By Bill Simons
FORGET AUSSIE RULES FOOTBALL, THIS IS PLASTIC RULES TENNIS…
YET ANOTHER COMPASSIONATE MEDIA MESSAGE: After Sloane Stephens blasted Vika Azarenka in the crotch during the second set of their match, a voice in the press room called out, “Jimbo [Jimmy Connors] would say, ‘Oh, that’s a bullseye.’”
PLASTIC RULES: Sloane Stephens spoke about the joys of the off-season, when she relished in her riends and her credit cards. When Inside Tennis asked her which were more important—her friends or her credit cards—she said her credit cards.
EVEN MORE RADWANSKA-LIKE THAN AGNIESZKA: After Garbine Muguruza hit a key adept half-volley, broadcaster Courtney Nguyen said, “Muguruza almost out-Radwanska-ed Radwanska.”
OF SOCKS AND SHOES—THE HOSE TRUTH, AND NOTHING BUT THE HOSE TRUTH: Jelena Jankovic said the best part of being Jelena Jankovic was her vast shoe collection. She has over 400 pairs … For the first time, the shoelace on Nadal’s shoe broke and he had to go to the locker room to get a new pair … During an on-court interview, Jim Courier asked Federer about wearing two pairs of socks. Roger quipped, “Are you checking me out?” and then confided that his kids ask him the same question. Roger then spoke the hose truth and nothing but the hose truth, saying that he wore two pairs “because it is softer that way” … Jack Sock, who some say is the future of American tennis, was pleased with his trip to New Zealand and Australia, despite losing to Gael Monfils in the second round. He recently tweeted Nelson Mandela’s famous reflection on sport: “Sport has the power to change the world, the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way little else does.”
THEY’VE JUST GOT NO TIME FOR THE BASICS: Last year, Steffi Graf told aging vet Kimiko Date-Krumm, who goes on and on playing, that she should “stop for the baby” … After beating Sharapova, Dominika Cibulkova, who has been engaged for two years, was asked why she hasn’t gotten married yet. She replied, “We have no time for [the] wedding.” In another on-court interview, Azarenka told her boyfriend, Redfoo, that she wants a ring that is bigger than Caroline Wozniacki’s $80,000 diamond.
DAVID AND GOLIATH VISIT THE WTA: First, No. 14 seed Ana Ivanovic dismisses No. 1 seed Serena Williams. Then No. 20 seed, 5’ 3” Dominka Cibulkova, ousts No. 3 seed 6’ 2” Maria Sharapova, and in less than 24 hours, the two biggest names in the women’s game are gone.
AUSSIE TOUGH: Vika Azarenka is a different, far more confident player Down Under than she was on the circuit after the US Open last fall, when she struggled with her motivation and her health.
ROBERT’S RULES—FROM A YOUTH HOSTEL TO 15 MINUTES OF SHOW COURT FAME: Stephane Robert became the first lucky loser to ever reach the fourth round of a Slam. The little-known Frenchman—who is ranked 119, and who lost to Andy Murray in four sets—is quite a reader, favoring the works of Russian authors like Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Tolstoy. Plus, he practices a form of meditative exercise called sophrology … He recently told L’Equipe, ”In the morning I do my abdominal [yoga] breathing,. I do that to try to find inner calm. It also helps my concentration. On the court, I try to make myself aware of everything. For example, I bounce the ball on my racquet for a minute so that I can concentrate on the noise … Last year, I spent two nights in a youth hostel when I arrived in Melbourne. I shared a room with a New Zealander. For the Australian Open, I told him to stay with me in a hotel, and I got him accreditation so he could enjoy the tournament. He still sends me messages and follows my results.”
ATHLETIC, POWERFUL, AND AGGRESSIVE, SHY, AND SORT OF SWEET: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
WITH AN ILL-CONCEIVED TSONGA IN THEIR HEARTS: When a French cheer group morphed the iconic anthem—”New York, New York”—into a cheer for Tsonga (“It’s up to you Tsonga, Tsonga”), only one thought came to mind. Come up with another ‘Tsonga.
FEDERER SHINES AGAIN: Jo-Willie Tsonga blasts a forehand that clips the net and skips forward. But, no problem, Federer hits a crosscourt reflex volley for an outright winner, then uses an adept drop shot to win the next point, and an ace to collect the game. In other words, folks, rickety old Roger, 32, made one of the most athletic players in the game look ordinary. ‘Twas just another master class. But can he beat Andy Murray in the quarters Tuesday? Probably influenced by his new coach Stefan Edberg, Federer came to net 41 times and dominated, winning 34 of those exchanges. He also served-and-volleyed eight times, and won six of those points.
DREAM QUARTER: With Federer, Murray, and Nadal all jammed into the top of the draw, we should have some appealing matches coming our way.
THREE’S A CROWD: Vika Azarenka is going for her third straight Aussie Open final … Mirka and Roger Federer are expecting their third child late next summer … Federer has three important new things going for him: his new coach, Stefan Edberg, his new larger racket, and his new, injury-free fitness level … The three most important people in Andre Agassi’s life—his German wife, Stefanie; his Iranian-born dad, Mike; and his Spanish speaking trainer and life-guide, Gil Reyes—all have English as a second language … Rising Spanish star Garbine Muguruza began playing at the age of three.
A BEAUTIFUL FEDERERIAN RAMBLE: A reporter asked Federer about a Djokovic comment by saying, “The other day Novak said he thought the mental aspect of the game these days was the most difficult to overcome. Rafa said it was the physical. Where do you stand? Obviously, earlier in your career you had a lot of emotion, and then you quickly put that away. Is the mental side the more difficult to overcome?” Roger replied, “I honestly think it depends on the player’s character … Me, it took me longer, the mental side. The physical side was something nobody should have any regrets [about], because everybody can work hard. That shouldn’t be an excuse … a guy not giving everything … running for every ball … Everybody should be able to move well, because there is no such secret, like a certain way of practice that’s going to make you fast. Everybody does it different. Spanish [players] do it different [from] the Americans. Americans do it different [from] the Australians. I don’t know what the Swiss do, but we do something …
Then the mental part is that only over time do you embrace the big moments; center courts; live TV; the pressure of being that next best guy and people thinking life is easy, you’re going to be world No. 1—anyway, you’re going to make a lot of money. How is that to overcome? I think that can be very difficult for some, plus the traveling … the pressure. But for me … it was not crazy,it did take a toll because … I was supposed to become world No. 1 at some point … [but] Safin, Roddick, Lleyton, they all did it before me. So sure, I was questioning myself in the process … Coaching is important in the beginning, to teach you the proper technique, because if you have flaws in your technique, that’s very hard to change … So I guess it depends in phases where you look at it.”
COURIER’S BACKHANDED COMPLIMENTS: In a post-tournament interview, Federer broached the topic of Jim Courier’s backhand, which prompted the American to admit, “My backhand was horrible, thanks for reminding everyone.” BTW: Courier says the top four backhands in the game today belong to Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Richard Gasquet.
OF NEW MEN AND NEW WOMAN:
* Can Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov step up, beat Rafa Nadal and finally score a major win for the ATP’s gen next which has long been in the formidable shadow of the Fab Four? …
* You spot tall, 6’ 3” Chinese teenage girls walking the back corridors of Rod Laver Arena and you wonder, is this the future of the game?
