MELBOURNE, January 19, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Saturday’s Australian Open third-round match-up between No. 4 seed Naomi Osaka of Japan and giant killer Su-wei Hsieh of Taiwan on Margaret Court Arena provided a good test to see how far Osaka’s temperament and skill level have improved since she won last summer’s U.S. Open title over Serena Williams. It didn’t start well for Osaka.
In No. 28 Hsieh, Osaka faced an opponent who plays smart and excels during extended rallies. Uncharacteristic anger from Osaka – she threw and kicked her racket, earning a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct at the end of the first set, which she lost 7-5 – didn’t help. Neither did the abundance of unforced errors, which piled up against Osaka – 20 of her match total 42 came in the opening set.
However, once she found her focus and resolve, Osaka became a completely different player. It came just in time during the second set, which she won 6-4. Then, she broke Hsieh in the first and fifth games of the third set to take a commanding 4-1 lead, and finished strong by winning 11 of the final 12 games. Talk about a shift in momentum. The result was a remarkable come-from-behind 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 win for Osaka for her 10th consecutive Grand Slam victory, and it advanced her into the fourth round at the Australian Open for the second straight year.
Hsieh, who came in with a 3-18 lifetime win-loss record against Top 10 opponents – and 3-8 lifetime vs. Top 10 at Grand Slams – left the court with another disappointing loss to reflect upon. Early in the match, down 4-5, Hsieh strung together six consecutive games to win the opening set and jumped ahead 3-0 in the second. Things were looking promising for her.
It prompted French tennis writer Carole Bouchard to tweet, “Hsieh doing such a great job at giving zero speed to her shots. Killing Naomi’s timing and brain.”
Hsieh loves to torment big hitters, which she did against Osaka, hitting 28 winners –12 in the first set. With Hsieh ahead 7-5, 4-1, New York Times tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg offered this assessment when he tweeted, “I’ve seen Hsieh play a lot of absurd, mind-boggling ball in the last year, but this may be the best yet. No dip in focus or creativity at any point. Pin point accuracy on the most effortless looking shots.”
The 33-year-old Hsieh’s unorthodox, two-fisted hitting style from both wings flummoxed Osaka, time and again, in the early going. She did a tremendous job of not only keeping the ball in play, but also hitting it to areas on the court and with a different kind of spin and pace that frustrated Osaka and kept her off balance.
However, after nearly losing her mind and spirit, Osaka rebounded in time to capture the final three games of the middle set, thanks to a service winner on set point. Then, she took off in the final set and exhibited some nice problem solving ability on the sun-drenched court. By the end of the one hour and 57 minute match, Osaka had made a complete turnaround. She finished with 41 winners and outpointed Hsieh 102-89.
“I just love playing tennis,” Osaka expressed during her on-court interview following her win. “I have fun every time I play.
“I really love Grand Slams, so anything that I can do to stay here a bit longer, I try to do.”
Next, Osaka will play No. 13 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, who defeated No. 21 seed Qiang Wang of China, 6-3, 6-3. Sevastova is back in the Australian Open round of 16 for the first time since 2011.
Meanwhile, across Melbourne Park on Rod Laver Arena, No. 40 Shuai Zhang of China garnered plenty of attention as she took the opening set from favored No. 6 seed Elina Svitolina of the Ukraine, winning 6-4. However, the 2018 WTA Finals winner Svitolina rebounded to win the second set by an identical score. It set up a best-of-one set battle that saw the momentum shift back and forth. When it ended with Zhang committing an unforced error, it was Svitolina who prevailed in the final set 7-5 to move on with a hard-fought 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory in two hours and 55 minutes.
After she won, Svitolina danced a celebratory jig on her side of the court, let out a primal scream, and blew kisses to the crowd, which included French player Gaël Monfils sitting in her box. On the other side of the net, Zhang, exhausted and emotionally spent, covered her face in her towel and had a big cry. It was the kind of match that you hated to see either player lose. Then, Svitolina showed a display of wonderful sportsmanship when she went and sat down with Zhang at her chair for a brief chat to make sure she was alright.
