It’s Going To Be A Long (Or Short) Fortnight For U.S. Players And Fans, Depending Upon One’s Point Of View

WASHINGTON, January 16, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

What a difference a year’s made for Venus Williams. Last year, the 37-year-old Williams lost to her younger sister, Serena, in the women’s singles final. However, Serena did not return to defend her 2017 title after giving birth to her first child last September, leaving Venus to carry on the family legacy. On Monday, the elder Williams lost in the found round to Belinda Bencic, 6-3, 7-5, in Rod Laver Arena. It was her first loss to the 20-year-old Bencic in five head-to-head meetings.

Of note, Bencic, who recently teamed with Roger Federer to win the Hopman Cup for Switzerland, lost to Serena Williams in the first round in 2017. However, despite the fate of this year’s draw, Bencic made the most of her opportunity and received tremendous applause for her effort after her victory on Monday.

“Honestly, the first reaction of everyone was, ‘Oh, bad luck,'” she said. “But of course, it would be nice to play somebody easier first round and get your rhythm a little bit.” 

The Australian Open “Live Blog” included a quote from Bencic that very nicely summed up her feelings: “It’s amazing. When I was a little girl, I was watching them on TV. I never thought I’d get a chance to play them.”

• On Monday, within the first four hours of the start of this year’s AO, Venus Williams was one of six U.S. women – including three seeds – to lose in the first round. The U.S. women went on to finish with a disappointing 1-9 on opening day. Exiting with Williams were No. 10 seed CoCo Vandeweghe, who lost to Timea Babos, 7-6 (4), 6-2; reigning U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, seeded 13th, who lost to Zhang Shuai, 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 after serving for the match leading 5-4 in the second set; and unseeded Sofia Kenin, Alison Riske and Taylor Townsend. Later on, the losses kept piling up as Catherine “CeCe” Bellis, Jennifer Brady and Irina Falconi all bowed out in the opening round. Only Nicole Gibbs, ranked 109th, kept the U.S. women from being shutout.

• The U.S. men didn’t fare much better on Monday as they went 2-3, with victories by Ryan Harrison and Mackenzie McDonald. However, both No. 8 seed Jack Sock and No. 16 seed John Isner were upset victims. Sock lost to 41st-ranked Yuichi Sugita, 6-1, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3, while Isner fell to 80th-ranked Matthew Ebden, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. The other American casualty among the men was Kevin King.

However, on Tuesday afternoon, No. 13 seed Sam Querry, the highest-ranked American man or woman left in this year’s tournament, advanced with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Feliciano Lopez.

News and notes:

• No. 9 seed Jo Konta was solid in her 6-3, 6-1 win over Madison Brengle on Hisense Arena, needing just 66 minutes to advance. The 2016 AO semifinalist fired eight aces in placing 71% of her first serves in play, resulting in 24 first-serve points, and hit 37 winners. Konta outpointed Brengle 67-43.

“I’m really happy to have played in front of this crowd,” said Konta, during an on-court interview after her victory. “I’ve had some of my best results here. … I’m really excited to come back on Thursday.”

Konta’s second-round opponent is American lucky loser Bernarda Pera, who won her first Grand Slam main draw match over Anna Blinkova, 6-2, 6-2.

• No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova advanced in straight sets over Veronica Cepede Royg, 6-3, 6-4 in Tuesday’s first match on Rod Laver Arena as she hit 28 winners and outpointed her opponent 75-68 over the course of the 1 hour and 32 minute match.

• In her first match since an injury retirement in Brisbane two weeks ago, No. 8 seed Carolina Garcia won over Carina Witthoeft, 7-5, 6-3, to open play on Margaret Court Arena. Next for Garcia is 18-year-old Marketa Vondrousova, who advanced over Kurumi Nara, 7-5, 6-4.

No. 16 seed Elena Vesnina advanced over Ons Jabeur, 6-3, 6-4 in just 71 minutes.

• No. 21 seed Angelique Kerber, who won the Sydney International title earlier this month, advanced with a convincing 6-0, 6-4 win over Anna-Lena Friedsam.

