Down Under Downers – Iga and Coco Crash Out

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Bill Simons

NOT A GREAT DAY TO BE POLISH: Both Iga Swiatek and Hubert Hurkacz lost yesterday.

IS AMERICA’S GLASS HALF FULL OR HALF EMPTY? John McEnroe reflected on the “strength in numbers” cadre of American male players (we have 12 men who are in the top 67), commenting, “We’re closer than ever.” Chris Fowler added, “American fans want true contenders, not guys who are in the top 50.” Americans Tommy Paul, Seb Korda, JJ Wolf and Ben Shelton are among the final 12 players still alive.

A GREAT WAY TO KILL A SPORT? While musing on media and the Aussie Open, Jon Wertheim noted, “If we operate on the supposition that “Television is the lifeblood of a sports,”… burying coverage, juggling coverage, moving matches to streaming, getting to the point that the coverage is so maddening that broadcasters are making explanatory social video media video? It’s a great way to kill a sport.”

CURSE – WHAT CURSE? Nobody north of Haiti or maybe New Orleans believes in curses, right? Of course not. Still, the dreaded “Netflix Curse” has resulted virtualy in all the stars in their Docuseries “Break Point” being injured or losing early. Kyrgios, Fritz, Berrettini, Bedosa, Sakkari and others were all out of the Open. The last of the Netflix stars, Felix Auger-Aliassime, lost to Czech Jiri Lehecka. 

GO FIGURE: Iga Swiatek’s loss means that this year’s Aussie Open is the first in the Open era in which the top two seeded men and women are out by the quarters…There are three Slam champions – Elena Rybakina, Jelena Ostapenko and two-time Aussie Open champ Vika Azarenka – who are in the top half of the draw and no Slam champs in the bottom half.

IT ALL ENDS IN TEARS FOR COCO: Chris Evert said it was only a matter of time before Coco Gauff won a Slam – and some felt the Aussie Open might be her time.

After a turbulent end of last year’s season, Coco had a strong off-season of training that included workouts with boxer Mike Tyson. She came out of the gate fast this year, winning her first tourney in Auckland before she went on cruise control in Melbourne, where she won each of her first three matches without losing a set. Her serve and forehand were both better than last year. 

Today, she faced the No. 17 seed Jelena Ostapenko, who’d never reached an Aussie Open quarterfinal. But today Coco hardly sizzled. Too often she hit down the middle and couldn’t get the-less-than-swift Jelena on the run. Her serve was under 50%, she faltered on her many break-point opportunities and, most of all, she couldn’t force her big, powerful Latvian foe out of her considerable comfort zone. When Ostapenko, the streaky 2017 French Open winner, is on her game, watch out. She can beat anyone.  

Her 7-5, 6-3 win today was a beat down. “It was just target practice. She’s just clocking it and hitting Coco off the court,” noted Pat McEnroe. Ostapenko confided she “had nothing to lose” – and she played like it. 

Still just 18, Coco teared up in her press conference. She noted how hard she’s been working and how much she’s improved. But then she said, “When you play a player like her and she plays really well… there’s nothing you can do. I’m okay. We can keep going.”

IGA FALLS AND THE AGE OF SWIATEK IS PUT ON PAUSE: Last Spring legends Serena and Venus were fading, No. 1 Ash Barty had just retired and four-time Slam champ Naomi Osaka was having another walk-about. All this left a mighty vacuum atop the WTA.

Enter a 20-year-old Pole. Iga Swiatek won the Miami Open, then took the French and US Opens. Her 37-match winning streak was the best of the century. She collected eight titles, soared to the top and became a convincing No. 1.

We asked, “Has tennis entered the Age of Iga?” It often seemed that way. She dominated the rankings and (sorry, Ons Jabeur) there wasn’t a consistently powerful challenger who could threaten her reign.

Coming into Melbourne, the Pole who’d been No. 1 for nine months was a prohibitive favorite. The prime question was “With Iga Swiatek or the field, who do you pick?”

But on the edges, there were issues. She had some swagger, but not that much. She faltered in the WTA Championships, losing in the semis to Aryna Sabalenka, fell in a Dubai exhibition to Elena Rybakina, and then to Jessica Pegula at the United Cup. She was far from cocky and confident. One sensed a certain tension boiling beneath the surface.

But, no problemo, early at the Aussie Cup she tidily handled her business as she reached the fourth round without dropping a set. 

There she’d face Rybakina, who was only seeded No. 22 and had never gotten beyond the third round in Melbourne. And, at Laver Arena, Iga’s fans with their red and white “Polska” banners weren’t sweating bullets when the famously well-organized and methodical Swiatek came out late for her match, got a code violation for delay of game, quickly lost serve and suddenly was down 0-2. 

Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, who’d beaten hard-hitting Danielle Collins in the third round, came out on fire and started bossing Iga around the court. The calm Kazak’s serve was ablaze, often handcuffing Swiatek. Elena would win 80% of her first serves. Her deep, confident power forehand had Iga on her heels.  

While doubt crept onto Swiatek’s still young face, Rybakina was on a mission. She won Wimbledon but didn’t gain much respect. She wasn’t rewarded with any of the 2000 ranking points that Wimbledon winners normally get. The US Open assigned her to tiny outer courts, and in Melbourne she was also relegated to small courts. Today Elena showed her big game on a big stage and collected the first set 6-4.

