australian open tennis

Wawrinka versus Djokovic, a Classic to be Remembered

James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.

By James Crabtree

MELBOURNE — The epic night match Rod Laver Arena yearned for was delivered.

The contest featuring number one seed Novak Djkovic and fifteenth seed Stanislas Wawrinka was a perfect contrast of skills, character, technique and body type.

Whereas Novak is known to hit a two handed backhand, eat gluten free and stretch more than a Yoga guru, Stan is notorious for his single handed backhand, enjoying a coffee and we suspect an accompanying croissant.

Stan started strong, stronger than we have ever seen him start against quality opposition, winning his serve easily and breaking the defending champion instantly. After only twenty five minutes Stan had won the set, humbling the usually more aggressive Novak in a master-class of tennis excellence that featured only three unforced errors.

After trading breaks of serve Stan again pulled away leaving his opponent to search for answers. Novak, who had slipped on a few occasions, blamed his shimmering silver tennis shoes for his current predicament, prompting a glare in the direction of his box.

By the next change of ends a new set of identical footwear were on Novak’s feet, leaving the Emperor happy in his new shoes.

Regardless, Stan steamrolled onto a 5-2 second set lead.

“I was just trying to stay focused on my game and to keep playing my best game, my best level, try to push him. I knew he would always try to change something. He would always try to serve better, to put more pressure.” Stan told reporters.

As expected the pressure came, for champions are champions for a reason. With the game clock ticking over the one hour mark a shift of fortunes occurred for the man who was chasing. The Serbian locomotive had left the station and with it the game plan had changed. Novak was now the aggressor whilst his Swiss counterpart began to tighten up.

“In this circumstances when you’re not playing the way you want to play, you just try to fight and hope for the best.” said Novak of a shift most expected and one that included winning five games in a row to level at a set apiece.

Before we had time to really comprehend what was happening the third set was upon us and over in typical Djokovic fashion. The vast majority of rallies signified by heavy forehands and the trademark baseline scrambling that makes opponents anxious when going for an outright winner.

The fourth set would be a mere formality, we all assumed.

Nobody told Stan. He ignored the script and fought. Serving well he stayed strong in the fourth set matching Novak rally for rally with the majority of the points worthy of a highlight reel that was enough to bring the single handed backhand back into fashion. With the set locked at six games apiece and game clock passing the three hour mark a tie-break ensued which Stan dominated and was rewarded with the fourth set by playing the more aggressive yet precarious tennis.

The fifth set, which was in many ways two sets, arrived at midnight and the crowd had what they wanted- a new addition to the vault of Australian Open folklore.

Stan broke Novak instantly only for Novak to break right back. From that point on the two players held serve for well over an hour and a half prompting a battle of wills to merge into a test of fitness.

Stanislas Wawrinka, as the underdog became the hero. He revved the crowd, took risks that caused the crowd to squirm, and hit winners that made you shake your head in disbelief.

Only at 11-10 down in the fifth set after over five hours of battle and a twenty ball rally did he succumb prompting the crowd to stand in ovation for the display they had witnessed, the miracle they had been a part of. Novak had won but Stan had won our hearts.

The players hugged after which Novak ripped off his shirt, his apparent tradition for epic fight set bouts.

After the match Stan was positive, “For sure I was serving for the second set to be up two sets to love. But, as I said, in five sets, five hours, you always have some opportunity to win a set or to win the match. If you don’t take it, he’s going to take it.”

As we have come to expect Novak was modest when speaking of his opponent. “All the credit to him. I feel sorry that one of use had to lose. He definitely deserved to win.”

Australian Open Grounds Pass: Beatlemania with Federer and “Team” Dimitrov

Jesse Pentecost is on the grounds of the Australian Open, covering matches and practice sessions and giving you an intimate behind-the-scenes look of the tennis season’s first Slam.

By Jesse Pentecost

I would be overstating the case to say that more than a minority believed Grigor Dimitrov to defeat Julien Benneteau. Even among those of us who predicted it, the prediction was for an upset, which by definition entails a lesser player beating his or her ostensible superior. But it was widely felt Dimitrov had a chance. After all, the two men are only ranked six places apart, and it was only by the grace of Rafael Nadal and John Isner’s knees that the Frenchman is actually seeded. Either way, it was sure to be a close match, and well-worth the meager effort of loitering next it.

Following an hour’s flânerie around the practice courts – I can declare with some authority that Dominika Cibulkova is shorter than Ana Ivanovic – I ensconced myself courtside for the match. The court was Court 13, and there was no camera, meaning I had one of the best views in the entire world of the famous upset destined to unfold at some unspecified time after 11am. I found myself seated next to Dimitrov’s coach and fitness trainer. I asked his trainer what ‘Come on’ was in Bulgarian. He didn’t know, but did concede he was nervous.