Svitolina finished with 28 winners, but committed 39 unforced errors that kept the outcome of the match hanging in the balance. While Zhang struck 41 winners, her 51 unforced errors were her undoing. Only two points separated them in the end, with Svitolina coming out on top 111-109. Next, she faces either No. 12 Elise Mertens of Belgium or No. 17 Madison Keys of the United States.
Later on Rod Laver Arena, No. 16 seed and seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams cruised to an easy 6-2, 6-1 win over No. 59 Dayana Yastremska, of Ukraine. The one-sided match between Williams, 37, and Yastremska, 18, was over quickly in 67 minutes and the winner consoled the loser at the net. Williams awaits the outcome of Saturday night’s showdown between her sister Venus, ranked 37th, and World No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania.
On the men’s side, No. 15 seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia dominated No. 21 David Goffin of Belgium from the start and advanced to the fourth round with a 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-3 win. Since last August, Medvedev is 30-7 with two titles, a final and two semifinals. His ranking has improved from 57th to 16th.
Next, Medvedev will face either No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia or No. 25 Denis Shapovalov of Canada, who played later Saturday.
Also, No. 8 Kei Nishikori advanced with a 7-6 (6), 6-1, 6-2 win over No. 44 Joao Sousa of Portugal and next faces No. 23 Pablo Carreña Busta of Spain, who beat Italy’s No. 12 seed Fabio Fognini 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 in two hours and 30 minutes.
A birthday bash for Kerber
World No. 2 Angelique Kerber has quietly if not efficiently moved through the first week of the Australian Open, going about her business and simply winning – three consecutive straight-set victories, in which she’s dropped just 10 games.
On Friday, the 2016 Australian Open champion gave another master class with Australian wild card Kimberly Birrell, 20, as her pupil. Kerber won the third-round encounter 6-1, 6-0 in just 58 minutes. Then, it was time for the German to celebrate her 31st birthday as the crowd inside Rod Laver Arena cerenaded her with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Kerber’s victory over the 240th-ranked Birrell, moved her into the second week at Melbourne for the fourth straight year and sixth time overall, and it earned her a fourth-round match against the surprising American Danielle Collins, ranked 35th, on Sunday.
“For me, whenever I step on these courts, I want to play my best tennis,” said Kerber during her post-match interview. “I knew I had to reach that level tonight from the first ball until the last.”
Then, praising her young opponent from Queensland, Australia, Kerber said, “ I wish her all the best, because for sure we will be hearing a lot about her in the future.
“If she is playing like this, working hard, I’m sure she will be a top 100 player very soon.”
An 0-2 comeback that almost wasn’t
When Fernando Verdasco doubled faulted on match point in the fourth set of his third-round match against Marin Cilic Friday night, it meant that these two heavyweights would go the distance. Cilic had recovered from two sets down on six occasions in his career. Would the fans inside Margaret Court Arena be witness to No. 7? Yes.
As it happened, the No. 6 seed Cilic saved two match points to come back from two-sets-to-love down. He saved match points at 6-7 and 7-8 in the fourth set tie-break en route to achieving a 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8), 6-3 victory over No. 26 Verdasco. It was their 15th head-to-head confrontation and this one lasted four hours and 18 minutes and didn’t finish until 12:57 a.m. early Saturday in Melbourne.
“It was unbelievable,” said Cilic during his on-court interview afterward. “Emotions were up and down. When I was down two sets to love, it was a big hill to climb, but I played my game, stayed positive, won the third set, saved match points in the fourth and played a great fifth set.”
Cilic hit 66 winners, including eight service aces, and won 88 percent of his first-serve points. Although Verdasco fired 27 aces, it wasn’t enough and he wasn’t helped by his converting just three of nine break-point opportunities.
The win advanced Cilic, last year’s finalist, into the fourth round and a match up against No. 22 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who has reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open four times (2014, 2016-17, 2019).
What they’re saying
No. 3 seed and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki after losing to No. 30 seed and 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, on Friday: “In my head, I should have won that first set. Being up 4-1, I had a chance to do that, but I didn’t, and then I fought back and won the second set. It just wasn’t enough today. I did my best. I did all I could Just came up short. That’s sports sometimes.”