

Still, the teen wonder excites. He’s raw and explodes with potential. We ask, “Is he our game’s next ‘It Guy’?”

“He might appear cocky,” says his mom Norlaila, “but it’s mostly a front. He has got to shield his inner self because it is very pressured out there. Most of the time he is just trying to be cheeky or funny, and sometimes it can be misinterpreted … He can growl like a lion, he can pump up the crowd, or talk to himself—he could even break a racket … I just ask him not to do it on purpose.’’

What Kyrgios did on purpose was shock Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon last year, becoming the lowest-ranked player to defeat a world No. 1 at a Slam since 1992. And now, going into his fourth-round match against Federer conqueror Andreas Seppi, he had another purpose. He hoped to become the youngest male teen to reach multiple Grand Slam quarterfinals (Wimbledon and the Aussie Open) since some guy named Federer.

Kyrgios is only No. 53 in the world. He lost his first match at the Sydney warm-up tourney. His back is a question. His concentration is a bigger one. But few doubted his belief. He just tweeted, “I don’t fear anyone.”

So in Hisense Arena, frenzied Aussies brushed aside the inconvenient reality that, like Federer, Kyrgios dropped the first two sets to Seppi. Instead, prompted by the Aussie Fanatics—the best tennis cheerleaders anywhere—the throng offered a staccato chant with an almost religious fervor. “I believe that Nick will win, I believe that Nick will win,” they sang again and again, a mass mantra in a sporting temple.

But wait, Hisense is not really a holy tennis site. It’s not pure, sacred and embraced by ivy like Wimbledon. The chants at Hisense don’t resonate with the know-it-all sophistication you hear at the French Open and the yuppies here are not nearly as hip or rich as at Ashe Stadium, a sizzling venue where the Diamond Vision is a compelling entertainment unto itself.

Here, in a stadium named for a Korean electronics manufacturer, the scoreboard shows a too-happy Aussie family delighting in their Korean car in suburbia. All the while Kyrgios, an Aussie of Greek and Malaysian heritage, manages to break serve early in the third set to start a slow ascent.

Some celebrate Hisense as a people’s court: a grounds pass gets you in. But when a fan calls out rudely, a critic quips, “That’s what you get in this place—the drunks.”

You could say that 10,000 fans were drunk with intent. The throng pleaded with Kyrgios, willing him to stage a comeback.

And he did, winning the third and fourth sets, then going up 4-2 in the fifth.

“This is the best moment in Australia in six years,” said the excited Melbourne writer next to me.

But then the inconsistent warrior faltered. while Seppi—a 6’3” Mediterranean Viking—counterattacked and sprinted to the lead and a match point. “There’s a reason this guy beat Fed,” mumbled one nervous fan.

Brave Kyrgios, who lost in five sets here last year, simply told himself, “I just have to hit one big serve to get back into it.” Kyrgios knows big serves, and he pounds his forehand with belief. As he surged back, yellow-clad fans flooded the aisles. All of Australia cared, or so it seemed. Cameramen sprinted and squinted, eager to get their money shots. Rallies lengthened, cat-clever. Silence descended. Only indifferent flocks of swooping seagulls insisted there was more to life than a tennis contest.

On this night, and in this place, there wasn’t.

For Nick Kyrgios, the man of the future, and his nation, an oddly anti-climactic Hawk-Eye call sealed a 5-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 8-6 victory to remember.

Kyrgios became the youngest Aussie man to reach the quarterfinals here in 25 years. All of which left those Aussie fanatics in a frenzy. While earlier they had been chanting their mantra (“I believe that Nick will win, I believe that Nick will win”), now they were rolling around in a joyous human heap on the carpeted corridor outside the arena. Sure, their man would next have to play Andy Murray. But for the moment, they ecstatically chanted, “I know that Nick has won, I know that Nick has won.”

And so did all of the Australian nation—well, except for the seagulls.


Australian Open: Madison Keys—Future Girl

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Somber Saturday, that’s what they called it.

After all, for far too many years, by the time most Grand Slams got near the end of their first week, a vast swath of the US contingent had been swept aside.

Americans were left with a vacant feeling. “Oh dear,” we muttered.

Somebody called this “the American century,” but unless you’re a Serena Williams fanatic, it sure hasn’t felt that way lately on the world’s tennis courts.

The unhappy stats sting. (For instance, in 1980 we had 118 men and women in the top 100. Now we have just 18. Or there’s that standard lament that an American man hasn’t won a Slam in almost 12 years. Ouch!)

American tennis fans suffered from a common malady: slump fatigue. All the hand-wringing got old. When asked about the state of American tennis the other day, John Isner said, “You guys know the drill.”

At times it seemed all you could do was find refuge in that old Sam Cooke adage, “A change is gonna come.”

Still, our slump has been hard to take. After all, we’re Americans — Yankee proud, our expectations are stratospheric.

Now, at long last, there is plenty to be proud of. Madison Keys was thrilled that for two straight press conferences usually gloomy reporters were actually upbeat about American tennis. “Lots of fun,” said Madison. “Go USA.”

Nine Americans made it into the third round.

Sure, both big John Isner and the rising Steve Johnson fell today (to Gilles Muller and Kei Nishikori). For the eighth time in the last nine Slams, no American guy reached the fourth round.

But things were much brighter on the women’s side. True, for a while it appeared Camila Giorgi would join Andreas Seppi as another little-known, blue-eyed, blond Italian with a two-handed backhand taking down a legend. Against Venus Williams, the hard-hitting Giorgi won the first set, and was up 4-2 and 0-40 on Venus’ serve. Then Venus rallied, even overcoming the loss of an eleven-deuce game early in the third set. Never mind that Venus had lost five straight three-set matches in Slams and hadn’t reached the second week of a Slam since 2011. She played vintage Venus tennis, reeling off 11 of the last 14 games to win her eighth straight match this year. For the first time since 2010, she was into the Aussie Open fourth round.

Billie Jean King tweeted, “I am inspired by Venus Williams. Every time she takes the court. Great to see her healthy, competing and loving what she does.”

Venus was more succinct. She told the crowd, “Well, this old cat has a few tricks left in the bag.”

But for much of the first set of her match, it seemed as if Serena left her game in her racket bag. “Oh my,” said her fans, as she lost the opener to the prospect from Odessa, Elina Svitolina. Williams seemed indifferent and passive, and she served slowly. Then she did some timely scoreboard watching. She saw her sister was kicking butt—up 4-1 in the third set. So she kicked things into gear, like only she can, and swept to a 4-6, 6-2, 6-0 win over the No. 26-ranked twenty year old from the Ukraine.

In other American results, the “girl from Allentown” (Pennsylvania), Varvara Lepchenko, was sliced and diced by Aga Radwanska. Then the little-known but oh-so-appealing late-bloomer Madison Brengle delivered a performance much better than her No. 64 ranking. The fast-rising 24-year old from Delaware was ranked 145 last year when she was faced with skin cancer. Today, she dismantled fellow American Coco Vandeweghe to help set up a showdown with another Madison: the 19-year old power maiden Madison Keys, who scored the win of her life, a powerful late-night 6-4, 7-5 dismantling of two-time Wimbledon champ, world No. 4 Petra Kvitova.

Serving big, crushing her forehand, disciplined, returning with confidence, unafraid of her foe or the big stage, Keys crafted points beautifully, broke often and showed improved movement. Then, when it came time to close the match, she felt “weirdly calm” as she unleashed a breathtaking display of big babe tennis. Earlier in the tournament, Casey Dellacqua said Madison hit so hard she knocked the racket out of her hand. And last year at the French Open, the average speed of Keys’ relentless groundies was said to be faster than any woman or man.