It’s never a bad idea to embed yourself with the support staff, if only so that when their charge begins glaring beseechingly at his coach, you can pretend he or she is looking at you. It also heightens the vibe. It probably would have heightened it even more had Dimitrov won, or even won a set. Word came through that Maria Sharapova had delivered the tournament’s first double bagel, against the appropriately named Olga Puchkova. Unfortunately this word didn’t reach Dimitrov, who clearly needed more inspiration than his support team and I could collectively muster. What he didn’t need was more backhand errors, although I suspect he’d already cornered the world’s supply. Benneteau, a true professional, was unrelenting in exposing that wing, and the Bulgarian seemed powerless to stop him.

I recommenced my ambling. The toilet block beside Court 14 had malfunctioned, and a noisome musk blanketed the far corner of the grounds. I fled to Court 8, where Sorana Cirstea was seeing off Coco Vanderweghe, the most American-sounding athlete since Misty Hyman. With time to kill before Ryan Harrison and Santiago Giraldo materialised, I loafed over to the practice courts, stopping briefly to see Victor Hanescu break Kei Nishikori back, eliciting a roar of stony silence from the predominantly Japanese crowd. Caroline Wozniacki was practicing nearby, perfecting the technique of scurrying backwards after returning serve, while Alexandr Dolgopolov had was hitting up with Marcel Granollers, for some reason.

I swung by Court 16 – the practice court of champions – in order to observe the purportedly fraught moment when Roger Federer made way for Bernard Tomic, an event that was apparently scheduled and symbolic. Lest you’ve missed the beat-up: Switzerland and Australia’s best male players have allegedly been engaged in a war or words, although from reading the press transcripts it seemed less like a war than an amiable cup of tea. Naturally the media had obtained one of the teacups, and discovered that it contained a storm. The storm was that, when asked about a possible third round encounter, each man pointed out that the other guy would have to get there first. This unremarkable point was immediately apprehended, and duly repurposed as a mortal insult. The only question really was who would throw the first punch.

I arrived to discover 4,700 less disinterested people had gotten there first. Federer was hitting up with Gilles Simon, who’d unfortunately misplaced his coach. Since the Swiss has two, he lent Severin Luthi to the Frenchman, which I thought generous. I did wonder precisely how usefully this would prepare Federer for Benoit Paire. I decided that nothing can usefully prepare one for Paire, so there’s no use even trying.

As ever, Federer’s practice session ended early, so that he could spend time appeasing the adoring masses. And a mass they were. I remarked at the time that it was like Beatlemania. There was a particularly hysterical timbre that female squeals attained whenever the Fab Four took the stage, an exaggerated ululating shriek that had gone unheard since primordial times. Young people were making exactly that noise today whenever Federer strayed within arm’s reach. Federer, working his way along line, took it in his stride as teenage girls swooned and cascaded to the ground in his wake. He knows as well as anyone that their adulation has little to do with his craft, and everything to do with his fame, and it’s to his credit that fame hasn’t overly insulated him from the appropriate human reaction. He hides his bemusement well, but it’s certainly there. Seated across the court, Simon’s bemusement wasn’t hidden at all – it was clear in his sardonic grin. Tomic turned up, but Federer was still being feted elsewhere, and I couldn’t see that they exchanged words, let alone blows. I am confident someone will spin it as an icy dismissal.

Next to me a boy proudly showed his friends the oversized souvenir ball whose value Federer had marginally enhanced by adding some ink to it. He wasn’t a young boy, and I’m not convinced a signature is something genuinely worth craving. But his friends’ awe was genuine enough, and the boy was authentically swept away. Directly behind me Xavier Malisse was easily accounting for Pablo Andujar. In 2002 I recall explaining to anyone who’d listen that Malisse was the next big thing, unlike Federer, whose game I found attractive even as I decried its inconsistency. It has been a long eleven years. Malisse won comfortably, but there was no squealing. Sam Stosur won, and there were merely long, shuddering sighs of relief, rippling across the grounds.

Harrison was by this time marshalling his forces on Court 8. Through a scrappy set and half the disparate components of his outrage were separately rehearsed, although he had yet to combine them all in a full-blown tantrum, as he is contractually obliged to do at least once per match. He dropped the first set to Giraldo – his proto-nemesis – then gradually climbed on top during a second set short on highlights, bar the backhand pass up the line with which the American finally broke and levelled the match. Since he looked to be going on with it, I left him to his toils.

