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.”
Behind the Blue Door: Tools of the Trade
Yesterday, the entrance. Today, a step inside. Those nuggets, tidbits and arcana you hear cited by our announcers? Those pithy graphics? They don’t fall out of the sky. Even when data can be summoned from the mind – from a past winner to the size of a stadium to the number of fizzy waters consumed at last year’s tournament -- it’s always best to double-check. And in the TV world, amid a live broadcast, it’s not so easy to hunt it down on the Internet. So here’s one of many tools that help our cause, the annual, jumbo-sized AO Media Guide. Yes, I have dozens of these in my office at home – years, tours, events. And yes, they are scattered, organized just well enough so that only I can find them. The spiral bounding makes it exceptionally functional. Delicious.
Matches of Intrigue
Naomi Osaka vs. Johanna Konta
Each of these two made a splash here a year ago. Osaka, then 18, was playing her first Grand Slam and had a nice run to the third round. Konta, also making an Aussie debut (but not her first Slam) had an even bigger breakthrough, going all the way to the semis, a result that jumper-cabled her ranking from 47 at the start of 2016 to ten by year’s end. Osaka, who nearly beat Madison Keys at the ’16 US Open, hits the tar out of the ball and will surely go higher in due time than her current rank of 48. Count on plenty of fiery rallies in this match.
But from my vantage point, another interesting aspect of this match pertains to the patriotism that’s often attached to the matter of player development. Though born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, Osaka has spent most of her life in Florida, but now plays under the Japanese flag. Konta, born in Sydney, Australia, relocated to Great Britain in her teens. My questions: Must player development be confined to a nation? Where truly are great players from anyway? What if player development was organized as a global endeavor, akin to the way the World Health Organization addresses illnesses? Call it the World Tennis Organization.
Serena Williams vs. Lucie Safarova
In the third round of the 2014 Australian Open, Lucie Safarova held a match point against Li Na. Hoping to close it out with her backhand, Safarova loaded, drove -- and missed long by three inches. Li won the match 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 and went on to win the title.
Three years later, Safarova is the one with the turnaround story. Tuesday, she fought off nine – yes, nine – match points to beat Yanina Wickmayer 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1. Safarova’s erasure of that many match points ties an Open era record.
But that level of existential freedom is only part of Safarova’s story. A year ago she was in the throes of a bacterial infection that made it nearly impossible for her to walk.
Her reward: Serena Williams. The last time these two met came in the 2015 French Open final, Safarova fighting hard in the second set to take it to a third before losing 6-3, 6-7, 6-2. Williams was reasonably formidable in her first round win over Belinda Bencic. But as much as Williams will attempt to control the agenda of this one, in many ways the story – win or lose – belongs to the plucky Safarova.
Around the Grounds
Novak, Wizard of Oz, Proclaims There’s No Place Like Home
After a frustrating last half of 2016, Novak Djokovic has declared himself emphatically in 2017. He won the title in Doha, beating Andy Murray in a sparkling final. In the first round of this year’s AO, he comprehensively dismantled Fernando Verdasco, the dangerous lefty who in Doha held five match points versus Djokovic.
Djokovic is trying to win a record seventh title. Right now he shares the mark of six with the Australian icon, Roy Emerson, who earned 12 Grand Slam singles titles, the same number Djokovic currently has.
Slam tallies are not all these two share. Like Emerson, Djokovic’s playing style is based heavily on fitness, movement and an overall smothering effect. In Emerson’s time, that meant relentless serve-volley tennis – on both serves. Djokovic, of course, launches his offense mostly from the baseline.
And while the diligent, relentless Emerson competed in the shadow of such breathtaking shotmakers as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, it’s been Djokovic’s fate to be compared to such dazzlers as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But make no mistake: Emerson and Djokovic have their own brilliance – the genius of sweat, toil and, most telling, supreme devotion to fitness. As was true for Emerson, Djokovic will leave no stone unturned in his quest for excellence.
A Lesson from Federer versus Rubin that you don’t need to be Roger to apply
Normally if you watch Roger Federer play, he’s the one providing the instruction. But in the case of Federer’s match versus Noah Rubin, Rubin’s the teacher here. Did the 20-year-old Rubin, a qualifier, think he could win this match? That might not even be the right question. As Rubin powerfully proved, winning is a desired outcome that may or not happen. But competing? That is something that can always be controlled. It was a vivid contrast to a match Federer played last year at Wimbledon versus another qualifier, Marcus Willis. That one was hard to take seriously, everyone from the crowd to even Willis himself treating it more like a lark than a competition. Rubin’s gestalt was entirely different. He brought his lunch pail and threw himself into battle. Not a bad lesson.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback
(big thanks to key source — “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 19: Last Tango in Melbourne for Johnny Mac
He was 32 years old on this day in 1992. Over the course of nearly five hours, the temperature in Melbourne would near 120 degrees. But John McEnroe would not be deterred. In the previous round he’d taken out defending champion Boris Becker. Now, in the round of 16, he stood across the net from a rough-and-tumble Spaniard, Emilio Sanchez. McEnroe won the first two sets, dropped the next two. Sanchez served for the match at 6-5, 40-love. But the Spaniard blinked, double-faulting and missing two groundstrokes. That was just enough for McEnroe to snap it up, 8-6 in the fifth – in what proved his final match win Down Under.