Three years ago, Chris Evert said that the raw kid from Illinois was the future of tennis. Tonight, the future was now. The sometimes awkward girl, who seemed so lost and tactically clueless on a hot outer court here last year, now was cool: a wondrous woman to contend with. Afterward, Kvitova said, “She can be one of the top ones for sure,” and Pam Shriver insisted she could win this year’s Australian Open.

No wonder the tiny contingent of Americans here left Rod Laver Arena smiling. After all, forget Somber Saturday. Forget the the still not spectacular results in American men’s tennis. Forget our long dreary slump.

Now we know, “a change is gonna come.” It’s a new day. As Keys told us, “Lots of fun. Go USA!”

SATURDAY BUZZ

PURE ELATION: Madison Keys, after she beat Petra Kvitova.

THAT’S FOR SURE: A MadisonKeys or Brengle – will reach the Aussie Open quarterfinals. Keys said, “Obviously we are representing our name pretty well” … After losing to Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova said “I’m not the first to lose here and I won’t be the last.”

THE MOST IMPORTANT DRESS IN TENNIS HISTORY? A four-year old Madison Keys told her Dad that she really liked the dress Venus Williams was wearing at Wimbledon and she wanted one. Her Dad said sure, but only if she played tennis.

CRUSH CITY: After recalling how Serena bounced back from devastating losses to Sharapova and Sam Stosur, Pam Shriver said, “When she wants revenge, it’s crush city.”

LIFE IS GOOD: Rafa is back in the ATP mix.

SUPERMAN: Rafa said he doesn’t like to sleep because he considers it a waste of time.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Lindsay Davenport got pooped on by a bird … Both Madison Keys and Madison Brengle do not know who World Series star Madison Bumgarner is … Brengle’s nervous father went to sleep rather than watch her third-round match.

LESS IS MORE: Sometimes losing can benefit your career. After Andy Roddick dramatically lost to Federer in a Wimbledon final his popularity soared. Andy Murray dropped the 2012 Wimbledon final, but it somehow gave him confidence. Here in Melbourne, the classy Tim Smyczek, who fell to Nadal, won a lot of new fans.

MR. WOBBLYBOOTS: Darren Cahill’s nickname for Frenchman Gilles Simon, whose cramping legs almost gave out on him during a semi-marathon match against David Ferrer.

PARTY GIRL: Serena said, “These days if I get beyond the fourth round it’s like party time.”

THE GOODBYE GUY: German Benjamin Becker famously beat Andre Agassi on Ashe Stadium at the US Open in the last match the American ever played. The other night Becker came back from two sets down to beat Aussie legend Lleyton Hewitt on Rod Laver Arena in what might be Hewitt’s last match on his home center court. Now to get a career Grand Slam in such farewell matches, all Becker has to do is beat Jo-Willy Tsonga, Richard Gasquet or some other French star in their last match on Court Centrale, or Andy Murray on Centre Court when he’s about to hang ‘em up.

VICTORIA’S X-RATED SECRET: When asked about a key error in her third-round match, Victoria Azarenka told the Margaret Court Arena crowd, “When I missed the overhead, I said, ‘Oh s—.’ Sorry, you can blip it out.”

JUST GLOWING: Victoria Azarenka, who beat Barbora Zahlavova Strycova today, is relishing her resurgence after enduring what she felt was a lost year in 2014.

OVA THE TOP: Barbora Zahlavova Strycova has two “ovas” in her name.

ONE BUSY MULTITASKING MAMA: Madison Keys said her new coach Lindsay Davenport was wearing four hats: mom, coach, TV commentator and a competitor in the legends draw. BTW: Mary Joe Fernandez said Davenport was “so invested in Madison. It’s like she’s taken her on as another child.” And that is some kid, wouldn’t you say.


Australian Open: The Day Roger Federer Struck Out

MELBOURNE, Australia—The man rocks the first weeks of Slams.

For 13 straight years, Roger Federer has reached the fourth round of the Australian Open. For 11 straight years, he has reached the Aussie Open semis. His best records reveal an astounding Lou Gehrig-like consistency. He reached 23 Grand Slam semis and 36 Grand Slam quarterfinals in a row. The Swiss man is like clockwork.

Certainly, today there would be precious little new or unexpected from the man with a (relatively) new racket, a new coach, and—so to speak—a new back.

But wait, didn’t Picasso once kick over a can of paint?

Didn’t Mozart’s canon in B-flat fall flat?

Didn’t Fred Astaire once stumble?

Plus, anything is possible, especially at this year’s Aussie Open, where a controversy on twirling is swirling. Americans have been winning big. Young Aussies are rising. Old Aussie faves have fallen, and two of the greatest competitors to ever step on court—Ms. Maria and Señor Nadal—narrowly escaped elimination.

Still, we could barely believe our eyes today. The smartest man in tennis suffered a dumb blunder. The most dominant player we know was hardly imposing.

The Mighty Fed was not mighty. Roger Federer struck out.

Stunned Aussie fans wondered, “How did it happen?” After all, for the second straight round, Roger was simply going up against a Italian journeyman. Federer’s matchup should have posed few problems. In his 11 years on the circuit, his foe, Andreas Seppi, hadn’t done much to “Seppi-rate” himself from the pack. Thirty years old and ranked No. 46, he was the epitome of a lean, athletic journeyman with a nice little beard and a fine backhand.

That usually doesn’t cut it against Fed.

Seppi hadn’t prevailed in any of his ten matches against the master, and he’d only managed to win one set.

But Seppi—who looks like a Mediterranean Viking, if there is such a thing—moved well, crafted points beautifully and fought hard to take the first set. Oh well, Roger had lost the first set the other day against Simone Bolelli, so no problemo.

Yet inexplicably, the usually flawless Federer made a bonehead move at 4-4 in the second set, when he froze and backed off a modest floater from Seppi that he could have bashed any which way. There are no double bogeys in tennis. It just seemed that Federer suffered one.

Then came the moment of the match.

Roger went up 4-1 in the second-set tiebreak. The man with a clutch 369-199 record in breakers was on the brink of gaining control. But Federer’s groundies were distinctly non-Federerian. His movement wasn’t explosive. His backhands found the alleys. He yelled out in frustration and stared at the sky. He clunked a forehand into the net—one of 55 unforced errors that eventually led to his demise.

Losing six of seven points, Federer dropped the tiebreak, 7-5. Ouch!

“I guess I won the wrong points out there today,” Roger—who actually won one more point than Seppi in the match—said afterward. “I knew how important that second-set tiebreaker was … it just broke me to lose that second set. It was a brutal couple of sets to lose.”

No kidding.

Still, the Aussie throng urged on the beloved champion. Statisticians noted Federer had come back to win from two sets down nine times. Broadcaster Richard Evans asked, “Coming from different sides of the Alps, which one of these two will first reach the peak?”

Federer briefly rallied to collect the third set, and soldiered on to force a tense, dramatic fourth-set tiebreak. But this was not the sublime imposing Roger we know so well. This was not the bright star that clinched the Davis Cup title this winter or impressed at the warm-up tourney in Brisbane.

Instead, Roger appeared slow; his footwork was suspect. He played cautiously and rarely went for the lines. Amidst Melbourne gusts, his shots sailed. His serve was unhappy.  (We wondered: Was his back hurting?) And he undertook too many futile net charges that lacked conviction. He suffered nine double faults and faltered when he had break points in hand.

Whew! But having said all that, he had his chances, scoring three mini-breaks in the tiebreak.

