MELBOURNE, January 23, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
As Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams entered their respective quarterfinal-round matches at the Australian Open on Wednesday afternoon in Melbourne, it must have been in the back of their minds that each was just a victory away from setting up a rematch of their 2018 U.S. Open final, which was won by Osaka.
First things first, though. Osaka did her part and won. Then, the unthinkable happened, when Williams squandered four match points, from 5-1 ahead in the third set, and stunningly lost to No. 7 seed Karolina Pliskova.
Suddenly, the rematch between Osaka and Williams had been dashed. Further, there would be no 24th Grand Slam championship for Williams in Melbourne.
Instead, on Thursday, it will be Osaka facing Pliskova in one semifinal while No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova will face unseeded Danielle Collins in the other semifinal.
In the opening quarterfinal match on Rod Laver Arena, Osaka was simply dominating in her 6-4, 6-1 victory over No. 6 seed Elina Svitolina to reach her first Australian Open semifinal. The World No. 4 from Japan, just 21, extended her winning streak in majors to 12 matches and became the first woman to reach the semifinals in a major after winning their first major title since Kim Clijsters accomplished the feat by winning the 2005 U.S. Open and 2006 Australian Open consecutively. She also became the first Japanese woman to reach the Australian Open semifinals since Kimiko Date in 1994.
Osaka, who has now reached the semifinals or better in five of her last six tournaments, capitalized on five service breaks against a worn-down Svitolina, who had been pushed to three sets in each of her past two matches. Playing both patient and composed, Osaka pounded eight service aces, and hit 31 winners that kept her opponent off balance throughout much of their 72-minute match. The Ukranian hit just 11 winners and had trouble winning points on her second serve – just 6 of 22 opportunities – as Osaka attacked Svitolina’s second serve relentlessly.
“I had just one goal, which was to try as hard as I can and not get angry,” said Osaka, during her on-court interview following her win, which was her 58th consecutive after winning the first set dating back to 2016.
“It’s unfortunate that she got injured,” said Osaka, making reference to a medical time out that Svitolina took after she fell behind 3-0 in the second set to receive treatment on her shoulders, upper back and neck that stretched to six minutes long before play resumed. Osaka immediately broke Svitolina’s serve for a 4-0 advantage and, soon, it was over. “Playing against her, even when she was injured was still really tough.”
With Osaka’s victory imminent, it prompted Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim to tweet: “This @Naomi_Osaka_ match is so impressive. Underrated: her ability to adjust tactics and ignore drama mismatch. …”
“I already know that to be here is something that a lot of people want, and I know that a few months ago I would have given anything to be in the semifinals of a slam,” Osaka said during her post-match press conference. “But it’s this weird feeling of, like, you want to do the next big thing.
“And especially now that I won a Grand Slam, I feel like I want to win another one, and I’m so close and I just want to keep going.”
Pliskova rallies past Serena
In the second quarterfinal of the day on Rod Laver Arena, pitting the American No. 16 seed Williams and No. 7 seed Pliskova of the Czech Republic, it was a battle of big-hitting former No. 1 players. Going in, Williams had won her last 14 major quarterfinals.
As it happened, Pliskova fought off four match points to win 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 in two hours and 10 minutes. Watching Pliskova perform under pressure, whether it was coming up with a big serve for an ace, completing a long rally, or hitting a winner – showing the beauty of patience – reminded everyone, especially Williams, that she was never out, even when she was on the verge of losing.
Down 1-5 and facing her first match point, Pliskova kept it close by fighting off a total of four match points – including three in the 10th game at 4-5 – to extend the set as Williams, who appeared to roll an ankle serving at match point in the seventh game and was called for a foot fault, struggled to close it out. Then, at 5-all, the unthinkable happened as Williams was broken at love in the 11th game to push Pliskova ahead 6-5 and serving for the match. She closed it out with a seven-shot rally that ended when Williams hit her 37th unforced error. Pliskova won the final six games of the match.
“I was almost in the locker room, but now I’m standing here, so it’s a great feeling,” said Pliskova during her on-court interview after her win. “It’s tough to play against the wind and against Serena. I don’t think there’s anyone more dangerous than Serena.”
At her post-match press conference, Williams said of Pliskova, “She played lights out at match point. … She played great. Giving up was not an option for her.” As for herself, Williams said, “I’ll keep soldiering on.”
