Day At The Drive Featured Star Quality, Some Surprises

Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep at Day at the Drive (photo: @AusOpen/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, January 30, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The Day at the Drive exhibition matches in Adelaide on Friday featured plenty of star quality. It included the much-anticipated return of women’s World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty plus the season debuts of Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, and a surprise visit by men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic after he earlier withdrew from his match with blisters on his hand. Although the level of tennis on display ranged from excellent to shaking out the cobwebs, everyone there – fans and players alike – felt a sense of satisfaction by the end.

The day of exhibitions began strangely enough with the last-minute replacement of fellow Serbian Filip Krajinovic for Djokovic against Jannik Sinner of Italy. Djokovic pulled out of his match due to “multi-layered” blisters on his hand. However, he said later that after seeing the sight of full stands – a rarity on either pro tour the past year – he just “had to play.” So, after Krajinovic won the opening set 6-3, Djokovic subbed in and put on a respectable show in front of the 4,000 mostly maskless fans who attended the matches at Memorial Drive and won his set 6-3.

“I am sorry I didn’t step on the court from the beginning,” Djokovic said. “I had to do some treatment with my physio; I wasn’t feeling my best the past couple of days. I wasn’t sure how I was going to react [to coming out of quarantine].

“Having an ATP Cup and Australian Open around the corner, you don’t want to risk it too much. But the emotion was so strong in me to come out on the court today, seeing these full stands I had to play.”

Later on, in the day session, the 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams from the United States beat reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka of Japan, 6-2, 2-6, 10-7, in a match filled with plenty of light-hearted camaraderie between the two that made up for a lack of compelling drama.

Williams revealed afterward that she took her daughter Olympia to the zoo earlier in the day as a means of celebrating the end of their 14-day Australian quarantine. “Yeah, we went to the zoo because we had a calendar in our room and every day, we marked an ‘X’ on the days that went by and a big circle eon quarantine ending day and we promised we would take her to the zoo to see koalas and kangaroos,” she said.

As evening set in, Nadal and Dominic Thiem overcame a bit of rustiness and put on a darn good battle for the fans. The World No. 2 from Spain broke No. 3 Thiem twice en route to a 7-5, 6-4 victory. Nadal hit 22 winners and overcame 18 unforced errors. He broke Thiem twice and outpointed the Austrian World No. 3 70-56.

“I think Australia is an amazing positive example of how to make things the right way, to handle the pandemic,” Nadal said during his on-court interview after the match. “Many congratulations to the country. The last two weeks have been great, honestly.”

Then, it was time for the main event in the eyes of the Aussies, which featured the return of Queenslander Barty, playing in her first match in almost 12 months, against World No. 2 Simona Halep. Barty had not played since reaching the semifinals at Doha last February, while Halep capped her 2020 at the French Open with a fourth-round loss to eventual champion Iga Swiatek of Poland. At the end of Friday evening’s 66-minute match, the Romanian emerged with a 6-3, 1-6, 10-8 triumph.

“It is bloody good to be back,” Barty said afterward on court during her post-match interview. Despite the loss, she was upbeat. “Just keep chipping away, trying to do the best that I can every day, but it is bloody good to be back.”

Out of quarantine!

The players are (finally) out of quarantine. We know because many of them posted photos on social media. After an interesting – if not at times agonizing – 14 days of solid hotel lockdown, everyone who’s Down Under is emerging from their isolation like hibernating bears coming out of their caves. Midnight hitting sessions (check out Heather Watson’s social media platforms) were a welcome feeling for some Friday night. Tennis as we know it is back. Let the matches begin!

Rafael Nadal: Now it can be told

One of the takeaways from Rafael Nadal’s wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this week concerned his infamous in-match rituals – tics, if you will. Amanpour asked the polite and affable Nadal about why he does what he does – especially when he’s serving.

Nadal’s honest answer: “That’s all about … in some way, it’s stupid. In the other hand, for me, I am not doing one one of this stuff when I am practicing, or in my normal life, but when I am competing and in tennis. In our sport, we compete a lot of days. In some way, it’s a way to make a difference between practices and matches, and when I am doing all of these routines, I feel 100 percent focused on what I am doing. It’s an extra focus. And probably these routines when you are playing a lot of matches per year, for such a long time, these routines in some way help you to be focused or to be under self-control – to feel more secure about yourself.”

Got all of that, Rafa fans?

Stan Wawrinka: Now it can be told, part 2

What they’re saying

Ash Barty. Tennis. It’s been a while

What they’re sharing on social media

Heather Watson / I might just sleep here tonight

Iga Swiatek / Thank you Elina for these two weeks!

Carlos Alcaraz / I celebrate by dancing

Caroline Garcia and Nadia Podoroska / Cuarentena ✅ Quarantaine ✅