by Pey Jung Yeong, Special for Tennis Grandstand
Third day of a Slam. 64 singles’ matches slashed down to 32 singles’ matches. 64 men and 64 women left in draw. It may “only” be the second round, but each player was adamant that they will bring their best tennis – as a win means one step further and one step closer.
The men’s 5-set matches were the talk of the day at the Open. While the seeded women had little difficulty dispatching their opponents – Kim Clijsters and Vika Azarenka serving up especially devastatingly good performances – the seeded men were the ones that struggled. Not Rafael Nadal; he dispatched veteran Tommy Haas neatly in straight sets. Not Roger Federer; his opponent Andreas Beck withdrew with an unfortunate back injury, giving him a free pass to the third round.
13th seed Alexandr Dolgopolov was the first seed to emerge victorious from his five-setter against Tobias Kamke, a match that was both brilliant and disastrous, for when Dolgopolov was good, he was breathtaking, but when he was bad, it was a train wreck of epic proportions. He didn’t play badly in the first set, but a couple of poorly played points gave the set to Kamke as Dolgopolov seemingly struggled with breathing problems. However, he soon steadied himself and put on a wonderful show of shot-making to get himself to a 2-sets-to-1 lead. And then it all went horribly wrong in the fourth. His first serve left him, his forehand left him, and for most part of the set, his brain left him. Faced with a match-point on his serve 6-5 in the final set, he managed to steel himself to save the match point. With the adrenaline and momentum on his side, he broke Kamke’s serve the next game, and then served the match out.
Remember what I said about his apathetic demeanour on Monday? Today I discovered Alex Dolgopolov cares a lot more than he led people to believe. It was truly the first time I see signs of really obvious frustrations: the way he berated himself, constantly muttering under his breath and at one point, even smashed a racquet, earning a code violation. He’ll need all the fire he can muster for his next round match, against Bernard Tomic, an opponent he has beaten three times, and a player who plays the game just like he does. But Dolgopolov will also need to play against the crowd of Rod Laver Arena, who most certainly would be supporting their countryman.
Onward to John Isner, the 16th seed. Nicknamed “The Marathon Man”, there’s something about his name that is synonymous with “long 5-setters”. And again, he engaged in another 4-hour battle today with veteran Argentinean David Nalbandian. By the time the men launched into their 5th set, the word around Melbourne Park was that this will be a classic. Ticket holders to the coveted Rod Laver Arena (where Bernard Tomic was playing Sam Querrey) abandoned their seats and made their way towards the smaller court. Soon, long long queues were formed outside the entrances, people desperate to get a seat but yet there was not even one seat left in the house. Inside the arena, the men continued to play. The atmosphere was electrifying, each shot, each point earning loud cheers and YES and COME ON from the crowd. They were both given chances to break, but neither was able to capitalise on it. It would be Isner who eventually prevailed after a heart-stopping rally right in front of the net.
Truly disappointing for Nalbandian, and even more so when one considered that an ace made by Isner late in the set at deuce was in fact not an ace at all. Controversy soon arose as the umpire, Kader Nouni, immediately called the score after the serve, even as Nalbandian made the gesture to challenge. He was then surprisingly denied the opportunity, with Nouni claiming that the challenge was not made “in a timely manner”. Nalbandian was furious, argued for ages with Nouni as well as the tournament supervisor amidst cat-calls, boos and cheers from the packed arena, but ultimately the original call stood.
At that time, I had a sinking feeling that the match was not going to go Nalbandian’s way and alas, I was proven right. Could Nalbandian have won if he was allowed to challenge (hence giving Isner a second serve instead of an ace)? To be honest, that is something that we will never find out, so I think it may be the best not to dwell on it, especially if you are Nalbandian or his fan.
And lastly, 10th seed Nicolas Almagro was taken to the distance by youngster Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov has been heralded by many as one of the future stars of tennis, and on the day, he showed what he was capable of as he led the more experienced Almagro by 2-sets-to-1. But as it went, this is a Grand Slam, and Dimitrov could not keep up for best-of-5. Overcame by cramps and getting increasingly tired, Dimitrov faded away after an impressive showing, and Almagro capitalised on his experience to eventually prevail in 5 sets.
The last match of the day, on Margaret Court Arena, had 5 sets written all over it, when one considers the fact that Marcos Baghdatis is playing, for the Cypriot is infamous for setting the stage for 5-setters. He played Stanislas Wawrinka, often underappreciated, in my opinion, for he has to contend with his more stellar compatriot Roger Federer. From the moment the first ball was struck, it did seem like it was going to distance. Long rallies, sizzling winners, miscalculated errors were rampant.
Baghdatis was denied the first set when he was serving for it, and Wawrinka was denied the third set (which would have given him the match) when he was serving for it. The Wawrinka fans, waving red and white flags were drowned out by the rowdy and rambunctious Baghdatis fans, who cheered after every Baghdatis winner and every Wawrinka error. When Wawrinka failed to close out the match in the third set, I honestly thought this was going to finish in 5-sets. But that plan was not in Wawrinka’s agenda, as he seized his opportunities early in the fourth set, and broke Baghdatis 3 times to seal the match (and Baghdatis broke 4 racquets in comparison).
It was truly an outstanding day at tennis, and the heart and guts of these men were literally on display as they fought and clawed their way to their victories. But as said, this is “only the second round”. There are still many matches to be played, and many battles to be forged.
Pey Jung Yeong is in Melbourne covering the Australian Open and writes for the tennis blog All I Need is a Picket Fence. You can follow her updates on twitter here.
by Pey Jung Yeong, Special for Tennis Grandstand