Australian Open: Feisty Women and Surging Men Capture The Spirit of Oz
What is it about the Australian Open? What makes it seem more colorful, more relaxed, more boisterous and—well—more full of surprises than your average Major?
Is it because it’s the youngest of the four?
Is it because it’s the only one in the southern hemisphere and in the huge Asia/Pacific zone?
Is it simply because it bursts open like the first daffodil on an early spring morning: the first Major blossoming of the tennis calendar?
Whatever the reason, there is something special about the joyous, uninhibited way that the Australian crowds embrace the spectacle and the energy, the underdog and the home favorite, the grafter and the gifted, the winner and the loser.
It’s the footloose and fancy-free Major, the let-your-hair-down Major, the high-spirited, generous hearted Major. It just seems grateful that the players have come, and what better welcome could any sporting performers hope for?
The fans are buoyed up by the spirit in Melbourne Park, and this slideshow features one on-the-spot contributor who enjoyed, in person, the performances of Andrea Petkovic and Francesca Schiavone on middle Sunday.
The players also talk of the warmth, the enthusiasm and the welcome of the crowds. Perhaps that’s why a few of them throw caution to the wind and give just as good in this rainbow-hued, humor-infused jamboree.
Take the first of a selection of players who headlined—both on and off court—during the Australian Open’s first week.
Interview Faux Pas 1: Kim and Todd
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The post-match, on-court interviews in Melbourne always have a certain sparkiness.
Todd Woodbridge, an outstanding Aussie doubles player, is a natural with a microphone: charming and informed. Unfortunately, he also seemed to be a little out of touch with the protocols of texting. Don’t send private “asides” to friends of friends and expect them to stay secret.
Woodbridge discovered this to his cost when he talked to Kim Clijsters. She interrupted him mid-sentence to ask him a question.
“What did you ask Rennae Stubbs about me in the text you sent her?”
Woodbridge, clearly expecting a tennis-related question, asked her to elaborate and she did.
“She showed me a text message you sent her. You thought I was pregnant. Shall I tell them exactly what you said? ‘She looks really grumpy and her boobs are bigger!’”
Woodbridge must have wished the court would open up and swallow him, but all he could manage was, “Well that’s the end of my TV career!”
It won’t be, but he will be much more careful about sending indiscreet texts to female friends about their mates.
Unheralded Quartet Reaches New Highs
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The Czech Iveta Benesova had already stirred things up by beating Anabel Medina Garrigues for the loss of one game and the 18th seed Maria Kirilenko for the lost of just four.
Ranked No. 60 in the world, the 27-year-old took a little longer to beat No. 16 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three sets, but the win took her, for the first time in 34 Major entries, to the fourth round.
Her reward was world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, and that proved a step too far for the woman with a career record of three wins to 26 losses against top 10 players. But it was heart-warming while it lasted.
Benesova was one of three women in the draw to reach a Major fourth round for the first time. Pen Shuai, ranked 54, beat Jelena Jankovic in straight sets on her path to a meeting with Agnieszka Radwanska.
She made a strong challenge on the Polish No. 12. seed—indeed she held two match points in the third set before finally acquiescing 5-7, 6-3, 5-7.
The third virgin fourth-rounder was the 49th ranked Ekaterina Makarova. The Russian woman won her first WTA title last year, and stirred things up in Melbourne by beating Ana Ivanovic and Nadia Petrova.
She then faced the daunting prospect of Kim Clijsters—just revealed as the hottest favorite for the Australian women’s title in the tournament’s history. She held her own with some class to push Clijsters to a tie-break. She lost it, and then succumbed to a Belgian onslaught, 2-6, but the left-handed Russian is one to watch.
If these three women ruffled a few feathers during the first week, the 20-year-old Canadian qualifier Milos Raonic rattled a couple of big cages on the men’s side.
The world No. 152 won his first round match against Bjorn Phau and his second against the 22nd seed Michael Llodra with the identical score of 7-6, 6-3, 7-6. He reached his first fourth round in only his second Major by dismissing the 10th seed, Mikhail Youzhny.
The 6ft 5in Raonic notched up 64 winners compared with the 24 of his opponent but the nephew of Montenegro's vice president had higher ambitions.
Asked which top player he wanted to beat next, he said, “All of them!” In practice, he had to beat David Ferrer, and when he won the first set, it looked as though he might emulate the last qualifier to reach the Australian quarterfinals, Goran Ivanisevic. But Ferrer, still in a fine groove, took the next three sets in comfortable style.
Raonic has big promise, big talent and a big personality. He also has a big serve, and ended his innings with a tournament-best 94 aces. He will undoubtedly be back and rattling some more cages on the Major circuit.