But each time Seppi confidently broke back. and then he hit a shot for the ages—a stroke suggestive of the forehand down-the-line winner by Vasek Pospisil that gave him and Jack Sock last year’s Wimbledon doubles title over the Bryan brothers; or Novak Djokovic’s whoosh crosscourt return of serve when he was down match point against Federer at the 2011 US Open.

Tall and lanky, Seppi ran into the dark shadows of Rod Laver Arena to unleash a forehand blast that zipped by Federer, caught the sideline and, in a stunning flash, gave him a memorable 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5) upset; his first-ever victory over a top ten player in a Slam; a triumph that propelled him into the fourth round of a major for only the third time in his career.

Later, Seppi—who had to overcome 15,000 rabid Fed fans— said he tried to remain calm throughout the match and avoid dwelling on his miserable record against Roger.

In contrast, the Swiss—who had not lost in the Aussie Open third round since 2001—was left to report the obvious: “I’m on the plane and he’s not … I struggled today and he took advantage … margins are small, these things happen.”

So what went wrong? “I guess,” Roger recalled, “it was just an overall feeling I had today out on the court that I couldn’t really get the whole game flowing. You know, was it backhand? Was it forehand? Was it serve? It was a bit of everything.” Roger also revealed he had an uneasy feeling in his morning practice.

Similarly, tennis had an uneasy feeling about him.

Questions emerged.

Did his Davis Cup campaign take too much out of him? Has he lost his trademark explosiveness? And then there were those two old standbys: Will he ever win another Slam? Will the 33-year old ever quit this game?

We hope that day will never come. After all, when Picasso kicked over that can of paint, he just cleaned up and stroked another masterpiece. For every clunker Mozart composed, he gave us hundreds of wonders. Astaire’s long-ago foot fault was cut out of the film and tossed away.

Yes, our Roger had a wretched day at the office. But certainly, he will be back. After all, the man still loves this game—and this game still loves the man.


Australian Open: Venus Williams—Serene at the Edge of a Volcano

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—She was thin, wide-eyed, a tad scared, and not so sure what she was getting into. That was Venus Williams when I saw her play her first pro match at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. Just 16, she was a waif taking on the world. The New York Times and CNN were court-side, and all of tennis was curious.

So what about this little kid from the ‘hood?

The hype machine revved up and amplified the astounding claim of her boisterous pop, who insisted, “Venus [is] pretty much ready to revolutionize tennis. These pro girls will have a major-league problem dealing with her.”

“Really?” wondered the skeptics.

“If everybody believed everything they read about her,” said Martina Navratilova, “We might as well all go home, because Venus Williams is going to beat everybody.”

“Yeah,” said Chris Evert, “She’s the greatest that ever lived.”

So there kid-Venus was: a little girl, storming the formidable bastions of a very foreign, very white universe, and a world of lofty expectations.

In this context, could she be anything but intense? This was not the cerebral, deferential, user-friendly Arthur Ashe. Venus was steel.

Early at one Miami championship, she predicted that when she became No. 1, her sister Serena would be her chief competition. The bold but right-on claim prompted Martina Hingis to quip, “Oh, that’s nice … I didn’t have that much self-confidence after winning one match.”

Soon there were feuds with fellow players about just who kicked whose tennis bag. Fans gasped as they witnessed “the bump,” Romanian Irina Spirlea’s collision with Venus during a US Open changeover. There were ongoing claims that papa Richard Williams was fixing matches when his daughters played, and then there was all that troubling hooting and hollering at Indian Wells after Venus suddenly withdrew from her semifinal match against Serena. Life was not pretty. Venus’ rise to the top was far from easy.

No wonder Venus and Serena were inseparable. “You and I, baby, against the world!” they appeared to shout. And they took up plenty of oxygen. They were the talk of tennis.

“It’s like all of my press conferences … are about Venus and Serena,” complained Kim Clijsters. “I would really appreciate it if they were about my tennis or something.”

From the outset, dissing the Williams clan was a kind of ‘go-to’ reflex. For starters, they were criticized for shunning junior tennis. They were said to stick too tightly together. Fort Williams had few cracks, few were let in.

Never mind celebrating their father’s inexplicable genius. Rather, he was routinely dismissed as a hater, a self-centered, controlling buffoon.

Then it was said they didn’t focus enough on tennis, and naturally they drew heat for not playing Indian Wells, the prime tourney in their native California.

Then again, sometimes the Williams criticisms were a tad too blunt and envious. “She thinks she’s the f—ing Venus Williams,” said Venus’s livid foe Irina Spirlea. And sometimes the putdowns were just delightfully nonsensical. After losing the 1998 Lipton final, Anna Kournikova claimed, “Venus didn’t beat me. I lost. That means I’m a little better than her.” Got it.

Sadly, there were times the commentaries had racial undertones. Venus and Serena were pegged as just ‘athletes’ and bashers who were explosive and could run. But they weren’t craftswomen, or thinkers. and they desperately needed professional coaching.

Their mother Oracene countered this, saying her daughters didn’t get the credit they deserved: “No way. Because black people are always [viewed as] just athletes. They’re strong and tough and they can’t think. They’re not intelligent.”

Of course, the Williams’ tall, broad and powerful bodies drew attention and ramped up the game. But not everyone was pleased.

“I’m not Venus Williams. I’m not Serena Williams,” said Kournikova, “I’m feminine. I don’t want to look like they do. I’m not masculine like they are.” And just last fall, Shamil Tarpsichev, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, referred to Venus and Serena as “the Williams brothers” and said, “It is scary when you really look at them.”

But, when you really look at Venus and Serena, you can’t avoid a simple reality. They transformed tennis.

Venus told Elle magazine, “Serena and I are exactly the opposite of anything that ever happened before in the game. The old tennis world was pretty reserved, but Serena and I are bold. We stand out. We have color. We’re strong. We’re pretty. We have personality. We think things out. We’re smart.”

Sure, the critics howled that the blunt, less-than-sweet Williamses were arrogance incarnate. Hardly a wallflower, Venus didn’t hesitate to show up at press conferences with in-your-face T-shirts like the one that read, “Strong, smart, confident, equal.” Often they would tweak the media. When asked if she wanted to win an Academy Award, Venus joked, “You can’t really beat winning [an Oscar], but you can always win Wimbledon.”

Well, she’s won five times at the All-England Club. But not everyone got the joke. Jon Wertheim contended, “The Williams sisters wield authority like no other players. Were they male, we would applaud their ‘intensity,’ their ‘competitive streak,’ their ‘ferocity.’ Because they are women—black women, no less—they are ‘catty,’ and they are ‘trash talkers.’ To quote John McEnroe, ‘They lack humility. ’”

Some spoke of the Williams’ “willed obliviousness” to others. Fair enough. Venus was always unapologetic and rarely hesitated to pour fuel on the fire. She claimed, “People criticize me for being arrogant [but maybe it’s] because I’m a little smarter than the others.”

No wonder Mary Carillo noted, “This woman and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.”

More than that, Venus has ‘summited’ many a tennis mountain. The Jehovah’s Witness —who’s been partial to karaoke, Asian antiques and Harry Potter—has won 46 singles tournaments, including seven Grand Slam singles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. She’s been ranked No. 1, has won Olympic gold in both singles and doubles, pocketed about $64 million and been in the top ten for 13 of her incredible 17 years. When Venus was rising, Navratilova confided, “I’m glad I never had to play her. She’s just too long, too fast. She’s so imposing, you feel like you’ve got no place to go. She makes you feel you need to hit a better shot than you’re really capable of.”

Bottom line: it’s hard to question Venus when she says, “If I had listened to everyone else, then I would never have made it out of Compton. I’m living in Palm Beach Gardens now. It’s pretty nice.”

