Hot Time of Melbourne
January 20, 2009 -- Nine five-set matches. Temperatures of 105 degrees off court and upward of 125 degrees on court! Young hopefuls fading in the stretch. Lleyton Hewitt, Australia's wildcard hope for a title, goes out in five.
That about sums up day two at The Australian Open. Oh, and the news that James Blake, plus Venus and Serena Williams advanced to the second round, after a devastating day of exits yesterday from Americans.
It was an inspired James Blake (#9 seed) who defeated lucky loser Frank Dancevic in straight sets 64 63 75. With a new clothing deal from FILA and a lengthy rest from match play, the American put his foot to the metal in this opening round match. In the third set he broke early, but lost that edge nearly as soon as he got it. But he came right back with another break, making it very clear to the Canadian and the screaming fans that he wasn't there to waste time, for example in a five-set encounter that would tire him for upcoming rounds.
Although Blake has never made it past a quarterfinal at The Australian Open, or any other Grand Slam for that matter, he should be watched carefully here. He didn't play Davis Cup in Madrid last fall and he didn't travel to Shanghai for the Tennis Masters Series. He was tired and needed a break. Before today's match, he had competed only at The Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, earlier this month. That's it. He arrived in Melbourne ten days early to acclimate to the heat and conditions. If rest and relaxation prove to be the refreshment James needed to re-start his engines then the best of his talents will be revealed.
With Melbourne newspapers headlining the inauguration of President Obama, Blake's candor about his excitement was apparent as he told reporters, "I think it's a positive change," referring to the new President and the issues he and the country confront.
The Williams sisters were more demure in their political comments. As Jehovah Witnesses they do not vote and keep any political leanings to themselves, in most cases. However, both women were expectant of the changes as a result of Obama's rise to the White House, mentioning their parents and their childhoods in the South, an inference to the lopsided culture they most probably grew up in.
Lleyton Hewitt returned to the courts today as a wildcard entry for his beloved home country. Much can be said for the luck of the draw. However, Hewitt's opponent couldn't have been more unlucky -- Fernando Gonzalez. On paper either player could have won. Gonzalez is streaky and prone to implode when matches don't go as expected. However, as the 13th seed Gonzalez had even more to prove.
Their match went the five-set distance. In the fifth at 3/2 Hewitt, Gonzalez cramped. He called the trainer and took a five-minute medical time out. Commentators at ESPN reported that when the match resumed, it was over before the first ball was struck. Hewitt had lost his rhythm and concentration, and Gonzalez played as if nothing had happened, although sources confirm the cramps were real.
Too bad for Australia that Hewitt again disappointed. However, the population cannot be serious about plopping their eggs in the Tomic or Stosur basket -- two more Aussie stars. If they do... well, they will all sigh in unison when the sixteen-year-old Tomic most probably flops on his face in front of thousands of expectant fans. He's just too young and inexperienced to go too far in a Grand Slam event.
Next up for the youngster, though, is a sure draw spoiler Gilles Muller of Luxembourg who took out #27 seed Feliciano Lopez in five sets -- 16/14 in the fifth. Muller also stopped Andy Roddick in the first round of the U. S. Open in 2005 to the surprise of Roddick, for one, and 22,000 unruly evening-session fans packed in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Last summer at the Open Mueller re-appeared after years on the satellite circuit, making it to the quarterfinals where Roger Federer set him packing.
Maybe Bernard Tomic will reverse things on Gilles tomorrow, showing the gangly lefty what tennis feels like from the new kid on the court. This match is second up on Rod Laver Arena Wednesday. All eyes will be upon the Aussie up-and-comer. He'll just have to maintain his focus and shrug off the pressure, something Lleyton Hewitt could never do even after a decade on the tour.
Rafael Nadal, the #1 seed, made his debut today, drubbing Christopher Rochus 60 62 62 in just over an hour and a quarter. Interestingly enough Nadal holds the best record in tennis while Rochus holds the worse record in tennis. Some matches are a sure bet.
Rafa Nadal plays Roko Karanusic of Croatia next. Currently ranked #92 on the South African Airways ladder, the 27-year-old has nothing to lose in his match with the Spaniard. That's the problem with early rounds of a Grand Slam. The lower ranked guys come out loose and swinging, figuring -- and rightly so -- that their chances are only as good as their willingness to step up and show everyone what they came to do -- compete. Good luck Rafa and Roko!
Outside the courts, along the walkways at Melbourne Park record crowds have gathered over the first two days of competition. However it's a relief to learn that with so much enthusiasm, high temperatures, and love of the game fans don't feel cramped for space. One observer noted that he didn't have to wait in line for food, a cool drink, or the toilet. He also added that he and his friend could walk up to any one of the outlying courts and get a great view of the match. "Things are really spread out," he added with a smile. "It's great to be in Melbourne now."
On an ending note, Andrei Pavel announced his retirement from tennis today. He was playing in his 41st Grand Slam. He retired in the third set against Andy Murray, when a recurring back injury caused undue pain. His doctor had told him last February that he had better "forget any more top flight tennis," as reported in Bob Larson's Business News this afternoon. Andrei Pavel reached a career-high ranking of 13 in 2004. He will now coach the Romanian Davis Cup team.