Greetings from down under. It’s been about two months now since our merry band of Powershares Series warriors disbanded for the season. After a much-needed holiday break, it’s always nice to come here to Australia and re-connect with the tennis family – and that includes many of our Powershares Series brethren. Jim Courier, Mats Wilander, Patrick Rafter, Pat Cash and Andre Agassi have all been in Melbourne, and it’s been great seeing all of them.
I’m seeing more of Jim than just about anyone else – not just because we had dinner last week, but because he is one of the lead Analysts for Australian television’s coverage of the Open. Each night after I get off the air for Tennis Channel, I go back to my hotel room and watch Jim work the night shift for Channel 7. As those of you know who have watched his commentary in the states, he has a legitimate gift for this TV thing. Kind of annoying to us mortals when a guy can be so good at so many things.
My take on the Australian Open so far, is that it has gone largely according to script, but has been punctuated by a handful of signature matches and personalities that have made it compelling – as it always seems to be down here. From the start, it seemed unlikely that we would surpass the drama that unfolded on championship weekend here a year ago, wherein Novak Djokovic survived 10 sets and over 10 hours of court time in his semifinal wins over Murray and Nadal to claim the title. But a couple of matches have come close. The Djokovic thriller against Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round has to go down as one of the most riveting tennis matches of the past several years. I am among those who thought Nole was on his way out when he trailed 6-1, 5-2 after about 75 minutes. But then he changed his shoes – and changed his level of play. The guy is a warrior. He is also incredibly flexible and fit and somehow able to survive these incredibly physical encounters over and over again. Full credit to Wawrinka, though. The guy has spent his life living in the very long Swiss shadow of Roger Federer, but he is an outstanding talent in his own right, and one hopes that match propels him into the top-10. His performance against Djokovic has spurred a fun discussion among the commentators down here – who has the best one-handed backhand in tennis today? Wawrinka certainly entered the conversation with that performance. Federer has always been part of it. If you saw Nicolas Almagro’s five-set epic in the quarterfinals against David Ferrer, you have to consider him as well. And of course, Richard Gasquet always gets some votes for technical beauty. What do you think?
I think in terms of breakout stars at this grand slam, there has been one man and one woman who fought through the clutter of 256 names and announced their arrival to the upper echelon of the game. On the men’s side it’s Jerzy Janowicz. The big-serving Pole has been on the periphery of the sport for several years. He had fantastic success as a junior, but never really accomplished much as a pro until he arrived, out of nowhere, in Paris last fall and made it to the final of the Masters-1000 event at Bercy. That vaulted him into the top-30 in the rankings and here in Melbourne he proved he belonged. He only made the third round, but he showed some moxie coming back from 2 sets down in the second round against seasoned pro Somdev Devvarmin, and he put a scare into Almagro stretching him to tiebreaks in their first two sets. Janowicz has a powerful and multifaceted game and a very compelling personal story. He is going to be around for a while.
So is Sloane Stephens. Depending upon how closely you follow tennis, you probably know a little about Sloane. You are about to learn a lot more. Even before her quarterfinal shocker, she was guaranteed to enter the top-20, now she will go even further. Her win over Serena in the quarters may turn out to be a seminal turning point in the timeline of American tennis – the moment the queen was dethroned by the next in the line of succession (okay, perhaps I’m taking the royal metaphor too far). However you want to phrase it, there’s no question that coming through that match was a huge milestone for Sloane. It’s never easy to beat someone whose poster once hung on your bedroom wall. Granted, Serena was physically compromised with back spasms during the match, but take nothing away from Sloane. She WON that match. Serena didn’t lose it. And what’s more about Sloane – she’s the complete package. She is talented, charming, smart, attractive, funny, engaging and personable. She is going to be a Madison Avenue megastar if/when she wins a slam. I actually she believe she will be the biggest female figure in all of American sports marketing. She’s that good. Hope your winter is off to a great start. I hope you’re enjoying the coverage on Tennis Channel. Hope to see you all soon.