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On the Grounds: Day One of the Australian Open

by Pey Jung Yeong, Special for Tennis Grandstand

The first day of a Grand Slam, where it all begins, is always very busy and very bright, with a sense of excitement and anticipation floating in the air. There’s just so much for one to do once they stepped through the gates of Melbourne, There are 64 matches scheduled throughout the entire day, in addition to player practice sessions, and not to mention the Grand Slam Oval, where Australian Open goers can relax with a glass of wine, play some games and collect come goodies.

My first day at Australian Open this year largely revolves around, well, the tennis. Whilst I do love the Grand Slam Oval and all they have to offer, I am more often than not dazzled by the tennis on display. Even without the tickets to the two main arenas, there are 55 other matches for me to choose from. Those who have been to Grand Slams will understand how I feel – it’s like a child in a sweet shop – where you just want (to see) EVERYTHING. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing two players compete for the chance to advance their career and their dreams in one of the most prestigious tournaments in tennis. One will see it all on the first day – the gritty, determined wins, the melt-downs, the come backs, and for some, effortless victories.

Armed with a grounds pass, I hopped and sailed from one match to the next, soaking up all the wonderful tennis on display. I saw the gutsy Argentinean youngster, 19-year-old Paula Ormaechea putting up an impressive show to steal the first set 6-1 from the more experience Simona Halep. Inexperience would then get the better of her in the second set, but she would then prevail in the third, recording her first win in a Grand Slam main draw.

Another 19-year-old, Australian Bernard Tomic, defeated the 22nd seed Fernando Verdasco in five sets, coming back from 2-sets-to-love down. I didn’t personally see the match live, although I was catching bits and pieces of it through the TV screens in Hisense Arena. One may say Verdasco’s mental fortitude is questionable, but one must also give credit to Tomic for outlasting Verdasco mentally and physically, given his relative inexperience.

I also saw two sentimental favourites fall – Ivan Ljubicic losing to Lukas Lacko in five sets, and Nikolay Davydenko losing to Flavio Cipolla in five sets. It was never easy to see a favourite lose, and even harder to see the sheer disappointment, frustration and sorrow on their faces after that last ball was struck.

However, the two matches in which I spent majority of my time at would be matches featuring two of my favourite players; and I couldn’t have picked two matches more different.

I’ve been attracted to Alexandr Dolgopolov’s funky game ever since I saw him as a skinny blonde kid playing against Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Masters in 2009. He has developed his game in leaps and bounds since then – yet maintaining that touch of unpredictability that is exciting and breathtaking to watch. At the same time, his impulsiveness in his game translates into inconsistency that can be frustrating to see. And all of that was on display today in his first-round match against Australian Greg Jones.

I actually did not see the first two sets as I was watching player practices and other outside court matches. By the time I was ready to head into Dolgopolov’s match, I found out – much to my chagrin and horror – that he was down two-sets-to-love, and to quote the exact words of my friend, “Crazy (our nickname for Dolgopolov) is playing crazy awful”.

Well – I decided that if he is going to lose, then he will lose in front of me. When I finally got myself a seat at the arena, Dolgopolov had broken in the third set and had just successfully saved breakpoints against him. One would think perhaps all would be right, but then, one could never trust Dolgopolov to be ordinary. Fortunately, he seemed to have found his groove, and aided by a tiring and increasingly nervous Jones as well as his own experience, he breezed though the next three sets in easy fashion.

What I noticed about Dolgopolov throughout this 5-setter where he came very close to a first-round exit, was how calm he seemed about his situation. Although a lot of shots he hit were questionable (and crazy), I never once felt that he hit those shots out of panic. He hit them because he felt that it was the right shot to hit, and when it all went terribly wrong, he simply shrugged his shoulders, tossed his ponytail, and move on. Even as he hit screaming winners from impossible angles that had the pro-Aussie crowd cheering and clapping, he remained strangely apathetic, never really showing any visible expression. He wasn’t completely emotionless – as I’d heard that his error-strewn game elicited a racquet throw at the end of the second set, but most of the time, he was poker-face cool, his show of emotions few and far in between. And perhaps that was what carried him through the match.

The other match I saw would be the Rod Laver Arena main evening attraction, with Roger Federer and Alexander Kudryavstev. One is a 16-time Grand Slam winner, the other mainly thrived in Challenger Tours and was appearing in his debut Australian Open main draw. However, the underdog was hanging in with the champion, matching him shot for shot, sending forehand winners searing cross-court and down the lines, pushing Federer to a 5-all in the first set. With a probability of a tie-breaker looming, Federer upped his ante and roared through Kudryavstev’s last service game, sealing a break to take the set.