SUPER-ROCKETRY IN MELBOURNE: Dominika “The Pocket Rocket” Cibulkova was Sunday’s surprise star at Rod “The Rocket” Laver Arena.
ROGER’S RACKET REPORT: Reflecting on his new, larger racket, Federer said he returned really well against Tsonga. ”I had good timing,” he said. “I was also reading the serve well, not like other times. Last year I had a really tough time in slower conditions against Jo. Just couldn’t get my racquet on it. Probably I was, maybe overall … But tonight, things were just clicking. It was smooth … I believe I have easier power with the racquet on the serve. It might help me on the return, as well … I still need to put many more matches and hours on it, but so far, so good. It’s a great start to the season with the racquet, with my body. Everything is going really well. I’m very happy.”
NICE SITE: To the high-pitched delight of Aussie fans, Rafa went on and on signing autographs after his win over Kei Nishikori.
By Bill Simons
LAID BACK, SPORTY, GOOD-NATURED, TWANGY, QUIRKY, JOLLY, AND FUN: Australians.
KIND OF ODD: It’s back-to-school time here, and the NFL playoffs are on live during Monday morning.
MAC OZ: A Big Mac in Australia.
APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING: You spot a couple of black guys going to the tram, and think, “Wow, maybe this place is more racially diverse then I give it credit for.” Whoops. The dudes are from Cleveland.
UNDERWATER CAMERAS, IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS, NETWORK COVERAGE: The Aussies take their Ironman competition very seriously.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MELBOURNE AND NEW YORK: You’ve spent almost a week in Melbourne before you finally briefly hear a faint siren in the distance. That happens a few times an hour in NYC.
BEST NEW PLAYER/COACH NICKNAME: “Fedberg” for Roger Federer and Stefan Edberg.
AFTER SUNDAY’S PLAY IN MELBOURNE, HERE’S OUR HALFTIME REPORT: The first week of a Slam is usually an exciting maze of wide-ranging stories: upsets, collapses, breakthroughs—you know the drill. But sometimes just one or two themes completely dominate. For instance, at last year’s wild Wimbledon, when there were many upsets, injuries, and whacky results, it seemed as if sheer zaniness dominated. Someone had spiked the Kool-Aid.
But at least it was all tennis-related. At the Aussie Open, the leading theme for week one had nothing to do with tennis. Before Sunday, if you were to create a top-ten list of most important themes, it would’ve been something like: 1. Incredible heat; 2. Over-the-top heat; 3. Inhumane temps … You get the point. The three most important words of the first week were “wet bulb temperature,” whatever that means. The craziest player: Aussie tough girl Casey Dellacqua, who was hoping for even hotter conditions.
Then an even crazier thing happened. The best women’s tennis player in the universe, Serena Williams, got bounced out of town. Here’s our list of the top dozen events from week one:
1. Shock of shocks, No. 14 Ana Ivanovic beats No. 1 Serena.
2. A four-day heat wave turns tourney into a reality show: Survivor Australia.
3. There was no papal intervention by the Argentinian Pope for Argentinian star Delpo—No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro suffers a surprise second-round loss to Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut.
4. Sloane survivor—Sloane Stephens, 20, has some serious scares, but endures and is the only American singles player to reach the second week.
5. The post-Roddick season of our discontent continues: America’s top men’s prospect, John Isner, pulls out of his first-round match, and for the fifth Slam in a row, no American guy reaches the fourth round. In the last seven Slams, seven different American men have been the last American standing. This time, it’s Donald Young.
6. It was business as usual in the men’s draw, as the big four—Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and Federer—marched into the second week without losing a set.
7. Can genies really have armies? Well, Eugenie Brouchard’s boisterous fans, the Genie Army, think so. Bouchard is the first Canadian in 22 years to reach the quarterfinal of a Slam. Do we have a star-is-born story emerging? And can a teen final reverse the aging process in majors?
8. Aussie Action—gutsy Lleyton Hewitt couldn’t quite pull off yet another come-from-behind upset, while not-so-gutsy Bernard Tomic seemed to pull a “no mas” and dropped out early from his prime-time match against Nadal. But Aussies got inspiring performances out of new mom Casey Dellacqua and their Special K’s: teens Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis.
9. So what else is new—the middle holds. In other words, it’s the middle of a Grand Slam and mid-Europeans are dominating. All 12 players left in the men’s draw are Euros.
10. Let’s get ready to rumble—the top half of the men’s draw is loaded with Nadal, Murray, Federer, and Jo-Willie Tsonga.
11. Li Na and Maria Sharapova survive major scares and remain alive to join Vika Azarenka as the faves for the women’s title.
12. Time for Baby to come into his own? Sharapova’s main squeeze, the 22-year old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, has long been called “Baby Federer.” Now, he has a decent chance to reach the semis for a meeting with Nadal, possibly signaling the long-delayed emergence of a new generation in men’s tennis.
HOLD ON AMERICA, MAYBE THE FUTURE OF MEN’S TENNIS AIN’T SO DREARY AFTER ALL: The diminutive US junior Stefan Kozlov won his first-round junior match.
TAKING THE CHALLENGE SYSTEM TOO FAR: A reporter asked Li Na, “Would you like there to be a challenge system in life in general? In other words, if your husband is late, you could challenge him. Or if your coach is giving you a hard time, you could challenge him. Would you like a challenge system in life as a whole?” Na said no, her team does a good job.
BEST BREW COMMENTARY OF THE AO: Jim Courier surveyed the late-night throng in Melbourne and said, “There are pockets of the crowd which are pretty rowdy. Well, it’s Friday night. They’re Heinkinized, I don’t blame them.”
By Bill Simons
Maybe it was the heat.
This year’s Aussie Open was a bit sleepy and sun-dazed. Yes, Juan Martin del Potro lost early. Aussie Bernie Tomic pulled a “no mas” on us when he retired against Rafa. Tough Aussie Casey Dellacqua insisted she wanted even hotter, more punishing temperatures.
Now that’s crazy. But certainly no crazier things would blow up this tidy tournament. After all, the men’s big four—Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Murray—had skirted around the heat and were on mission. Presumably the women’s No. 1 and No. 2—Serena and Vika Azarenka—were marching to another final, just like in the US Open. Azarenka lost just one game in the third round.
Yet, something was in the suddenly-cooler air. Morning TV seemed to offer a warning. “Sports is the ultimate reality show,” one program said. “You never know what is going to happen.”
We thought that Serena, the Queen of RLA (i.e. Rod Laver Arena) would be marching to the quarterfinals. After all, commentators from Chris Evert to John McEnroe were saying Ms. Williams was the best of all time. Serena had won three of the last four Slams and pre-match, even her opponent Ana Ivanovic was deferential, saying “we all respect” Serena.
Certainly, the sleepy Open would remain drowsy. After all, Ana Ivanovic was part of a problematic, enigmatic cadre of WTA underachievers who either never really relished the spotlight or were never able to sustain greatness—think Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Dinara Safina. Okay, she is still beloved. (And by far is the fastest talker on the women’s circuit.) She’s smart as can be, and her press conferences sometimes turn into mini-discussions on Freud. Along with the likes of Gabriela Sabatini and Maria Sharapova, she’s often touted as one of the most beautiful women players of the Open Era. And, of course, in 2008, she won a little tournament called the French Open.
