Trust the most epic contests of the Australian Open so far to take place when I couldn’t afford to sacrifice my sleep to witness them. The ability to record matches is a wonderful thing, but nothing will ever beat the thrill and uncertainty of watching the story unfold live, and highlights will never give an accurate representation of the events.
At least there are almost certain to be more of them.
Looking at the final scores of the day, it is hard to say that any of the final outcomes was particularly unexpected. But few could have expected 22-year-old college tennis player Mackenzie McDonald to give world no. 3 Grigor Dimitrov a run for his money. While far from legendary status, the Bulgarian is in possibly the best form of his career at present. The one-handed backhander stormed to the semifinals here last season, and is playing with new confidence and purpose after shock a ATP Finals victory at the end of last season. Meanwhile, McDonald was a relative unknown, with a world ranking of world no. 175. His four set defeat of Next Gen star Elias Ymer in the first round was no indication of the trouble he could cause.
Coach Dani Vallverdu’s instinctive reactions to Dimitrov’s mistakes throughout the match was enough to tell anyone that the no. 3 seed did not produce his best showing on Wednesday night. But all the talk was that McDonald was playing out of his skin. A fourth set bagel over a top five opponent – especially one set from defeat – does not happen by accident, and the excitement surrounding the young player was evident.
Only time will tell if McDonald can use this almost-win as a launchpad for further success. And for Dimitrov, only time will tell whether his 4-6 6-2 6-4 0-6 8-6 escape does more good for his Australian Open campaign than a straight sets win ever could have done. If he comes up against the likes of Rafael Nadal (who knocked him out in a five set marathon last season), he could end up better prepared for a tense battle than his opponent. But he could do with winning more than 28 per cent of his second serve points if he’s to come through again.
Another hyped up player who was not so fortunate as to survive her second round encounter was nonseeded Belinda Bencic: victor over Venus Williams in round one. And actually, the Swisswoman did not even come close to round three. Facing Luksika Kumkhum – the qualifier who has twice kicked Petra Kvitova out of the Australian Open – Bencic won a mere four games as she tumbled out of the competition, snapping her win streak at a grand total of 16 matches.
A common theme over the years – especially at Grand Slams – has been someone playing the match of her life to upset either Venus or Serena Williams, and then immediately bowing out in the ensuing round. Tsvetana Pironkova, Sloane Stephens, Anna-Karolina Schmiedlova and Roberta Vinci are just a handful of the active players who have experienced this fate. It is as if the previous triumph has mentally and physically taxed the player with a greater extremity than victory over another opponent would have done.
One certain thing is that Bencic’s one hour 18 minute stumble means the bottom half of the draw – already far emptier than the top half – is seriously lacking in standout names.
In fact, it even looks feasible that 15-year-old Marta Kostyuk could make a big impact at this event. The Ukrainain won the junior event in Melbourne last season, and has been swinging freely and striking aggressively to become the first 15-year-old into a Grand Slam third round since Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in 1997.
Without a doubt, Kostyuk’s draw has been favourable. Her opening win came against one-time major semifinalist (and out-of-form) Shuai Peng, and Australian wild card Olivia Rogowska was the woman under all the pressure during their clash in the last 16. The 26-year-old went down in straight sets to the youngster on Margaret Court Arena, landing a mere 55 per cent of first serves.
But this takes nothing away from Kostyuk’s remarkable – and continuing – run. Making full use of her wild card into qualifying, the world no. 521’s three wins prior to the main draw were clearly the confidence booster that she needed to go for her shots and carry herself with the maturity displayed so far in Melbourne. And this recent interview with the WTA suggests that the 15-year-old – while she may not be set on a straight course up the rankings just yet – is in a great head space.
Another player who is having no trouble staying calm and ploughing through the draw is top seed Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard dropped a mere three games during his opening win over Victor Estrella Burgos, and although he was pushed much closer by long-time ATP player Leonardo Mayer, Nadal is yet to drop a set in 2018. Mayer hit eight more winners and 11 more aces than his legendary opponent, but apparently that is nowhere near enough against a man with the defensive capabilities of Nadal.
The 31-year-old was broken for the first time this tournament as he served for victory – which he eventually claimed 6-3 6-4 7-6(4). But while I’m not about to spend hours digging around for the exact statistics, I doubt that Nadal has won more than a couple of Slams where this has not occurred en route. Ahead of a clash with no. 28 seed Damir Dzumhur, the 2009 champion has little to worry about in terms of his current form.
OTHER STUFF FROM DAY THREE
THE MOST IMPRESSIVE WINNER OF DAY THREE was undoubtedly (in my book) no. 15 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – who possibly read my account of his dangerous encounters with brainfreeze and decided to teach me a lesson.
While Grigor Dimitrov also came through a five set epic against a zoning young opponent, Denis Shapovalov – even at the young age of 18 – has achieved more in the past six months than Mackenzie McDonald has in his whole career. A Masters 1000 semifinalist in his home country last season, Shapovalov drew further acclaim by dashing Tsonga’s US Open hopes in straight sets in round two.
Wednesday presented the perfect opportunity for the Frenchman to exact revenge, but it was going to be immensely difficult. From his confidence to his cross-court backhand to his all-court ability and firepower, the young Canadian was one of the toughest early foes Tsonga could have drawn.
But the 32-year-old did something on Wednesday that hints he could be about to do something special in Melbourne – something he has not done for a long time at a major tournament. He rose to the occasion. He responded to opposing winners with his own winners, and brought out the vintage quality that has seen him to triumphs over the best in the game in the biggest moments. And in the most impressive section of the match, he came from 5-2 down in the final set to secure a 3-6 6-3 1-6 7-6(4) 7-5 victory.
It was one that appeared to mean far more than any other second round win would. Twice last season, Tsonga fought to get back on serve in the latter stages of a Grand Slam encounter – only to get broken as he attempted to level the match. But at the scene of his first taste of Slam success, the magic seems to be returning – just in time for another top draw collision.
Nick Kyrgios is up next.
THE MOST IMPRESSIVE COMEBACK OF DAY THREE could have been Tsonga’s – but he didn’t save match point. Caroline Wozniacki, meanwhile, saved two of them.
While she has spent many weeks atop the rankings during her career, Wozniacki is yet to win a major trophy – and there had been talk that this was a key opportunity for the defending WTA Finals champion to break through.
On Wednesday, the world no. 2 was twice a point away from exiting the proceedings, as she fell behind 5-1 to 21-year-old Jana Fett in the third set of their encounter. But by the end of the day, the Dane was looking a serious contender raise the trophy, thanks to her immense calm and resolve in an impossible-looking situation.
Fett certainly faltered inches from victory, but Wozniacki identified the situation – and she adjusted as necessary. Only four seeded players are left in the bottom quarter of the draw. And if she plays smart, no. 7 seed Jelena Ostapenko – and her firepower that would take the match off Wozniacki’s racquet – should be her only real threat.
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