But Swiatek’s fans weren’t that stressed. Their fave had all the tools: explosive shots, lightning speed, seamless defense and savvy game management. Five times she’d been down a set in recent Slams and four times she’d come back to win. As if on cue, Iga broke to go up 3-0 in the second set. Then she had more opportunities, but couldn’t take advantage. 

She faltered on big points. She was trying, but perhaps too hard. Elena’s flat shots hit their spots. They took Iga’s time away. And, as the poised Kazak showed off why she was a Wimbledon champ, Iga revealed a hint of panic. 

She couldn’t extend the rallies or adjust – she had no Plan B. When a standard Iga forehand hit the net, Elena claimed a convincing 6-4, 6-4 win. Aussie TV suggested, “This was an idyllic day for Rybakina…She made the No. 1 very uncomfortable…Pure perfection from Rybakina.” 

Of course, this will hardly be the end of the Age of Iga. Far from it. Soon the sometimes vulnerable and still maturing Pole revealed her sometimes conflicting takeaways. “The last couple of weeks have been hard. I felt the pressure. I wanted not to lose more than I wanted to win. I need to work on that…I wanted it too hard, I need to chill…I felt like I took a step back in terms of how I approach these tournaments.” Iga said she had “to fight even more.” Then added, “I’m going to chill out a little bit more. That’s all.”

PRIME TIME PEGULA: The Buffalo Bills may have fallen to the Cincinnati Bengals some 10,127 miles from Melbourne, but Jessica Pegula, the daughter of the Bills’ owners beat former French Open champ Barbora Krejcikova, 7-5, 6-2 and yet again is into a Slam quarterfinal. She reached three last year. Or, Jon Wertheim noted, “She’s gone from an extra to a speaking role to an absolute star.”

Pegula’s road to victory was bumpy. She squandered a bucket load of break points and botched a key volley. But the No. 3 seed, who is a fabulous battler, prevailed and is not only the sole American left in the draw, she’s the highest seed not to have been toppled.

The perpetually nonchalant 28-year-old vet shrugged: “It doesn’t really feel like I’m the highest [seed] left, even though I guess that’s a cool stat.”

NOBLE LOSER: Five-foot-eight Yoshihito Nishioka lost the first 14 games of his match against 6’ 6” Karen Khachanov. And he won a mere two points in the second set and went down 0-6, 0-6, 0-2. John McEnroe joked that the Japanese player was “trying to get into the Russian’s head. He’s got him just where he wants him.” When Nishioka finally won a game, he received a huge ovation. Karen, who won in straight sets, has made it to the quarters and will next play Seb Korda, then possibly Stef Tsitsipas. The last time a player scored a triple bagel at a Slam was at the 1993 French Open, when Sergi Brugera walloped Thierry Champion.

SEB CALLED OUT FOR BS: After Seb Korda jokingly said he was the worst athlete in his talented Korda clan, his sister Nelly called him out. She told Golf.com, “It’s complete BS….Honestly, he’s the best. His hand-eye coordination is unbelievable. His swing — I’m jealous of his swing, actually. It’s crazy. He’s a lefty. He’s a natural righty, but he plays golf lefty. He played hockey lefty….He grew up playing hockey. He was pretty good at it, too. He skates really nicely, plays golf nicely, plays tennis beautifully.” 

A CALL FOR MEDICAL INTERVENTION: Jim Courier told the exhausted and subdued Seb Korda, “You don’t sound that excited that you’re going into a quarterfinal. Can I check your pulse?”

TSITSIPAS AGAIN: Stefanos Tsitsipas downed Italian Jannik Sinner in five sets. The Greek, who’s the highest men’s seed left, is into the Aussie quarters for the fourth time in five years. He’ll face the young Czech Jiri Lehecka. 

DOMINANT DJOKOVIC: Novak has more career titles and weeks at No. 1 than the entire field combined. And when it comes to Slam wins, he leads the field 21-0. Stefanos Tsitsipas is the only other man to have even reached a final.

JUST WONDERING: Is Andy “Have Metal Hip, Will Play” Murray the most inspiring player in tennis? Murray’s first two matches took 11 hours. After his third-round loss the Brit tweeted, “2 days ago I randomly bumped into the doctor who in 2017 told me, “The good news is the problem you have in your hip can be fixed but you won’t be able to play professional sport again.” I think we dispelled that myth the last 5 days. Goodnight.”

NEW RULE: Jon Wertheim noted, “It’s become international law that one cannot mention Andy Murray without pairing with the descriptor ‘metal hip.’” Or perhaps “mettle hip” is more accurate.

TENNIS STARS TO PLAY PICKLEBALL FOR $1 MILLION: It used to be that top tennis players who won a big tournament got a silver chalice and a few hundred bucks under the table. Now,  John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Michael Chang are slated to battle in a $1 million pickleball tournament in a Florida casino in April. Question: Will McEnroe’s subtle hands and intuitive feel for the ball somehow translate to pickleball? The guy is 63 years old. By the way, pickleball, which has no stars who are household names, is trying with some success to use tennis legends to brand its sport.  

NOT A BELIEVER: When Jelena Ostapenko was asked if she believes in the line calling system, she said, “To be honest…no.”

JUST WONDERING: Is Andy “Have Metal Hip, Will Play” Murray the most inspiring player in tennis? Murray’s first two matches took 11 hours. After his third-round loss the Brit tweeted, “2 days ago I randomly bumped into the doctor who in 2017 told me, “The good news is the problem you have in your hip can be fixed but you won’t be able to play professional sport again.” I think we dispelled that myth the last 5 days. Goodnight.”

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