But in the years since, what had she done? She’d only reached a single Slam quarterfinal. Although she’d briefly reached No. 1 in 2008, she finished the past five years with double-digit rankings and came into the Aussie as a modest No. 14. Ivanovic became a benign and appealing part of the WTA cast. Everyone was happy she was part of the show, but long ago she had been taken for granted. She was grist for the mill.
No wonder that as Ivanovic took to the court, she drew precious little attention. In the press room, reporters spoke about US juniors, and were still buzzing about the cool temps.
All seemed cool with Serena. She’d just set a women’s record for the most Australian Open singles match wins (61), and has been comfortable atop the WTA rankings since last spring. More to the point, in four meetings with Ivanovic, Serena had yet to drop a set. And all remained sleepy Down Under when Williams collected the first set 6-4. Serena is the best front runner in the game—she went into the match with a stunning 51-1 record in Melbourne in matches where she’d won the first set.
But then the beauty of sports kicked in. No one outside of the immediate Williams camp knew that Serena had jammed her back in practice before her second-round match. Or that her neck and much of her body were strained as a result, to the point that she almost pulled out of the tournament. At the end of a brief practice 30 minutes before today’s fourth-round match, Serena considered not playing against Ivanovic.
Even though Ivanovic faltered in the first set, the Serb felt she was in it. She told Inside Tennis that at two-all in the first set, “I felt if I keep doing the right things, I have a shot at this. And even though I lost that first set in a manner that I was a little bit disappointed in, I kept believing and I kept fighting and looking for my moments.”
Her moments came soon enough in the second set. At 2-2, she used her power forehand to score critical winners and a key break. She never looked back. Standing in and returning brilliantly, and moving with ease, she took it to Serena, who hadn’t lost a match since August.
Serena put up a good fight, and afterward, she gave Ivanovic—who is undefeated this year—full credit for her 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 win. But from early on in the second set, Serena didn’t have a break point on the Serb’s serve.
She tried to blast go-for-broke forehands that most have felt great. But they didn’t do her any good. Critical let cords went against Serena, and time and again she was frustrated—stretching her hands out, palms up, as if she was pleading with the gods. She looked to her friends box. All they could do is scratch their heads and offer arcane signs. And the fans were less than supportive.
Ivanovic is beloved in Australia, where she has relatives and on-court she cuts a stunning figure: tall and lean in a striking blue outfit, her olive skin glistens. The Rod Laver Arena crowd shrieked at every brilliant Ivanovic forehand or service winner. They called out, “Take your time Ana,” and “Finish her off, ” or just chanted, “Ana, Ana, Ana.” Some were cruel, sarcastically shouting, “Feel the pressure, Serena.”
Maybe what Serena was feeling was her tight back. After the match, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou—who has done wide-ranging wonders with her—said maybe she should have pulled out. He, too, gave full credit to Ivanovic, saying, “Ana played unbelievably well. She improved a lot. Today,she was serving better, returning better. and was better in the rallies.”
But Mouratoglou admitted Serena could not really move or come in. “She was soft today,” he said, adding, “She had back problems just before her match against Hantuchova. She hurt her back in practice, [and] she was ten times worse than today. I don’t know how she won that match … When you are not [able] to do what you usually do, but the other one is succeeding every time … then the pressure is much bigger on you, because you don’t see any solution … I saw that the pressure got stronger and stronger on Serena … I don’t think it is a bad injury, I think it’s a very annoying injury. It annoyed her to not be able to move … and she could not hit the way she usually hits.”
When Serena’s staged her triumphant comeback at the 2007 Aussie Open. her mother Oracene said she hoped Serena would “get out of Melbourne.” She meant that she wanted Serena to come into the court, rather than camp out by the Melbourne sign painted behind the baseline. Today, Serena would surprisingly‘”get out of Melbourne’ way too early, and not the way she wanted. For the third straight year, the injury bug had bitten her in Australia.
Now the once-drowsy Aussie Open had come alive. In victory, Ivanovic admitted that Serena is a player apart, saying she “pushes” everyone and “creates challenges.” Make no mistake: A Slam is a very different animal without Ms. Serena in the draw.
Now wide awake, and wide open, the tournament once preoccupied with a heat wave was now waving goodbye to the best women’s player of our era.
By Bill Simons
CHANGING TIMES: The temps drop 40 degrees. Women shiver on St. Kilda street. Fans slip into jackets and hoodies. What a difference a day makes in Melbourne, where they say you can get four seasons in a day.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE: The Melbourne morning rush hour is a collage of silence. Quiet boulevards and tranquil, almost monastic trams, where the only sounds you hear are mellow business commuters turning the pages of The Age, the morning paper.
DON’T FLIP OUT: Craig Willis said, “It never ceases to amaze me that people at sporting events who are there to toss the coin make it seem like they have a tarantula in their hand.”
MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Sunday’s Sloane Stephens vs. Vika Azarenka fourth-round match is a reprise of their controversial Aussie Open semi last year, when, some would argue, the savvy Belarussian used some heady gamesmanship when the match seemed to be slipping away, leaving the court for a medical time out and regaining control of the match. Perhaps wisely, Sloane didn’t take the bait when asked about the rematch: “Last year has nothing to do with this year. It’s a totally different year. A lot of things [have] happened.”
Okay, but we know Sloane really wants this one. BTW: Azarenka won her third-round match, against little-known Austrian trooper,Yvonne Meusburger in an hour, losing just one game. She has to favored, but the Sloane Ranger has to want some payback and has to be itching for this. Plus, she adores the big stage and the big moment.
A THING OF BEAUTY—FEDERER ON FEDERER’S BACKHAND: When broadcaster Richard Evans was asked to reflect on Roger Federer’s backhand, he said, “He hits it the way you are supposed to hit a backhand. It’s Roger being Roger. He sweeps through the backhand. such a lovely arc. It has a stamp of the old school. It always looks like he has so much time. He sees the ball so early, just like Jimmy Connors used to. And if you have that extra fraction of a second, everything thing seems so much easier.”
Inside Tennis then followed up with Federer, noting that many feel his backhand is one of the great strokes of modern tennis, and certainly one of the most beautiful. We told him, “You always seem to have time, and there’s always a fluid rhythm, so much balance.”
Roger explained, “It all starts with footwork. Without footwork, you aren’t going to be able to hit a backhand, or you’re going to be stretched so much [that] you’re not going to be able to hit one.
You’ve got to be able to react. [It’s] important to set yourself up so that you have options and you’re most dangerous for your opponent. It’s important to not always hit it in the same spot … [and to] disguise it … What you want to do is show your opponent that you can hit it all, so he doesn’t know where it’s going.
I can manage with the slice, topspin, and the flat backhand. I try to mix it. At the same time, I also need to be able to make enough in a row, just for consistency and also for my confidence.
So it’s an interesting shot, and it’s one I have worked on a lot throughout my career.”
IT then noted that Federer’s new coach Stefan Edberg had a fabulous backhand, and asked whether the Swede had helped him on that wing.
“Yeah,” replied Roger. “I’m just staying aggressive with the footwork, not leaning back too much, not getting too passive. You can have a tendency to do that with a one-handed backhand, because you can bail out and go to the slice. Everybody can, but a double-hander usually doesn’t. [With] the one-hander, it’s so natural to play the slice that you almost have to tell yourself to always stay on the front foot and play aggressive.”