From there I looked in Stan Wawrinka, who as expected was delivering stern lessons to Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. Upon losing Stebe tore off his ridiculous yellow headband, and stormed from the court with newfound purpose, knocking elderly spectators flying. Agnieszka Radwanska, after briefly flirting with the possibility of playing the odd tight set – and thus causing concerned journalists to quibble at her recent schedule – thought better of it and went back to dishing out bagels.

Margaret Court Arena was now free, and thither I sauntered, reflecting as I did that I was running dangerously short on similes for walking casually. Luckily the two men walking out onto MCA were Mikhail Youzhny and Matt Ebden, and they were about to commence a five set classic. I wouldn’t be casually walking anywhere for a while.

For the second year in a row, Ebden fell to a seed after holding a two set lead. Last year it was Nishikori, and this year it was heartbreaking, through being closer. Youzhny saved a match point late in the fourth, before forcing the fifth. It was tremendous, although I was quick to note that most of the crowd, extravagantly bunted in Australia’s flag and given to unharmonsied chanting, found the outcome less inspiring than I did. But they were generous in applauding the Colonel as he saluted them. He’d earned it. They’d earned it.

I strolled out, elated, and discovered someone had stolen my bicycle helmet. So it goes.

Ashleigh Barty and Elina Svitolina: Teenagers Try Their Hand on Day 1

By Victoria Chiesa

There has been much discussion in recent years regarding the rising median age on the WTA Tour. Players such as Martina Hingis, Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati all proved that they were capable of becoming world-beaters at a young age; however, as the physicality of women’s tennis has increased over the past decade, the 15 and 16 year-old prodigies fans were accustomed to seeing in the ’90s and early ’00s have been replaced by veterans breaking through in their mid-to-late 20s.

In 2012, there were six teenagers in the year-end top 100. Annika Beck, born February 16th, 1994, is currently the youngest player in the top 100 and ranked 71, while Sloane Stephens is the highest ranked teenager and is seeded No. 29 at the Australian Open.

Some, such as Stephens and Laura Robson had deep runs in Grand Slams in 2012, knocking off quality players along the way; Stephens reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, while Robson sent Kim Clijsters into retirement and defeated Li Na on the road to the fourth round at the US Open. Others, including Donna Vekic, Ashleigh Barty and Elina Svitolina finished just outside the world’s elite 100. Two of the members of this teenaged contingent were in action at Melbourne Park on day one, as Barty and Svitolina both took on seeded players in the form of Dominika Cibulkova and Angelique Kerber.

Svitolina, 18, was the Roland Garros junior champion and the world’s No. 1 junior in 2010, while Barty, 16, was the Wimbledon junior champion in 2011. Barty owns four titles on the ITF senior circuit while Svitolina has five, including a victory at the WTA 125k event in Pune, India last fall.

For two girls in relatively close in age, I took notice of their contrasting on-court demeanors when it was brought up on Twitter:

Svitolina, who I first became acquainted with a few seasons ago as a result of this video, delivered as expected; her shrieks of ‘C’mon!’ after every point won in the early going were paired with disappointed shrugs and racket tosses after every point lost. A capable ball-striker off of both wings, Svitolina was cracking winners from the baseline and was able to hanging with the German through the first four games.

Barty, two years Svitolina’s junior, had a completely different attitude. Praised for her cool head and calm demeanor, Barty has the game to match; capable of doing everything on the court, Barty threw in a solid mix of baseline strikes and net approaches to keep Cibulkova off-balance. Her emotional level rarely changed throughout the match, as she stayed remarkably even-keeled in front of her home crowd. When a Cibulkova backhand found the net to give Barty a *53 lead in the opening set, there were no histrionics from the Australian; rather, a casual, muted fist pump was her only celebration.

Nonetheless, the experience of their opponents would overwhelm them. Kerber would win six of the last seven games, absorbing and redirecting the Ukrainian’s pace as only she can, to come away with a 62 64 win. Cibulkova would put together a run of nine straight games to take command against Barty, who grew increasingly erratic as the match wore on; the Slovak would take a 36 60 61 win in just under two hours.

While a learning experience for both, the first day in Melbourne showed that although the teenaged contingent has made great strides, improvements in consistency and mental fortitude are the keys that will bring them closer to beating the best.

John Isner withdraws from Australian Open due to knee injury

January 9, 2013 — Top ranked American and world No. 13 John Isner has officially withdrawn from the 2013 Australian Open due to a bone bruise in his knee.

On Wednesday, top-seeded at the Sydney tournament, Isner went out to qualifier Ryan Harrison, 6-4 6-4, hinting at continued issues with his knee.

“I have been feeling some discomfort in my knee and have recently learned that I have a bone bruise,” Isner said. “Doctors have told me that continuing to play on the knee could result in a more serious injury.”

