Bring It On – Young Americans Soar in Melbourne

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The Cain mutiny: Ben Shelton engaged the raucous Aussie crowd on Cain Arena. Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

THE VARIETY OF AMERICAN TENNIS PLAYERS: These days variety is the spice of life in US tennis. For starters, in fashion, American players wear all kinds of shirts. Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul wear T-shirts. JJ wolf sports cutoffs that show his ample guns. Jenson Brooksby wears a traditional, too large polo shirt that he continually tugs on.

Similarly, America’s strength-in-numbers cadre of players have a wide range of techniques. Towering John Isner and Reilly Opelka are imposing, in-your-face America’s serve bots. The top US player, Taylor Fritz, has a classic American power game – big serve, big forehand. Frances Tiafoe brings explosive speed and athleticism, with a good dose of drop shots. Seb Korda has an elegant all-court game that brings to mind the lightning poetry of Stefan Edberg. Tommy Paul is a superb craftsman and Jenson Brooksby, with his almost mind-boggling variety, is an appealing outlier.

THE TEARS AND SORROW OF JENSON BROOKSBY: We tennis fans are fully aware. We know that our gentlemanly sport can be brutal. Alexander Zverev was fighting for glory on Paris clay, when deep into the French Open battle against Rafa Nadal his ankle collapsed. He collapsed in pain, his season is over.

A young teen, Melanie Oudin, went on a 2009 magical US Open run. Overnight she was a media darling. But her career never really blossomed. And let’s not even talk about the endless foot issues that torpedoed the bound- for-super-stardom career of Juan Martin del Potro.

There have been plenty of tears in Melbourne this week. When Rafa Nadal’s hip buckled, his wife Maria couldn’t stop sobbing. The beloved Aussie Sam Stosur teared up as she ended her storied 24-year career.

And yesterday, deep into the third set of his match, Jenson Brooksby sat on his bench on Court 3, a beaten man. His chest heaved. His face was flooded with anxiety. He was at a loss. Briefly, the man, who was just a boy, was in agony. You’re alone in tennis, they are no teammates to buffer the pain. Australian Open radio noted, “Brooksby looks absolutely miserable out there. He’s literally crying. He’s sobbing, and at his wits end.”  

The young, fierce warrior so dearly desired victory in his third round match over his fellow American Tommy Paul – but it was not to be. The 22-year-old had few answers for Paul, his older, quicker, more savvy and powerful foe. Tommy, the 25-year-old former French Open junior champion, has also known his share of pain. He’s long battled in the trenches.

Still, some thought Brooksby would prevail. John McEnroe predicted he would make it to the semis. After all, just two days earlier Brooksby’s guile, penetrating backhand and uncanny anticipation were on full display against the No. 2 seed Casper Ruud. He dominated on long rallies.

But it was Paul who dominated from the middle of the court, ran Brooksby from corner to corner, and mercilessly stepped in to attack Jenson’s suspect second serve. It was a beatdown, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. Still, Brooksby flies home from Melbourne with the win of his life. 

AND NOW THEY ARE GONE: Mackie McDonald, Katie Volynets and Brooksby all had fabulous Aussie Opens. Mackie and Jenson beat the No. 1 and 2 seeds, Rafa and Ruud. And Volynets came from the qualies, beat the No. 9 seed Veronika Kudermetova, reached the third round and broke into the top 100.

UNCLE RODNEY’S HOUSE OF FUN: Commentators love to give stadiums catchy nicknames. Yankee Stadium was called “the House that Ruth Built,” and Michigan’s “Big House” and LSU’s “Death Valley.” Our favorite recent characterization came from Brett Haber, who called Laver Arena “Uncle Rodney’s House of Fun.”

PRIME TIME PEGULA: Jon Wertheim put Buffalo’s Jessica Pegula in a Hollywood context, saying, “She’s gone from an extra to a speaking role to an absolute star.”

QUOTEBOOK:

“Can you believe it? Can you believe it? Lady Luck is wearing stars and stripes.” – ESPN

“It’s all or nothing for Ekaterina Alexandrova and now there’s a whole lot of nothing.” Peter MoradaIn on the Russian who lost to Magda Linette 6-3, 6-4.