WHAT A BUNCH OF (LUCKY) LOSERS: For the first time since 1973, two lucky losers, Frenchman Stephane Robert and Slovoakian Martin Klizan, met in the third round of a Slam. Robert won, to become the first lucky loser to reach the Aussie Open round of 16.
HELLO MUTTER, HELLO FATHER: When Caroline Wozniacki was struggling in her match against Spain’s 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza, broadcaster Courtney Nguyen said the Dane’s upset father Piotr was “muttering to no one in particular.” BTW: In her last four Slams, the former No. 1 Woz hasn’t gotten beyond the third round; six months ago, Muguruza had an operation on a broken ankle.
HOW COOL IS THIS? Sania Mirza, the daughter of Indian Muslims, is married to a Pakastani cricket superstar. Her doubles partner Cara Black, the daughter of a Zambabwean avocado farmer, is married to Brett Stephens, her Australian fitness coach.
YOU KNOW IT AIN’T EASY, THEY’RE TRYING TO CRUCIFY ME: Li Na doesn’t have it so easy, being a major role model under constant scrutiny by a huge country. She said, “Now I feeling a lot of pressure, because so many children, they look you up, what you do on the court, off the court. Right now I really … play tennis for myself. I cannot say bad word, otherwise the children will copy. So many bad thing I cannot do.
Even sometimes like we go to a party, we have a drink or something. The next day they put in newspaper, She like drink or something. But they didn’t put the situation. After I read the newspaper, I say, ‘Okay, I cannot even drink when I’m in the party.’ I say, ‘Okay, only water, healthy.’”
BULGARIANS IN BLACK: It was a great battle of next-generation stars at a chilly-but-jammed Margaret Court Arena when Canadian Milos Raonic faced Grigor Dimitrov. Enthusiastic Canadians waving their maple leaf flags were on hand. But they were out-shouted by six deep-voiced Bulgarians in black—especially when Dimitrov unleashed a spectacular down-the-line backhand pass at crunch time to power himself to a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 win, and a place in the fourth round.
SHARAPOVA’S SERVE: Mary Joe Fernandez said that Sharapova’s serve is “still a question mark in every match she plays—first and second serve.” But then Fernandez claimed that Maria’s return of serve is the shot that has really let her down.
THE FRENCH SOUNDS OF THE GILBERT CLAN: Years ago, goes the tale, Brad Gilbert’s older sister is playing on Court Centrale at the French Open, when the chair umpire decides to pronounce her name with a French flair. So Dana Gilbert became Dana “Jill-berre,” and the local fans promptly presume she is a Parisian, rather then a Californian, and begin to root for her with plenty of hometown zest. Fast forward 32 years to tonight, when an unknown Frenchman, Stephane Robert, reaches the fourth round and—maybe just to even things out—Brad Gilbert pronounces his familial name to sound like the Anglo first name, rather then the French “Row-berre.”
RANDOM TAKE AWAYS FROM THIS DAY: It’s almost mid-way through this Slam, and Spaniards are dominating—what else is new? There are three Serbs still left in the tournament. Gael Monfils got more of a reaction than Nadal when he took off his shirt during a changeover.
By Bill Simons
JERZY (AND JERSEY) IN TROUBLE: When a voice called out in the press room, “Jerzy’s collapsing,” it had nothing to do with the faltering fortunes of New Jersey’s embattled Governor Chris Christie, and everything to do with the on-court struggles of Jerzy Janowicz, who lost today.
THE IRRATIONALITY OF THIS GAME: Jim Courier said, “Tennis players and a rational mind—you don’t hear those two together in a sentence very often.”
TEN QUESTIONS ON A HOT TOPIC: The suffocating heat in Melbourne has raised many a question:
1. Has there ever been a scorching four-day run like this in a tennis tournament?
2. Just how hot has it been? Tram rail lines have buckled, birds have fallen out of the sky, bushfires are raging, and some have likened being on court to playing on a frying pan .Li Na said, “I [have to] take [a] hot/cold shower, like three-to-five times, and drink enough. Have to eat. It’s very tough to recover.” American Varvara Lepchenko, was leading Simona Halep, but lost 4-6, 6-0, 6-1 said, As the score line would suggest, she was more affected by the conditions than her opponent. “At first I didn’t understand what was going on,” she said after the match. “But then my legs, my arms started to get heavier and I couldn’t focus … I started feeling dizzier and dizzier. I tried everything, and unfortunately, I just couldn’t continue playing 100%. In the second set, I couldn’t focus on my returns, I couldn’t see the ball, and then it was just like one step leading to another.”
3. Is playing in these brutal conditions simply inhumane or unsafe?
4. Does Melbourne’s sweltering heat—today, temperatures rose to 111 degrees, with conditions even hotter on court—make for even tougher conditions than the sweltering humidity in Florida, or in New York during the US Open?
5. How do these world-class athletes perform at such a high level in such conditions?
6. What rules have to be changed? Why not close the roof at any time, not just at the end of a set?
7. Just what exactly is a “wet bulb temperature?” (The answer: It’s the temperature a parcel of air would have if it were cooled to saturation—100% relative humidity—by the evaporation of water into it, with the latent heat being supplied by the parcel.)
8. Is an event like this tournament on the verge of a serious problem? As Maria Sharapova asked, does anyone really know what the limits are?
9. How come some of the theories of the Australian Open’s doctor, Tim Wood—over-hydrating is more dangerous then under-hydrating; tennis is not as dangerous a hot-temperature sport as running—seem kind of wacky or suspect?
10. A polar vortex there, a searing over-the-top heat here—what about climate change and extreme-weather events? Nah, forget it, don’t worry let’s just go on burning fossil fuels.
SILLY US: Little did we know that the “extreme heat” rule coming into effect had to do with suspending play at tennis matches due to high temperatures. We always thought “the extreme heat” rule referred to an overwhelming baseball pitcher—say Nolan Ryan, Justin Verlander, or Mariano Rivera—taking to the mound.
YET ANOTHER BASEBALL REFERENCE: Aussie star Casey Dellacqua hasn’t heard of America’s classic baseball poem “Casey at the Bat.” Then again, maybe that’s not too bad. In the poem, the mighty Casey strikes out.
THE SLOANE RANGER RIDES AGAIN: What is it about Sloane Stephens? The LA girl has swagger. She emanates ‘tude. The kid loves to see her name in light—she beamed when she saw a huge poster of herself in the Big Apple. America has a lot of young wannabes. But make no mistake: Sloane’s our best A-list prospect.
This little power meister doesn’t bow to anyone. After beating Serena a year ago, she said she would replace the Serena poster on her wall with a poster of herself. Her attitude says: I’m 20, and I can do anything I want. A while back, she told Inside Tennis that if she doesn’t win the French Open within a decade, it would be a crime. And for a third season, she is shining on the game’s mightiest stages. But it ain’t easy. Houdini is her man, mind-boggling escapes her thing.
