Americans Surge Down Under

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Bill Simons

I’ve been publishing Inside Tennis for 42 years. There have been 1,001 astounding moments. But there has never been a 24-hour window of wonder like this. 

It was thrilling enough when stoic Piedmont veteran Mackie McDonald scored the upset of the tourney with his win over the No. 1 seed Rafa Nadal. Then, long before the shockwaves diminished, Sacramento’s rising star, the passionate Jenson Brooksby, backed up McDonald’s triumph with a convincing four-set win over the No. 2 seed Casper Ruud.

Back-to-back Northern Californians took down the top two seeds at the Australian Open. And, on the women’s side, young Katie Volynets scored the win of her life, a stunning  6-4, 2-6, 6-2 win over the No. 9 seed, Russian Veronika Kudermetova.

Last night McDonald had shrugged off the fact that he’d been crushed by Rafa in their previous meeting. He didn’t blink when his foe was injured. He brought down a legend. 

Outside of Oslo and a fjord or two, Ruud is hardly a legend. But many a dancing Norwegian was rooting for the superb Scandinavian player, who’d reached the French and US Open finals last year and seemed bound for a semifinal meeting with Novak Djokovic.

But Brooksby defies logic. His sometimes slow shots seem to ramble. Then he explodes. His still modest serve seems like a “You-can’t-make-it-with-that-thing” flaw. But the piano-playing kid who drinks pickle juice courtside spits in the eye of convention. He amazes and wins. 

After one mind-boggling backhand from far off the court somehow dropped in, broadcaster Jason Goodall was flabbergasted: “How did that go over the net?…Moments of absolute magic from Brooksby.” Then again, broadcasters are prone to gush about the 6’4” broad-chested guy who’s No 39. 

Brad Gilbert noted his guile, saying, “He plays like Andy Murray.” Todd Martin told Jenson, “You have the head and heart of a champion, with a game to match.” The Tennis Channel claimed, “The kid can do no wrong…he doesn’t miss.” John McEnroe said, “He has Top Ten written all over him.”

Standing on or just within the baseline, Brooksby used his flat backhand to force Ruud to the far corners of the court as he raced to a 6-3, 7-5, 5-2, 30-0 lead. Jenson was on the brink of the biggest win of his career. ESPN observed, “Let’s see what he’s made of.” Of course Ruud is No. 3 in the world for good reason. And the 24-year-old, who could have become No. 1 if he’d won the tournament, fought back to save three match points and prevailed in the third-set tiebreak 7-4. 

But one of the strengths of the often fierce Brooksby is his belief and self-confidence. Just ask Stefanos Tsitsipas, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Taylor Fritz or Frances Tiafoe.

Never mind that the baby-faced Brooksby had to fight off cramps. He used his uncanny anticipation, fiendish defense and assorted dinks to race to a 5-2 lead in the fourth set. An hour and 15 minutes after he had his first match point, on his fifth match point, Brooksby watched as a Ruud backhand flew long. A flood of relief and joy filled his face. The Sacramento kid had scored the biggest win of his life 6-3, 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-2. “I knew today,” said Jenson, “I could win for sure in my mind.” 

In two days, two Northern California men took down the two top seeds and Volynets had the win of her life, as the trio of stars gave NorCal fans 24 hours that will never be forgotten. 

AMERICANS SURGE DOWN UNDER: We saw it coming. Yes, Serena had retired, but American tennis was surging. Jessica Pegula and her doubles partner Coco Gauff broke into the top 10. Taylor Fritz rose to No. 8. Frances Tiafoe reached the US Open semis. Plus, there was a real strength-in-numbers mindset. At year’s end, there were 12 American men in the top 65. 

Then Australia’s popup United Cup brought America’s stars together as they bonded more deeply and swept their way to the title. 

Pegula praised Tiafoe. She said it was fantastic to practice with him and was just what the sometimes overly serious vet needed. 

Madison Keys gushed, saying the United Cup “was truly the best two weeks of my life.” The good vibes and the good play inspired the Americans in Melbourne who did group chats and played with the slogan “locked in.”

In a much anticipated Anglo-American faceoff, Gauff downed Britain’s Emma Raducanu and 2022 finalist Danielle Collins, Californians Katy Volynets and Claire Liu, Floridians Bernarda Pera and Keys are other American women still in the draw.

