Tennis is up Down Under

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Bill Simons

HE SAID IT: Novak Djokovic said, “I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.” 

COLD COCO: She’s lean and flows like the wind with youthful ease, adorned with a stunning, hip-length ponytail that would make Anna Kournikova or former No. 2 Andrea Yaeger proud. In a sport where 40-year-olds still draw our attention, Coco’s just 17 – and No. 16. Famous for her 2019 breakout runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, “can’t-miss” expectations have been high. She’s made nice runs at Slams. Four times she’s reached the second week at majors, and a couple of weeks ago she reached the Adelaide semis and got a set off of world No. 1 Ash Barty.

But the bar has been set high, and other teens have gotten further. Emma Raducanu, 19, beat Leylah Fernandez at the 2021 US Open. Coco fell in the second round and went back to working on her sometimes errant serve and forehand.

So her hopes were high at the Aussie Open. Her first round match was winnable. She’d beaten her foe, Qiang Wang, twice last year, and the Chinese veteran, No. 106, hadn’t won a match since the French Open. Then again, Wang, who once rose to No. 12, had beaten Serena in Melbourne and in 2020 she reached the fourth round.

But she dominated Gauff 6-4, 6-2 as Coco rushed her shots, suffered 38 unforced errors and had the dubious honor of being the first star to fall in Melbourne. 

SABALENKA SADNESS: No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, who struggled mightily as she fell in the US Open semis to Leylah Fernandez, has battled the yips on her serve. In one recent match she had 18 double faults – and 21 in the next. Bashing her racket again and again on court, she was so beside herself that the chair umpire even asked her if she was okay.

CHRISSIE’S BATTLE: Even the best people among us are not immune to heartbreak. Chris Evert, who lost her sister Jeanne to ovarian cancer in 2020, announced that she is struggling with the same deadly disease. Fortunately, she’s only at Stage One, and hopefully her chemotherapy treatments will prove successful. Evert noted, “Ovarian cancer is such an insidious and sneaky cancer.” She added, “As someone who has always had control over my life, I have no idea how I’ll respond to chemotherapy….I have to give in to something higher…When I go into chemo, [my sister Jeanne] is my inspiration. I’ll be thinking of her. And she’ll get me through it.”

It’s thought that genetic information that her sister left behind may save Chrissie’s life. During and after her career, Chris has shown extraordinary strength, grit, beauty, compassion, wit and wisdom. We wish one of the world’s great sportswomen success in beating her most recent foe. 

THE ROAD TO THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN: There was little focus on the many warmup events before the so-called Happy Slam. Coverage of the Djokovic debacle took all the oxygen out of the air before the Australian Open. Here’s what happened. 

Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, leading Team Canada, ended Russia’s stranglehold on ATP team events, winning the ATP Cup. 

• At the Sydney Classic, Andy Murray reached his first final since 2019, losing to Aslan Karatsev

• At just 18 years old, Amanda Anisimova raced to the Roland Garros semis and was heading toward the top of the game. But after the passing of her father and coach Konstantin, Anisimova took time away, struggled with injuries and dropped to No. 86. To open 2022, the New Jersey native won a second career title in Melbourne.

• Serve and volley made a comeback as French-American UCLA grad Maxime Cressy reached the final of a Melbourne warm-up. Cressy fell to Nadal in the Spaniard’s first tournament since August of 2021. 

Paula Badosa backed up her impressive Indian Wells win with a title in Sydney over reigning French Open champ Barbora Krejcikova.

• After years of injuries, Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis won his first title in Adelaide. 

Ash Barty won the women’s title in Adelaide. 

Madison Keys, who’s struggled since reaching No. 7, won the second warm-up held in Adelaide.  

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DAY ONE RECAP: At last tennis itself became the primary storyline as day one got under way:

Nadal swept aside American UCLA grad Marcos Giron.

Naomi Osaka hit thunderous winners en route to her first-round win.

• Despite having recently tested positive for COVID, No. 43 Seb Korda upset Indian Wells champ and No. 12 seed Brit Cameron Norrie.

• Floridian Stefan Kozlov, who made his ATP debut at 15 but struggled to live up to expectations, won his first Grand Slam match. 

Reilly Opelka, the highest-ranked American man in action on day one, downed two-time Slam finalist Kevin Anderson

• Piedmont’s Mackie McDonald defeated Serbian qualifier Nikola Milojevic, but next faces No. 18 seed Aslan Karatsev.

Coco Gauff, the 18th seed, fell to former No. 12 Qiang Wang

• 2020 Aussie champ Sofia Kenin fell to the resurgent Madison Keys, who had fallen to No. 87. Since her breakout events in 2020, Kenin has won just five Slam matches. 

• Last year’s quarterfinalist Jessica Pegula advanced over Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina.

Tommy Paul, who John McEnroe suggested might stand to benefit the most from Djokovic’s deportation (they were scheduled to play in the second round), beat Mikhail Kukushkin

Despite being down a break in the third set, Amanda Anisimova won her first Aussie Open match since 2019. She’ll next play Olympics champ Belinda Bencic. 

In her opener, Ash Barty dished out a bagel and a breadstick in just 54 minutes to Lesia Tsurenko.

BORDERLINE CRIMINAL: When reflecting on the Djokovic debacle, Chris Evert said, “At the end of the day nobody is above the law…especially when it applies to the health and safety of a country. So I think it was the right decision…It’s borderline criminal when you have COVID and knowingly expose yourself to somebody. That’s not good.”

John McEnroe said, “I’ve been part of some chaotic scenes. I was responsible for some of them – not all of them. The only time I got defaulted was at the Australian Open. But what’s gone on the last twelve days tops everything – that is total and utter chaos, an absolute joke, what has gone on. It’s total BS. Djokovic, who is possibly the greatest ever to play, ending up a punchline on Saturday Night Live is not the way you want to see the sport go.” 

PAST CHAMPIONS: With the deportation of Djokovic, and Sofia Kenin’s first-round loss, there are only four past Australian Open champions in Melbourne: Rafa Nadal, Victoria Azarenka, Angie Kerber and Naomi Osaka.

GO FIGURE: In the absence of Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Rafa Nadal are the men’s favorites…Rafa is the only man in Melbourne who has won the Aussie Open…The women’s favorites are Barty, Osaka, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek. Of course, don’t forget that there have been five first-time women’s winners in the last eight Grand Slams…This is the first time that Rafa Nadal has played a Slam without Roger or Novak in the draw. He hasn’t won the Australian since 2009.

JUST WONDERING: Will the retirement from singles play of the vastly popular Sam Stosur prove to be the most sentimental early story of this year’s AO?

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