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.”
Nadal -- Biggest Win Since ’14 Roland Garros
It likely won’t be remembered as a classic, but yesterday’s five-setter between Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev was incredibly meaningful. For Zverev, it was less a heartbreaking loss – after leading two sets to one, he won just five more games – than an edifying one. In the end, it was Zverev’s fitness that betrayed him. This become most notable when, after winning a 37-shot rally in the fifth set, the 19-year-old German began to cramp. A match that featured many brilliant, highly physical and versatile points – between them the two came to net 58 times – ended less dramatically than had been anticipated. Zverev had fought, but Nadal had fought harder.
Nadal knew precisely what this win had meant to win a long match versus a young challenger. “For the confidence, for a lot of things, are very important to win these kind of matches, no?” he said after the match. “I lost the last couple of ones, matches in the fifth. I worked a lot during all December to have the chances to compete well in these kind of moments.”
It has been a long time of frustration for Nadal. This was his most meaningful win in more than two years – going back to his victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2014 Roland Garros final. Next up, Gael Monfils, a man who’s been dangerously quiet this tournament.
Worry not for Zverev. His playing style is the game of tomorrow – smooth, powerful, playing a new brand of all-court offense. It will also be interesting to see how he improves his skills in the front part of the court. As many openings as Zverev creates he’ll surely want to become more deft with his volleys.
Whipping out the wayback machine, head back to the fourth round of the 2005 Australian Open, when a touted and talented teen took a two sets to lead over a tenacious icon, Lleyton Hewitt. But after surrendering the fourth in a tiebreaker, the prodigy grew weary. After he dropped the final set, 6-2, he admitted, “Yes, I have cramps, yes.” The speaker: Rafael Nadal.
Matches of Intrigue
Friday came a clinical dissection, Roger Federer dismantling Tomas Berdych with ease. Nishikori creates a very different problem. Berdych is a rather linear player, mostly adept at pounding the ball with one pace and the same targets. Nishikori, if arguably less powerful than Berdych, is far more consistent and skilled with his defense. Able to hunker down and force his opponents to hit yet one more ball, Nishikori is very much the embodiment of contemporary tennis – forceful defense. So look for Federer to haul out a wide range of tactics. In his first three matches here, Federer is 60 of 76 at the net. Figure on seeing more of that, Federer making his way there in all sorts of ways, be it his laser-like forehand or wisely timed drop shots. This match is also when where, presumably, all the road work Federer has done while off the tour will pay off. Or will it? Surely Nishikori will try to break down Federer’s legs. And Federer will seek to win the battle of court space.
Despite making 25 unforced errors in the third set of her match versus Genie Bouchard on Friday, Coco Vandeweghe was able to rally from 2-4 down in the decider and squeak out a victory. Kerber, up against Kristyna Pliskova, won rather handily, 60, 64 – her first straight set win of 2017.
An interesting question this match poses: What is an athlete? Everything from Vandeweghe’s superb service motion to big forehand and aggressive mindset gives off the vibe of what I’ll call “the apparent athlete” – strength, power, coordination. Vandeweghe can easily be compared to such other jock talents as Samantha Stosur and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. When the parts are in place, look out.
As for Kerber, there are club players with better service motions. Her brand of aggression is less forthright and more of a teeter-totter, Kerber scampering – and then launching. In large part, Kerber is an initiator, masquerading as a counterpuncher. Kerber’s movement – particularly East-West – is superb, as is her hand-eye coordination. She’s a different kind of athlete than Vandeweghe – less obvious, but more disciplined in everything from footwork to shot selection.
Around the Grounds
Homage to Aussie
One lesser-known aspect of what makes this tournament so great: The deep passion the Australians have for tennis. Even more telling is the way they share it, constantly looking for ways to bring their knowledge and work ethic to players (of just about any skill level) everywhere they go. This extends across generations. In a three-minute span in the player dining area yesterday, there was a criss-cross of notables. Here was Hall of Famer Tony Roche, former coach of the likes of Ivan Lendl, Patrick Rafter and Roger Federer. Then there was Bob Brett, one-time corner man for Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and Marin Cilic. Brett’s now spending 25 weeks a year helping players in Japan work their way up the ranks. He was soon joined by Roger Rasheed, whose charges have included Lleyton Hewitt, Gael Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov. Others floating around – Mark Woodforde, John Fitzgerald, Patrick Rafter, John Newcombe, Fred Stolle, Ken Rosewall and, of course, Rod Laver. Those are just a few of the Aussies who populate this tournament – and the entire traveling tennis circus. They are court rats of the highest order, accessible, forthcoming, unpretentious, inclusive. No other nation has done a better job at discarding the isolationist aspects of an individual sport and persistently and kindly building a community.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback
(big thanks to key source -- “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 22: The Battle of 2119
America’s next great hope, 20-year-old Andy Roddick, had made his way into the top ten but had yet to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal. On this evening in 2003, he got there the hard way. His opponent was a skilled shotmaker, Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui. Down two sets to one, Roddick won the fourth 6-4. By this time the match had gone briskly, not even two and a half hours long. Then came the marathon, Roddick and El Aynaoui slugging it out deep into overtime. Down 4-5, Roddick saved a match point. With Roddick seeking to close it out at 11-10, El Aynaoui broke back. At last, at 19-all, Roddick earned the decisive break and soon reached the first of what would prove four Australian Open semis. “I don’t ever remember talking to Younes before this match,” said Roddick. “But down the line, I mean, we could see each other ten years down the line and know that we did share something special.”