Survival Sunday in Melbourne – The Down Under Buzz

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Bill Simons

FORGET DAVID AND GOLIATH, TONIGHT IT WAS THE DINO AND DJOKOVIC SHOW: If there were an ounce of justice in tennis, the sport’s commanding sheriff, Novak Djokovic, who’s been ruling the roost for years, would have faced a foe in the first round who could have presented at least a slight whiff of danger – say a wily veteran like Stan Wawrinka or a considerable powerhouse like Christopher Eubanks.

But there was a certain absurdity to Nole’s draw.  

The greatest of all time drew a raw rookie, the little-known Croatian qualifier Dino Prizmic, who comes from just beyond the Serbian border, and long idolized his iconic neighbor.  Goodness, he wasn’t even born in 2005, when Djokovic first played in Melbourne. 

The 24-time Slam winner Nole was seeking to become just the third player ever to win a Slam tourney eleven times, and was hoping to add to his career earnings of $190 million. 

In contrast, Prizmic, who’s won just $109,000 and was playing against his first top ten foe, couldn’t even find the right way to get onto the court.

Oh, well, the 18-year old, who’s half Djokovic’s age, has a pudgy baby face and the kind of wispy goatee many coming-of-age teens display. To his great credit, he put aside the fact that he’d never played a Grand Slam match and Novak had played 410 of them. The gritty Croatian came out of the gate blasting away with his open stance backhand, fearlessly tugging on superman’s cape. Guess what? Dino won half of the first four games. One dared to think that this kid, who won last year’s French Open juniors and whose ranking is 178, might just be able to punch above his weight. 

But then disaster struck. Djokovic’s precise, pounding jabs took their toll. Prizmic’s thigh was aching and he was getting treatment. Would Novak score an early knockout? Could the teen even go on?  

Before us was a beatdown. But Dino soon got his leg taped up. “It looks like he’s got a mattress strapped around his thigh,” joked broadcaster Peter Marcato. And Nole quickly wrapped up the first set 6-2. 

But Prizmic proved to be no joke. He soon displayed his youthful athleticism, his two-handed backhand and his considerable serve, took the second set, and, OMG, blasted a brilliant cross-court forehand to go up 3-1 in the third set. 

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Yes, Djokovic again revealed his one weakness, his overhead. But then the steely man, who’s 15-0 against teens in majors and who hasn’t lost at the Aussie Open in 2,183 days, began to prove the claim that the hardest thing to do in tennis (or maybe in all of sports) is to beat Djokovic on a hard court in five sets.

Nole again gained ascendance. “Sometimes I think Djokovic just likes to make things hard for himself,” said Australian Open Radio. “He’s almost toying with Prismic. He’s enjoying his tennis and wants to stay out there.”

The Croat tried to make a stand, but didn’t have a chance. Novak went up 4-0 in the fourth set, just two games from victory. But Prizmic didn’t give up, and bravely rallied back, winning three games in a row.

But the master Nole seemed to respond, “Hey kid, show me what you got. Now’s the time. I’ve been rattled before – I can handle this.” 

After Nole inevitably won 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4 in just over four hours, he honored his young foe: “He deserves your applause…This is his moment. He really made me run for my money. He used every inch of the court, defended amazingly well. This was an amazing experience…for an 18-year-old playing on a big stage. Kudos to him. I want to be in his corner…He’s going to do some big things in his career. We’re going to see a lot of him.”

In this era, when the Big Three have been in their twilight, we’ve seen a lot of star-is-born moments from sublime talents like Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Holger Rune. And there have been others who’ve given us stunning moments, but weren’t able to get to the very top. (Like Prizmic, Jenson Brooksby took a set off of Novak.) 

Now it will be interesting to see if Prizmic can rise high or if we’ll just remember him as the best player named Dino since Dean Martin’s late son was a young phenom decades ago.

FORGET BREAKFAST AT WIMBLEDON – HOW ABOUT THIS QUADFEST IN MELBOURNE? After noting the huge thighs of JJ Wolf and his foe Sebastian Baez, Pam Shriver quipped, “It’s a quadfest out here!”

A BAND OF BROADCASTING BROS: Truth be told, the ESPN broadcasting crew covering Taylor Fritz’s match against Argentina’s Facundo Diaz Acosta was far more interesting than the match itself. The group was anchored by the chat master Chris Fowler, the Monday Night Football lead broadcaster who had just called the collegiate national championship in Houston. The oft criticized, sometimes macho commentator was quick to celebrate the hidden bars of Melbourne’s back alleys. 

