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.”
Looking Back: A Day in the Life
My Tennis Channel day: as early as 6:00 a.m., our team is preparing for a bright, shining day of tennis – precisely up to the minute with scores of the prior day’s matches, previews of what’s to come, features of notable personalities. By 8:30, it’s time to meet with Martina Navratilova and talk about what’s to be discussed on our morning pre-game show. Call it the uber-contemporary, a veritable 787 flying across the televised tennis skies.
Then, back to the days when Australians trekked to Wimbledon in a ship. In a small room located in between Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena, several of us – producer Andrew Romero, myself and Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon – get up close with a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Australian icon Frank Sedgman. Number one in the world in 1951-’52, “Sedg” was the first of the great Aussies who kicked off this nation’s 25-year run at the top of the game. A superb volleyer, Sedgman was also extremely fit and strong, the latter the result of being likely the first tennis player to rigorously lift weights.
After Sedgman, back into the Tennis Channel booth with Navratilova, Paul Annacone and Bill Macatee, to see the arrival of the future. Coco Vandeweghe, long a promising American from San Diego, blossomed with a vengeance as she took out reigning French Open champ Garbine Muguruza, 6-4, 6-0 in a match that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. Having also beaten world number one Angelique Kerber, Vandeweghe has in consecutive rounds taken out the winners of three of the last four majors.
“It feels really good,” said Vandeweghe afterwards. “It's amazing to be in a semifinal. But, you know, not satisfying. I want to keep going, keep playing. There's more things to do out on a tennis court that I'm hoping to achieve.” In a rare move for a contemporary tennis player, Vandeweghe also credited a wide range of coaches for her development; not just her current coach, Craig Kardon, but others such as Guy and Harry Fritz, and two men who are no longer with us, Jackie Cooper and Vic Braden.
It was timely that Vandeweghe would cite Braden, as today it was announced that this summer Braden would be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF). A generous, wise and analytical man who had the rare ability combine humor and science, Braden died in 2014. He left a considerable legacy, including work on the barnstorming pro tour with Jack Kramer, the better part of the decade at an iconic club in Southern California, and the creation of the first tennis college. More about him as induction date nears.
Braden will be joined in the ITHF Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick, wheelchair champion Monique Kalman-van den Bosch and my Tennis Channel colleague, Steve Flink. These too I intend to explore in the coming months, both as players and people. As a start, a bit on Flink, a dear friend of mine since 1990 – and a man I’ve been reading since 1974. Few people in tennis have ever brought so much passion and engagement to the sport as Flink, particularly when it comes to grasping both the deep nuances of a match and the broader texture of the sport’s history. Fitting indeed that upon his induction being announced, Steve last night would take the court with a host of Hall of Famers – and earlier in the day, be congratulated by none other than one of the greatest of them all, Aussie maestro Ken Rosewall.
The circle continued: old-school netrusher Zverev – smoother than Roscoe Tanner but not as slick as that Aussie stiletto, Tony Roche – giving all he could against Roger Federer. Never surrendering court space versus Zverev the way Andy Murray had, Federer exposed the limitations of Zverev’s serve with harsh, dipped returns, repeatedly forcing him to scrape out low volleys and half-volleys. That is not the way a netrusher wants to take charge of the point. Zverev, Cinderella of this year’s Australian Open, wore an orange outfit that suggested he would soon be turned into a pumpkin. Swiftly, with all the precision the world has seen for years, Federer won the first set 6-1 in 19 minutes. Though Zverev fought harder in the second – even earning a break – Federer squeaked it out 7-5. The third was a formality, 6-2.
Watching Federer solve the problem of a netrusher – at least this middleweight version – had been sublime. The Federer view: bring me your netrushers, your baseliners, topspin, slice, offense, defense, power, movement. On and off the court, from eating ice cream in the player’s lounge, to posting videos of singing with his mates, to the sheer joy he’s shown on the court, Roger Federer – playing his first tournament since Wimbledon -- is once again showing a transcendental mastery of time.
Looking Ahead: Four Fine Quarters
Karolina Pliskova versus Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Yesterday, I compared Lucic-Baroni to Rip Van Winkle. She’s awakened, in the last eight of a major for the first time since her 1999 run to the final four at Wimbledon. Pliskova has been impressive. But of the five matches these two have played versus one another, Lucic-Baroni has won two. They’ve split their most recent matches, each going three sets. The thinking here is that Pliskova has had a productive mix of ease and challenge – and that will aid her ability to take charge of the rallies early and push back Lucic-Baroni. Still, if Lucic-Baroni can extend the points long, it could get quite dramatic.
Johanna Konta versus Serena Williams
A classic first matchup between contender and champion. Konta has been more on-message than a successful candidate, her groundstrokes repeatedly hard and deep. Her serve has improved. But while this stage of a major is still a brave new world for Konta – only her second Grand Slam quarterfinal – for Serena it’s familiar territory. As has often been the case in Williams’ career, the first week of a Slam is hardly an indication of what’s to come. While a good start for Konta is mandatory, at this stage it’s just incredibly hard to tell how Serena’s game will reveal itself.
Hey, American coaches, check out these eclectic playing styles. Pay attention to the delicate craftsmanship each brings, be it Goffin’s brisk and efficient groundstrokes, to Dimitrov’s elegance and shotmaking skills. Though they haven’t played one another in more than two years, Dimitrov has won all four of their prior matches. Goffin followers would have more cause for optimism had this match taken place six months ago. Back then, Dimitrov was searching for form. But he’s since regained it, and has been playing quite well in Melbourne.
Rafael Nadal versus Milos Raonic
This is one of those matches that will have significant implications for either player. For the third-seeded Raonic – who beat Nadal earlier this month in Brisbane – it’s a chance to make a major statement about his place among the game’s elite. For Nadal, it’s all about redemption and making his way back to the semis of a major for the first time since the 2014 French Open. Of today’s four matches, this one offers the most vivid contrast, with Raonic out to shorten the rallies, Nadal keen to lengthen them. Intriguing subplot: Carlos Moya, now on Team Rafa, was previously with Team Raonic. Fascinating to see what insights Moya will bring to this matchup.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback
(big thanks to key source -- “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 25: Third Time the Charm for Li Na
Li Na had previously reached two Australian Open finals, losing to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and Victoria Azarenka two years later. In 2014, the woman from China reached the finals the hard way, fighting off match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round. opponent this time, fiery Dominika Cibulkova, who’d taken out Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. It was estimated that in China, nearly 20 million people watched the match. After a tight first set, Li Na took control, closing it out, 7-6, 6-0.