Does she raise the level of her game at crunch time? You betcha. Hands, power, guts, speed, athleticism—always exciting—that’s the Sloane Ranger. Some thought her second-ound match against the 20-year old Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic, ranked No. 67, would be a breeze. But didn’t you get the memo? Little is easy for Sloane, who has patented the pout-and-stare. She was up 3-0 in the third set, but after an hour-and-a-half rain delay, promptly lost five games in a row to find herself on the brink of letting the match slip away. But she pulled off a mind-boggling sequence that included clutch serves, power forehands, and the subtlest of drop shots to won four games in a row and secure a 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory. In the third round, she faces little-known Ukrainian teen Elina Svitolina.
MEDIA MIX: The headlines in Melbourne are all about Australia turning into an oven. “FURNACE,” blared one. Two others: “FIRE FEARS REMAIN AS CREWS SWOOP SCORCHED EARTH,” and “OUT-OF-CONTROL FIRES THREATEN TOWNS.”
Many a TV report includes scary footage of dangerous bush fires, and warnings to the good folks in Cherrypool and Glenisla Crossing. All the while there are stories on the struggles of the Strikers in the Big Bash cricket league, and news of cycling’s Down Under Tour. Plus, we are fascinated by the articles about a Portugeese nun who has ancient drawings of kangeroo-like marsupials, suggesting that Europeans may have come to Australia long before British prisoners arrived early in the 19th century. Still, amid all of this media blur, our favorite story is about a man who, way out on the ocean, reeled in a marlin from his kayak. Pretty cool.
WHAT CAROLINE WOZNIACKI AND THE PGA NATIONAL GOLF COURSE HAVE IN COMMON: Both brought Ireland’s star golfer, Rory Mcllroy, to his knees. Wozniacki insisted her true love do so in order to propose. He gladly did.
NOT EXACTLY BOUND TO BE BUD COLLINS: Just after Aussie teen wildcard Thanasi Kokkinakis “interviewed” Rafa Nadal at a Babolat promotional event, ,he went on to lose to the Spaniard in the second round. Inside Tennis asked Nadal if Kokkinakis had much of a future in journalism. Rafa replied, “My advice is: Keep working on tennis.”
MON DIEU: Ben Rothenberg noted, “Five days after he was on crutches, and two days after winning a 16-14 fifth set, Gilles Simon is going five vs. Marin Cilic. Mon dieu.”
LUCKY LI: Li Na was very unlucky when she crashed to the court and hurt herself in last year’s AO final. Some said the tumbles cost her the title. But today, Lucie Safarova barely failed to convert a critical second-set match point when her winner-attempt drifted just a tad long. Na said, “The five centimeters [Safarova’s shot missed by] save my tournament. If she hit it in, I think, whole team on the way to the airport.”
STREAKING SCOT: Andy Murray won 23 straight points en route to beating France’s Vincent Millot.
A NEW RODDICK? While reflecting on Aussie teen sensation Nick Kyrgios, Jim Courier said, “He’s definitely tipping his hand that he has some good cards … He reminds me of a young Andy Roddick, who came out at 18 and loved the crowd.”
FOREVER YOUNG: Atlanta’s Donald Young is often tagged as the foremost underachiever in the American game these days. Early in his career—the Chicago native turned pro when he was 14—he was given a string of wildcards, only to be bounced out time and again in the first round. He didn’t work as hard as he should have. Critics said he was too dependent on his parents and carried an overblown sense of entitlement. He let loose with an infamous rant against the USTA for not giving him a precious wildcard. When he practiced with Pete Sampras, the great California professional goaded him along by calling him a princess.
Young has yet to win a main-level ATP tournament, and going into Melbourne, he hadn’t won a Slam match since 2011. On Thursday, he let leads evaporate in the fourth and fifth sets, but took advantage of an extreme-heat delay, using his power forehand and sweet hands to come back and score a 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 win over Italy’s savvy No. 24 Andreas Seppi (who took down Lletyon Hewitt in the first round). Next up for Young is a third-round confrontation with Japan’s No. 16 seed, KeI Nishikori.
NONSENSE AT HISENSE: Federer said with a straight face that—despite temps in the range of 107 degrees—he wished that the roof had been open during his Hisense Arena win over Blaz Kavcic. In contrast, Nadal was pleased the roof at Rod Laver Arena was closed.
ARE YOU CRAZY? When Casey Dellacqua was asked whether the heat was a drag, she said, “No, I felt great … really good out there. When I saw her [Jie Zheng] laying down, I thought, ‘Okay, she’s struggling’ … That’s what you … want to see. You’re always looking on the other side of the court to see even if they’re getting angry … The heat was great. I love it. It makes my body feel good … I really enjoyed it … It would be nice if it would be a bit hotter for the next week.”
At this point, Inside Tennis asked the Aussie,”Are you crazy?”
Dellacqua replied, “I just grew up in this weather in Perth. We had summers like this all the time. I totally understand there is a point where it gets ridiculous. Like yesterday, obviously it was just too hot to play … I’m lucky that I’ve acclimatized to it.”
KEVIN IN HEAVEN: South African Kevin Anderson pulled out his second comeback from two sets down in beating Edouard Roger-Vasselin, and will now play Tomas Berdych for the fifth time in the last nine Slams. Berdych has prevailed in all five meetings.
By Bill Simons
Serena and Venus Williams have been boycotting the extraordinary BNP Paribas tournament in Indian Wells since 2002. Today, some observers feel if they ever went back to the desert, they would probably be embraced with a warm reception—a reconciliation which could transcend the game and be an extraordinary moment in their careers and in American sport.
It would be quite a signal.
In light of this, and in the context of all the recent commentary on the legacy of forgiveness of Nelson Mandela, Inside Tennis had this dialogue with Serena, after her second-round win over Daniela Hantuchova.
INSIDE TENNIS: You love to laugh, but you also have a serious side. You have those schools you created in Africa, you have written about the [slave] forts, and have read Mandela closely. Mandela’s message was pretty much [one of] forgiveness and reconciliation. He put his longtime jailer in the front row at his inauguration. Do you think that spirit could affect your thoughts about what happened in the desert [in 2002, when she was jeered throughout a two-hour final]? There is a whole new generation of people who would love to see you out there. Would that ever cross your mind as a possibility?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, it actually crossed my mind a couple days ago, or after I saw the movie [Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom].
IT: It would be such a wonderful event for American tennis and for your career. Do you think that’s something you might consider in the future?
SW: Like I said, it crossed my mind not too long ago when I went to see the movie. I thought about it.
IT:: And your thoughts on that movie? Pretty strong, hey?
SW: Right now I don’t know. I just have to focus on this tournament. But I think Mandela was a really amazing man. I felt really honored to have a chance to meet him, get to know him a little bit, and get to know his story a little better.
By Bill Simons
ELEGANT AND ICY SHARAPOVA: Despite searing heat, so brutal and relentless; despite a determined Italian opponent, Karin Knapp; despite an obvious rustiness from being off the circuit with a shoulder injury for four months; despite being unable to sustain her lead when she was up a set and a break; despite failing to convert three match points and despite many an error off the ground, problematic returns, and yet another horrific serving performance (she had 12 double faults, including three double faults in the final game of the match); No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova‘s heroic three-and-a-half-hour 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 win once again proved that the cool Russian-American—so elegant and icy—is the fiercest fighter on the women’s tour this side of a force of nature named Serena.
PRESS ROOM DIALOG OF THE DAY: Within the Aussie Open press room, Inside Tennis told Doug Robson of USA Today:,”They should invent a whole-body ice bag, or something like that, so these players could really cool off.” Robson replied, “They have one already, but it’s for dead people.”