“Queen Shazza”, a Vapour Bubble and the Dancer
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Maria Sharapova has a new title, courtesy of one of the Oz Open’s correspondents, Alix Ramsey.
The statuesque Queen Shazza nearly came unstuck against the new blue-blood in town, Julia Goerges, a beautiful German making her own waves in the rankings and the press.
Sharapova eventually fought to a tough victory, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, but failed to see the funny side of a bizarre delay before the match began. She spotted a bump in the court during warm-up and the players were sent back to the locker room while it was sorted out.
Heavy rain plus hot sunshine equalled trapped vapour, it seemed, and the bump was soon remedied. Sharapova, though, was not amused: “Maybe it was comical to you. Wasn’t really comical to us.”
She may have found things more amusing had she not endured a two and a hour sojourn on Hisense while her next opponent, Andrea Petkovic—another stunning German—was detained on court for just one game against Venus Williams.
The Serbian-born Petkovic captured all of Melbourne—and one spectator in particular…
“Don’t listen to your parents, and you might just end up playing in Rod Laver Arena.”
Had she listened to those parents, Petkovic may have followed an academic career! Instead, tennis has gained a big personality with an alter-ego on YouTube called ‘Petko RAZZI’, who can bust out dance moves on the court, and who has a very dry sense of humor: but those aren’t the only things she does well. She can play some ball—as she showed against Sharapova last evening.
This match was a true testament to the evolution of women’s tennis. One cannot be at the top echelon of men’s tennis with any apparent weakness these days. The necessary arsenal—serve, forehand and backhand—along with being an incredible athlete, is the bare minimum requirement. It’s the shades that separate the top four, not a chasm.
Women’s tennis is moving quite rapidly from rewarding players with one or two skill sets towards rewarding players with an all-round game. Petkovic hits as big a ball as Ma-Sha, and she moves better than her as well. With familiar woes on serve, Sharapova leaked errors with monotonous frequency. Petkovic, quite simply, clinically dismantled the Russian’s game, winning 2 and 3.
It was almost as though Ma-Sha saw a faster, more consistent version of herself playing against her in the Rod Laver Arena: Steve Jobs just invented a fourth generation iPod, while Ma-Sha was left listening to Linkin Park on her iShuffle.
Pencil in Petko’razzi for a final four appearance…
Interview Faux Pas 2: Roger and Jim
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Jim Courier is one of the most up-front interviewers around, and has developed a particular penchant for tricky questions. He does, though, seem to save his best for Roger Federer.
Last year, there were questions about diapers, marriage, Prince William and more. This year, he put Federer on the spot at 1:15 in the morning after a five-set thriller against Gilles Simon.
First he got the Swiss giggling like a schoolboy in a sweet shop, as they joked about how he felt at the changeover after the fourth set: “I’m loving every moment of it, having lost the last two sets!”
But then Courier’s made a rash attempt to question Federer over his match stats. “When was the last time you lost in the third round of a Grand Slam?” The answer was prompt and correct: Kuerten at the French in 2004, 6-4,6-4,6-4.
Courier countered that his research said it was 2003. Federer paused, gave Courier a look that would fell an oak, and retorted “I think you are wrong.” Courier quickly amended the question, but there was no way back.
The 20 questions continued after Federer’s fourth-round match, but this time the Swiss clockwork avoided answering at all, and so did the next Swiss interviewee, Stanislas Wawrinka, who kept things very brief indeed.
Watch out for the continuing Fed and Jim or—possibly—Stan and Jim cat-and-mouse chapter: coming soon to a screen near you.
Stan the Man
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Wawrinka is one of those under-the-radar players who has neither sought attention nor been accorded the limelight. At least that used to be case, until the new Wawrinka began to emerge from his shell in the second half of 2010.
He has for years been a formidable player, and sat inside the top 10 in the summer of 2008. Then he dropped, after a first-round loss at Wimbledon last year, to within a hair’s breadth of slipping into the 30s. That was when he took decisive action.
Wawrinka dropped his life-long coach in favor of one of Federer’s early mentors, Peter Lundgren, and he hasn’t looked back. Almost immediately, he reached his first Major quarterfinal at the U.S. Open and this year he has won only his third ATP title—his first on hard courts—in Chennai.
Already back to 19 in the rankings, he will climb still further after Melbourne, and the tennis world has been forced to sit up and take notice of the Swiss who has spent most of his career in the shadow of his illustrious compatriot.