• No. 29 seed Lucie Safarova needed just 86 minutes to advance over wild card Ajla Tomljanovic, 7-5, 6-3. She could face Pliskova in the third round.

• Unseeded Maria Sharapova advanced with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Tatjana Maria in 78 minutes on Margaret Court Arena in their first career head-to-head. Sharapova finished with 22 winners and won 22 of 29 (76%) of her first-serve points. She could face Kerber in the third round.

• Unseeded Fernando Verdasco hit 41 winners and took out last week’s Auckland champion and fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, 6-1, 7-5, which ended the 20th-seeded RBA’s first-round Grand Slam winning streak at 20. Verdasco’s next opponent is Maximilian Marterer, who beat fellow German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4. It was Marterer’s first tour-level win in his 15th match.

• Despite serving 36 aces and hitting 80 winners, No. 22 seed Milos Raonic fell in the first round to Lukas Lacko, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in a 3 hour and 23 minute battle on Show Court 2. Lacko won 80 % (73 of 91) of his first-serve points and hit 65 winners. He outpointed Raonic 155-152.

• Nike, which sponsors some of the biggest names in tennis, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Grigor Dimitrov. The AO kit that Nike debuted at Melbourne Park on Monday for many of its players, such as Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov and Dimitrov, has been likened by critics as resembling licorice allsort candy. Its pink and black colors are bold and liked by some, but not surprisingly it has put Nike on the defensive with critics and fans.

On Monday, Nike addressed the issue of the colorful kits in a press release, saying it chose pink as its statement color in order to enable players an “eye-catching aesthetic” and “grab the viewer’s attention.” According to Sam Shipley, the apparel design director for NikeCourt, “the challenge of designing for a quick impression is creating a simple, but instantly recognizable and bold design.”

Meanwhile, Nadal revealed a retro look for his Monday night match in Rod Laver Arena – a light-colored, sleeveless shirt with black accents that flashed his biceps, coupled with pink shorts and a pink bandana-style headband.

What they are saying:

• Nick Kyrgios, after his first-round win over Rogerio Dutra Silva on Monday: “Obviously very nervous going out there, first match of the Aussie Open. I knew today I was facing a tough competitor. I’m riding confidence from Brisbane, and happy to be in front of you guys and playing well.”

• Matthew Ebden of Australia, after beating John Isner on Margaret Court Arena: “It’s a great buzz. To play at home gives me so much motivation and intensity. It’s unbelievable, thank you.”

• Tennis Channel commentator and Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova: “You should be gutted after losing a match.” She said this on Tuesday morning in response to the happy-go-lucky attitude expressed by U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in her post-match presser after losing in the first round.

• Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis columnist, commenting on his tennis wish list for 2018, which includes a ban on opponents wearing the same outfit: “Sponsors might like the double opportunity to showcase their wares, but tennis has enough television challenges without viewers having to struggle to figure out who is who in a match.”

• ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert on the tepid applause Maria Sharapova received walking out on Margaret Court Arena for her first AO match in two years following her drug suspension: “Maria is one of those people who is only concerned with winning matches. She doesn’t care what other people think. I think she is the most accomplished player remaining in the women’s draw. She’s 47th (ranked) on paper, but she has a legitimate shot at winning this title.”

What they are tweeting:

• Belinda Bencic (@BelindaBencic) – Coming to your hotel after all day of tennis:

*enters room*

*turns on tennis on TV*

*puts bags down*

*lies on bed*

*watches more tennis*

• Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova): The Aussie summers get so warm, during which the body can lose over a liter of water an hour! Crazy, right?! Always making sure #Evian is by my side throughout the day. On or off the court.

• Sports Illustrated tennis writer (@jon_wertheim): In the all-Santana match, it’s Maria/Maria (Sharapova ranked 48 versus Tatiana, ranked 47.)

• Karolina Pliskova (@KaPliskova): I’ve decided to contribute to a good cause. During the Australian Open I will donate through my endowment fund 100 USD for each ace to help children with oncological diseases. Keep your fingers crossed for me! Im really looking forward to this season’s first Grand Slam.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.