What’s also nice is that we relish our Venus memories: the lean, ecstatic champion leaping with joy after beating Lindsay Davenport in a classic Wimbledon final. We recall the best older sis in sports, hugging Serena after they won Olympic gold, and we remember a reflective champion poignantly explaining how she was confronting Sjogren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping malady no one should have to battle.

More than anything, we delighted in witnessing the raw, wide-eyed girl morph into an appealing woman of substance—confident and brimming with joy and an easy gravitas. Once a bit of a flamethrower, she stepped up in the best tradition of Billie Jean King to lead the fight for equal pay. When the Israeli Shahar Peer was banned by a Middle Eastern tourney, she insisted ‘no way,’ and stepped up to right a rather wretched wrong. Now she’s blossomed into a multitasking talent who, despite her complaints about Accounting 101, is working on an online degree in business from Indiana University. She’s an entrepreneur with her own interior design company, and a clothing business, EleVen. All the while she’s also a bit of a goofy, self-deprecating comic who refers to herself as a big kid and still loves to giggle. The woman who 11 years ago told us that she “was older than I used to be,” recently informed us that she has “been around since the dinosaurs.” At the Aussie Open she confided, “this old cat still has a few tricks left in the bag. Apparently so: with her run to the Aussie Open quarters and the semis in Doha, Venus has risen to No. 11 in the rankings.

Now Venus is mellow, empathetic and reflective. When told that Li Na was pregnant, she beamed and said, “How sweet.” When speaking of her interior designs, she sounded Zen-like, explaining, “The principle of the design … [is] harmony, rhythm and balance, [which] are all the same with interior and fashion design.”

You’ve come a long way baby. Venus Ebony Starr Williams now inspires.

It’s no surprise that many of America’s top young prospects, such as Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend, are women of color who feel empowered to follow in her footsteps. And now the 34-year-old is having a sweet, somewhat improbable on-court resurgence. She won the Aussie Open warm-up tourney in Auckland, is ranked No. 18, and is through to the third round in Melbourne, thank you very much.

Serene, minimalist and comfortable in her own skin, Venus tells us that she has “a good life, a good family, and a good little dog. I couldn’t ask for more … My whole view is that I’m really blessed to be here. I’m living the dream.”

And for 17 years, tennis has been captivated by her transformative dream. Sure the sisters used to attract doubters. Now they attract accolades.

Tennis showman Arlen Kantarian said, “Venus and Serena are to tennis what the Yankees are to baseball; what the Lakers are to basketball; what Tiger Woods is to golf. Only in our sport it comes in a pair.”

Billie Jean King claimed, “They provide more drama, more bang for the buck, than anyone else in the sport. Their drive to come back, their will to win, is unequaled.”

John McEnroe went further, saying that Venus and Serena are “the greatest story in sports history”

Then, of course, there was the greatest of all Williams compliments, when journalist Gianni Clerici told us, “What tennis needs is a third sister.”

But let’s not be greedy.

After all, singular Venus and that little sister of hers have lit up our tennis lives like no other duo. And that’s more than enough.


Australian Open: Rafa Nadal—The Warrior Who Wouldn’t Be Denied

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Didn’t we just do this?

Didn’t a commanding champion, Maria Sharapova, twist and dance on the precipice of disaster against a no-name? Didn’t a seemingly lopsided second-round match between a high seed and an unknown longshot turn into an improbable, tense and compelling battle at Laver Arena? Didn’t tennis give us more than enough drama for one day, as Sharapova narrowly escaped an inexplicable loss?

But that was then—well, this afternoon—and this was now: a nighttime Milwaukee vs. Majorca  battle between the little Badger basher and pride of Wisconsin, Tim Smyczek, and the beloved Spanish icon Rafa Nadal.

Like No. 2 Sharapova vs. No. 150 Alexandra Panova, this was David vs. Goliath. The comparative stats were withering. After all, the No. 3 seed Nadal, the 2009 Aussie Open champ, has won 64 tournaments—including 14 Slams—to earn over $71 million. In contrast, Smyczek assured writers that he managed to make some money last year. But he’d won only one Aussie Open main draw match before 2015, and he had to prevail in three qualifying matches just to make it into the tourney. Even though he somewhat famously was the last American man standing at the 2013 US Open and also reached the finals of a challenger in Napa last fall, his deepest run on tour was reaching the third-round in Washington D.C. His No. 112 ranking was only 109 below Rafa’s.

But on this night, Rafa—diminished, hurting, grimacing, erratic and far from imposing—wasn’t Rafa. Amazingly, in this odd matchup, there wasn’t much of a gap between one of the best players in history—the greatest competitor of our era—and the ATP’s most avid Green Bay Packer fan.

Nadal began hurting near the end of the first set. Suffering from cramps in different parts of his body, he almost threw up and felt dizzy. No wonder he didn’t use his speed as a weapon. His usual corkscrew forehand rarely punished. His serve was modest, and three times he double faulted to allow Smyczek to break.

Yes, Rafa won the first set easily, 6-2. But Smyczek gradually got in touch with his inner Michael Chang and began to play the match of his life. Never mind that the celebrated writer Martin Amis once claimed there has never been and would never be a great champion named Timothy. Smyczek was now moving with liquid speed, blasting jumping backhands and—this is key—avoiding Nadal’s forehand from the backhand corner.

Opportunistic and feeling free, he jumped on let cords, blasted cross-court winners and was unafraid. He claimed the second and third sets and appeared in control in the fourth. “The most important thing was to stay within myself. I had nothing to lose,” the Wisconsinite, who now lives in Tampa, said later.

For Rafaholics, the Melbourne night sky was falling. Rafa was suffering and bending over in pain. His coach, his dad, his agent and publicist were glum. The great Rafa was reeling and writhing. Our game’s greatest physical warrior was again breaking down. The man who imposes himself physically couldn’t really push off.

“He was playing terribly,” Smyczek said candidly afterward, before he caught himself and quipped, “I have to be careful what I say.”

Smyczek, who had a 6-20 record in tiebreaks, was hardly careful in the third-set breaker, taking control of rallies and hitting inspired winners.

But if anyone in this sport battles to the very end, it’s the muscular Mallorcan. Sure enough, in the fourth set, Smyczek got a little tight, and Rafa changed tactics.

At times, the man who astounds us by chasing down every shot and battling for every point didn’t even move or fight. He was so sick he knew he had to stop running and just blast away and go for winners.

After the match, Smyczek conceded Rafa can do things others just can’t, and his forehand is a weapon that cannot be denied. (Roger Federer knows this all too well.)

Nadal found a way. Never mind that he blew three winnable match points. Or that Smyczek showed incredible sportsmanship when he insisted Rafa get another first serve after a thoughtless ‘fan’ yelled out while the Spaniard was serving at crunch time. And never mind that no other star in tennis history has suffered more on one court than Nadal has on Rod Laver Arena. Just ask Fernando Gonzalez, Andy Murray, David Ferrer or Stan Wawrinka.

In the end, the gutsiest player since Jimmy Connors displayed an almost transcendent grit. And when he prevailed 6-2, 3-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5 after four hours and twelve minutes of often cruel tennis, the exhausted Spaniard fell to the court, almost in tears. This was sheer relief.

His performance was not an exquisite triumph in a big final for the ages. It won’t be etched in record books, but in our memory of brave battles.

For this was a second-round win like few others. This was a warrior who had been suffering for more than three hours digging down and doing what had to be done.

“In terms of feeling bad,” Nadal said afterward, “this was one of the toughest wins I’ve had. I was close to not continuing. I was very dizzy and was afraid I might fall down.”