And it’s all because Wawrinka has been playing the best tennis of his career since he arrived in Australia. He swept through the talented Grigor Dimitrov, Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick without losing a set, and now faces, for the fourth time in less than a year, that shadow-casting giant, Federer.
Wawrinka does not fit the usual tennis blueprint. Barely six feet tall, he is stocky and barrel-chested, but he has fast feet, great weight of shot and serve, and arguably the best backhand in the game wielded with one almighty right arm.
His signature shot may lack the wing-like sweep of Federer or Henin, but it is a thing of beauty, equally adept at firing cross-court or down the line with power, spin and precision. He simply takes his arm back and drives it through with uncomplicated vim.
What Wawrinka also has—since announcing at Christmas his intention to break into the top 10—is something new: a fitter, leaner body, a glint of intimidation and a roar of determination that is let loose with every winning backhand.
Against Roddick, it was a truly formidable combination: 24 aces and 67 winners. Against Monfils it was 11 aces and 57 winners—and these were not long matches.
Wawrinka has only beaten Federer once, on clay in the week of Federer’s wedding. But in just five months, “Stan the Man” has taken the scalps of Murray in New York, Berdych in Chennai and now Roddick and Monfils in Melbourne. He seems to have found his natural home—hard courts—and a new belief that he can beat anyone.
Now who saw that coming?
The Press Get Their Comeuppance
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Caroline Wozniacki may not yet have won a Major but she continues to carry the No. 1 ranking with some authority and with effortless charm.
Her fitness, tactical brain and solid tennis have carried her through to the quarterfinals without the loss of a set and not a single tie-breaker. And she endeared herself still more to her supporters when she turned the tables on the press after her third round win.
“Yesterday [the media] said that my press conferences were kind of boring, that I always gave the same answers. I find it quite funny because I always get the same questions. So I'm just going to start. I know what you're going to ask me already. So I’m just going to start with the answers.”
She proceeded to tell them how she felt, how she played, if she deserved to be No. 1, and how her new racket felt. She concluded:
“Now you can maybe give me some questions that are a little bit more interesting.”
She could have fallen flat on her face but in fact she handled the resulting questions with the deftest of touch. She was asked about playing cricket and baseball, about the appointment of Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, and about global warming. (“When you take a shower, don’t stay there for half an hour. Two minutes is enough. Even the girls.”)
She was asked about playing the piano, having her photo taken, and about marriage and having children: “First I have to find a guy.” It was all grist to the mill.
So Princess Caroline proved herself to be a credit to her No. 1 ranking and a gift for the media. Perhaps now they will treat her with a little more respect—though no doubt the pencils are being sharpened for a few curved balls at the next press conference.
Resurgent Men Storm the Draw
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With the likes of Nikolay Davydenko, Richard Gasquet, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Janko Tipsaravic in their segment, a fourth-round match-up between Fernando Verdasco and Tomas Berdych looked unlikely. Neither had set the world alight in recent months.
Verdasco had won only two matches in six tournaments since his quarterfinal finish at the U.S. Open. The loss of confidence seemed to ooze from every pore of his body, so the expectations were low from almost everyone but the man himself as he came into Melbourne.
This city is the site of the Spaniard’s greatest Major success: his semi in 2009 against Rafael Nadal. Perhaps it was the memory of that five-hour marathon that pumped up the chest and the self-belief. He shed the look of someone wearing a hair shirt—and shed some hair, too—in a return to the sharp look of his 2009 persona.
Melbourne, against the odds, saw him surge from a two sets deficit against the dangerous Tipsarevic to take a place in the fourth round.
Berdych, too, had lost his edge after an impressive leap into the top ranks of the men’s game last year.
After a semi showing in the French and a place in the Wimbledon final, the form of the towering No. 6 seed went walkabout in the latter stages of 2010.
Since those heady summer days, he had not won more than two matches in a tournament until Chennai earlier this month. Even there, he only managed to beat three unseeded men before losing in the quarters.
But talent will out, and Berdych lost just one set on his way to his fourth round test. Faced with a man he had beaten six times out of 10, and in every hard court match since 2005, Berdych switched on his tennis in impressive style, making only eight unforced errors against 32 winners. It proved to be an easy straight sets win.
Berdych joins the other men in the top six in citing aggressive tactics as his mantra. He is a big man with big shots who is moving and attacking better than ever.
It’s good to see the newest arrival in the top 10 melding the dual weapons of optimism and hard work so effectively. But he will need to marshal those skills well to counter the oil-smooth game of his next opponent, Novak Djokovic.
Records Made to Be Broken
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With Federer in the mix, there had to be a new record. The one on everyone’s lips will only come if he lifts the trophy on the very last day. He could become the only man in the Open era to win the Australian title five times.