THE MARCH OF TIME: On a crammed tram en route to the tennis, fan Maurice Broom, 72, chuckled. The Melbourne resident, who is ranked No. 20 in the ITF 70s, told some kind ladies near him, “I used to play in the Australian Open at Koyoong, now I am being offered a seat on a tram.”
BEAUTIFUL AND SENSIBLE NECKWEAR: We used to love to point out that the classy Maryland native Pam Shriver was the only sports broadcaster we knew who wore pearls while on-air. But today, she wore both pearls and a ice necklace.
GOOD QUESTION: Chris Bowers questioned if Novak Djokovic really requires a coach. He suggested all the Serb needs is to talk tactics over dinner the night before a match.
HEATED DEBATE: What’s worse, the 108-degree dry heat in Melbourne, or the slightly cooler but oh-so-humid heat of South Florida or New York during the US Open?
WATER WAYS: Unlike Cleveland’s Lake Erie, Melbourne’s Yarro River has yet to catch on fire … As Maria Sharapova finally started to dictate in her match, Chris Bowers noted that she “is starting to put a bit of clear water between her and the Italian.
HEADLINE OF THE DAY: HEAT WAVE HEART ATTACK FEARS
SHADE-SEEKING AND SHAD-HANGING: A way of life in toasty Melbourne.
WORST AO VISUAL SINCE CANADIAN FRANK DANCEVIC COLLAPSED COURTSIDE: The overheated American Varvara Lepchenko lying flat on her back on the players bench.
SEND HIM A MAP: ESPN noted that after playing 63 straight matches on Rod Laver Arena, Roger Federer was going to play on an outer stadium, Hisense Arena. The network then thoughtfully suggested that officials send Federer a map.
CLASSIEST DUO: Are Federer and his new coach Stefan Edberg the classiest coach-pupil duo in tennis history?
SHOCKING SHOT: Sharapova, who sticks to the baseline like a babe clings to mom, actually stroked a lovely one-handed volley during her epic second-round win.
ARRESTED NAP: During the Sharapova-Karin Knapp marathon, Courtney Rees tweeted that she “was trying to have a Knapp but Maria keeps grunting.”
IF YOU THINK THE HEAT IS BAD HERE, HOW ABOUT… Reflecting on the scorching weather, Jon Wertheim said, ”Makes one wonder even more what will happen when the World Cup hits Qatar.”
THREE THINGS NOVAK DJOKOVIC LIKES ABOUT NEW COACH BORIS BECKER: He’s a seasoned champion who knows what it takes to prevail at Slams. He has plenty of German discipline. He’s a good storyteller.
GIVE THAT GUY A (NICE AND EASY) HUG: When Mats Wilander asked Jerzy Janowicz—the 6’8″ Pole—to describe the plusses and minuses of being tall, he said, “It’s not easy to hug people.”
By Bill Simons
TWO WORDS THAT COME TO MIND WHEN THINKING OF MELBOURNE: Urban sanity.
YOU KNOW YOU’RE KIND OF ANTIQUATED WHEN…you’re riding along on the Melbourne tram, taking down some notes, when a nice old lady asks you what you do. You say you’re a reporter, and she replies, “Gee, I didn’t know reporters still used notebooks.”
TAKE THAT, NEW YORK CITY (OR SAN FRANCISCO, OR LA, OR …): There are plenty of parking spots in Melbourne.
THE MOST COMMON ACCESSORY IN TOASTY MELBOURNE: The water bottle.
NO KIDDING: The injured Bernard Tomic said, “It’s tough playing Rafa on two legs, let alone one.”
ANOTHER TUMULTUOUS TOMIC CHAPTER: Few pros in recent memory have had more perplexing, head-scratching incidents and implosions than Bernard Tomic. The young, hunky Aussie found himself in a high-speed chase in his yellow Ferrari. The police later surrounded his house and he lost his license. His intense dad, John, attacked Bernie’s practice partner and broke the guy’s nose. A court case is pending in Madrid, and his Dad has been banned from the tour. And it didn’t help that before the Aussie Open, the papers had pictures featuring him shirtless, celebrating his 21st birthday with lap dances at the Sin City nightclub. Many a coach, like the iconic Patrick Rafter, has left the talented kid, complaining that he just didn’t listen. Plus, incredibly, Tomic, whose nickname is Tomic the Tank Engine, has openly admitted he’s tanked matches, even saying that he uses tanking as part of his game: “I sort of use it sometimes as a weapon. I sort of zone out for a few games, try to use it to my advantage to come back in. It’s helped me in the past a lot, I should say.”
This suspect approach contrasts sharply with one of Tomic’s fellow Aussies, Lleyton Hewitt, who battles for every point in every match, including the heroic five-set loss he suffered the night before Tomic retired just one set into his highly-anticipated first round match against Rafa Nadal, citing a groin injury. Tests proved Tomic was really hurt. Still, the crowd jeered him with gusto, and a huge headline in the morning paper read, “Tomic Bombs.”
To add spice to the Tomic stew, there are some hot, younger Aussies who could well emerge to steal his thunder in tennis-crazy Australia. Cynics are wondering: What could possibly happen next?
Under fire, Tomic called an additional press conference Wednesday, arguing that even though fans had paid lots of money for their tickets, he felt their the reaction was unfair. He felt that he was misunderstood, and said that if he’d gone on to battle Nadal for hours, he could have been hurt for months.
The Aussie told Inside Tennis that he sometimes asks himself, ‘Why me, why have all these things happened?’ He mused, “It’s the thing of being very young. You get thrown into a lot things … I’m still very young … [But] I know if I keep the right things going, I can improve a lot … Everything happens for a reason. You have to take whatever comes at you, and you’ve got to look at it as a positive … and learn to improve. I know I can get there.”
Indeed, a land of tennis fanatics certainly hopes so.
MIRACLE MAN: Ross Hutchins, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, underwent intense chemotherapy in 2012, losing all of his muscle mass. Amazingly, he has come back to health, and, now that his disease is in full remission, he’s teamed up with his old doubles partner, Colin Fleming. He told the London Times’ Neil Harman that he has “forgotten about thinking I was ill. I’m only looking forward. It was great to walk back through the gates here again knowing the significance.”
After the duo won their first-round match in doubles, the vastly-popular Hutchins told a large gathering of reporters that he didn’t want people to feel badly for him, and he wanted his foes to battle ruthlessly against him.
Hutchins used a diet he concocted himself to aid his recovery. From the start, his pal Andy Murray was incredibly supportive—Murray immediately researched Hutchins’ disease and was there to help and intervene at every turn, spearheading a pre-Wimbledon exhibition to aid him. (Who says elite athletes are always a vain, self-centered bunch?) Hutchins shared that his toughest moment came after his eighth or ninth chemotherapy session. He credited the enthusiastic support of the tennis community for a role in what has to be one of the most touching recent comeback tales in our sport.
THE CAPRIATI CASE: The battery and stalking charges lodged by Jennifer Capriati‘s former boyfriend—who claimed the Hall of Famer punched and stalked him—were dropped. According to the State’s Attorney’s office in Palm Beach County, Florida, Capriati completed four hours of anger management counseling and 30 hours of community service.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE: After Li Na, 31, beat the Swiss teen Belinda Bencic, who is about half her age, Inside Tennis rather rudely asked if playing a 16-year old made her feel like an old lady. She promptly replied, “No, I think I’m mostly young in this room, right?”
