Australian Open Day 8 Review: A Drama In Three Acts
The eighth day of the 2012 Australian Open featured a pair of main-event matches, the kinds of showdowns that figured to leave an imprint on the collective consciousness. One of these matches was quite predictable, but said predictability did not detract from the aesthetic pleasure of the experience. The other heavily-hyped match certainly did become memorable, but in a way nobody could have predicted.
Then, out of left field, came a third match which jumped off the printed page and produced the story many people in the tennis community are talking about with pronounced passion today.
Yes, it was a day for blaring headlines in Melbourne. The first week of sleep-inducing blowouts gave way to the kinds of stories that make the second week of a major so deliciously intense.
We start with the match that had our blog manager and on-site uber-fan, PJ, dying a million deaths in set one but then became a delicious moment for the central figure of admiration on this blog. Roger Federer’s match with Australia’s own Bernard Tomic naturally generated box-office buzz Down Under, and through the first eight and a half games, the two men played on dead-even terms. However, Tomic – so mentally tough for a 19-year-old, as PJ noted in her write-up of Tomic’s match against “Crazy Ponytail” Alexandr Dolgopolov – allowed himself to get unnerved by what he felt was either a bad linecall or his own failure to challenge it at 4-all, 30-all. A double fault followed from the teenager, who served first in the set, and Federer snatched the ensuing break point for 5-4. Wogie McPants tucked away the first set thereafter, and Tomic – with several more hours of court time on his tennis odometer – lost his last, best chance to shape the match the way he wanted to.
In the following two sets, the two men continued to craft brilliant all-court points with a dizzying array of slices and sidespins, plus some thermonuclear-grade crosscourt forehand exchanges on the deuce sides. The two men bended their knees with great care as they shoveled back shots and carved the ball with pronounced elegance. If married people made love to each other the way Fed and Tomic made love to the tennis ball on Sunday night, the global divorce rate would be zero.
In the end, though, Federer – flashing the kind of defense that has carried him to such lofty heights (it was and is the basis for his ascendancy to and ownership of the sport in 2004 through 2007) – was able to handle Tomic’s change of pace and absorb the 19-year-old’s most vicious forehands. Federer added an effective dropshot and a full arsenal of weapons to show Tomic – who was still impressive in defeat – how to use a whole toolbox of skills, not just a few. Tomic provided a change of pace; Federer provided a change of shot. That – plus Federer’s superior court coverage – made the difference.
31 straight major quarterfinals for McSquishy it is. Yawn.
PJ will have more to say about Wogie’s colossal quarterfinal clash with Juan Martin del Potro in the next 36 hours, but let me set the scene for this monster matchup: Delpo has not made a major quarterfinal since his U.S. Open title run in 2009. His time away from the sport, due to his wrist injury and other bangs and bruises, would seem to make him a clear underdog against Federer. However, the story of del Potro is a story of quick learning, of massive adjustments made in a short period of time. If you think Delpo’s not ready to win this match, it’s worth recalling how the Fed-Delpo drama unfolded in three distinct acts back in 2009.
Federer and Delpo met three times at the majors in 2009. In Melbourne, Federer wiped the big, loveable Argentine off the court, conceding only three games and handing out two bagels. It seemed then that Delpo would need to take a long time – at least a few years – to reach Federer on two different levels: first, in terms of playing a game that was well-rounded enough to win late-stage major-tournament matches; second, possessing Federer’s consummate belief in his own abilities. Del Potro had a lot of work to do three years ago at this point on the calendar. The road ahead appeared to be steep and long.
Then came Paris, the turning point in the histories of these two men and a warm memory for both. Del Potro – to borrow a Federerian phrase – “gathered information” with evident skill, because he knocked Roger’s block off in two of the first three sets of their French Open semifinal. Federer was caught off guard by a Delpo forehand that powered through the clay court much as Robin Soderling’s groundies had overwhelmed Rafael Nadal just a few days earlier. However, Federer still found the answer for the Tower of Tandil: He lost stacks of points with the drop shot through the first three sets, but his repeated use of the tactic took away Delpo’s legs. A fitter, fresher Federer was betterer and clutcherer in the final two sets. Delpo made one last big push from a 1-3 final-set deficit to level the match at 3-all, but the Argentine’s legs ran out of steam, and Federer produced the decisive finishing kick he needed. Two days later, Wogie secured what will always be his greatest victory by beating Soderling in the final.