Instead he rose up, just like Sharapova had done seven hours earlier. Great champions do rise up, again and again and again.

 


Australian Open: Like Stealing Sugarpova From a Baby

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—It was going to be just another ho-hum second round putdown, another Russian rout by tennis’ prime Putin pal, Maria Sharapova.

After all, the icy elegant icon, who is celebrated from Moscow to Manhattan Beach, who has won more millions and Porches then you can imagine, sprinted out of the Rod Laver Arena gate today with a typical no -nonsense ferocity against her anonymous Russian foe, Alexandra Panova.

Clearly, Maria was taking no prisoners.

It looked like this “ova vs. ova” encounter was all but “ova” as the most famous “ova” in the world barely blinked, racing to score a dominant 6-1 first-set victory in just 26 unsparing minutes.

And why not?

Sharapova, who is poised to possibly again become No. 1 in the world, is ranked 149 slots ahead of Panova. She’s won five Grand Slams and 162 Slam matches, while Panova, a lowly qualifier, has prevailed in just one Slam match. Sharapova has won $32,730,228. Panova has banked only $769,370. And Maria is one of only six players to have collected a career Grand Slam.

This was like stealing candy (or should we say Sugarpova) from a baby.

After all, Maria hadn’t lost to a player outside the the top 150 in over four years. She hadn’t lost to a fellow Russian in a Slam in five years, hadn’t lost in a first- or second-round match in over a year, and came into Melbourne fresh from a win in the Brisbane warm-up tourney.

That the contest was lopsided didn’t seem to bother the Center Court fans. A guy named Federer was warming up in the wings and waiting to play his second-round match.

But then again, this is sports, and dare we say, “It’s not ‘ova’ until it’s ‘ova.’” Plus, Sharapova hasn’t won here in Melbourne for seven long years. And she has a curious history of scare matches (Karin Knapp, Camille Pin) in the early rounds here. In fact, in 2010 she lost in the first round to fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko.

Sharapova was unleashing her shrill shrieks. Ump Kader Nouni was displaying his enchanting, almost operatic, bass tones. And babies were howling in section 13. But Panova was barely making a peep.

Then, in a flash, the world changed.

Sharapova recalled the moment afterward: “I was up 30-love on the first service game [of the second set]. New balls, a few sloppy errors, [and] all of a sudden your opponent gets a bit more confidence and thinks she has a chance … In her mind [she’s thinking], ‘Well, wait, I’m not out yet.’ Little by little it’s a combination of … you kind of  going the wrong direction and her starting to play quite well.’

Panova began to hit out, making her angles and kissing the lines. Now Sharapova was on the run, and her movement seemed suspect. Imperious and beside herself, she gestured in frustration to no one in particular. ‘Twas a bad day at the office.

Panova stepped into her returns while Sharapova struggled on her serve. Maria later conceded that she was trying to hit big first serves and go for the lines “when I didn’t have a good rhythm.”

And her mindset wasn’t so great either.

“My [mental] process through the match … was pretty negative,” she confided. “I was dwelling too much on my mistakes, what I was doing wrong, not really being in the present, something that I’m usually really good at.”

All the while, Panova was showing she’s pretty good at tennis. She served big and took the second set, 6-4, and was soon up two breaks and 4-1 40-15 in the deciding third set.

But tennis is all about finishing. Everyone wondered whether the Moscow kid, who was on the big stage for the first time, could finish off Queen Maria, who managed to fight back and nearly even the match.

Still, Panova took advantage of a string of errant Sharapova forehands to gain two match points. But her belief and her strokes fell short.

The greatest fighter in women’s tennis who’s not named Serena willed her way back. What else is new? Maria is Siberia-tough.

Was Sharapova’s stunning 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 win simply a matter of experience?

Was it due to her foe’s collapse or her deep—been there, done that—belief? To her not exactly impartial boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov, days like today “define who you are. It’s simple … [Maria's] been fighting throughout all these years, through everything that was in her way. [She] jumped all the hurdles and all the obstacles. By far [she is] the greatest fighter ever.”

Or was it simply, as her dad Yuri told IT 11 years ago, that Maria “was born to be a champion”?

Sharapova herself revealed the obvious, saying, “I’m quite a stubborn individual … I like winning more than I like losing … I was thinking about it too much, instead of just being in the present [and] saying, ‘Hey, go up to the line; do what you do; do what you’ve done thousand of times.’ I’m good at that and I’ll continue to be good at that. But some days are just a little off. Today was one of them.”

And today’s match seemed to present more questions than answers.

Is there any simpler truth in sports than that great champions are great because they find a way to prevail even when they’re stinking up the gym?

Aside from Serena, is Maria the best fighter in the game?

Why does Maria’s mental toughness seem to vanish when she faces Serena?

More immediately, last year in the third round Li Na was within an an inch or so of being eliminated by Lucie Safarova, but survived and came back to capture the title. So now we ask: Will history repeat itself?

Can Maria—our survival artist du jour—return from the brink and ten days from now, will Martina Navratilova present her the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup?

In any case, Alexandra Panova will be watching and wondering, “What if?”


Australian Open: Toppling Seeds, Topsy-Turvy World

GERMAN BOMBS, SERBIAN SLUMP: Serbia (Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic) and Germany (Angelique Kerber, Andrea Petkovic and Sabine Lisicki) lost all of their seeded players in the women’s first round.

TOPPLING SEEDS: Eleven of the women’s seeds lost in the first round, tying a record—the same amount fell in the first round of WImbledon in 2002 and the 2004 French Open. No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic had the earliest Aussie Open exit by a top 5 seed since 2003.

TOPPLING WORLDS: When the often thoughtful Andrea Petkovic was asked to reflect on the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the worldly German said, “It was quite shocking [especially] for us Europeans. There were the [terror] attacks in London and in Madrid, but this was something [else]. Because the way it happened was the worst, I would say.
Being so close—three hours by train from where I live—it was really scary. I was here [in Australia] but I have friends who have been exposed to terrorism. I just feel like the world is in a really bad place now and I don’t feel we should be reacting with violence. That’s just my humble opinion, but obviously I am not in any position to make any comments on it. I am just a lowly tennis player.”
When asked if she thought we were caught in a cycle of violence, she replied, “Yeah, that’s what I feel. Obviously, there are people who know much more about this than I do … I just feel there is an attack, then another attack, and it just swirls and keeps growing and growing. It’s really a dangerous place to live right now, this world. It’s scary and maybe terrifying, and we just have to sort of live in the moment and enjoy each moment, anytime, any place.

A GOOD DAY FOR AMERICA: Although American Sam Querrey was defeated by Canadian Vasek Popisil, Dennis Kudla lost a heartbreaker to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, Taylor Townsend again fell to former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens was again beaten by Victoria Azarenka, there was many a good American result today. John Isner, who in the last two years has not gotten beyond the first round in Australia, downed Jimmy Wang. USC product Steve Johnson beat Brit Kyle Edmund. Wildcard Irina Falconi came back to beat Kaia Kanepi 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 and Madison Keys, Madison Brengle and the Williams sisters all advanced. All this prompted Keys to say, “I’m just so glad I’m in a presser and someone said, ‘It’s been a good day for Americans.’”

THE BEST DAY FOR MADISON SINCE 1812?: During the War of 1812, we are told, First Lady Dolley Madison heroically intervened at the White House as the Brits were approaching our capitol. That was great. But today, two American ladies named Madison, i.e. Madison Keys and Madison Brengle, scored wins. BTW: The name spiked in popularity after the 1984 movie Splash, despite the fact that Tom Hank’s character at first protested, “But Madison isn’t a name!”

