Broadcaster Chris McKendry once noted, “Our sport is a little better when there’s a touch of crazy.”
And there’s been far more than a touch of crazy at this year’s Aussie Open. The world’s most beloved active player, Rafa Nadal, came all the way to Australia to play the Happy Slam. But, once again, his body wasn’t happy. He couldn’t even make it to the starting line.
The world’s most beloved active woman player, Naomi Osaka, did make it to the starting line, but then quickly fell. And OMG, the tournament was started on a Sunday. Good move – there wouldn’t be any more late-night finishes. Then a Medvedev match dragged on until 3:39 AM.
A record 42-point tiebreak stunned us. There was a wild Tsistsipas shot that careened over the net, plus there was a flood of wild shots of liquor at the tourney’s new “Party Court” where courtside fans barked out well-lubricated advice to the players.
Once well-respected tennis elders like Sir Andy Murray, Stan the Man Wawrinka and LaMonf (Gael Monfils) were shown to the exits. All the while a fearless 16-year-old, Mirra Andreeva, seemed to shamelessly shout, “Here I am, ready for the big time!”
While thrilling five-set marathons became a thing, there were blowouts too. Defending champ Aryna Sabalenka ruled her roost with an iron hand, losing just a handful of games in her first three matches.
But, thank goodness, amidst all this craziness, we could at least find refuge on a tiny island of sanity. Iga Swiatek, the WTA’s long reigning queen who’s won four Slams and has a mindset that’s steelier than a skyscraper, was showing the world that she was poised to grab yet another major.
Thursday, upset-minded Danielle Collins had had the temerity to push Ms. Iga, and gained a 4-1, double-break lead in the third set. But no big deal. Anyone can push Iga, but inevitably the mentally toughest gal on the WTA pushes back, gets things in order and shows who’s boss.
And tonight Linda Noskova, a little-known wannabe from the tiny Czech village of Bystricka (population 1,000) decided, “What the heck – I, too, will try to take it to Iga.” Of course, few fans outside of the Czech Republic had even heard of the kid.
Noskova was just ranked No. 50. She’d won only two Slam matches and, prior to this year, hadn’t even played in the Aussie Open main draw. Recently Elena Rybakina had rudely dismissed her. Linda didn’t exactly look like the next great champ.
Noskova isn’t particularly tall, and her game isn’t that elegant. To make matters worse, as their Laver Arena match began, Swiatek effectively put the upstart in her place. The Pole, who’d easily beaten Noskova in their only previous meeting, won the first set 6-3. Iga had won 18 straight matches and certainly this would be yet another predictable win for the world No. 1.
Now the sport’s global audience could tune out and catch some sleep. There was order in the tennis universe. But Noskova, who’d been coached by Martina Hingis’s mother, Melanie Molitor, had other ideas.
In the second set she stepped up, hit with freedom, upped the pace on her considerable backhand and wrested control from Iga. She bravely attacked Iga’s forehand and after surviving a break point in the seventh game of the second set, Noskova surged and won 11 of the next 12 points. “She’s on fire,” noted Patrick McEnroe. “Winners are coming from everywhere…She’s just littering the stat sheet.”
Never mind that Linda had never scored a top-50 win. After all, this has been a crazy tourney. The Czech was using her deep, hard-to-read serve and her heavy first strike shots to out-hit Swiatek as she scored the shock upset of the tournament, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
While Iga noted that Noskova serves big like Rybakina and Sabalenka, Linda simply gushed, “I’m speechless. I knew it’s gonna be an amazing match against the world No 1…[but] I don’t really think it would end up like this…I’m just glad.”
Now a mere seven of the 32 seeds are still alive, and, among the top ten seeds, only No. 2 Sabalenka, No. 4 Coco Gauff and No. 9 Barbora Krejcikova remain. No. 12 seed Zheng Qinwen from China is the highest seed in the wide-open bottom half of the draw and Victoria Azarenka, who took it to Jelena Ostapenko, is the only major champion in that half.
Also reporting – Vinay Venkatesh
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