WASHINGTON, January 21, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
What a first week it’s been for the 2018 Australian Open down under. Roger Federer has coasted through his first three matches – all under the night skies on Rod Laver Arena – looking confident and, it seems, without hardly breaking a sweat. Others, like Novak Djokovic, while looking rejuvenated from his six-month respite to heal his injured right elbow, has been put to quite the test thanks to playing under some awfully brutal heat during the thick of daytime. Finally, if her 64-minute 6-1, 6-3 win over Maria Sharapova Saturday night was any indication, No. 21 seed Angelique Kerber is back with a chance of repeating her 2016 AO championship run and chasing after the World No .1 ranking.
As the “Happy Slam” has reached its midway point, many of the favorites to win the first Grand Slam of the year all remain alive, including both No. 1 seeds, Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep. Men’s No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov has been strong if not resilient and women’s No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki pretty solid. We’ve witnessed some upsets that have knocked out some of the top seeds along the way, including No. 4 Alexander Zverev for the men and No. 3 Garbiñe Muguruza for the women. And, there’s been some nice surprises, too. For me, it was seeing 15-year-old Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, the reigning Australian Open junior champion, whose singles ranking coming into the AO was 522nd. Kostyuk looked poised and played well beyond her years in winning two rounds, and she became the youngest since Martina Hingis in 1996 to reach the third round at the AO before losing to countrywoman and No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina.
However, one need only look to Saturday afternoon’s opening match on Rod Laver Arena between the women’s World No. 1 Halep and her formidable opponent, Lauren Davis, in what turned out to be simply great tennis theater, and what one writer described as “courage over cowardice in a golden set.”
Halep saved three match points during an incredible, 28-game third set that lasted more than two hours, and on her fourth attempt, she finally served out a match that neither she nor Davis – or the fans who packed RLA for this third-round match – will soon forget. Halep won 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 in three hours and 45 minutes. Thank goodness, after two days of oppressive heat, Halep and Davis played under partly cloudy skies and a 24º C (76º F) temperature.
As it happened, the third set was a golden one that kept on giving. As the final set progressed, the Halep-Davis battle easily turned into the match of the tournament; arguably, it was a classic, and although Davis was facing a reigning World No. 1 for the first time in her career, the 24-year-old American played like a Grand Slam veteran. She showed much poise, was fleet-footed in her movement about the court, mixed her shot selection nicely – combining power with grace – and controlled her risk. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Halep from Romania, who has twice reached a Grand Slam final (both times at the French Open) but has never won a Grand Slam singles title, relied on a mostly baseline attack filled with power. However, as it was noted by some, Halep was missing slice.
With three match points for in Davis’ favor, Halep went from 10-11 love-40 to hold 11-11. Mind you, the plot of this match, which was already pretty heavy in drama, thickened when Davis called for a trainer and received a medical time out – the first of what turned out to be two. From what it appeared after Davis removed her shoe, and what I heard Tennis Channel’s broadcast team of Bill Macatee and Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova discuss on the air, the MTO was because of a toe nail issue. Ouch!
As I became more and more interested in all of the plot twists, I thought to myself – and later tweeted: Somebody finally has to win, right?
In this insane but exciting match, finally, after wasting three previous chances at serving out the match, Halep converted on her first match point as Davis hit one final forehand wide of its mark. The third set clocked at two hours and 28 minutes. Whew!
After this roller-coaster of a match, an exhausted but relieved Halep noted: “Definitely was a very tough match, so long. I never played the third set so long, so I’m really happy I could stay and win it. I’m almost dead.
“I just feel that my muscles are gone. My ankle is, I don’t know how it is because I don’t feel it anymore, but it was nice to be on court. I was nice to win this match.”
The Australian Darren Cahill, who is splitting his time between the broadcast booth as an analyst for ESPN’s North American broadcasts and as Halep’s coach, told The New York Times “she’s battling out every single match. Whoever won that match, I thought it was a minor miracle to go through the ups and downs of that, the roller coaster. I said to her, ‘I’m not sure I’ve sat through a more emotional tennis match, in all my years of coaching.'”
Some other AO thoughts:
• The first week of the Australian Open included both some very short matches (a 41-minute second-round win for American Madison Keys) and a few long ones, too (back-to-back five-set, 4 hour 2 minute matches for Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri). For a couple of days, on Thursday and Friday, it also became a battle of survival on the court for the players as they struggled to play through the summer Australian heat. As I see it, AO tournament officials should be asking themselves: At what temperature is it no longer safe for players to compete?
Indeed, it was extreme for the players as they struggled to keep their liquid levels at a safe level. It wasn’t tennis as it should be. It was about survival. When you look at Gaël Monfils struggling against Djokovic during Thursday’s second round and Kyle Edmund, who survived a five-set, near four-hour third-round match on Friday against Nikoloz Basilashvili, when temperatures exceeded 40º C for a second straight day, it included some of their worst games of tennis. And yet, we should applaud the players for their survival instinct that got them through as their games were evaporating, both through defeat (Monfils) and victory (Edmund). For each, I’m sure, the finish line couldn’t come quick enough.
• Say what you will about some of Nike’s AO color choices for its players’ kits, but if you look closely, that’s the iconic Flinders Street Station displayed on Roger Federer’s black and pink Nike kicks that he’s been sporting during the AO fortnight.
• Christopher Clarey, the excellent New York Times tennis columnist who has been coming to Melbourne for the past 25 years, came upon a really strange-but-true fact about World No. 1 Rafael Nadal that he shared with his Twitter followers: “With Diego Schwartzman next, Nadal will have played 15 straight matches in Grand Slams against players not ranked in the Top 25.” Later, he clarified his original tweet: “Just to make it clear, this is not a critique of Nadal; not his fault. He has beaten plenty of great champions and worked his way through many brutal draws. It is just interest and surprising and thus tweetable.”
• Japan’s Naomi Osaka gave what Australian Open organizers called a “very classy interview after a very classy performance” following her 6-4, 6-2 third-round win over Aussie No. 2 Ash Barty, seeded 16th on Saturday. Said Osaka: “I feel really happy but kind of sorry, because I know all of you wanted to Ash to win!”
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.