MELBOURNE, January 24, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
On Wednesday afternoon, Serena Williams stunningly lost six games in a row, going from ahead 5-1 in the final set of her quarterfinal match against Karolina Pliskova, to dropping the final set 7-5 – blowing four match points in the process – and losing 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. Yet, despite the setback, which denied the always intense and competitive No. 16 seed Williams a chance at a rematch with No. 4 seed Naomi Osaka, whom she lost to in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open, the 23-time Grand Slam champion was remarkably gracious during her post-match press conference at the Australian Open.
An hour after her loss to No. 7 seed Pliskova, the seven-time Australian Open champion Williams explained why she didn’t call for a trainer after she rolled her ankle late during her first match point. “My ankle seems to be fine. I really hate calling the trainer out, to be honest. And at that point I didn’t feel like I needed it or I didn’t feel like it would be a big deal. So I just kept going,” said Williams, reflecting upon just her second loss at Melbourne Park since 2014. “Karolina literally played lights out starting 5-1, 40-30. Literally I’ve never seen anything like it.
“There’s nothing I did wrong on those match points. I stayed aggressive. She just literally hit the lines on some of them. One she hit an ace, unreturnable serve.
“I can’t say that I choked on those match points. She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots.
“I think she just played lights out on match point, literally, hitting lines. Just went crazy on match point.
“At that point I’m just trying to think, Okay, win some points, win this game. Then I had a couple more match points on her serve. Naturally I thought, All right, here we go, you’re going to win one of these.
“That clearly didn’t happen, but I was just trying at that point. I can’t really say that it’s incredibly painful as opposed to what can I do better.”
Still in search of a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, which would tie her with Australian great Margaret Court, Williams remained calm while answering the media’s questions. She was asked about her next chance to reach the elusive number 24. “Right now, it would be Roland Garros because that’s the next one, the next Grand Slam for me. But, yeah, I mean, 22 was close, 23 wasn’t close, but 22 was close for a long time. (Getting to) 18 was close forever.”
After beginning her 2019 season playing in the Hopman Cup followed by the Australian Open, Williams will take some time off to rest, practice and enjoy family time. Then, she will likely resurface at Indian Wells in early March.
One thing’s certain about Williams: The big picture for her has always been about winning. “I’m not going to sit here and lie about that,” she said. “But it hasn’t happened yet. I feel like it’s going to happen.
“I do like my attitude. I like that I don’t want to go out here and say, I expect to lose because I had a year off, I’ve been playing for 10 months. I’m not supposed to win. I don’t have that attitude.
“Just keep taking it one match at a time, just keep soldiering on, I guess.”
Pouille credits Mauresmo for his turnaround
In five previous Australian Open appearances, Lucas Pouille of France had lost in the first round each time. However, after the No. 28 seed powered past No. 16 Milos Raonic of Canada, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-4, on Wednesday afternoon to reach his first career Grand Slam semifinal against six-time Australian Open champion and current World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, he gave big props to his new coach, two-time Grand Slam champion Amélie Mauresmo, who won the 2006 Australian Open.
During this Melbourne fortnight, the 30th-ranked Pouille has strung together five solid victories, which includes an upset of No. 11 seed Borna Coric of Croatia. “We kept working hard. It has been a matter of going step by step and to give all that I have in every point and here we are,” said Pouille, 24, during his on-court interview after beating Raonic. Since bringing Mauresmo into his camp last month, following a disappointing 2018 season in which he went 25-21, he has been playing inspired tennis.
“She’s a champion. She’s a great coach, I was expecting this starting with Amélie,” said Pouille. “I think she’s bringing a lot of confidence to my game, to my personality, to my state of mind. The goal is not to reach the final, the semifinal, the goal is to improve my tennis, to put what I work on during the practice in the match. That gives me less pressure. I’m just trying to focus on my game, not on the consequences and the results.”