Similarly, the lead commentator Nick Kyrgios was hardly a shrinking violet. The charismatic Aussie, who played just one match in 2023, and who did a much-praised broadcasting stint with The Tennis Channel last year, had been hired by both ESPN and Eurosport. 

Known for his candid, often shameless takes, tennis’ leading ringmaster noted that no one has ever rocked Melbourne’s No. 3 show court like he has. Not so modestly, he suggested that the John Cain Arena should have its name changed to the Kyrgios Arena. 

When asked what kind of performance he thought Djokovic would provide in his opening-round match, the Aussie replied, “I think he should put on a Kyrgios-like show.”

Nick, of course, is known for his almost zealous anti-coaching stance. He likes his freedom and doesn’t do too well when others tell him what to do.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from offering one coaching tip after another to America’s top player, who was struggling mightily against an Argentinian clay court specialist ranked No 90. Again and again, Nick insisted that his pal “Fritzy” stop standing so far back behind the baseline to return Diaz Acosta’s serve. 

But there was only one unspoken problem with that. The third member of ESPN’s crew was the courtside reporter Brad Gilbert, who, with Darren Cahill, is the most accomplished coach in tennis broadcasting. Gilbert not only led Agassi, Murray and Roddick to glory, in a flash he helped Coco win the US Open. And one of his great tactics, that he calls on again and again, is having his players stand way behind the baseline. Kyrgios and Gilbert hinted of their vastly different approaches, but there were no fireworks.  

TIP OF THE WEEK: Alexander Zverev said that with Frances Tiafoe, who prevailed in four tough sets over Croat Borna Coric, “You can’t let Frances have fun.”

WILDLY COUNTER-INTUITIVE: The Brazilian Thiago Seyboth Wild has a beautiful game but sadly not such a beautiful backstory. The 23-year-old faced charges of domestic violence and his family is said to be pro-Nazi. Wild, ranked No. 78, who has a proclivity for giving great Russians a hard time early in Slams (he beat Daniil Medvedev last year in the first round of the French Open), came from two sets down and was leading in the fifth-set tiebreaker against the No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev when he faltered. Still, Seyboth Wild can claim to have the name with the most counter-intuitive pronunciation in tennis. You’d figure his last name was pronounced “wild,” but instead you pronounce it “Whoosh.”

AN ALL-ORANGE BATTLE: The Jannik Sinner vs. Botic van de Zandschulp match featured two players with orange fan bases. Dutchman Botic comes from a nation that’s famous for its in-your-face orange jerseys, and Italy’s Sinner boasts the most fun-loving fans in the game these days, the Carrot Boys, who dress up as the orange vegetable. Years ago Sinner sighed, “They’re getting more famous than I am.”

Over the years, many a great celebrity has been invited into tennis press rooms. Yesterday, four Carrot Boys were invited into the Aussie Open media center to be interviewed.

THE INSPIRING DIVERSITY OF THIS SPORT: At first we were struck by the vastly different ages of many of today’s Aussie Open competitors. Some were teens, others were relics. But what really struck us was the glory of tennis’ internationalism. As Argentinians and Brazlians shone for South America, the 5’3” Nao Hibino raised the flag for Japanese tennis and Croatians seemed to be battling on every other court in Melbourne Park.

NEVER ON SUNDAY – NOT: This year, the Aussie Open imitated Roland Garros and became a 15-day tourney, with play starting on Sunday. There were many critics, but 87,705 fans showed up. This success begs the question: will the US Open soon start on Sunday, and will Grand Slams eventually go even further and start on Saturday?

GO FIGURE: The Aussie Open is Coco Gauff’s last Slam as a teen…After losing in the first round of three straight majors, Maria Sakkari beat Nao Hibino to advance.

THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE: There are five American men seeds in this year’s Australian Open: No. 12 Taylor Fritz, No. 14 Tommy Paul, No. 16 Ben Shelton, No. 17 Frances Tiafoe, and No. 29 Seb Korda. This is the most for the US men in 20 years.

The American women who are seeded are: No. 4 Coco Gauff, No. 5 Jessica Pegula and No. 27 Emma Navarro. 

Unseeded Amanda Anisimova, who last year took an eight-month mental health break, scored an impressive feel-good win over Russian Liudmila Samsonova, the No. 13 seed. Taylor Fritz, despite an ankle injury, bravely fought back to beat Diego Acosta in five sets. Frances Tiafoe avenged a tough Davis Cup loss at the hands of Coric and prevailed in four sets. JJ Wolf took the first set from Sebastian Baez but was forced to retire in the fourth because of a hip injury. 



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