Delpo, though, had served notice: He had arrived. He was ready.
In New York, he proved it.
Down a set and 5-4, 30-love, on Federer’s serve? No problem. Delpo received a donated point at 30-love and then cranked his groundies to win three straight spectacular points for a break of serve that enable him to win a second-set tiebreak. Federer, no shrinking violet in this match of high quality, took the third, but Delpo didn’t wilt in the final two sets this time around. It was he who found the finishing kick. He took a little speed off his first serve but focused on accuracy and placement. The move saved Delpo’s right shoulder, making the move a brilliant display of self-awareness and energy conservation. Yet, that weighty first serve was still enough to give Delpo leverage on his service points. He dug out another tiebreaker to claim the fourth set, and when Federer’s game broke down in the fifth, Delpo became the first (and only) man not named Nadal to beat Federer in a major final.
In Melbourne, he was embarrassed. In Paris, he lost at the wire. In New York, he conquered all. Federer is the favorite in this upcoming quarterfinal, but no one – no one – should underestimate Juan Martin del Potro, the quick study of South America.
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We continue with the most dramatic match of the day, Kim Clijsters’s back-from-the-dead three set win over Li Na in a rematch of last year’s women’s final at Rod Laver Arena. Clijsters rolled her ankle (watch out, Novak Djokovic…) at 3-all in the first set and needed extensive taping during a subsequent medical timeout. Clijsters’s movement was limited in the first set, and the reigning French Open champion tucked away the opening stanza. It was hard to imagine Clijsters finding the range of movement needed to win a three-set match, but as the battle developed, it became apparent that while Clijsters was not 100 percent, she felt less apprehensive in her court coverage. The four-time major champion loosened up mentally as well as physically. The second set was fought on very even terms, so when the two players worked their way to a tiebreak, Na needed to close the sale and avoid a third set. When she took a 6-2 lead, the match appeared to be over.
Then again, as the Federer fans on this blog know all too well, Roger trailed Andy Roddick by a 6-2 score in another second-set tiebreak, the one that turned around the 2009 Wimbledon gentlemen’s singles final. In that tiebreak, the 6-5 point was the point seared into the cranial region of tennis fans everywhere. In this match, the 6-5 point proved to be just as unforgettable. Clijsters hit a decidedly mediocre drop shot that sat up for Na, who approached the ball well inside the service box and merely needed to sweep the ball to an open crosscourt location. Clijsters remained on her deuce side of the court; Na just had to go to the ad court and head to the quarterfinals. Instead, she hit the ball back to Clijsters, who floated a lob over Na’s head for 6-6. The next two points went the Belgian’s way, and Na couldn’t handle the enormity of her failure. Clijsters rolled to a 5-1 lead, wobbled near the finish line, but then closed the sale at 5-4 by serving out the match.
The confluence of epic choke and bold comeback in the same match packed enough of a wallop on its own right; that the principals met in last year’s Australian Open final and had covered themselves in major-tournament glory only amplified the poignancy of the occasion. Several years ago, before her first retirement in an attempt to start a family, Clijsters memorably coughed up a massive third-set lead against Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Now, in her second tennis life, she has often found the fortitude needed to become the comeback artist and flip the script in these kinds of big-stage battles. It’s a sweetly redemptive narrative for a woman who has so profoundly changed the way she’ll be remembered for her on-court achievements.
