Off To The Races
January 16, 2011 -- Covering the first major of the year from a desk located light years from Melbourne Park is tricky. Wearing two watches helps, but internal time clocks get all out of whack by the end of the fortnight. But, who cares? This is the beginning of the 2011 tennis year and to blast off with The Australian Open sets the perfect tone.
Yesterday, it was all giggles on Rod Laver Arena as many of the top players came together for Rally For Relief. Currently, according to news from several Australian news outlets, the event has raised over 1.7 million Australian Dollars (AD), which is near parity to US dollars.
People in many parts of Queensland will need every penny as clean up begins in earnest. Rod Laver, a native of Rockingham, the small town in northern Queensland first ravaged by torrents of rain falling at rates up to 3-inches per hour, spoke via video feed to the 15,000 sell-out crowd sitting in, well, his arena. He was heartened to see tennis come together in support, once again, of people that continue to suffer from another natural disaster as did the people of Haiti suffer last year at this time from an earthquake that has taken more than 360,000 lives. Tennis's Hit For Haiti followed.
The upbeat atmosphere will surely wane as players replace smiles with their best game faces. Qualifiers, now done with their task, have had little time for levity. Their four-day ordeal began mid week, and the seriousness of their dream consumed their minds.
Nicholas Mahut, the second part of the Wimbledon marathon match, still has to qualify, as much as many would like to see him get a direct entry given the awesome display during his 11-hour battle against John Isner. But rankings matter and his was 132 when he applied to the tournament for a chance to compete in the first major of 2011. But he has made it through the prerequisite three rounds, taking two of them to three sets, but of course! The Frenchman knows only the struggle.
Mahut faces Argentine Brian Dabul tomorrow, third up on Court 14. Dabul's rank at 109 gives hope to Mahut fans for a win and chance to move on. Some of you could very well remember Dabul from the U. S. Open last year. He lost to Roger Federer the night the Swiss displayed his second-consecutive Open tweener shot -- a deep cross court winner that left Dabul awestruck and the audience on their feet.
Other frequent qualifiers, such as the dangerous Gilles Muller of Luxembourg, fared well, too. Muller is most remembered for his first-round, three-tiebreak-set win over Andy Roddick in the 2005 U. S. Open. It was Muller's first New York night match, and fans weren't happy. Roddick's American buddy Robby Ginepri avenged the six-four lefty Muller in the next round. Then, again in 2008, the lanky Luxembourg man surprised fans, driving a straight course to the U. S. Open quarterfinals where he met Federer and his demise. It was Muller's seventh round, having had to qualify once again.
Americans Ryan Sweeting and Donald Young mastered the qualifications, too. Young showed some new techniques as he barreled by his three opponents without dropping a set. Steve Tignor, reporting live from Melbourne for Tennis.com, wrote that Young has a new service toss and motion that was "'giving him more pop.'" And, "'He made his forehand bend and knuckle and dance with topspin.'"
Young, a top-ranked junior player and someone who has disappointed more American fans more than awed them, has drawn a tough first-round opponent in Marin Cilic (#15 seed). Cilic is beatable. However, Young will have to play consistently tough to get by the Croat.
On the women's side, 19-year-old American Coco Vandeweghe comes by her berth in the main draw almost naturally. The six-foot-one native New Yorker has a mother that represented the United States in swimming in the 1976 Olympics, and in volleyball in 1984. Ernie Vandeweghe played for the New York Knicks in the 1950s. And, her Uncle, Kiki, is the general manager of The Denver Nuggets over at the NBA. He played for UCLA in college. Her genes have been blessed, but her first showing in Melbourne last year had her exiting the grounds after the first round. Nothing comes in easy in tour tennis.
Sania Mirza of India slipped into the main draw, too, her biggest triumph coming in the second round against rising star Stephanie Dubois of Canada. Mirza has been around the tour for ten years, having an up-and-down ride in the WTA rankings. Currently she's ranked 145.
Her name is familiar to tennis fans and the international press, outside the sport. India's conservative Islamic mullahs have condemned her because of the tennis clothes she wears. But her marriage to bad-boy cricket player Shoaib Malik last spring has drawn even more attention. Malik was suspended for a year from his Pakistani team because of a "disastrous winter tour of Australia," wrote Dean Nelson of England's Daily Telegraph blog.
Marriage can settle a soul, which could be the case for Mirza. Kim Clijsters came back and won the U. S. Open as a wildcard after time away to start a family. Perhaps Sania, too, can recover her pique performance that came in 2007.
Whatever direction her run at this year's Australian Open takes, no one can deny her achievement as the first Indian woman to win a major title. She did it alongside countryman Mahesh Bhupathi in mixed doubles at the 2009 Australian Open.