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Tennis up-and-comer Madison Keys had not heard of World Series hero Madison Bumgarner.

CURIOUS QUESTIONS: Li Na, who is retired and due with her first child, was asked, ‘Will [your husband] Dennis be changing diapers with you?’ … A reporter asked Taylor Townsend, “In light of Serena Williams drinking a cup of coffee during a change over, do you know what you can you order on court? Can you order a pizza or a Netflix movie?”

THE LI NA QUESTION NO REPORTER DARED TO ASK: “Hey Na, will you consider coming out of retirement so our press conferences will again be hilarious?”

GIVING NEW MEANING TO THE PHRASE ‘OLD HAND’: After teen Taylor Townsend told the media that she had been inspired by the great hands of her coach Zina Garrison, reporters heard Garrison (who is 51 ) mumble from the back of the press room, “Old hands.”

OMG—THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES: Roger Federer double faulted twice in one game. He also conceded that the recent crisis in Swiss currency was troubling and would greatly effect him. But, not to worry, Forbes recently ranked him and Tiger Woods as the wealthiest athletes in the world.

BRIGHT, BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL: Serena Williams neon green (or was that yellow?) outfit with pink accents, showcased her broad back and drew raves both from fans and players such as Victoria Azarenka and Genie Bouchard. After her easy victory, Serena showed off the outfit with an awkward twirl and then explained, “That’s why I am not a model.” Roger Federer went neon, with a bright yellow/green outfit.

TRUE GRIT: Madison Brengle, 24, is a skin cancer survivor.

LI’S BEST AND WORST: When IT asked Li Na to choose the best and worst moments of her career, she said her best was reaching the 2011 Aussie Open final. “I lose,” she said, “in the final, [but it was] the first time I really feel I can get the trophy. Bad things right after the [2011] French Open. I think I use the half year to stand up again. But I like the experience. Yeah.”

QUOTEBOOK:

“[Because] I’m a little crazy.”—Caroline Wozniacki on why she ran the New York marathon

“The king is the kid tonight.”—Melbourne’s Channel 7 on the victory of 18 year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis over no.11 seed Ernests Gulbis.

“If I had to choose between a third Wimbledon title and the number one ranking, I would choose Wimbledon.”—Petra Kvitova

“It helps, obviously.”—Lleyton Hewitt, on getting though the first round.

THE SHORT AND LONG OF IT: Plenty of players have gone from long hair to much shorter hairdos: think Federer, Borg, Hewitt and,of course, Agassi. But who else but Rafa Nadal has gone from long pirate pants to short shorts?

HITTING HARD, ALWAYS INTERESTING AND NOW IN THE TOP 100: Taylor Townsend looked good—fitter and even more aggressive—as she went down for the second time this year to Caroline Wozniacki. Townsend, now in the top 100, is both appealing and a bit unconventional—she’s from the rust belt, and is a lefty serve and volleyer.

SLOANE’S SLUMP: Once sizzling-hot Sloane Stephens injured her wrist in September and then changed coaches and went back to Nick Saviano (Genie Bouchard’s mentor throughout her rise last year). Stephens, who is 2-3 this year, was philosophical about her loss to No. 44 Vika Azarenka: [“I’ve got a] long way to go and I’m obviously disappointed that I lost today, but if I dwell on this in the [next] 25 tournaments I’m going to play this year, I’m probably going to suck too.” BTW: At last year’s US Open, John Isner lost to Germany’s Philip Kohlschreiber for the third straight time in third round. Now Sloane has lost to Vika for the third straight year at the Aussie Open, winning a grand total of five games each time—in increasingly earlier rounds.

TELL US HOW YOU REALLY FEEL: John McEnroe called Stephens “a prima donna.”

THE WISDOM OF THE PACK: Wisconsin’s Tim Smyczek said he has learned a lot from being a Green Bay Packer fan.

BOUCHARD REVELATION: Genie Bouchard said the Genie’s Army chant she likes the most is “Go Genie—Hot, Hot, Hot!”

BOUCHARD ACCUSATION: Bouchard said her fellow Canadian Milos Raonic worries too much about his hair. When asked about her own worries, she hesitated and then said she worries about clothes and shopping.

AS FIERCE AS EVER: This is Lleyton Hewitt’s 19th straight Aussie Open. He prevailed in a first-round match that was a lot easier than his most memorable Aussie Open night battle: his 2008 victory over Marcos Baghdatis, which ended at 4:51 AM. As for Lleyton’s many injuries, Aussie Chanel 7 said, “Much of Hewitt has gone wrong over the years.”

RACKET ABUSERS: Nick Kyrgios bashed his racket Monday before finally prevailing. Andrea Petkovic smashed her frame during a loss to Madison Brengle.

FLORAL COMMENTARY OF THE DAY: Broadcaster Richard Williams said all the sunflowers in Melbourne, would have made [artist Vincent] Van Gogh very happy.”

KOKKY TALK: Armed with a dynamic game, hipster hair, and a neon sherbet-colored outfit, 18-year-old 6’5″ Aussie teen sensation Thanasi Kokkinakis won the most dramatic men’s first round match, fighting off four match points and making use of a ridiculously-close line challenge to dispatch the ever mercurial Ernests Gulbis before a rowdy and loud home crowd. Kokkinakis, whose last name has inspired a colorful variety of nicknames and puns, trained for the second time with Roger Federer during Federer’s pre-season in Dubai. Both he and fellow member of the “Special Ks” Nick Kyrgios advanced in five sets.

TODD MARTIN IS ALIVE AND WELL: When he won Wimbledon, Pat Cash scampered up to the Friends Box and hugged his ‘peeps.’ A tradition was born. After a huge night win over Carlos Moya at the US Open’s Grandstand Court, Todd Martin ran around the stands (in the best tradition of Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr.) and offered repeated high-fives to his adoring New York fans. Similarly, after his upset victory over Ernests Gulbis, Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis ran around the court in a fit of ecstatic high-fives. Speaking of Moya, when he became No. 1 in the world after a win in Indian Wells, he put his arms around his team and they did a circular group dance for the ages.

CHARACTER FLAWS: Two of the greatest characters in the men’s game—Ernests Gulbis and Fabio Fognini—were dismissed in the first round.

SO WHAT ELSE IS NEW? Aside from the US Open, Grand Slams seem to relish not putting  Serena Williams on their center courts.

US CZECH UP: On the women’s side, the US and Czech Republic make up almost 30 percent of the remaining players in the draw. Twelve Americans and eight Czech players reached the second round.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED: A couple of first-round victories by Aussies proved the value of persistence—Jarmila Gadjisova scored her first Aussie Open win in a decade, and Marinko Matosevic had his first taste of success in six tries.

A SET OUT THE WINDOW: In the Italian showdown between Flavia Pennetta and Camila Giorgi, the two players combined for a losing set’s worth of double faults: 24. Giorgi, who served 16, won the match.

—Additional reporting by Lucia Hoffman


Australian Open: The Most Blessed and Cursed Star—Ana Ivanovic

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Could it possibly be?

Could Ana Ivanovic be both the most blessed and the most cursed female star in tennis?

After all, you wouldn’t be all that wet if you claimed that she sports one of the more poignant back stories around. (As a kid, during frigid winters she played in an empty pool as war planes flew above.)

Certainly, Ivanovic is one of the smartest and most well-read players in tennis. Want to have a little chit-chat about Freud and his conceits? Well, just sit down with Ms. Ana. Plus, few in tennis are more caring. She’s donated bundles to the “Schools Without Violence” program, was a UNICEF ambassador, and won the US State department’s International Women of Courage Award.

