The Australian Open – Like a Rolling Stone

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Bill Simons

DESPITE ALL, A BRILLIANT SPORT CONTINUES TO AMAZE: A prominent British tennis writer still in his prime dies suddenly and we are shaken. Off-court issues continue to hover and we are dismayed. A Daniil Medvedev match doesn’t finish until 3:39.

AM and we ask why tennis can’t get this right. Still, our sport thrives, and records are being made. The play in Melbourne on Thursday was simply captivating. Broadcaster Stephanie Myles said, “Tennis is enough to make your head explode.”

IT ISN’T EASY BEING IGA: Iga Swiatek is fantastic. She’s the No. 1 player in the world. It’s a wonderful but sometimes challenging position to be in. The crown she wears is often heavy. The Pole feels it from so many sides. She has a budding business empire and travels with her own brand manager. Obviously she’s very bright, steely tough and yet a bit twitchy. Her anxiety is apparent – she tends to overthink. For instance, Thursday she froze up while trying to come up with a simple message to scribble on a TV lens. Earlier her musings on whether she should go to Taylor Swift’s big upcoming concert in Poland turned into a bit of a verbal knot.

Then in press conferences, when she’s asked questions with a bit of grit, she rolls her eyes and seems to oh-so-cautiously assess the impact her answers might have.

Reporters wanted to know her take on Nadal becoming an ambassador for Saudi tennis. Iga’s been outspoken on women’s rights, but she’s a close friend of Rafa. She adores him. So she offered a long, elliptical word salad that went nowhere fast. Similarly, when she was asked about the challenging case of Alexander Zverev, who’s dealing with abuse charges while serving on the ATP Players Council, she danced and dodged and went all over the block as she said plenty of nothing. Oh, well.

But when she told us that she listens to the Rolling Stones as she comes on court, we sensed we were getting someplace. Reporters simply wanted to know what Stones song she was listening to – no big deal. But the Pole wouldn’t tell us, because at her first French Open she revealed that she’d been listening to “Welcome to the Jungle.” Then there was a big fuss, it became the tournament anthem and she couldn’t relish it any more. Life is complicated.

Iga’s just 22, and has a net worth of $25 million. Still, living your life in a fishbowl has its hassles. That’s probably why she’s so cautious.

LIKE A ROLLING STONE: Okay, Iga wouldn’t tell us what Rolling Stones song she was listening to. We’re thinking it’s got to be “Street Fighting Man.” There are few better warrior anthems. 

Speaking of the Stones, Mick Jagger’s ex-wife Bianca once discounted casual sex, saying, “Unless there’s some emotional tie, I’d rather play tennis.” Lindsay Davenport’s son is named Jagger. John McEnroe long ago confided, “When you’re twenty-six, who are you gonna listen to, Mick Jagger and Jack Nicholson or some old farts in the USTA?” 

In 2017 Mick Jagger tweeted, “Jo Konta makes the Wimbledon semis. 1st British woman in 39 years. I never made it to a Grand Slam.” Years ago McEnroe hung out and got high with the Stones backstage at the Meadowlands in Jersey. Never mind that the show was delayed.

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THE THANKSGIVING SOLUTION: Australian authorities justified their starting the Open on Sunday in part because it would lessen the likelihood of late-night matches. Today Daniil Medvedev, who went on court at 11:15 PM, beat Emil Ruusuvuori  at 3:39 AM. Jon Wertheim reflected on the third latest ever Aussie Open finish and suggested that to avoid this next year, the tournament should start on Thanksgiving.   

WHY IS SWIATEK NO. 1? As the Aussie Open began, there were at first none of the bombshell upsets that usually provide spice to the early rounds of majors. Then 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva pummeled the three-time Slam finalist Ons Jabeur. Then again, the Tunisian has had modest results of late.

Then early Thursday it seemed we were about to get a thunderbolt upset. American veteran Danielle Collins, after dropping the first set to Iga Swiatek, stormed back and won five games in a row to even the match at a set apiece. Then the streaky No. 62 player in the world hit out and left the No. 1 player flatfooted. The fisherman’s daughter seemed to be about to net the biggest catch of her career.

As Danielle blasted her forehand and down the line backhand to the corners, the Pole seemed adrift and resigned. One tweet suggested, “Swiatek is playing in Melbourne but all of her forehands…are landing either in New South Wales or the Great Barrier Reef.”

But Collins would soon confront her own barrier. The Floridian scored two breaks as she battled to a commanding 4-1 third-set lead. Sweet victory was so close – just two games away. But Danielle began thinking of the finish line and wobbled mightily. 

And, of course, Swiatek is nothing if not a feisty competitor. As Collins blinked and double faulted, Iga found her groove, counterattacked, swung free and reeled off five games in a row. Swiatek may struggle against big hitters like Danielle, but she made it crystal clear why she’s long been No. 1. Her scamper-all-over-the-court speed, her anticipation, her groundies, her game management, her competitive fire and her unwillingness to surrender were wonders to behold as she prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

SHOCK UPSETS ROCK MELBOURNE: While most of the men’s seeds are still alive, there were plenty of scares. No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev, No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev, No. 9 seed Hubert Hurkacz, No. 11 seed Casper Ruud and No. 19 seed Cam Norrie barely survived in tight five-set battles.

