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.”
Federer versus Berdych: Seems like old times
When the draw came out, it was clear that Roger Federer’s first true test would come in the third round versus Tomas Berdych. Here was Federer, in his first tournament, up against a powerful, forceful striker who’d beaten him six times – including twice at Slams.
It hardly mattered. Clinical, sparkling, displaying the routine kind of brilliance that no one now takes for granted, Federer swatted Berdych away like a fly, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. Federer’s numbers were exquisite: 40 winners to but 17 unforced errors (2:1 is a superb and rare ratio). Federer also cashed in four of five break points, never faced on his serve and won 20 of 23 points at the net.
His next opponent, Kei Nishikori, will pose a much different set of problems than Berdych. Berdych strikes the ball in a rather linear, flat manner – often with little backup tools. Nishikori is far more versatile, fast and able to mildly smother opponents with footwork and the occasional tactical surprise. Federer-Nishikori promises to be a fantastic match. Then again, at this stage of his career, Federer versus anyone is a delight to watch.
The View from the Inside
Welcome to our Tennis Channel Australian Open booth. That’s me on the right, flanked by play-by-play man, Bill Macatee, as Bill calls a match yesterday alongside one of our analysts, Lindsay Davenport. It’s a cozy and fun place to be. But it can also get a bit crowded. Inside the room there’s a stage manager, sound technician and camera operator. There are also other colleagues who’ve arrived – Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova and Justin Gimelstob -- preparing for their wave of matches. We traffic in lots of information, statistics, history and more – a constant criss-cross of tennis talk. A great place to dig into a match.
Matches of Intrigue
The best matches occur when both players know that the outcome will propel them each in significant directions. Such is the case for this mouth-watering generation gap battle between a titan and a potential titan. Having stumbled each of the last two years, 30-year-old Rafael Nadal knows he’s near the twilight of his career – and a match like this will show him exactly how close (or far) he truly is it. For his opponent, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev, morning has barely broken. But already, Zverev has shown more than fleeting signs of greatness – superb movement, power, versatility. In many ways, the 6’ 6” is playing the game of tomorrow, an athletic, powerful and nimble style that could take tennis to new levels. In their only previous meeting, in the 4th round of Indian Wells last year, Zverev reached match point, only to commit an error common to recreational players all over the world: He netted a makeable forehand volley. Now, well aware of Zverev’s prowess, how will Nadal best calibrate his longstanding defense with the need to take offense?
Wozniacki versus Konta
A variation on the same theme – experience versus ascent. But while more than a decade separates Nadal and Zverev, these two are but a year apart. Wozniacki was the precocious one, reaching the 2009 US Open final as a teenager. Konta is the late bloomer. Only last year, at age 24, did she make her Australian Open debut, going all the way to the semis. Konta’s playing style is largely based on sheer velocity, a game that works exceptionally well when her feet are organized and moving well – particularly since she can strike the ball both early and hard. The last few months have been a renaissance for Wozniacki. Ranked 74 coming into the US Open, the Dane closed out 2016 by winning 21 of her last 24 matches, including a semifinal run in New York and two titles. Wozniacki’s case is somewhat similar to Nadal’s. She has won often (but not as much as Nadal) on attrition. But that’s not enough, particularly versus someone as forceful and dialed-in as Konta. This too is also a first meeting, and figures to have many ups and downs – unless Konta can completely take the racquet out of Wozniacki’s hand.
Around the Grounds
The Man Behind the Trophy: Norman Brookes
Yesterday, it was ladies first and a bit on Daphne Akhurst. Today, meet the male on the trophy, Norman Brookes – or as he came to be called, Sir Norman Brookes. A crafty lefthander with a wicked serve, Brookes also hit the ball on the same side of the racquet for both his forehand and backhand. Brookes was the first non-Brit to win Wimbledon, taking the title in 1907, repeating in 1914. He only played for the championship of his homeland once, winning it in 1911 – and the doubles in 1924 at the age of 46 (even then, Aussies were superb teammates). Brookes died in 1968 at the age of 90.
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 21: Sister Act #1
It was the second round of the 1998 Australian Open. The older sister was 17 and just coming off a runner-up showing at the US Open. The younger sister was 16 and playing her first Grand Slam tournament. Thus began the incredible shared odyssey of Venus and Serena Williams – arguably the greatest story in sports history. In this case, birth order prevailed, Venus winning a tight first set in a tiebreaker, then dropping just one game in the second. Both conceded that the occasion was awkward – but also special. “Even though it was Serena,” said Venus, “I’m still a competitor.” Said Serena, “In the future we will be able to handle it even easier.” Five years later they’d meet in the final, Serena winning the first of an Open era record six Australian Open women’s singles