ROGUE THEORY: ESPN reported that an Australian doctor, Tim Wood, advised against drinking too much. He noted that deaths from dehydration are rare in comparison to those from over-hydration.
RISKE FACTOR: America’s delightful Alison Riske beat Yanina Wickmayer in 57 minutes to advance to the third round, where she will face German Angelique Kerber. She’s now progressed to the third round or further in three straight Slams.
IN A DARK ROOM FOR A DAY: Young, powerful Madison Keys was up two breaks against China’s Jie Zheng in the third set, but lost to the tough, diminutive baseliner 7-6, 1-6, 7-5. Still, after her loss, the personable 18-year old from Illinois was upbeat, saying, “It’s a huge improvement that I could come back and fight.” Keys reached the semis of a warm-up
tournament just prior to the Aussie Open. “You have to say [to yourself] good job,” she said, after the Zheng match. “Being horribly upset after a loss takes all the fun out of it. There were times after a loss when I would want to go and sit in a dark room for a day.”
QUESTION OF THE DAY: After Madison Keys showed the media a nasty bruise she accidentally inflicted on herself while serving, a reporter followed up by asking, “Do you have a long history of self-destruction?”
BEST NEW NICKNAME: Stan Wawrinka is “the Stan-a-bull.”
ROCKING FANS OF THE DAY: The boisterous Bosnians.
QUERREY ON FIRE: Serving with power, Sam Querrey swept by Ernests Gulbis, and now has a good shot to reach the round of 16. Like Sloane Stephens yesterday, the LA native spoke of Henry Talbert, the former Executive Director of the Southern California Tennis Association, who passed away earlier this week. Querrey said, “Yes, I practice at UCLA all the time, he worked in an office there, and he used to always come on the courts and say hi’ which was nice. He has done so many things for Southern California tennis. He was always [supportive of] my career when I was growing up, from the time I was 13. I was sad to hear of his passing away—he was really influential with my junior and pro career, [and] all the tournaments and [tennis activities] in Southern California. There were 50 times when I was practicing [when] he would take time out and come out and say hi, and that was pretty cool.”
By Bill Simons
One plaintive lady, high in Rod Laver Arena, cries out “Come on, Lleyton! You can do it!” Another fan, near the rafters above the baseline, toots a scratchy kazoo to excite passion.
But it is the famed Aussie Fanatics who rock Rod Laver Arena. Just imagine Duke’s Cameron Crazies, add a splash of the Seattle Seahawks’ 12th man intensity, and a bit of the zany-but-lovable, Stanford band, and voila, you get some sense of the Fanatics.
One Fanatic sports an Australian flag as a kind of warrior cape. Another prefers a dorky motorcycle helmet like Jack Nicholson’s in the movie Easy Rider. Then there are the zany sunglasses and green masks—anything goes. Gareth Fletcher from the northern Gold Coast sports an Admiral’s cap and leads the troops.
The Fanatics are part of a vast network of Aussie fans who party hard and travel far, to the World Cup in South Africa, cricket matches in India, Germany’s Octoberfest, and the running of the bulls in Spain. Aussie ex-pats enliven Wimbledon and the US Open.
On this steamy Melbourne day, it is the cheers of the benign but slightly nutty Aussies which draw attention. Incredibly loud, then suddenly whispery-soft, they offer one rhythmic chant after another, complete with concert-worthy harmonies, studied crescendos, and inventive hand movements, refined over years of practice. Famed mime Marcel Marceau would offer a gesture of approval.
Some of the Fanatics’ offerings are delightful sing-song ditties featuring but a phrase or two. Others offer simple enough messages: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” or “Let’s go, Rusty! Let’s go!”
There are inventive variations of well-known songs like “Hey Jude,” and the anthem that requests, “If you’re an Aussie and you know it, and you really want to show it, if you’re Aussie and you know it, clap your hands.”
After Lleyton Hewitt scores a mighty winner, the Fanatics call out, “Too big, too strong!” or the staccato “Boom, boom, shake the room!”
Then, when Hewitt falters, they chant, “Fire up, Rusty, fire up!” And when they realize Hewitt can only win if there’s a marathon match, they yell:, “We’re here for five sets, five sets, five sets in the sun.”
This one was our fave:
There’s only one Lleyton Hewitt
there’s only one Lleyton Hewitt
We’re walking along
singing a song
walking in a Hewitt wonderland
But Hewitt’s wonderland was a dreary desert. Never mind that he’s an idol playing his 18th Aussie Open, that he’d recently scored shock wins over Andy Murray and Roger Federer, and that he’s widely considered one of the best battlers ever. And forget that he battled back from two sets down to tie the record for the most five-set matches played in the Open era.
Yes, Hewitt told Inside Tennis that it helps to hear the Fanatics, that they make Davis Cup and all the Australian tournaments more fun.But ultimately, in his first round match, all the Fanaticism in Melbourne was not enough. After all, savvy shots, not nifty songs, are what matter in this game. And in the longest contest (four hours and 12 minutes) so far at this year’s Aussie Open, Hewitt squandered a match point, played error-strewn tennis at crunch time, and was handcuffed by three big serves, falling to No. 24 Andreas Seppi of Italy 7-6, 6-3, 5-7,5-7, 7-5.
All of which is to say, on this sad day, if you were an Aussie and you knew it, you had to be a bit under a cloud—especially if you were a tireless fanatic.
DOES GOD SWEAT? A listener emailed AO Radio to ask, “Do you know if Federer sweated today?”
DIALOGUE OF THE DAY: When Todd Woodbridge asked Federer how his new part-time coach Stefan Edberg was doing, Roger said, “He warmed me up.” “How’s he hitting?” asked Woodbridge. Roger succinctly reported, “I won.”
TOUGH LOVE: Federer said that the Rod Laver Arena roof should not be shut, no matter how hot it gets.
THE NEAR-ARRIVAL OF A THIRD WILLIAMS: Writer Ubaldo Scanagatta long ago claimed that tennis dearly needed was a third Williams in a addition to Venus and Serena. The recently-married Rhyne Williams, a product of the University of Tennessee, is still well outside the top 100, and far from being a household name. But when the 22-year old took a convincing set off of No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro, he suggested that eventually there just might be a third Williams of note in America’s tennis conversation.
LITERARY INSIGHT OF THE DAY: British commentator Chris Bowers said Andreas Seppi, who has a Germanic first name and Italian last name, was like something out of the novels of Thomas Mann, who famously explored the mixed heritages of his intriguing characters.
WHEN WINNING TURNS OUT TO BE A LOSING FORMULA: John Isner played the warm-up tournament in Auckland because he wanted to go into the Aussie Open with plenty of match experience. He made it through a series of close matches, eventually winning the tournament. But—wouldn’t you know it—the massive man, with many a hefty moving part, began compensating for an injured knee. Then one ankle began to hurt, at which point he thought, “Oh s—.” After retiring against Martin Klizan in the first round, Isner likened his time Down Under this year to “swimming upstream.”