And, lest we forget, the gorgeous, olive-skinned Serb is one of the most beautiful women in all of sports. So no, it was hardly shocking that actor Josh Hartnett said that the person he would most want to be stranded on a desert island with was Ana.

Naturally, when a wide-eyed 20-year-old Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, many assumed she  would become the game’s next great thing. Around that time Justin Gimelstob said, “I hope after she wins a host of Grand Slams, has websites dedicated to her and is endorsing everything from toothpaste to orange juice, she will still smile just as innocently.”

Right after her French win, thousands poured out onto the streets of Belgrade to celebrate, and she gushed, “This moment will not be equaled.”

She was right.

A few weeks after her singular Paris win, Ana was bounced out of Wimbledon by Jie Zheng, ranked No. 133 in the world at the time. Commentator Tracy Austin noted, “She’s just won the French; just became No. 1 in the world and that’s a lot to handle when it is all new. Suddenly you are the hunted and not the hunter. It’s a huge difference.”

And there was another difference—time and again Ana fell short. In fact, since winning the 2008 French Open she’s reached just two Grand Slam quarterfinals—at the US Open in 2012, and here in Melbourne last year. She’s suffered tough injuries. She’s gone through myriad coaches and advisers. Time and again it seemed you could almost hear her over-thinking.

She had a baffling propensity for suffering early round losses to no-names—while still ranked No. 1 in 2008, she fell to No. 188 Julie Coin in New York, in what Sports Illustrated deemed one of the biggest upsets in US Open history. Ana’s less-than-average confidence has dipped more often than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and news about her on-court triumphs grew increasingly scarce.

Yes, fans relished all those magazine covers. Her customized Christmas cards are still more popular than Rudolf. Her femme fist-pumps delight those who delight in the details. Her rivalry with her fellow Serb Jelena Jankovic was once an ongoing, tit-for-tat soap opera and she had a slew curious interactions with that other Euro beauty, Maria Sharapova. A courtside counter with far too much time on his hands once noted that Sharapova “out-grunted” Ana 209-51 in one match, and last year when Sharapova got peeved about a panicky Ivanovic injury timeout, she went on to joke that all players should be fined $2,500 when they stop a match to get medical help.

Of course, to many, Ana’s struggles have been no joke. Reading the many Ivanovic tea-leaves has long been a compelling exercise.

Ana once recalled, “There were a few of those [difficult] moments. It’s very hard, because I’m still a little bit shy—it was very overwhelming, all the success and attention I had. I wanted to get away … and then when I was away, I didn’t want that. I wanted to still work hard … [It was] not the best place in my mind. But you keep fighting because this is what I love to do and this is what I’m best at. I still am so young and I deserve a better chance and better shot at it.”

Ana tried to subdue her demons. “In the past,” she said, “I listened too much to what people were saying, what they thought was good for me. I didn’t really listen to my inner instincts, or what my gut was telling me. This time I really thought, this is my career and I have to turn towards me and just see what works out for me.”

So Ana soldiered on—even powered forward. Though hardly a spear carrier, she’s won 15 titles, earned over $13 million, and been in the top twenty for eight of the last ten years. A year ago she was the toast of Melbourne when, in the fourth round, she deposed five-time Aussie Open champ Serena Williams.

Long a fave Down Under, where she has family, Ana reached the final of the season-opener in Brisbane before falling to Sharapova. As the No. 5 seed, she was a trendy long shot for the title. She exuded confidence, saying, “I feel I’m ready for the next step.”

Then she fell.

For the fifth time in her career, she lost in the first round of a Slam. This time to Lucie Hradecka, ranked No. 142.

Never mind that her Czech opponent—though now boasting a 3-2 record against top 5 players – had never gotten past the second round in a Slam, and had only played three singles tournaments last year. And never mind that Ana came out of the gate fast. Her forehand and serve punished as the raced to take first set. Cruise control is sweet.

But after being broken early in the second set, the Serb gradually grew more and more tense. Both her ball toss and her confidence became erratic. She double-faulted ten times, including three times in one game. The bottom fell out. As Hradecka stepped up and served big, Ana struggled to keep the ball in play.

After Hradecka’s 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 win, a brave reporter asked Ana, “Are you surprised that the nerves still play such a big role?”

“I think it will always do,” responded the Serb. “You just have to accept that you’re going to have tough days and you [have] got to go through tough days to improve. I’m such a perfectionist and sometimes I judge myself too much.”

You might say so.

After all, when asked how disappointed she was with her defeat, the gorgeous, wealthy, smart and giving athlete who yes, might be the most blessed and cursed tennis star around, said without blinking that her loss “was probably the worst thing that could happen.”


Australian Open: Men’s Singles Preview

By John Huston

1. NOVAK: THE ODDSMAKER’S FAVORITE

Australia has been Novak Djokovic‘s domain. Melbourne is where he staged his Slam breakthrough, straight-setting Roger Federer on his way to his first major title in 2008. The Aussie Open counts for four of his nine Slams, and he finished 2014 at No. 1 with a win at the ATP championships. For those reasons, he’s the man to beat. But aside from Wimbledon, Nole wasn’t sharp and inspired at the majors last year, and he lost early in a warmup tournament earlier this month. Now there are media reports he’s been battling the flu, though others report he’s looked perfectly fine in practice sessions. On the bright side, he has what looks like a soft draw. But if he’s been sick, long matches could be dangerous.

2. ROGER: THE FAN FAVORITE

It’s well established that Roger Federer is the most popular player in men’s tennis—he recently won the ATP’s Fans’ Favorite award for the twelfth consecutive year. Still, it’s been a while since the player many consider GoAT went into a Slam as a betting favorite, and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic currently holds that position. But Federer is second on the oddsmaker’s list, and he’s arrived in Melbourne with more momentum than Djokovic. He won Davis Cup to cap 2014 and defeated two players almost a decade younger—Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic—to collect his first title of 2015 in Brisbane. His draw looks tougher than Djokovic’s, though.

3. RAFA’S ROAD BACK

With 14 Slam titles to Federer’s 17, Rafael Nadal has been the Swiss master’s counterpoint in idiosyncratic ways no author could invent. While Federer’s greatness has hinged on injury-free grace, Nadal personifies the kind of toil that takes an increasingly heavy toll on one’s body. His career swings from electric dominance to enigmatic absence, and in recent years, his road back to the top keeps growing longer. He enters the Aussie Open having to defend points as last year’s finalist, and after weak warmup performances, he’s downplaying his chances even more than usual.

4.THE WAWRINKA FACTOR

In 2013, Stan Wawrinka was the marathon man Novak Djokovic had to overcome on his way to the Aussie Open title. In 2014, he was the heavyweight boxer who took down Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to  break through the Slam-winning tyranny of the Big Four. This year, Wawrinka returns to Melbourne as defending champ, after a year of ups and downs. The No. 4 seed, he’s landed in the same half as his epic Aussie Open adversary Djokovic.

5. INJURY WARD: CILIC

On the women’s side, there’s been a trend of recent Slam champs retiring (Li Na, Marion Bartoli), while on the men’s side, injury sidelines fresh winners: French Open winner Nadal missed the US Open, and now reigning US Open champ Marin Cilic is gone from the very next Slam. citing a right shoulder problem.