The postscript to this match, however, is a sad one. In the post-match press conference, a Chinese journalist asked Na how she felt about “not having enough energy to finish the match?” Mind you, Na – down 1-5 in the third – rolled off three straight games and forced Clijsters to serve out the match under considerable pressure. The match, at its end, was decided by the minimum allowable margin (for a non-U.S. Open match, given the lack of a tiebreak): two games in the final set, with the winning game being won by the minimum margin, two points. You can question Li Na’s mental toughness, but not her stamina or desire. It was little wonder, then, that Na – a major champion – walked out of the presser in tears after considering just how unfair that question really was. Kim Clijsters’s final Australian Open received a beautifully memorable moment, but what makes tennis such a viciously cruel mistress is that there’s always someone on the other side of the net who has to absorb a loss, in this case, a loss that could derail an entire year. It will be fascinating to see how Li Na handles this.
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We close with the incident that got Australians and tennis devotees talking well into the Melbourne afternoon, the European morning, and the North American night (among other places and times). In a frozen-in-time moment laden with a McEnroe-Lendl kind of vibe, Nicolas Almagro – just trying to win a professional tennis match – went to the body of Tomas Berdych with a shot hit on an approach to net in the latter stages of a fierce (and very high-quality) fourth-round throwdown won by Berdych in four entertaining sets. The shot smacked Berdych in the arm, but the damage found its way to the Czech’s ego. When Berdych closed down the 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 win, he refused to shake Almagro’s hand at net, perceiving an insult when he didn’t need to. The Australian crowd at Hisense Arena thunderously booed Berdych, and when Tennis Australia foolishly allowed a post-match in-house interview to take place on court, anything Berdych had to say was drowned out (audibly) and washed away (cognitively and emotionally) by the cascade of boos that continued to ring throughout the building.
The reaction on Twitter and television was swift and robust. Australians pride themselves on their contribution to tennis etiquette, and rightly so. The old-school ethos of Laver and Emerson and Rosewall and Roche and Hoad and Newcombe did not take offense to shots played into the body. It viewed competition as necessarily vigorous and something to shake hands about afterward (often followed by a cold beer). Australians were not being petty or personally hateful in their response to Berdych; they felt that their equivalent of an honor code had been violated on native soil. The way people processed this situation was and is fascinating, and a few words (though not too many) deserve to be written about it.
There are two basic points to make about this little dust-up: Point number one is that Berdych was and is completely wrong for taking Almagro’s actions personally, as some kind of offense, and for allowing that moment to prevent him from shaking Almagro’s hand. Almagro — UNLIKE FERNANDO GONZALEZ IN THE 2008 OLYMPIC SEMIFINALS AGAINST JAMES BLAKE! — didn’t lie or cheat his way into a crucial point. Almagro didn’t do what Bernard Tomic did against Alexandr Dolgopolov, plainly signaling for a challenge but then playing on and retracting his request in a moment of blatant dishonesty. It’s no secret that on this Federer fan blog, Berdych – not Djokovic – is the most reviled person on the ATP Tour, and this match showed why. The Czech has never come across as a particularly smart or mentally nimble fellow, and this match confirmed as much.
With that said, here’s a second point worth reflecting on: Berdych’s clear and pathetic violation of tennis’s behavioral code – ugly as it is – is still not some kind of capital crime against humanity. This is not a defense of Berdych – he was fully in the wrong for how he behaved, full stop. (As a side note, I like the fact that if he DID indeed feel that Almagro was being vicious – again, a woefully errant thought on his part – he didn’t engage in a handshake that would have been manifestly insincere. If you don’t respect your opponent, the handshake at net seems dishonest, doesn’t it? We could get a nice little debate going in the comments section on this. It would be a fascinating discussion…) Yet, while Berdych made an utter horse’s rear end of himself on this afternoon, let’s step back. He violated a code of behavior and etiquette. He failed to respect his opponent by taking competition way too personally and not appreciating the notion that Almagro was just trying to win a match.
He did not, however, use steroids.
He did not bet on the match.
He did not cheat to win a point.
He disgraced himself, yes, but not the game of tennis. He brought down his (already-low) standing in the tennis community, but he didn’t give a black eye to the sport. When we talk about misdeeds by athletes and other public figures, let’s keep Berdych’s actions in a properly larger context.
Enjoy the second week of the Australian Open, everyone. The lineup of blockbuster matches is growing as we speak.