Isner withdrew from last year’s Aussie Open, and he’s had health problems in three of his last five Slams. Still, America’s greatest male hope feels his ankle and shin problems—which he has difficulty describing—aren’t structural and won’t be long-lasting. He’s confident he’ll be on hand to lead the US in our Davis Cup tie against Britain in San Diego later this month.
YET ANOTHER KIND OF TENNIS MELTDOWN: When Caroline Wozniacki put her water bottle down on the court, it began to melt.
IT’S STILL GREAT, EVEN WHEN HE’S OFF-BALANCE AND GOING BACKWARDS: Federer‘s forehand is still sublime.
THE NOT SO “DUCK-WORTHY” WORDPLAY THAT REALLY QUACKED: An Australian Open broadcaster revealed that his bet on Aussie James Duckworth was for $2.50 because “that’s how much a duck is worth.”
HOW HOT WAS IT WHEN YOU WALKED OUT ON COURT? John Isner said, “It was like when you open an oven and the potatoes are done.”
VIVE LA DIFFERENCE: When Caroline Wozniacki won her first-round match in temperatures over 100, it was four degrees in her Danish hometown of Odense … There was a 27-year differential between rising Swiss teen star Belinda Bencic and Japan’s super-elder Kimiko Date-Krumm, who’s 43. A Sydney Herald headline claimed, “They Could Have Been Mother and Daughter.”
HOTTEST CONSPIRACY THEORY OF THE DAY: Lore has it that an egg was once fried on one of the Australian Open’s old, intensely hot, rubberized courts. But conspiracy theorists suggest the egg was somehow fried beforehand.
HIGH POINT: The temperature topped out at 108 degrees, and the local tram tracks warped in the heat.
“HE WAS REALLY SWEET”—SLOANE STEPHENS REMEMBERS HENRY TALBERT: After her first-round victory over Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova, Inside Tennis asked LA’s Sloane Stephens to reflect on the recent passing of Henry Talbert, the longtime Executive Director of the Southern California Tennis Association. The world’s No. 12 player said Talbert “was always so nice to me. I always used to see him at UCLA. He used to come up [and ask], ‘So how is your day going?’ He was so nice and friendly. I’ll miss seeing him at UCLA. [He was a] great guy. Obviously he’s done a lot for the game, so he’ll definitely be missed. He was really sweet.”
By Bill Simons
There was a lot I knew about Australia.
I understood all the catchphrases. Australia is obviously Down Under, and—no kidding—the Australian Open is “The Happy Slam.”
I was up to speed on my share of slang, from phrases like “fair dinkum” (a swell fellow) and “good onya,” to “G’day,” and my fave, “spit the dummy” (losing your cool).
And I was a quick study when it came to assorted Aussie factoids. Alas, I morphed into a tedious Aussie nerd, telling all who would listen that the land that gave us Errol Flynn and Mel Gibson was also the world’s biggest island, the world’s sixth-biggest country, the only country that began as a prison, the only continent that is a country, and the home of the world’s largest living thing—the Great Barrier Reef. Australia is a famously benign place, but it has more things that can kill you than anywhere else and is home to all ten of the top ten poisonous snakes in the world.
Plus, there was one other little-known fact.
I had a dirty little secret: I had never been to the Aussie Open. While for four decades I had traveled the world—howdy, Fiji! how you doing, Zimbabwe?—covering tennis, I had never been Down Under. I had ample excuses. The tournament comes at a bad time, just after Inside Tennis prints our Yearbook, plus others on our staff were more than happy to go.
But even with all my Aussie knowledge (for someone who had never been there), there was one key thing I didn’t know. Once I checked early Saturday morning for my 10:35 a.m. flight to Melbourne via Sydney, the United attendant rather rudely asked me, “How are you getting to Melbourne?” How odd, I thought, and replied with some bravado, “By a connector with my 10:35 flight to Sydney.”
Then, without even a giggle or even a wry smile, she cruelly informed me, “That’s 10:35 p.m. tonight sir, not 10:35 this morning.”
Ouch! Fortunately, I didn’t spit the dummy, Still, I muttered to myself, “What a wally (idiot).”
The first thirteen-and-a-half hours of my journey over the Pacific—which I hoped would shake up my universe just a bit—ended with a couple of curious messages. Just as we were about to touch down in Australia, United’s on-board audio station started blaring the old American hippie anthem that tells you, “When you are going toSan Francisco, wear some flowers in your hair).” How absurd. Could anything else possibly make less sense? We were just coming from San Francisco. Then, next up on my audio was “Across the Universe,” John Lennon’s ode to detachment, which claims that “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” another idea didn’t at aal ring true, well except for the exquisite lyric which explained that “Waves of joy are drifting through my open mind.”
Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Once inside the Sydney airport, not surprisingly, life delightfully became an all-Aussie happening. Here, the souvenir shop pushed stylish outback hats, hard-to-play didgeridoos, and of course, obligatory boomerangs. Nearby, hassled mothers, reflecting their culture’s British roots, disciplined their antsy kids by chiding them, “Children, you are making it most unpleasant, indeed.” Meanwhile women in saris and fully-tattooed blokes in flip-flops strolled by. Many an announcement in Chinese reminded me this ain’t exactly O’Hare airport, and a symphony of chatter in clipped Aussie tones seemed to say, “Get used to it, mate.”
Next, a brief glance at the papers revealed heated debates on the return of the long-retired Aussie icon Patrick Rafter, and the problematic draw of home hero Bernie Tomic, who has the unenviable task of facing Rafa Nadal in the first round. Meanwhile, under the headline “Tide of Idiots,” one paper chided foolhardy thrill seekers who risked being swept away by huge waves as they watched a recent big storm.
Yes, it was all a blur of new images and tones, including the Emirates Airlines announcement of their flight 0221 to Auckland, New Zealand. The sound of it immediately brought to mind my favorite airport tennis tale. Back in the early ’80s, the young Czechoslovakian Ivan Lendl understood precious few English words, and as a result, almost boarded a plane headed to Auckland, New Zealand, rather than Oakland, California.
More than anything, my mind raced through memories of all my encounters with dinkum Aussies. After I launched Inside Tennis in 1981, the first player I was pictured with was the only Aborigine to ever became a WTA star (and have her own line of apparel at Sears), Evonne Goolagong. I recalled being drop-shotted by the inimitable Roy “Emmo” Emerson during an impromptu lesson at the Silverado resort in Napa. I flashed back to Wimbledon conversations with John Newcombe, and could still hear the New York taxi driver who told me his US Open fare wasn’t Mark Philippoussis, but rather, Mark Phil-a-poop-us. I could still picture a skinny young firebrand, Lleyton Hewitt, ruining America’s hopes for a Davis Cup Championship in the ’99 final at Longwood near Boston. I remembered Patrick Rafter losing the most raucous Wimbledon final ever to Goran Ivanisivic when, in the soggy summer of 2000, regular unwashed fans invaded Centre Court to watch a rain-delayed Monday final. And I remembered how Rafter responded when I asked him if winning his first Slam, the 1997 US Open, would change him. He simply muttered, “No, I still am the same old sack of s—.”
Most of all, I remembered interviews with the quiet, classy redhead who personifies Australian tennis, the singular Rod Laver.
But alas, after all these years, it was now—at last—time to put aside memories of Rod Laver, and take the tram across Melbourne to the Grand Slam I had never been to before, and enter one of our great venues: Rod Laver Arena.