And the men are sizzling too, in what’s become our best Australian Open since 1996. Yes, our top man, Taylor Fritz, suffered another disappointing Slam loss. The No. 8 seed, who fell in the first round of the US Open, was considered the third favorite in the men’s field. But again he struggled with his body, as a foot injury slowed him down. On a raucous outer arena he fell to the 24-year-old Aussie Alexei Popyrin, the No. 59 player in the world. Patrick Mouratoglou noted that there’s nothing harder in tennis than facing an Australian in Australia.

Still, there was plenty of American glee in Melbourne. In addition to upsets by McDonald, Brooksby and Frances Tiafoe, who are all into the third round, other Americans scored stunning wins today to get to the round of 32. 

The recently bearded and increasingly focused Tommy Paul toughed out a five-set win over Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. NCAA champ Ben Shelton, who’s playing his first tournament outside of the USA, downed Nicolas Jarry. Lucky loser Michael Mmoh, ranked 107, took down former No. 2 Alexander Zverev, Ohio State product J.J. Wolf stunned No. 23 seed Diego Schwartzman and No 29 seed Seb Korda downed qualifier Yosuke Watanuki. . 

THE CURSE CONTINUES: The Netflix curse continued as yet another player, Taylor Fritz, who was featured in the much touted docuseries Break Point, fell in Melbourne.

MUSINGS ON RAFA: Yes, Rafa has won more Slams than anyone. He’s the No. 2 player in the world. And last year he won half of the majors. Still, we saw him walk off in defeat in Melbourne in just the second round. He’s lost 7 of his 9 last matches. And five straight times he’s been defeated by Americans. 

He bristles every time he’s asked about retirement. But, after nearly two decades of sometimes brutal combat, time and again his body has let him down. He played the Indian Wells final with a cracked rib. Miraculously, he won the French Open, basically on one foot. He had to pull out of the Wimbledon semis due to an abdominal tear, and in Australia his hip hobbled him. 

So how much longer can this 36-year-old warrior battle on? Chris Fowler suggested, “I think it is coming to an end. Sadly it’s adding up for him and his fans.” Then again, Rafa is one athlete you never want to underestimate. 

GO FIGURE: Emma Raducanu, who lost to No. 7 Coco Gauff, still has not beaten a top ten player…Gauff became the youngest player since Caroline Wozniacki to have won 100 matches…Attendance records have been set in Melbourne…Iga Swiatek scolded an autograph-seeking fan who threw a ball at her…Andy Murray’s gutsy win over Matteo Berrettini was his best match since his career was derailed by hip surgery…The last time Nadal and Federer both failed to reach the last 32 of a Grand Slam, Serena Williams hadn’t won a Slam yet.

NAME BLAMING: The late TV star Johnny Carson one night brutally criticized a French Open broadcaster who’d been having fun with player’s names. And for decades, we have played around with an assortment of names: think Tennys Sandgren, Nadine Netter, Katie Voleynets, Mardy Fish, and Billy Ball. But before Frances Tiafoe downed Jerry Shang, John McEnroe went off on the young player’s name: “What’s the Chinese guy’s name – Jerry? How did they even come up with Jerry? Is he the only guy in China named Jerry?…Did his parents watch Tom and Jerry?” BTW: There were two Jerrys in the draw, Jerry Shang and Chilean Nicolas Jarry.

A TALE OF TWO NAMES: Tommy Paul, who has two first names and whose name has just nine letters, beat Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, whose name has 25 letters and like many Spaniards he has a last name with two names.  

KNOW THE RULES: Danielle Collins, along with Bianca Andreescu, Vika Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka, are among the most demonstrative players in the game. They let you in, and you know what they’re feeling. It’s fun. So it was great TV when Collins got the seventh point in her tiebreak match against Karolina Muchova, she thought she’d won the match. Her face was flooded with elation as she flung her arms in the air. But then she suddenly seemed confused, and perhaps angry. The ump was telling her that in a Grand Slam tiebreak in the deciding set, you have to get 10 points, not seven. The personable but now embarrassed Floridian just laughed, regrouped, and quickly won the match.

SOMEHOW WE’RE NOT SURPRISED: Since his retirement, Roger Federer has been declining invitations to a wide range of events and interviews from Switzerland to Australia, including a request for an interview from this publication. But it’s hardly shocking that the most urban-chic star in tennis history will be a co-chairperson of the dazzling Met Gala in New York in May. BTW, tennis will have another connective point in NYC in May. The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is being held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Also reporting: Vinay Venkatesh and Frances Aubrey

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