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.”
Matches of Intrigue
American Reilly Opelka: Grand Slam debut vs. David Goffin
A year ago, Reilly Opelka was ranked 981 in the world. He’s since soared to 208 and this past week won three matches in the Australian Open qualifying to earn his first spot in the main draw of a major. One inch shy of seven feet tall, the 19-year-old Opelka is an impressive player. As you’d expect, the serve is off the charts. But as one notable coach told me last weekend, “the volleys are very nice.” Opelka’s fellow tall American, John Isner, has also noted that he is significantly better than Isner was at that age. Opelka’s Slam debut comes versus a man one foot shorter than him, 11th-seeded David Goffin. It’s a fascinating contrast between Opelka’s thunder and potential versus Goffin’s experienced, toothpick-by-toothpick way of assembling points. Figure on at least one tiebreaker.
Samantha Stosur vs. Heather Watson
Two players who well know what it means to have a nation hang on your every swing. It sure seems longer than five years since Stosur won the 2011 Australian Open – one of but eight career singles title she’s earned. And alas, in 14 prior appearances at her homeland Slam, Stosur’s best effort has been just two trips to the fourth round. Last year she lost in the first round.
As for Watson, in 24 prior Slams, she’s never gone past the third round – but can often play and comport herself with a certain level of positivity that often eludes Stosur. A good start versus a nervous Stosur could well stir things up quite a bit.
Around the Grounds
One big reason why this is called “The Happy Slam” has to do with the attitude of the natives – friendly, kind, often quick with a smile and just about always ready to enjoy themselves. It’s summer here, with temperatures expected today to soar past 35 degrees Celsius – or what we call “triple-digit.” But that hardly fazes the locals. In many ways, the Australian Open is a big party with a sporting event attached to it.
Spotting Hall of Famers
Fun as always to see such accomplished players as American legend Michael Chang and Aussie southpaw Tony Roche. Each of these gents earned one singles Slam title – Roland Garros. Showing how tennis keeps changing, Chang’s ’89 title was largely won with his gritty baseline game. For the last few years, Chang has brought his massive tennis brain to Kei Nishikori. Roche, who’s coached such world number ones as Ivan Lendl, Roger Federer, Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt, earned his in ’66 with stellar all-court prowess. Here’s a photo of yours truly with “Rochey” and my Tennis Channel colleague, Martina Navratilova – two stylish lefties, owners of the two best backhand volleys in tennis history. It was taken last year in Melbourne at the annual “Australian Legends Lunch,” a festive gathering of Aussie icons.
Serena: Most Mysterious Ever?
Has there ever been a tennis player who generates more mystery than Serena Williams? How ready is she for this tournament? Can we tell anything after only one match? “I always go in every off-season trying to improve pretty much everything all around,” she said on the Saturday prior to the start of the tournament. “There's things that I definitely focus on more than others. But for the most part. . . I don't really talk about those things. For the most part I go off, try to do better in a lot of things.” And yet, words melt into air once Williams starts playing. That’s particularly been the case Down Under. More than any of the four majors, this has been the one where Williams has made emphatically redeemed herself. On two occasions – ’03 and ’05 – she has won the tournament after facing match points. Ten years ago, she arrived here ranked #81 and stormed through the field. Since then, three more triumphs. Today she starts her quest to regain the title she lost last year to Angelique Kerber. Who’d have thought that first Slam for Kerber would trigger a changing of the guard at the top?
And Now, The Answer
The answer to the first question above might well be: Rafael Nadal. Though in a much different way than Williams, Nadal too arrives in Melbourne wrapped in a perceptual fog – that is, the uncertainty even he’s admitted to when it comes to his physical state and how it affects his state of mind. No one who’s ever seen Nadal play should be surprised that his body is so wracked by pain. This has been the case since Nadal’s teens. The culprit unquestionably is Nadal’s technique – even down to the uphill effort of a natural righty playing left-handed. Last year, Nadal lost in the first round to his fellow Spaniard, Fernando Verdasco. Added to Team Rafa: fellow Mallorcan and longstanding friend, Carlos Moya. As always, trust and comfort mean everything for Nadal. “I know [Moya] wants the best for me,” said Nadal this past Sunday. “He knows my personality, he knows my game, too.” Nadal’s opponent today is the veteran Florian Mayer – less physical, but a bit tricky on the tactical front. Though Mayer throw in a few wrinkles, Nadal should get through this quite smoothly. The bigger challenge will come soon enough: a possible third-round matchup versus Alexander Zverev.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback
(big thanks to key source -- “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 17: The Many Lives of Martina Hingis
When all is said and done, it will be clear that Martina Hingis has had more tennis lives than a cat. By age 18, she’d already won three straight Australian Open singles titles (’97-’99). In 2017, now 36 years old, Hingis is a superb doubles player, finishing 2016 ranked #4 in the world. On this day in 2006, Hingis returned to Grand Slam singles action for the first time in more than three years, her clever, versatile and balanced game helping her earn a 6-1, 6-2 win versus 30th-seeded Vera Zvonareva. “I could already feel the atmosphere coming from the previous years,” said Hingis. She’d go on to reach the quarters – and repeat that effort a year later