The View from Down Under
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.”
No better way to start than with a shot outside the newly opened statue honoring the man with a stadium that bears his name. Yes, that’s Rod Laver, a bit more stiff than in the days when he was whipping shots into all corners of the court. Then again, usually it’s only the great ones who get statues made and stadiums named. While the man nicknamed “Rocket” is unquestionably the greatest Aussie of them all, Laver’s comportment is such that he knows he is just one member of an incredible community of champions. As competitors, sportsmen and comrades-in-arms, no nation in tennis history brings the spirit of tennis to life better than Australia. Over the course of this fortnight, expect me to sprinkle in mentions of a few of Rod’s fellow legends, both homegrown and beyond.
Day One Intrigue: Coco Vandeweghe versus Roberta Vinci
Fascinating style contrast. Vandeweghe is the hammer, pounding away with her exceptional serve and powerful forehand. Vinci wields the stiletto, attempting to carve into the crevices with her slice backhand and all-court prowess. Though Vandeweghe has won two of their three encounters – including the most recent in the third round of Wimbledon last year – the 25-year-old American also hasn’t won a WTA match since last August, dropping her last five matches of 2016. But do three wins in Hopman Cup help Coco’s cause? Vinci began this year with a quarterfinal run in Brisbane. But at this stage of her career, this is the kind of match a maturing Vandeweghe should win. Still, the difference between these two is appealing and could likely trigger significant emotions and technical breakdowns from each.
Around the Grounds
As a Grand Slam tournament gets underway, the player dining area is the most crowded tennis cafeteria you can imagine. Tons of players, coaches, parents, agents, equipment reps clutter every possible table. The players are wound springs as they attempt to kill time and harness their energy for upcoming matches. All others are engaged in forms of support, commerce, friendship, acquaintance. But the room also evolves. As players tumble out of the draw, half vanishing every other day, more and more space opens up. By the last weekend, you can hear a pin drop.
Kerber Now The Hunted
Fascinating to see both Angelique Kerber and Roger Federer in action today. Who’d have thought 12 months ago they’d be where they are now? Kerber began ’16 ranked #10 – and in the first round of last year’s Aussie Open, faced a match point. But Kerber found new sources of strength in 2016, her distinct defense to offense combo backed by increased mental fortitude. Now, as the longstanding phrase goes, she goes from hunter to hunted. “You have to deal with everything, with the pressure, with all your commitments and everything around,” she said Sunday afternoon. “Thinking on court just how you would like to play, you know, not thinking too much about other things.”
Federer Family Values
As for Federer, seeded #17 here, how will it play out for him at this stage? His last Slam match came way back in the semis of Wimbledon, a five-set loss to Milos Raonic. There’s no doubt that Federer’s silky smooth technique has aided his longevity. But he’s now 35, an advanced stage for any tennis player – so will certainly benefit from a draw that features qualifiers in both the first and second round. At his pre-match press conference Saturday, Federer waxed as only he can: “It’s like an extended family to some extent anyway. You walk around here, it’s probably the same for you. You see faces you haven’t seen in a while. It’s just nice to see everybody again.” Believe me, having sat, watched and read press conference transcripts since the Reagan era, Federer’s thoughts – if not quite as eloquent as his tennis – are a refreshing contrast to the vast majority of tennis players.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback by Joel Drucker
(big thanks to key source -- “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 16: Fond Farewell for a Great Champion
2003: Last Aussie match for Monica Seles, who hurts her ankle early in the match and loses in the second round to qualifier Klara Koukalova 67, 75, 63. One of the great Aussie champions in tennis history, Seles won this title the first four times she played it. First came the three-peat from ’91-’93, including a win from match point down versus Mary Joe Fernandez in the ’91 semis and a riveting three-set final victory over Stephanie Graf in ’93. Then, exile from main street, Seles missing two Aussies while recovering from the horrific stabbing incident of 1993. In ’96, a successful return in ’96, Monica taking her fourth title. The grunt, the double-double-handed game, the off-the-charts intensity – there never was and there likely never will be a player like Monica Seles.