The Australian Open second round is over for another year – and not even half of the women’s seeds have survived the past four days.
(Did I hear something about needing 16 seeds to achieve more interesting early clashes?)
And while many clinical showings have taken place, 48 of the 96 men’s matches contested so far (for the non-mathematicians, like myself, that’s exactly half) have extended beyond a straight sets scoreline.
(Repeat that line about how best-of-five set matches are unnecessary?)
While tennis is obviously central at the season’s first Grand Slam, factors which have impact on the game – e.g, questionable umpiring – are always going to create headlines as the show goes on. And two ‘issues’ were well publicised on Day Four in Melbourne.
Given that it’s freezing and raining over here in the UK, it’s hard to imagine the heat being anything but a pleasure right now. Still, I’ve yet to hear anyone speak of it fondly in Melbourne.
The Australian Open has never quite begun until some heat-fuelled controversy has hit the tour/media/Twitter. Right on cue, the court inside Rod Laver Arena warmed to a crazy 69 degrees Celsius on Thursday, as six-time champion Novak Djokovic and athletic Frenchman Gael Monfils went head-to-head in the afternoon. The latter suffered from the temperatures, later saying that he was “dying on the court”, and it contributed to his loss from a set and a break to the good against the no. 14 seed. The Doha champion eventually fell 4-6 6-3 6-1 6-3.
This is not intended to take away from Djokovic’s triumph. The Serb was in the exact same conditions as his opponent, and visibly oppressed by the intense heat, but did not let that deter him from approaching the net and competing to win. Both players covered the entirety of the court during their two hour 45 minute duel, compiling an impressive highlights reel – but the stats were not pretty. Both outweighed aces with double faults and winners with unforced errors, but Monfils’ numbers were too negative to make him a real threat to rise victorious in the latter stages. For all his splendid pick-ups and court coverage, the world no. 34 hit 65 unforced errors in total: almost double the number of his 34 winners.
And the duo on Rod Laver Arena were not the only players to feel the affects of the heat. While I never expected her to win the tournament – due in part to her struggles with the conditions in Australia – it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that world no. 3 Garbine Muguruza was dumped out proceedings on Thursday.
In her first tournament of the season, in Brisbane, Muguruza collapsed on court and was forced to withdraw from her second match after reacting badly to the warm conditions. Nothing so dramatic happened in Melbourne, but the Spaniard’s 7-6(1) 6-4 loss to world no. 88 Hsieh Su-Wei – a doubles star who has, frankly, never accomplished anything top draw in singles – happened to occur in the middle of a day featuring extremes of heat.
Hsieh, 32, plays with a two-handed grip on both her forehand and backhand side. Against Muguruza, she achieved great placement, with her floating groundstrokes often dropping into the court – and, indeed, onto the lines – when they looked likely to drift long.
Muguruza struggled. Her 43 unforced errors betray the fact. And while her absence opens up the top half of the draw ever so slightly, those left in contention will surely be campaigning for a stronger use of the heat rule – after Djokovic stated conditions on Thursday were “right on the limit”.
One player who did not struggle under the blazing Australian sun was Roger Federer. The world no. 2 sailed into the second round on Tuesday, but two days later faced a potential test in big-serving, big-hitting Jan-Lennard Struff. Indeed, the German’s ability to swing freely and go for more in the final games of the contest nearly took the match into a fourth set.
Federer was not clinical, as 30 unforced errors suggests, and Struff’s aggressive mindset saw him blast many a forehand winner down the line. Nevertheless, the 36-year-old was present in the big moments, with many flashes of genius throughout. Pushed, but not fussed, the five-time champion faced only three break points during the one hour 55 minute clash.
The most-talked-about action actually came after the match, when on-court interviewer Jim Courier asked Federer if he had requested to be scheduled for the night session for a second successive match.
The crowd murmured uneasily. A good proportion of them were probably aware that this was already a controversial subject: online wars breaking out over the fact that Djokovic – freshly returned from injury – was subject to the burning atmosphere, whilst Federer chilled in the twilight in comparison.
Federer answered the way he generally does, grinning broadly as he articulated his story. Yes, he had asked, and yes, he probably had more of an impact on the decisions of tournament organisors than many other players.
But, the no. 2 seed pointed out, the final say always belongs to the team drawing up the schedule. Whatever the 19-time Slam champion requests, he cannot force it into being.
Keeping it brief, I will reiterate what I have already said elsewhere today. Yes, I believe it is a little unfair that Federer was scheduled at night for six of his seven matches in Melbourne last season. Things such as court allocation, and the time of day at which one is competing, can factor during a tournament. Too many switches of atmosphere jolt the rhythm. And, of course, a sweltering day like Thursday is going to throw up more difficult conditions than a cooler evening would.
Nevertheless, the defending champion should not have felt the need to defend his actions. In a similar manner to Maria Sharapova requesting wild cards on her return from a drug ban, and Andy Murray requesting a Monday start at the ATP Finals, players are going to do whatever they can – wherever the rules allow it – to help themselves achieve the best results possible. When you want something badly enough, you will attempt everything you can to make it happen. If that rule applies to all of life, it has to apply to tennis.
Whether you like what Federer requested – while completely within his rights, I shall add – is your personal opinion. But if one insists on pointing fingers, they can only go in the direction of those who gave the green light.
OTHER STUFF FROM DAY FOUR
THE BEST MEN’S UPSET OF DAY FOUR goes to world no. 97 Tennys Sandgren: one of only a handful of Americans left in the Australian Open men’s draw, and better known for his long-time presence on the ATP Challenger Tour than anywhere else. The 26-year-old had never won a Grand Slam match heading into the Melbourne fortnight, but his 6-2 6-1 6-4 demolition of 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka – the world no. 8 – came on the back of years of grinding.
True, Wawrinka – returning to tour after surgery having contemplated retirement – was clearly hindered by his knee throughout the match. But it takes a decent mental game to win three straight sets over a top ten opponent, and being aware that the opponent is struggling can often be more of a hindrance than a help. Sandgren deserves his moment in the spotlight.
THE BEST WOMEN’S UPSET OF DAY FOUR was lucky loser Bernarda Pera’s defeat of world no. 9 Johanna Konta. And it’s safe to say that pretty much nobody saw it coming.
Another American with zero major wins to her name entering Melbourne (you get the feeling that Pera and Sandgren can only last as long as each other now), world no. 123 Pera defied the odds to make British journalists’ worst nightmares materialise on Thursday. Konta made her breakout run to the Aussie Open semifinals in 2016, and backed that up with a last eight showing in 2017 – but she acknowledged she was not physically ready for Thursday’s match in the brutal conditions. Pera’s 6-4 7-5 victory makes her the first lucky loser into a Grand Slam third round since 1997.
Funny how that year keeps cropping up this week…
THE MOST COMMENDABLE EFFORT OF DAY FOUR goes to top seed Simona Halep. Beating Eugenie Bouchard in straight sets is made to look fairly easy these days, but the Romanian didn’t even know if she would be able to compete after badly rolling her ankle during the first round. Nevertheless, the world no. 1 is yet to drop a set Down Under one 6-2 6-2 triumph later.
And there’s still a good opportunity for her to finish the fortnight On Top.
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