In the end, Pliskova gave a great performance and seized her chance at victory with big serves and superb ground strokes. She served nine aces, hit 32 winners and committed just 15 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Williams hit 54 winners, including 12 aces, but it wasn’t enough as she was outpointed 102-95.
One thing everyone – players, media and fans – learned is that a match is never over until it’s over. Game. Set. Match.
After the match, New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey tweeted, “Serena’s level since her return to tour in 2018 has often been remarkable. But she’s taken a series of big psychological blows in majors: downbeat Wimbledon final loss to Kerber, controversial U.S. Open final loss to Osaka and now today’s ankle twist and collapse versus Pliskova.”
Looking ahead to their Thursday semifinal showdown, Pliskova leads Osaka in their career head-to-head 2-1. Lifetime at the Australian Open, Pliskova is 18-8 while Osaka is 14-3. It could be a battle of big servers as Osaka is third in the WTA with 63 aces and Pliskova is sixth with 52.
No seventh AO doubles title for Bryans
American Mike Bryan won the last two Grand Slam men’s doubles titles, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, partnered with Jack Sock while his twin brother Bob recovered from hip surgery. With the 16-time Grand Slam champion Bryans reunited at Melbourne, healthy and seeded fourth, they reached the quarterfinals by winning three matches while dropping just one set. However, their quest to achieve a seventh Australian Open doubles crown ended as they lost to the No. 5 French duo of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, 6-4, 7-6 (3) – outpointed 81-63 during their 91-minute encounter on Margaret Court Arena.
Herbert and Mahut will face unseeded Ryan Harrison and Sam Querrey, both from the United States, who came from behind to upset No. 7 seeds Lukasz Kubot of Poland and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4.
In the other half of the draw, the No. 12 seeds John Peers of Australia and Henri Kontinen of Finland upset the highest remaining seeds, No. 3 Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil, 6-3, 6-4. They will face unseeded Leonardo Mayer of Argentina and Joao Sousa of Portugal, who upset the No. 6 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Michael Venus of New Zealand, 6-4, 7-6 (6) on Tuesday.
Nadal showing his emotional side
When World No. 2 Rafael Nadal beat No. 39 Frances Tiafoe, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, on Tuesday evening, he secured his 30th Grand Slam semifinal appearance. But, why was Nadal so emotional about reaching the semis? Perhaps, it’s because the 17-time Grand Slam champion has looked superb throughout this entire Down Under fortnight. After all, Nadal is into the semifinals against Stefanos Tsitsipas without losing a set for the first time since 2009, the last time he lifted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup that is awarded to the men’s singles champion. However, by observing him as he plays with such power and determination, it might be because he’s playing free of pain and injuries.
“His hard court stats in recent years are awful,” said Catherine Whitaker of Eurosport and co-host of “The Tennis Podcast.” “One of the reasons is, largely, it’s been taken out of his hands because of injuries. That’s why he fights for every single point as if his life depends upon it – even if he might not say it explicitly in English how much it kills him to have to retire from Grand Slam matches. I think that was the kind of thing he was expecting tonight,” said Whitaker following Nadal’s quarterfinal victory against Tiafoe.
“For all of us observing him, he’s barely been troubled here this year, and it seems everything is normal this year. Actually for him, and for all of us observing him and invested in him, this is actually a really big deal.”
Making videos relaxes Tsitsipas off the court
During Stefanos Tsitsipas’ post-match press conference Tuesday afternoon after he defeated Roberto Baustista Agut, the affable Greek Next Gen ATP star was asked about his interest in creating and posting his own videos on YouTube. He said: “I started last year, inspired by some other people. When I’m desperate sometimes, when I feel down, I do these videos. I actually feel better. It makes me realize that tennis is not the most important thing in life, that we all have some other talents that we don’t know about. It kind of makes me more relaxed … just gives me a better understanding and idea of life, film making and photography. I think there’s a lot of things you can learn from that. It relaxes me. I see it as a hobby. Actually it’s a good hobby because I can carry all this stuff to all these nice locations that I visit around the world, create things.
“The most satisfying thing about that is creating. That’s what I love about it.”
Tennis after midnight, anyone?