There is a swollen river of talent yet to flow under the bridge before that can happen, so meanwhile he has to content himself with lesser milestones.
His win over Xavier Malisse took Federer past Stefan Edberg’s record tally of 56 matches played at the Open. Federer always lists the quiet, elegant Swede as one of his inspirations so his reaction to this record was eagerly sought by Courier: “It’s very nice, but he still stays my idol.”
Next came a record-equaling sequence of Major quarterfinals after beating Tommy Robredo for a place amongst the last eight. Only Jimmy Connors has also reached 27 in a row.
That imminent quarterfinal is, as it happens, shaping up to be the most fascinating of the four men’s matches to open Melbourne’s second week.
Federer plays compatriot Wawrinka in a first ever all-Swiss quarterfinal and has dominated their encounters.
But this is a Swiss No. 2 full of bullish attitude, energy and self-belief, and facing a Federer who has twice in his last four matches taken his hand off the tiller when he held the advantage.
Federer’s ultimate target, though, is that 17th Major and his fifth Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. Should he fail in his quest, he will end another formidable record. 2011 would become the first year since 2003 that he did not own a Major title.
From one record breaker to another—and the stunner of the opening week.
Standing Ovation: Take a Bow Francesca and Svetlana
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The record, to get the eye-popping stat out of the way, was the four and three-quarter hour, fourth-round match between Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both with French Open titles to their credit and both with refreshingly big personalities.
With Henin’s scalp in the bag and a perfect hard-court head–to-head against her good friend Schiavone, Kuznetsova looked ready to find the form that saw her in the top five for five years.
But her good friend, the Italian fire-cracker, has been revelling in the highest ranking of her 13th year on the pro tour. Twenty-four days into 2011 and it had the makings of the best women’s match of the year…
A couple of days after sending Henin packing, Sveta went into this match as a marginal favorite against the Roland Garros champion. No one could have predicted the plot lines of this thriller, however, least of all the two women involved.
As Schiavone scrambled to take the first set 6-4 in her vintage warrior style, Sveta quite simply outplayed the Italian in the second, hitting cold-clock winners. At her best, Sveta is indeed one of the purest ball strikers in the game, taking the ball early on the rise and from well inside the baseline.
As they went deep into the third, for once Rod Laver Arena played supporting act to Hisense’s Al Pacino act. News spread through Garden’s Square and every seat inside was filled to watch these champions in action.
“I was watching the clock,” Schiavone revealed. “I said to myself, ‘Brava, Francesca, you are tough physically.’ So it’s great for me, because I work to do this.”
The day morphed into twilight and Schiavone was serving second throughout the final set. As Sveta earned herself multiple match points (six of them), Schiavone time and again saved them by simply refusing to lose. She served for the match more than twice, only for Sveta to break back. As the crowd watched, the clock ticked past four hours. Two gladiators on top of their game refusing to cave in, exhibiting almost a pathological need to win.
At four hours and 44 minutes, Schiavone served for the match at 15-14 to eventually close it out as the basking sunset bathed Hisense.
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.
It belongs to the one who actually strives to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms and great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and at worst—if he fails—at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." (Theodore Roosevelt)
Phoenix From The Ashes
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She may have lost, but the altogether glorious personality of Kuznetsova was not quashed one iota when it came to her press conference. It began:
“This might make you feel better. You've earned over 15 million dollars in your career and Francesca has earned only seven. Have you ever done anything with your 15 million?
The reply was—well—suitably rigorous.
“What’s happened with you guys? I see Roger’s interview. You guys ask him what he does with his money.
We put under our couch, I sleep on it every day I think. I have 17 or I don't know how many, 15 million…It’s exactly what people think. We’re super rich and something like that. I’m talking now for myself...
You don’t realize how much we spend for the team. You don’t realize how much we pay for travelling, for hotels, for preparations…It’s really a lot expenses. I’m not going to do a computer math here for you: I’m not good at it…We’re not like soccer players…we pay everything…It’s not like I have under my couch 17 million. You can come and check though.”
But if her match with Schiavone and her handling of the press don’t win you over, Kuznetsova’s “tweet” after her loss will.
“Yeah, it hurts but whatever doesn’t kill you will do better for you. I was worried I’d gained 1 kg…I think I’ve lost it now!”
And that seems an appropriately upbeat, feisty, colorful way to conclude week one of the Major that is at once laid-back and leaping with joy, by turns vociferous in support of great fighters and dismissive of prima donnas, both knowledgeable of their sport and enthusiastic for the banter.
The quarterfinals and week two are just minutes away…and Melbourne could not be happier.