After beating Raonic, Pouille became the first Frenchman to reach the semifinals at a Grand Slam since Gaël Monfils at the 2016 U.S. Open.
“It all came very fast for me in 2016 reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open,” said Pouille. “The next year I didn’t win too many matches but I still finished No. 18 in the world.
“Last year I lost a bit of joy on the court and I started a new adventure in my team, which has been a great thing for me. I enjoy being on the court again and that’s the most important thing.”
Pouille said Mauresmo is a motivating factor in his resurgence. “She’s focused on every single ball during the practice. At the same time there is a cool atmosphere,” he said. “We’re not too serious when we were on the bench. We can laugh. We can make jokes. Once we go and hit the balls, we are really into it. That’s good to have the good balance.”
During his post-match press conference after beating Raonic, Pouille was asked about being coached by a woman. He said, “Men are coaching women, so why not the contrary? … As I said again and again, it’s not about being a man or a woman, it’s about knowing tennis, about having the good state of mind. She’s a champion. She’s a great coach.”
Strychova tells it like it is
The always vocal Barbora Strychova of the Czech Republic, who reached the Australian Open semifinals with fellow Czech Marketa Vondrousova, recently penned a revealing profile about her life as a tennis player for the Czech sports anthology Bez frází. Here are a few passages from the 32-year-old Strychova translated into English:
• “Ok. I am playing Serena Williams today. She will probably beat me to death. When I am about to face her, the winner of 23 Grand Slams, these are my first thoughts right after I open my eyes in the morning. It’s the same with most of the Top 10 players. They’re bigger and more powerful.”
• “Every match hurts me. And I am trying to make my opponent hurt as well. Even the best ones. Pain is my symbol. It’s a part of me. For five years, I have played with a torn Achilles tendon. I don’t want to have a surgery so I go on.”
• “It makes me feel great when I see that my game works. That my opponent starts to struggle. For example, I literally believe in myself whenever I face Garbiñe Muguruza. And I don’t care about the surface. I know that if I stick with my game, she will make an error.”
• “Tennis courts are still the place I feel most comfortable at. Where I feel like I am in my world. Lines, a racket, balls and me – my head and my knowledge. I am the one who decides what I do. And it still fulfills me. That’s where I want to be. A huge journey ahead. I know it.”
By the numbers
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who will face No. 28 seed Lucas Pouille for the first time on Friday night in the men’s semifinals, is 26-0 at Grand Slams and 64-2 overall against Frenchmen since the start of the 2010 Davis Cup final. Djokovic has beaten a Frenchman at 19 of 33 Grand Slams during that period, including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in last week’s Australian Open second round.
What they’re writing
Matt Pickles, freelance British journalist writing for the BBC: “Novak Djokovic has been battling in the Australian Open this week. But the tennis superstar has other goals that have nothing to do with sport, but much to do with his own childhood.
“His foundation is funding four researchers per year at Harvard University to work on early years education.
“Their research at the leading U.S. university’s Centre on the Developing Child is focused on ways to improve the lives of young children, often those facing poverty and violence.
“This topic is personal to the world’s number one tennis player because of his upbringing in Serbia during the Balkans war in the 1990s, after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
“‘Growing up in a war-torn country is not easy on anyone, most of all the children,’ said Mr. Djokovic.”
What they’re tweeting
• Shuai Zhang (@zhangshuai121), Chinese tennis player, who reached the women’s doubles final with Sam Stosur of Australia: “Thanks such great crowd came out to supporting us, as well a lot Chinese fans watched live TV. I believe 4 gave our best tonight. Love you guys and see you guys Friday on @AustralianOpen.”
• Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill), ESPN tennis analyst and former coach of current women’s World No. 1 Simona Halep: “I’m in love with the fairytale Stefanos Tsitsipas … A love of the big moment … A love of the big stage … A love of the sport … A lot to like about this young man and he faces of of the biggest challenges in Grand Slam tennis tonight … Rafael Nadal. Can’t wait.”