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.”
The 2017 Australian Open has been incredibly refreshing. Faster conditions – balls, surface – have tipped the tide more towards offense. Such defense-oriented players as world number one Andy Murray, as well as defending champs Novak Djokovic and Angelique Kerber, have been eliminated. Offense is carrying the day, somewhat more than it has in recent Grand Slam events. So it’s no wonder that such aggressive-minded veterans as Roger Federer – playing his first tournament since Wimbledon – and Venus Williams are marching through the draw. It’s plausible now to imagine these two finals: Venus-Serena, Federer-Nadal – a quartet and convergence of legends that last happened at Wimbledon, way back in 2008.
Matches of Intrigue
Coco Vandeweghe vs. Garbine Muguruza
Two slashing, streaky and powerful players tee it up in a match of wide potential. The hopeful scenario is that it’s a true heavyweight battle. Each can strike boldly and push the other into corners. The fear is that the nonstop offense each favors will trigger many odd shot selection decisions and a flurry of first-strike, staccato rallies and a big platter of unforced errors. Vandeweghe has shown both tenacity and maturity. Her serve – particularly when she kicks it – could be the portal to disrupting Muguruza.
It’s been nice to see Muguruza start to regain some of the form that earned her the French Open title last year. Through the last half of 2016, the likeable Spaniard competed quite nervously. But here in Melbourne, she’s largely been in control of her matches, including winning a brisk of 17 of 27 break points and 24 of 32 trips to the net.
Federer-Zverev: Two Great Stories – But Only One Can Continue
Roger Federer figures to relish the chance to play Mischa Zverev – a man playing completely differently than anyone in the entire tournament. Fancy this about Zverev: A year ago here, he lost in the final round of qualifying to Taylor Fritz. And besides joining forces with Denis Istomin to turn the tournament upside-down, the 29-year-old Zverev did it with a relentless attacking game we’ve not seen in well over a decade.
Once upon a time, nonstop serve-volleyers dominated tennis. Even as recently as the ‘90s, the surfaces were disparate enough to accommodate such frequent netrushers as Patrick Rafter, Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. The tactical flow of this match is fascinating. How will Federer respond to Zverev’s serve-volley? Chip returns? Rip returns? Will Federer even take a few returns and come in himself? Will he counter Zverev’s opportunistic returning by serving and volleying? Or, the X factor: Zverev’s fitness, be it the physical or the emotional in the wake of the run of his life.
Wondering and Wandering Around Melbourne
+ In Rip Van Winkle-like fashion, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni has reached her second Grand Slam quarterfinal – nearly 18 years after her first (she reached the Wimbledon semis in 1999). Traumatic family issues and injuries have played too big a role in this Croatian’s journey. To see her in the mix again is tremendous.
+ Always refreshing to see Aussie icons roaming the grounds. Yesterday on-site, saw Hall of Famers Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe. True to this nation’s playful spirit, each bears a nickname. The left-handed “Fraze” had one of the finest serves the game has ever seen. “Emmo” and his tally of 28 Grand Slam titles is the most won by any man in history – just three ahead of the 25 racked up by his buddy “Newk.” Here’s a photo of “Newk” alongside his fellow Australian TV colleague, Roger Rasheed, and myself.
+ Amid the many upsets and runs by such icons as Federer and the Williams sisters, Karolina Pliskova has been making her way through the draw. But while she conducts herself quite stoically, in her last two matches the 24-year-old Czech has faced ample drama. Saturday night, past midnight, Pliskova fought from two breaks down in the third to beat Jelena Ostapenko, 4-6, 6-0, 10-8. Monday evening, she took on Daria Gavrilova, the transplanted Russian who’s now an Aussie – and one who for the second year in a row has thoroughly enthralled her homeland. Between the recovery from the Ostapenko effort and playing in front of a crowd likely 99 percent opposed to her winning, it would have been easy to imagine Pliskova getting upset by the rather spunky Gavrilova. Nothing doing. In barely more than 20 minutes, Pliskova silenced the crowd and raced off to a 5-l lead. After 72 minutes, it was over, 12 aces and 27 winners earning her a 6-3, 6-3 victory.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback
(big thanks to key source -- “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 24: Pete Sampras Aces His Way Through Tears
The clinical efficiency of Pete Sampras’ game belied the deep passion that burned inside his soul. All of that came forward over the course of this incredible 1995 quarterfinal versus his friend and rival, Jim Courier. Earlier in the tournament, Sampras’ coach, Tim Gullikson, had been forced to leave Melbourne – the start of what would prove a fatal brain tumor. Rallying from two sets to love down, Sampras squared the match. “Win it for your coach,” yelled a fan early in the fifth. But Sampras was already well aware of the bigger picture – at this stage crying over Gullikson’s uncertain fate. The emotion was staggering – and so was the tennis. “We were both not missing much,” said Courier. Two minutes shy of four hours, Sampras closed it out, 6-3 in the fifth. Said Sampras, “We both showed a lot of heart out there.”
Joel Drucker is currently in Melbourne, working as a writer-researcher on Tennis Channel’s Australian Open production team. Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first started airing in 2003. Among his Tennis Channel activities: co-producer of the interview show, “Center Court with Chris Myers,” story editor-researcher for several “Signature Series” documentaries (most recently, “Barnstormers”) and work at all of the Grand Slam events since the network first began to cover the majors a decade ago. One of the sport’s preeminent writers, Drucker is also an historian-at-large for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.