On the Grounds: Australian Open Days 4 & 5

by Pey Jung Yeong, Special for Tennis Grandstand

Day 4 of Australian Open found itself as the battleground for two veterans and familiar rivals with Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick taking the centre stage, while Day 5 was the stage for two up and coming stars, but yet not so unfamiliar rivals – Bernard Tomic and Alexandr Dolgopolov. Whilst both matches ended on a sad note for me personally, both matches also lived up – to an extent – of the excitement and tension that they promised.

Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick had both been on the Tour for over 10 years, and had played each other 13 times (head to head 7-6 in Roddick’s favour) before this second-round encounter. Hewitt had the upper-hand in their early days, beating Roddick in the French Open, US Open and Australian Open before the American gained upper hand and starting beating Hewitt more comprehensively in their later years. Their matches were always closely-fought matches – their last match on the stage of a Grand Slam was in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon 2009, where Roddick prevailed in 5 sets.

Both were former world no.1s and Grand Slam winners. However, both were not quite the players they used to be, with injuries taking their toll. But both were still spirited fighters with a lot of heart and determination, and this encounter will showcase exactly that.

With the Australian crowd firmly behind their countryman, and quite a number of American supporters in the crowd, the second-match was a sell-out event, the arena packed full. The first set went to Roddick, with the American serving very well, and managing to take advantage of his chances in Hewitt’s service game to secure a break and the set.

The second set was a much closer affair – breaks were exchanged, Hewitt rallying very well, hitting shots to force Roddick to move all over the court. And then it happened – an injury. Roddick stretched himself to retrieve a shot, and awkwardly twisted the right side of his body, causing a hamstring injury. At that time, no one knew that would determine the outcome of the match, not even when Roddick went off court to receive treatment.

Andy Roddick

Roddick returned to court but he obviously wasn’t moving as well as before. He lost the second set, and held up well in the third set even as he went down an early break. He had breakpoints on Hewitt’s serve to level the set, but Hewitt grittily held his serve, hence winning the third set, and that was it for Roddick. He stayed out on court for as long as he was able to, and he knew he wasn’t able to go to the distance. After a short conversation with the doctor and trainer at end of the third set, he approached Hewitt to shake his hand, and it was over.

It is always sad when a match ends in retirement, but even more so for me in this case, because I carry sentimental feelings towards both players, and was looking forward to them doing the battle, just one more time in the ring. In the end, Hewitt moved on, but Roddick matched him in the display of heart and will.

In the battle of the young guns, Dolgopolov and Tomic had played each other three times before this clash, and Dolgopolov won all three matches. Both players play a similar type of game, favouring slices, unusual pace and placement of shots. One would rightfully assume that Dolgopolov plays the game better – but Tomic’s game had improved significant in the last few months. Added to the fact that Dolgopolov was struggling thus far in the tournament, an upset seemed to be written in the cards.
Dolgopolov took the first set in a fairly commanding fashion, and it seemed that this fourth match-up would be heading the same way as all other previous matches, before Tomic upped his game significantly. He took the next two sets, powering through the second-set tiebreaker, not even allowing Dolgopolov one single point, and took the third set through a poorly timed Dolgopolov forehand.

Dolgopolov then hit back, reeling off an impressive display of shot-making to wrap up the fourth set and force a decider, his third 5-setter and Tomic’s second. Somehow, I sensed that Tomic had the upper hand. The crowd was supporting him – an entire arena cheering his name, and heckling at Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian – whom I once praised for being calm under pressurised situations – completely fell apart in the fifth set. He wasn’t nervous or panicky, but he was angry. His anger, however, didn’t translate positively into his game, and soon he found himself down a break. Dolgopolov never recovered from that, and Tomic powered through to set a 4th round encounter with Roger Federer.

These two matches – between the “old” and the “young” – made me realise that tennis is a game, a sport, but it is not merely that. The beauty of the game is not just two people hitting a little green ball back and forth across a net. The beauty of the game is the people behind it: the story of the person, the history of the match, and the destiny that each player forged within themselves, and with one another.
This Australian Open had seen the battle between two former champions in Hewitt and Roddick. And very possibly, this year’s Open had also seen the battle between two future champions in Tomic and Dolgopolov.

Pey Jung Yeong is in Melbourne covering the Australian Open and writes for the tennis blog All I Need is a Picket Fence. You can follow her updates on twitter here.