6. INJURY WARD: DEL POTRO

At the 24th hour, 2009 US Open champ Juan Martin del Potro has withdrawn due to a chronic wrist injury—sad news about an endearing player who’s been one of the few to truly rival the game’s Big Four. Much of del Potro’s 2014 was spent recuperating from the same ailment. He’d been set to battle a comparatively surly tall tree—Jerzy Janowicz—in what looked to be the standout first-round men’s match. (If you’re looking for a replacement, round one includes a battle between two players—Jiri Vesely and man-on-a-mission Viktor Troicki—who won tournaments this past week.)

7. WHERE-FOUR ART THOU, ANDY? 

Andy Murray‘s 2014 wasn’t one for the record books. The most decisive stat: it was the year that saw him expelled from the Big Four—both Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori are seeded above him. Now that he and coach Amelie Mauresmo are past the initial glaring scrutiny, the coming months will reveal a lot about the practicality of their pairing, and about Murray’s motivation ever since his historic Wimbledon win in 2013. He’s in Federer’s quarter, winged by qualifiers in the early rounds.

8. PRINCES OF TENNIS

Concluding in 2008, the popular manga The Prince of Tennis set the stage for Kei Nishikori‘s climb up the pro ranks to incite Kei-mania in Japan when he reached the final of the US Open last year. But 25-year-old Nishikori, 24-year-old Milos Raonic (he of the hairdos), and 23-year-old Grigor Dimitrov (still outperformed by older girlfriend Maria Sharapova) are also princely in the sense that they’ve never stormed the Slam palace the way slightly older Novak Djokovic did when his mom infamously declared, “The king is dead.” Are they cursed to be the leaders of a Slamless generation, or has their time finally arrived?

9. AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE

After a few years of teasing and frustrating Australian tennis fans with bad-boy behavior and listless, anticlimactic performances, 22-year-old Bernard Tomic lost his Next Big Thing status Down Under to relatively happy-go-lucky 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios when Kyrgios shocked Rafael Nadal with a dazzling display of power tennis at Wimbledon. By the end of 2014, Kyrgios had overtaken Tomic in the rankings. Neither player has set the courts on fire in warmup tournaments, but all eyes in Australia will be on them when they step onto the court. And on 18-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis, whose first opponent is the unpredictable Ernests Gulbis. 

10. A STAR IS BORNA?

Only 18, Croatia’s Borna Coric has been climbing the ranks in a men’s game that’s been trending ever older, and his one-to-watch status skyrocketed last fall when he beat Rafael Nadal in Switzerland. In the lead-up to Melbourne, his new tattoo (stating “There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary”—not exactly on the level of Stan Wawrinka’s inked Beckett quote) has overshadowed his on-court performances, though. Keep an eye on another 18-year-old, Elias Ymer of Sweden, who was born on the same day as aforementioned Aussie upstart Thanasi Kokkinakis. Ymer stormed through qualies without dropping a set, and he has a less formidable first-round opponent than Coric, who’s drawn 29th seed Jeremy Chardy.


Australian Open: Women’s Singles Preview

By John Huston

1. VIKA AND SLOANE: PART III

The 2014 Aussie Open champion, newly retired (and possibly pregnant) Li Na was on hand for this year’s draw. Her impish humor suited at least one first-round pairing: two-time champion Vika Azarenka vs. Sloane Stephens. In 2013, when Vika and Sloane squared off in the semis, victorious Vika’s 10-minute timeout sparked controversy. In 2014, the duo met again in the fourth round: Sloane pegged Vika in the crotch with a backhand, then barely dodged a Vika volley aimed at her head. This year, both players are unseeded, and someone’s going to get booted early like a disrespectful guest.

2. THE CRAZY QUADRANT

The women’s draw contains a second surprise—Vika and Sloane are just two of four players within the craziest Grand Slam first-round quadrant in years. The winner of their match faces the victor of Caroline Wozniacki vs. Taylor Townsend. This means the potential second-round matchups (in descending order of likelihood) include: Vika vs. Caro, Sloane vs. Caro (who embarrassed her in Miami last year), or Sloane vs. Taylor. Of the tournament’s top seeds, No. 8 Caro has a particularly mean lineup in front of her. Icing on the cake—all of these players are in Serena’s quarter.

3. THE SERENA SHOW

For a long-dominant No. 1, Serena sure knows how to enter a major surrounded by question marks and drama. She was lethargic at Hopman Cup, suffering losses to Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska and requiring a mid-match espresso to defeat Flavia Pennetta. More worrisome, her hitting partner and bestie Sascha Bajin won’t be on hand in Melbourne this year. Needless to say, for Serena fans, speculation is in overdrive.

4. CZECH PLEASE

The sisterhood of the Czech Republic grows ever stronger. Unpredictable Petra Kvitova is in perhaps the best physical shape of her career, fresh off a winning run in Sydney. Big-serving Karolina Pliskova is the tournament’s top new force to watch—she beat Vika Azarenka in her first match of 2015, and recently demolished top 10 fixture Angelique Kerber. Then there’s Lucie Safarova, who had match point against eventual champ Li Na here last year. At a career-high No. 25, entertainingly hot-tempered net-charger Barbora Zahlavova Strycova is also up in the mix.

5. SHARAPOVA SHARP

Maria Sharapova began 2015 in sharp form. She took the title in Brisbane, losing just nine games en route to the final, where she defeated sometime nemesis Ana Ivanovic—Veronica to her Betty?—in three sets. Her Aussie Open draw leads off with a qualifier and looks tame until the fourth round, where she could meet Safarova, who gave her a pair of epic battles in 2014.

6. SI SI SIMONA, GEE GENIE

The majority of all-surface hotshot Simona Halep‘s nine WTA titles are on hard courts, but in Slams she’s fared better on clay and grass. Still, she just won a warmup in Shenzhen, and her draw in Melbourne doesn’t look bad. Halep’s fellow heir apparent, media darling Genie Bouchard, has struggled since last summer’s Wimbledon final, and there’ve been changes in her entourage: a split with coach Nick Saviano and a new contract with IMG. Sophomore slump or success? Jury’s out—but her draw looks unsurprisingly soft.

7. THE STOSUR CURSE

By now, Sam Stosur‘s flop-sweat performances Down Under have almost become a matter of course for Aussie fans and commentators. Fortunately for her, there are no “ovas” in her immediate path. So who could be this year’s Sam spoilsport? First-round opponent Monica Niculescu is 0-2 against Sam and in poor form. But in the second round, Coco Vandeweghe is the type of player—tall, blond and powerful—known to be Sam’s Kryptonite. Coco’s record to date against Stosur: 1-0. Uh oh.

8.VENUS: SHE’S GOT IT

The Australian Open has never been Venus Williams‘ standout Slam, and for over a decade, she’s tripped up early in Melbourne. But she comes into this year’s tournament fresh off a victory over Caroline Wozniacki in the Auckland final, and at age 34, her form is trending upward. A potential second-round encounter with Aleksandra Krunic could offer a fun clash of styles.

9. A TALE OF TWO MADISONS

Madison Keys hired Lindsay Davenport as her coach during offseason, a move that could yield paydirt on the grass. She’s been characteristically hit-and-miss leading up to the Aussie Open, though, and her mid-match retirement in Sydney with a sore shoulder could signal trouble. Keys isn’t the only American named Madison in the draw—Madison Brengle just reached the final in Hobart.

10. NEW WAVE, BIG SPLASH

The start of a new season brings breakthroughs by young upstarts and recharged, amped-up veterans. Last year, Dominika Cibulkova unexpectedly pocket-rocketed her way to the final. Who will shake things up this time? Amongst the young guns, keep an eye out for Karolina Pliskova. As for the vets: Vera Zvonareva is early on the comeback trail (and could meet Serena in the second round), and Agnieszka Radwanska will be playing her first Slam with Martina Navratilova as coach.


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