Talk about starting off with a bang. The Australian Open is living up to its reputation of spitting out more than a few classic high-quality matches again, and we’ve only just finished opening week. The organisers have done a fine job of replacing Rebound Ace with a court surface that still suits all kinds of players, even though I wish they hadn’t made the change.
What they haven’t done, is change the schedule around a little so not half of the night sessions end past 1 a.m.. This really is something the tournament should look into. Of course, a marathon 5-set match that runs until over 4:30 a.m. is a spectacular feat for the fans, but you can’t tell me it’s in the best interest for the players, or others involved in the Open for that matter (tournament staff, media, to name a few). Here’s a thought: Take out one match from the day session and move it to an outer court. Start the night session half an hour earlier and voila, the crowd won’t need to go out for breakfast anymore straight after the last match.
But, like I said, there’s no denying the Hewitt – Baghdatis match was exciting to watch, not least because you kept thinking, ‘wow, if ‘insert player name’ wins this game/set, this won’t be over before 3:00.. 3:30…’ and so on, before it was finally finished at 4:34 a.m.. Hewitt said in his presser afterwards he didn’t expect to be in bed before 7, 7:30 a.m.. Novak Djokovic, his fourth round opponent, just might have been getting ready for breakfast already by that time. Okay, maybe I’m stretching a little.
Hewitt should have ended the match an hour earlier, when he served for it at 5-1 in the fourth set. At that point, Hewitt had won 9 out of the last 10 games, coming back from 3-5 down in the third. Baghdatis typically folded again when the chips were on the table, while Hewitt c’moned his way back into the match. Knowing he was all but out of the match at 1-5 in the fourth, Baghdatis started to smile and enjoy the time he had left. The Cypriot started hitting some more cheeky shots, and like he said, not think about the score anymore. His ‘tactics’ put Hewitt off-balance and surprisingly the momentum completely shifted again. Baghdatis took the fourth set in a tiebreak, but when he failed to break Hewitt early in the fifth, the Aussie took control again and finished it off 6-3. Baghdatis left the stadium with tears in his eyes, while Hewitt dropped to the court as if he’d won the event. It was the culmination of what could very well go down as the best day of tennis in 2008. If not that, this crazy Saturday will be a strong contender in the ‘longest day of tennis’ category.
Who would’ve thought that Roger Federer would play such a dominant role in making the day last over 17-and-a-half hours. His 10-8 win in the fifth over the inspired aggressive Tipsarevic is the longest five set match Fed has ever played, in terms of the 18-game fifth set. It was incredible to see an in-form Federer being troubled so much by a stern Serb who just kept hammering one shot after another towards the King. Tipsarevic played a perfect tiebreaker to take the first set, but after Federer had tied the score by claiming the second set in a breaker, surely his inexperienced opponent would falter and Fed would run away with the match. Indeed Federer went up an early break in the third set, but a rare weak service game from the Swiss meant Tipsarevic got back on serve straight away and from that point on, he never gave his legendary opponent room to breathe (other than dropping the fourth 6-1, of course). Tipsarevic stuck to his game plan from start to finish, which was to play hard and leave nothing on the table. The most striking part of it all was how he always seemed to really believe in his chances. There was hunger in his eyes, which could be seen even through his thick, science-lab glasses. Nikolay Davydenko, take note.
But no matter how heated things got for Federer, how many times he was picked on by his most loathed enemy (Hawk-Eye), never did he lose his calm. Not after falling behind 2-1 in sets to a guy he was supposed to beat 3-0, not when that same low-ranked, nothing-to-lose opponent was putting immense pressure on the big champion by going ahead 5-4.. 6-5.. 7-6.. and 8-7 in the fifth, not ever. And oh boy, pressure there was. Not just because this was a Grand Slam and Federer was finding himself to be in trouble as early as in the third round, or because Fed never finds himself in these kind of situations, but because his No. 1 ranking was under serious threat. Should Nadal win the tournament and Federer lose before the semis, they change places. But from start to finish, Federer was lethal on his service games, and his delivery was no doubt his biggest asset in his win over Tipsarevic. With 39 aces, he set a personal best record.
All in all, Federer played a very good match, but he was still on the brink of defeat. He partly had himself to blame for that, as only 5 out of 21 breakpoints went his way. Credit Tipsarevic though for never holding back and going for broke whenever, wherever in the match. It wasn’t enough for a Serbian upset, but that might still be in store.
Novak Djokovic, who spoke to Tipsarevic before the match against Federer and undoubtedly had some spirited words for his countryman, is on fire so far and will be heavily favored over Hewitt in their fourth round showdown on Monday night. Hewitt is playing decent, but compared to Djokovic, he is hitting with less pace, producing more unforced errors and should be dented physically after his epic clash with Baghdatis. It’s hard to see Hewitt take more than a set from the in-form Djokovic, but stranger things have happened in matches involving Lleyton. He’s as motivated as ever to do well in front of his home fans.
Some random notes on the first week:
My biggest disappointment was seeing David Nalbandian take to the court for his first round match. Let’s just say the holidays have treated him well and his crashing out to Ferrero came as no surprise. There goes the hype.
Talking about hype, props go out to Casey Dellacqua for getting to the last 16, but her match against Amelie Mauresmo was hard to watch, while Jelena Jankovic should have finished her off 2 and 1. It was nice to see an unexpected surge from a home-grown girl, but don’t get your hopes up Australia. That forehand is just too rocky.
Vaidisova flamed again in a big match. She definitely could have won at least a set from Serena, but is still making the same inexplicable unforced errors as she did two years ago. She gets as pissed off about them as before as well. If she cleans up on those misses and finds some consistency in her game, not to mention straightening out her head, Vaidisova has a very bright future and at least Top 3 potential. There’s still time for that, because even though Vaidisova has made name for herself over the past couple of years, she’s still only 18 years old.
Mikhail Youzhny has a real shot at reaching the final after impressively taking out Nikky D. in straights. Nadal has been solid, but is still vulnerable to a solid attacking player who can stay with him for three-plus sets. I’ll stick with my prediction of Rafa making the championship match though.
Jarkko Nieminen is in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament. So is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It’s not unthinkable Maric Cilic will join that group too. What just happened here?
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