Wednesday, January 15, 2014

While You Were Sweating: Day Four at the Aussie Open So Far

I had plans to make it big tonight. After a few days of watching only a couple of hours of Australian Open coverage daily due to my other job, I was planning on pulling an all-nighter this evening and following the tennis until the early morning hourts. With Nadal, Federer and Murray all taking the court, the possibility of some heat-inspired upsets and a 2 liter of Mountain Dew in the fridge (don't say I don't do it big), this looked to be the type of night where we could make it a tennis party. Alas, the matches have slowed due to the extreme heat and we are left with yawning that could lead to me hitting the hay. But while the players in Melbourne hide from the sun, here are some thoughts on the early play:

It is Really Hot

The early rounds of major tennis tournaments rarely get much, if any, mainstream sports coverage in America. This is especially true of the Australian Open, which falls in the middle of the NFL Playoffs, making it very hard for even Rafa and Roger to compete with Manning and Brady. However the weather in Melbourne is so extreme that tennis is getting into the news, albeit not for play but rather the conditions. Today stories about the heat were a part of all the major sports television and radio shows as commentators used the conditions to describe their aversion to extreme heat. Pictures of players in various stages of duress have lead to heat-porn for those that know little about tennis minus a Grand Slam final.

With all the lead-ins about the extreme heat coming into today, the conditions on Thursday were even more brutal than at any point this week. For the first time, an Extreme Heat Delay was instituted that has stopped play after conditions that commentators were calling some of the worst they had ever seen. The effect could be see on everyone, but especially  Varvara Lepchenko, who struggled so mightily during the second set of her loss to Simona Helep that she began weeping on the court and doctors had to check her blood pressure to confirm her ability to play on. The pictures of the players dealing with the conditions is fascinating from a "train wreck" perspective but it is clearly affecting play to a high degree and causing matches to be played in different ways (primarily with players going for more chances to try and shorten the points). The 2014 Australian Open will be remembered for the early heat, but with the exception of Hewitt/Seppi, it has also prevented any real great matches from taking place. As cooler temperatures come in this weekend, my hope is the match quality inversely increases as well.

Maria Sharapova is a Warrior

The match of the day so far took place at Rod Laver Arena as Maria Sharapova won a grueling three-set thriller over Karin Knapp (I learned during this event that the pronunciation I had always used for Knapp "Nap", was incorrect and I should be saying "Kuh-Nap."  To me that seems like an absurd way to pronounce a name and it is clear that the "K" should be silent...but others would argue that since it is her name, she should pronounce it however she likes. I don't agree but will nevertheless acquiesce.)  The final set was brilliant to watch, as the Extreme Heat Delay was instituted halfway through, but players were first required to finish the set. Both players were obviously exhausted, but came through with some great tennis and both left many chances to close out the match on the court. For Sharapova, a loss would have been particularly devastating as she was unable to convert match points in two games prior to the set completion. Knapp was able to extend the match to extra games, but never able to seriously push on Sharapova's serve late and Maria held on as the temperature reached 108 degrees at completion.

Afterwards, the crowd saluted both players and Sharapova noted that it was the best she had ever seen Knapp play. But for a neutral observer, the takeaway was the amazing fortitude both women showed. The match lasted over three hours (the longest of Sharapova's Grand Slam career) and both players never let their energy wane during the closing games. Because of her beauty and fame, Sharapova never gets credit for the warrior that she is on the court and her dedication to fitness and toughness is often forgotten. For any critics ready to fault her play (and there will be many if she loses, as she almost certainly will, to Serena Williams again), I would hope they would first be forced to watch the third set today on Laver Arena and see her grit in action. Being second (or third now to Azarenka) best is still a worthy accomplishment, especially when it requires performances like the one Maria brought forth this afternoon.

Donald Young Blows it Again

I cheer hard for Donald Young. I don't really know why I do it. From all indications, Young isn't the most likable kid in the world and the two experiences I have had watching him in person have both left negative impressions with me (the way his entourage and he acted at the US Open last August was almost embarrassing). With that said, I still remember his run in the 2011 US Open fondly and there is something about the kid's confident strokes, consistent swagger and perpetually askew hat that makes me want to see him have success. But sometimes he makes it really hard. As I write this, he is on a heat delay on Court 3 in his match with Andreas Seppi, awaiting the deciding fifth set. But I don't need to watch that set, because I know what the result will be. Seppi, the master of the fifth set (7-1 in Grand Slams) is going to handle Young and move on to the Round of 32, escaping a match he should have lost.

How do I know this? Because I have seen this movie before. After playing excellently for the first three sets, leading 2-1 (and dropping the other set in a tiebreak), Young was situated to get a win that could have been a huge leaping point for his 2014 season. He broke Seppi early in the fourth and was serving at 3-2 to put the final pressure on Andreas and close out the match. Instead Young went into bad Donald form, framing three wild forehands during the game, yelling at himself and his entourage in the stands, and wilting under pressure, allowing Seppi to break back. The rest of the set was a mere formality as Young, seeing the Heat Delay coming, went for wildly aggressive shots and quickly was dispatched to even the match at two sets apiece. Fortunately for Young, the heat delay gives him a chance to regroup and still have a fighting shot at the victory, something that would have been impossible had the match gone on. But unfortunately, as much as I root for Young and want to see him get some traction (a win would see him go up against Kei Nishikori in the next round, a match he might be well-suited to compete in), the result is probably a foregone conclusion.

I hope I wake up tomorrow however and find out that I am wrong. Tennis could use a successful Donald Young.