All the while, top women’s seeds have been toppling all over the place. Yes, No. 1 seed Swiatek tapped her inner Houdini and escaped defeat. But Elena Rybakina, last year’s runner-up and the No. 3 seed, lost a marathon match to Russian Anna Blinkova 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (20) after a 42-point, 35 minute tiebreaker that was the longest in Slam history. Blinkova survived six match points. 

No. 5 seed Jessica Pegula lost to France’s Clara Burel. No. 6 seed Ons Jabeur was ousted by Mirra Andreeva, No. 7 seed Marketa Vondrousova lost to Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska and No. 8 seed Maria Sakkari fell to Elina Avanesyan.

For the first time in the Open era only three of the top eight seeds made it to the third round.

WHY HAS THE AUSSIE OPEN BEEN SO COMPETITIVE? Broadcaster Mark Petchey asked, “Has the increase in prize money at the Slams and on the tours allowed lower-ranked players to invest in their careers, [a practice that was] once the exclusive domain of the top-ranked players, and has this enabled them to close the gap? Is this why we are seeing so many close matches?”

THE KANGAROO WHISPERER TO RETIRE: Veteran Danielle Collins, who is just 30, revealed that this will be her last year on the circuit. She wants to have kids and a life outside of tennis. The former Aussie Open finalist will be missed. What other WTA player this side of Jelena Ostapenko battles with such fierce emotions? She doesn’t shout – she roars. You often feel a meltdown is just an unforced error away, or that tears are about to fall. You feel her intensity. 

The University of Virginia product, who won two NCAA singles titles, has had to endure an array of surgeries and physical setbacks, including endometriosis. 

But “the Danimal” long been a breath of fresh air. A fisherman’s daughter, years ago she went to the Melbourne Zoo and claimed to be a “kangaroo whisperer.” Later she confided that she almost wrote a screenplay about a “schizophrenic crazy cat lady living out of a van.”

NICK KYRGIOS STANDS BY HIS MAN: As a heckler harassed his friend Novak Djokovic, Eurosport broadcaster Nick Kyrgios said, “There’s always some jerk in the crowd who wouldn’t say something to Novak’s face.

“There are always going to be people who don’t like your success…It’s a shame, because all Novak does is come down here and give us world-class tennis. Absurd isn’t it? Haven’t  they heard the phrase, ‘Don’t poke the bear’?”

QUOTEBOOK:

“I was on the airport already.” – Iga Swiatek on what she was thinking when Danielle Collins was pounding her

“‘Out of sorts’ is a phrase you don’t often associate with Iga Swiatek.” – Pam Shriver

“A flat white oak milk with toasted banana bread – when my coaches aren’t looking!” – Iga Swiatek when asked what her coffee order would be in Melbourne

“He’s a pitcher with all sorts of options and I think he should use them.” – John McEnroe on Tommy Paul 

AMERICA WATCH: Just before the Aussie Open, No. 14 Tommy Paul lost to Jack Draper, but Thursday he beat the Brit in four sets. No. 12 Taylor Fritz will play Fabian Marozsan in the third round and No. 16 Ben Shelton will face No. 20 Adrian Mannarino. Alex Michelsen beat Jiri Lehecka, and No. 101 Aleksander Kovacevic, a qualifier from New York, lost to Karen Khachanov. 

Sloane Stephens upset No. 14 Daria Kasatkina. Like Stephens, No. 27 Emma Navarro had to come back after losing the first set to beat Italy’s Elisabetta Cocciaretto. Georgia’s McCartney Kessler fell to Czech Linda Noskova. Coco Gauff will take on her friend, practice partner and fellow Floridian Alycia Parks. 

ALEX VS. ALEXANDER: The pride of Orange County, Aliso Viejo’s Alex Michelsen, ranked No. 91, downed Czech Jiri Lehecka, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, and next plays No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev, who barely beat a Slovakian qualifier. When asked to rank the 6’ 5” Michelsen, John McEnroe said he put his prospects behind Ben Shelton’s but ahead of Taylor Fritz’s and around where Korda’s are. McEnroe praised Michelsen’s belief and how he goes about his business. 

GO FIGURE: British commentator Chris Bowers said Andy Murray could not be considered for a slot in the top ten rankings of all-time tennis players, but, with all due respect to Olympian Daley Thompson, there was a case to be made that Sir Andy is the greatest athlete Britain has ever produced.

GET OUTTA HERE: During her topsy-turvy win over Aussie Ajla Tomlajanovic, the often entertaining and rising Latvian Jelena Ostapenko ordered her entire coaching team to leave their seats.

MS. CONSISTENCY FALTERS: No. 5 seed Jessica Pegula, who has reached the fourth round or better in six of the last eight majors, but yesterday she came out flat. Was she struggling with the gastrointestinal issue that plagued her earlier in Adelaide? The pride of Buffalo made 31 errors and only nine winners as she fell to the France’s Clara Burel, 6-4, 6-2 and then pulled out of doubles.  

THE HEWITT LEGACY CRUISES ON: Cruz Hewitt, the 15-year-old son of Aussie legend Leyton Hewitt, who won Wimbledon and the US Open, has a wild card into the Aussie Open juniors. 

‘OY! OY! OY!’ – BEN’S GOT A BRAIN WORM: After downing Australia’s Christopher O’Connell, Ben Shelton said, “It was tough today against a guy who definitely had that home crowd support. That ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oy! Oy! Oy!’ chant – I hear it in my sleep at night from last year. But I love the way you guys support your guys! You guys do it right!”

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