Isner also pulled out of last week’s Hopman Cup exhibition tournament in Perth after losing both of his matches against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kevin Anderson in order to be ready for Sydney. Via Twitter, Isner’s manager stated that the American “gave it a weeks rest before the match and wanted to test it.” But it was not meant to be.

Fellow American Mardy Fish withdrew last month due to continued recovery from his heart troubles, leaving No. 22 Sam Querrey as the highest-ranked American left in the main draw of the year’s first Slam.

Murray Hires Lendl as Coach; Serena Williams Doesn’t Love Tennis — The Friday Five

by Maud Watson

Key to Victory

One of the biggest stories going into the 2012 season was that Andy Murray has finally ended his search for a coach. In his decision to hire tennis great Ivan Lendl, Murray may have just found the missing piece to his success at the majors. Lendl has a personality that should jive well with Murray’s. He also is less likely to put up with the Scot’s on-court tirades, which will hopefully help Murray do a quicker job of righting the ship when things aren’t going well during a match. But perhaps most importantly, Lendl himself fell at the final hurdle of a major on multiple occasions before finally claiming that elusive first Slam title. That’s invaluable experience he can pass along to his new charge, which might assist Murray in becoming mentally tougher at the biggest moments. For sure, Murray is still facing an uphill battle given the quality of the top three players, but he’s shown he has the game to beat each of them. With hard work and a little luck, Lendl might make 2012 Murray’s year.

Discouraging Words

Not surprisingly, Serena Williams is making headlines straight out of the gates with her controversial comments. Before Brisbane even got underway, the younger Williams stated again, lest there be any doubters, that she saw no reason to feel bad about her behavior at the US Open. Was anyone really expecting an admission of guilt or an apology? Then a few days later, she says she doesn’t love tennis – in fact, never loved sports and is unsure how she became an athlete in the first place – hates working out, and is planning on scaling back her schedule. Many people excel at jobs that they don’t love, so on the one hand, it’s hard to fault Serena for that particular sentiment. On the other hand, she does have a high profile job that puts her in the unique position of a supposed role model, so it’s also understandable that many fans and pundits would find her comments both disappointing and frustrating. The comments also represent a complete 180 from the woman who was crying after her first-round win at Wimbledon, talking about how much it meant to be out there on the court. But the biggest eye roll has to go to the laughable statement about scaling back her schedule. Scale it back to what? In recent years (and many would argue even when she first came on the tour), she’s never bothered to put forth the effort to play a truly full schedule, even when healthy. It’s just one more example of how Serena views this as her world, and we’re all living in it. Sadly, whether you love her or hate her for it, it’s that very attitude that unfortunately more often than not makes her good for the game.

All for Naught?

Injuries are no joking matter, so I won’t go as far as some have to call it karma for her pre-Brisbane comments. But whatever you believe the cause, the fact is that Serena Williams sprained her ankle in her second round match in Brisbane, leaving her Aussie Open participation in doubt. Williams normally sports an ankle brace, which she admitted she absent-mindedly neglected to wear. She did, however, still manage to finish the match and has only said that she probably shouldn’t be playing on it, meaning there’s no way to know just how serious the injury really is. But majors are one of the few events that Serena bothers to get up for, and it’s doubtful she’ll want that long trip to the Land Down Under to go to waste. Expect her to actually put 100% effort into being ready to go in another week.

Injury Saga Continues

Another high profile player who announced he’s dealing with an injury is Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard says he’s still suffering from the shoulder issues that plagued him in London, and the heavier racquet he’s switched to probably isn’t helping the cause, at least in the short run. It’s a bit of a head scratcher that he wouldn’t modify his schedule to allow more recuperation time by skipping Abu Dhabi, or even getting his 2012 campaign started a week later by entering Auckland or Sydney, but he is a creature of habit. The good news for his fans is that even though he plans to take February off to rest the shoulder, he historically plays little tennis then anyway, so the post-Aussie hiatus shouldn’t negatively impact him. Additionally, he appears to be finding his groove in Doha. Don’t be surprised if he posts a deep run in Melbourne and expect him to be firing on all cylinders come March.

Business as Usual

It’s dangerous to put too much stock in an exhibition, even if it’s one of the exhibitions in which the players are more apt put forth a greater effort. But after pulling through a dicey match against Gael Monfils in his opening round, Novak Djokovic looked back to his winning form, absolutely demolishing Federer and Ferrer en route to the title in Abu Dhabi. Those wins should assist the Serb in burying some of the bad memories that came at the end of last season, as he prepares to back up his phenomenal 2011 and see where he stacks up against his two fiercest rivals in 2012.