When Rafael Nadal wrapped up his quarterfinal singles win over Frances Tiafoe at 10:55 p.m. Tuesday evening, it seemed a rarity during this Melbourne fortnight. That’s because nine matches in the first eight days of this year’s Australian Open ended after midnight. If you thought Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sloane Stephens had it bad the other night, starting late Sunday night after the conclusion of the lengthy Stefanos Tstitsipas-Roger Federer four-setter finished and ending their own match in the early hours of Monday, think again. One need only look back to the first week of the “Happy Slam.” It was 3:12 a.m. on Friday when Garbiñe Muguruza clinched her second-round match against Johanna Konta. According to Karen Crouse of The New York Times, “By the time Muguruza met with her coach, showered, changed out of her tennis outfit, received a massage, fulfilled her media obligations and returned to her hotel, it was one hour before sunrise.”
Maria Sharapova, whose preferred bedtime is 10:30 p.m., finished her second-round match last week at 12:36 a.m. “There is no way to train for that,” she was quoted during her post-match press conference as saying. “If you ask any player that goes into this tournament how many times they have trained after midnight, unless you’re jet lagged or just crazy, you don’t train for that.”
For the record, the latest-ever finish in Australian Open history still belongs Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis, whose third-round match in 2008, won by Hewitt, ended at 4:33 a.m.
By the numbers
Before he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the men’s singles quarterfinals on Tuesday afternoon, Robert Bautista Agut’s 2019 season had started most impressively. Consider this:
• He won the ATP 250 Qatar Open singles title in Doha, going 5-0.
• He reached his first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal, finishing 4-1.
• He started his season 9-0 before losing to Tsitsipas.
• Three consecutive five-set wins during the Australian Open.
• Wins over four Grand Slam champions and two Masters 1000 champions.
• Wins over the current World No. 1 (Novak Djokovic) and a former World No. 1 (Andy Murray).
• His ATP live ranking during the Australian Open improved from 24th to 17th.
What they’re saying
• When Francis Tiafoe was asked during his post-match press conference on Tuesday night if the new generation of players, which includes him, is ready to win Grand Slams, he said, “Rafa and these cats ain’t getting any younger, you what I’m saying?”
More Tiafoe on Nadal: “I knew he was going to bring crazy intensity. I knew the ball was going to be jumping. I knew if he got hold of a forehand, it was going to be barbecued chicken. But point in, point out, I’ve never seen someone so locked in.”
• “I think not being a child prodigy, not being a superstar at a young age certainly humbled me, made me in a way work hard for things. I think I was talented and athletic, but maybe not to the level that other players were at like, 14, 15, 16 (years-old). It made me kind of have to in some ways, I don’t want to say work harder, but I was kind of like playing from behind because I wasn’t a child prodigy. I went a different route. I wasn’t sure if I could make it playing professional tennis when I was that age. Going to college was really crucial for me and my development.” – Unseeded American Danielle Collins, ranked No. 35, on reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal.
• “Disappointed purely from having competed my whole life. I’m driven to win every single match. Today, Petra was outstanding, she really was. She took it away from me quite early in the match. She’s very capable of doing that, I suppose. … She was clean as a whistle tonight. I have to give all credit to her.” – Ashleigh Barty of Australia, ranked No. 15, after losing to No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova.
What they’re writing
Simon Briggs, British tennis journalist for London’s The Telegraph, writing on the ongoing civil war among British players Jamie Murray and Dan Evans: “I’ve been playing the tour since 2007. Traveling the world, working my a–– off to stay at the top of the game and make a living for myself. This comes from someone who really hasn’t applied himself as much as he should and has made a hash of his career with his decision-making.” – Jamie Murray, World No. 7 doubles player from Great Britain, reacting to comments made by British singles player Dan Evans, who said of Murray, “Doubles players are people who didn’t make it at singles.”
What they’re tweeting
• Simon Cambers (@scambers73), freelance British tennis journalist and broadcaster: “Absolutely love watching @StefTsitsipas play. So many options, all-court game, likes to come forward, backs himself to hit big shots at big times. Massive future ahead.”
• Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil), freelance Egyptian tennis journalist and contributor to both the Dubai-based Sport360.com and ausopen.com, the Australian Open website: “Ash Barty gave one of the classiest press conferences I’ve ever seen from someone who just lost a big match. Her words about Petra (Kvitova) are incredibllyt kind and gracious. ‘It’s amazing just to see her back out here. It wasn’t the same when she wasn’t here.’”