“This is the new Tommy Paul. He didn’t show one ounce of frustration.” – Darren Cahill

“It was kind of a disaster – let’s be real.” – Stephanie Myles after No. 6 seed Maria Sakkari lost to No. 87 Zhu Lin of China. 

BRAVEHEART FALLS TO BOBBY BATS: When it comes to Andy Murray, Chris Evert said, “I’m speechless. He never fails to amaze me. I have no words.” But the Tennis Channel had plenty of words. They asked, “How in the world is he still standing upright after 11 hours of play? At this point we don’t have the slightest clue – two marathon five-set matches so far. And he saved a match point in his first match and came from two sets down and 2-5 down in the fifth in his last match. He’s been on court 11 hours and ‘Bobby Bats’ [Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut]…is not a player you want to play if you are low on gas. It’s probably the worst scenario for him because Bautista Agut is the perfect villain here, tough and competitive.”

Despite constant cheers of “Come on, Andy!” the Scot fell, 6-1, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-4. Still, his Aussie effort was noble.

GO FIGURE: When Sam Stosur was a kid, she called round robin tourneys red robins…Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff have not lost a set yet…Yesterday the Aussie Open had its highest day and night attendance in history.

HOW ‘BOUT THOSE KORDAS DOWN UNDER? Seb Korda’s father Petr Korda won the Australian Open in 1998. His sisters Jessica and Nelly both won the Australian Open golf championships.

THE WOLF AT THE DOOR: As JJ Wolf was demolishing lucky loser Michael Mmoh 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, James Blake couldn’t resist, noting, “The wolf is hungry.” The rising Ohio State alum will next face another collegian product, lefty Ben Shelton. 

The University of Florida star, who’s on his first trip out of America, overcame a wild John Cain Arena crowd, who booed him as soon as he walked on court. No matter, he engaged the throng and beat Aussie Alexi Popyrin in straight sets.  Shelton, who thrived in front of raucous college fans, admitted the Cain crowd was “something special.” Popyrin, who’d previously beaten Taylor Fritz, said that Shelton could make it to the Top Ten. 

Now either young Wolf or Shelton will make it to the quarterfinals. Korda and Paul could also make it. 

DONE AND DUSTED: After an array of marathon matches that drew headlines, today the Aussie Open featured a slew of straightforward, straight-set affairs.

AN AUSSIE ANGEL RETIRES: “Play it again, Sam.” That was what sad Aussie fans were thinking as their beloved Sam Stosur lost her mixed doubles match and retired after 24 years on tour. A former US Open champion and No. 1 doubles player, who overcame a serious bout with Lyme Disease, Stosur never got beyond the fourth round in singles at the Aussie Open. But she did win seven major doubles titles.

The 38-year-old mother was overwhelmed with emotion just before her last match. Her doubles partner, Aussie Matt Ebden, said “She’s one of the kindest, most genuine, nicest, humble people I know…It’s really rare to find such good people in the world. She’s really one of those gems, those angels.”

Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley told Sam, “You’ve been an unbelievable inspiration for all of us…anyone who picks up a tennis racket in Australia and plays the game, the young girls, the young boys.” 

CZECH IT OUT: Since the days of Martina Navratilova, Czech women like Helena Sukova, Hana Mandlikova, Jana Novotna, Lucie Safarova, Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova have continually come to the fore. And a cadre of young Czechs have been bringing it in Adelaide and Melbourne. Jiri Lehecka is still in the men’s draw and three Czechs, veterans Pliskova and Barbora Krejcikova, and 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova are in the women’s tourney. The US, Poland and China also have two players in the fourth round.

NOLE’S STREAKS: Novak Djokovic, who handily downed veteran Grigor Dimitrov, is now on a 24-match Aussie Open win streak. Novak, whose draw has opened, will next face Aussie No. 24 Alex De Minaur.

TENNIS PARTICIPATION SOARS: The USTA reported that since 2020 there’s been a 33% increase in tennis participation. American players increased from 17.7 million to 23.6 million.

Also reporting: Steve Pratt and Frances Aubrey

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