In the next two sets, Federer began to find his rhythm in playing his opponent, and despite a drop of serve in the third set, he was never threatened and wrap his first Grand Slam match of the year in straight sets. His win was capped with a hilarious on-court interview where he talked about researching his opponent on the Internet and passing on the responsibility of coaching his twin daughters (should they happen to play and love tennis) to his wife.

The first day of 2012’s first Grand Slam was also very very hot and extremely crowded, but that’s all part of the experience of attending the first day of such a huge event. And it continues again the next day – the top half of the draw, 64 more matches, and undeniably, more drama and more breathtaking tennis.

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.

Federer Triumphant Over Fish as Tsonga Sends Nadal Packing – Live Coverage

by Ahmed Ibrahim

Round Robin formats often lead us down the path of making those calculations of who needs what results to qualify. Thankfully, Thursday’s Group B matches were a rather simple affair: The “dead rubber” and the “last chance saloon” match.

Mardy Fish, already eliminated from qualifying, faced an in-form Roger Federer while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Rafael Nadal battled it out to fill the second qualifying spot of Group B.

Roger Federer picked up where he left off against Rafael Nadal on Tuesday night, with a 6-1 3-6 6-3 win over Mardy Fish.  Early indications suggested that we were headed for another early-finishing match as Federer took the first set in 32 minutes. Breaking Fish in the second game Federer was immediately broken back. He broke Fish twice more to lead 5-1 and served out the first set from being down 0-40 after.

The crowd began to get behind Mardy Fish and he rallied from this to step up his game and broke Federer to lead 3-1 in the second set. Holding serve well as the unforced errors began to creep into Federer’s game Fish held on to take the second set. A third set was what the crowd wanted and Fish prolonged his stay at the O2 Arena.

Losing the second game in the third set Federer held to love to lead 3-0 and was upping the stakes and playing more aggressively, yet was too strong in the end for Fish.

It is good to see Fish bow out with a good fight though with three losses he will feel like he could have had a much better tournament especially after pushing Nadal to the wire on Sunday night. It goes without saying that not many first time ATP World Tour Finalists have taken sets off the former world number 1’s and to do that with both in the same group is a great result.

Whether or not we will see Fish back at the ATP World Tour Finals in years to come, or even next year, is a big question but there is no denying that Fish has had a great year and he thoroughly deserved to be here in London for his first ATP World Tour Finals.

Evidently for Federer his game was not entirely on par with that on Tuesday in his match against Nadal. Obviously not having the pressure of winning to qualify resting on his shoulders allowed to him to be a little bit more relaxed but stay focussed at being aware that Fish would want to walk off court on a high note.

The second match between 2010 finalist Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was a simple win-to-qualify match. This one went all the way to three sets in a 2 hours and 42 minute battle that threatened to leave spectators stranded if they did not catch the final trains from the O2 Arena on time.

Tsonga’s game plan was evident from the start: be aggressive, keep Rafa moving and pick the right moment to execute a winner. This worked well for Tsonga as he produced some fine displays of tennis in all parts of the court. From dictating play from the baseline he unleashed numerous crosscourt backhand winners that left the crowd gasping in awe. His net play was spot on and his dropshots were something out of a textbook.

Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, was looking to forget the beating he took at the hands of Roger Federer on Tuesday night and came out fighting hard. The crowd was pumped up to see a big battle between these two.

Going to a tie-break in the first set it was Tsonga who was too strong for Nadal with a comfortable 7-2 win in that set.

Nadal needed something big in the second set and yet did not appear to pick up the aggressiveness. Tsonga’s service rate dropped to 41 per cent in the second set and Nadal managed to shift the momentum in his favour as Tsonga’s unforced error count started to creep up with his winners count.

Serving to stay in the second set Tsonga played an awful game and his own mental toughness beat him again in a similar fashion to his match against Federer on Sunday.

Nadal failed to seize the momentum as Tsonga raced ahead to lead 5-2 before double-faulting to serve for the match. Stepping it up and going all out aggressive on the Nadal serve landed him up 0-30, a netcord sent the ball out to set up triple match point. Tsonga unleashed a monster cross-court forehand return winner that sealed his qualification into the Semi-Finals alongside Roger Federer.

Clearly, Nadal has not had a great year by his standards, admitting that in press, but his year is still not over as he will compete in the Finals of the Davis Cup in Seville against Argentina. Tsonga’s great year continues having beaten both Nadal and Federer on the grass courts of Queen’s and Wimbledon – can he go all the way in the O2?

Ahmed Ibrahim is the author of the website Tennis Addict. He is in London covering the ATP World Tour Finals as a guest contributor for Tennis Grandstand. Follow his ATP World Tour Finals updates on his personal twitter @TennisAddict_