Hello from Melbourne, where over the next two weeks I’ll be deep in the thick of things with Tennis Channel’s Australian Open production team – in the booth with our announcers during matches, in the studio for our pre-game show and overall, embedded in bringing you our broadcast of the event Roger Federer has dubbed, “The Happy Slam.”
Plot Twist #1 – or, You Can’t Go Home Again
On my 15-minute morning walk to Melbourne, I always listen to music, songs randomly surfacing on my iPod. One that came up Thursday: Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge.”
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature
Indeed, Thursday at a major is often the time before the deluge. The first two rounds of a Grand Slam tournament are a fog of matches, scores, courts and names. But by the end of Thursday, a whopping 75 percent of each singles field will have been eliminated. But by Thursday afternoon this year’s Australian Open, there had yet to be that singular plot twist that sends the plot into motion; an event that signals that this is not merely scripted entertainment, but the realm of sport – one of the few areas in life where surprise is not a bad thing.
The man of the day was Denis Istomin, who toppled Novak Djokovic 7-6 (8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4. Technically sound, emotionally composed, it was clear throughout that Istomin wasn’t feeling the pressure Djokovic’s staggering resume – but instead, simply playing the ball. But yes, Djokovic had failed to press his advantage. Once he went up two sets to one, the six-time Aussie champ hardly pressed forward, playing rather passive, constricted tennis – and in the process, giving Istomin the chance to seize the day. Said Djokovic, “it’s one of these days when you don’t feel that great on the court, don’t have much rhythm, and the player you’re playing against is feeling the ball very well.”
Now, as day five begins, the plot is rich. Djokovic’s absence – his earliest exit at a major since Wimbledon ’08 – offers up tantalizing possibilities on the bottom half of the men’s draw. Start with Saturday’s third round generation gap match between the hungry veteran Rafael Nadal and the ascending Alexander Zverev. Further ahead, a possible fourth round match between the winner of Zverev-Nadal and, in all likelihood, the charismatic and increasingly disciplined Gael Monfils. Other notable contenders in the bottom half: big-serving Milos Raonic; Grigor Dimitrov, who appears to be regaining his form; and another man with a slick one-handed backhand, Dominic Thiem.
Though Jackson Browne likely wasn’t thinking about tennis, more lyrics from “Before the Deluge,” strike true:
And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge
Matches of Intrigue
Like Something Out of 1985: Jelena Jankovic versus Svetlana Kuznetsova
OK, a cheap joke in the direction of George Orwell. But 1985 was the year Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova were born. Now these two 31-year-olds meet for the 15th time (Jankovic leads 8-6, including taking the last two). How to best assess their careers? Jankovic finished 2008 ranked number one in the world, despite not winning a Grand Slam singles title. There was always a bit of the accidental tourist to her rise, a sense that Jankovic was more witness to her success than participant (a contrast to the full-bodied involvement of her fellow Serb, Ana Ivanovic). The good news was that Jankovic’s perspective made her a press room favorite, largely due to her somewhat goofy manner. The bad news was that Jankovic often came off so indifferent and remote that she hardly upgraded her game, soon enough hindered by a weak serve and mostly reactive playing style.
It’s been a different ride for Kuznetsova. There was the precocious 2004 US Open title run, Kuznetsova grabbing a Slam at the age of 19. But there have also been years in the desert, punctuated by tough losses from ahead, bad losses from the start and mild emotional tumult. And yes, five years after that first Slam, another at the 2009 French Open, a procession that included a win over Serena Williams. Surely after that, Kuznetsova would flourish. The next year she was ranked 27 in the world. By the end of 2012, down to 72 – mostly due to injuries, but who’d have imagined that by the end of 2016 Kuzy would be back in the top ten? Arguably the most versatile of the Russians (perhaps only behind the uber-mercurial Nadia Petrova), Kuznetsova has always played forceful, all-court, aggressive tennis. That she can still bring her share of heat at this stage of her career speaks well to her fortitude; and yes, sheer love of the game.
Launch Your Rockets: Jack Sock versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Has it really been nine years since Tsonga lit up Melbourne Park? Tsonga didn’t just reach the finals that year. He vaulted, blazing his way past the likes of Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal with everything from a livewire serve to blistering forehands and even deft drop volleys. Clearly, a star was born.
Well, not quite. And while the Frenchman has intermittently made a splash – such as when he rallied from two sets to love down to beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2011 – Tsonga at heart has been more of a recurring character than the romantic lead he was expected to be in the wake of that Melbourne run.
Now, at 31, the 12th-seeded Tsonga is the veteran, up against an American who wants to start his own Slam fire. Jack Sock is now 24 years old. Seeded 23rd here, Sock last week in Auckland claimed his second career singles title. Like Tsonga, Sock has an electric forehand and a darn good serve. Like Tsonga, he hails from a Grand Slam nation seeking a major champion. Tsonga’s won their only two matches, including a four-set win last year in the round of 16 of the US Open. How ready is Sock? And will fitness and health, often a tipping point for each, figure into the outcome?
From Present to Past
Presenting, Daphne Akhurst
Meet Daphne Akhurst, the woman whose name adorns the trophy awarded to the women’s singles champion. Akhurst won 14 titles at this event – 5 singles, 5 doubles, 4 mixed. Sadly, Akhurst died from medical complications resulting from a pregnancy at the age of 29. Coming soon: the man behind the men’s prize, Norman Brookes.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback
(big thanks to key source — “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 20: Morning Becomes Electric
It began just before midnight on a Saturday night in 2008. It ended at 4:33 a.m. Sunday morning – the latest finish in Grand Slam history. In between, incredible on-court drama from native son Lleyton Hewitt and the sharp-striking Cypriot, Marcos Baghdatis. Hewitt appeared to have matters wrapped up in the fourth when he led two sets to one and 5-1. But Baghdatis, Aussie runner-up just two years earlier, persistently brought exceptional passion Down Under. He rallied to take that set in a tiebreaker. But Hewitt countered, closing it out 6-3 in the fifth. Needless to say, a thoroughly spent Hewitt had nothing left for his next match, losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic.