By Jesse Pentecost
There was a strange, capricious energy to Melbourne this morning. Yesterday’s cruel heat had hardly lost its serrated edge during the night – it was still 35C at 11pm when Petra Kvitova and Laura Robson really got down to hacking at each other in earnest – and it wasn’t until breakfast this morning that the blade was truly dulled. A fitful breeze arrived, ostensibly a cool southerly but really coming at you from everywhere, often with baleful intent.
The first thing I saw upon arriving at Melbourne Park was a sudden gust pluck up a courtside umbrella, leaving the others untouched, and launch it into the back of a nearby man’s head. As far as I could see he hadn’t done anything to offend any nearby deities: he was simply watching Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty hit up. (It could be that he wasn’t demonstrating sufficiently patriotic awe, or had been indulging in impure thoughts of Jason Stoltenberg.) It was a heavy umbrella, and he seemed disappointed that there was no one upon whom to focus his ire. The skyscrapers of downtown Melbourne loomed silent in the middle distance. The clouds tumbled in.
The real answer, I hazard, is that Gael Monfils last night finally ruptured the space-time continuum. (Long-time readers will know that this is my favorite continuum.) Even at the best of times reality struggles to stay with Monfils when he opens the throttle, but as he commenced that inspired sequence of aces to bring up match points and double faults to lose them, the threadbare fabric of the universe finally wore through. Nothing made sense anymore.
This is also my explanation for how I found myself sitting in Hisense Arena watching Agnieszka Radwańska. Certainly no rational decision led me there. As she commenced her warm-up the scoreboard still displayed Monfils’ winning score from last night. As ever Poland’s highest-ranked player set about comprehensively demonstrating the old adage that the person who hits the ball in last is the person who wins the point. Heather Watson, in a recalcitrant mood, was intent on disproving this well-understood rule, but to no avail. History will show that Radwańska’s approach worked better, assuming the goal was to win the match. She won the match.
I toddled out for a turn around the grounds. Serena Williams was launching balls at an improbably handsome young fellow whose identity I never ascertained. I tried but failed to quell the ungenerous thought that Williams, being tennis royalty, will only hit up with tennis players who look like models, if not models who play tennis. A large audience had assembled to watch this unfold. By the time I’d completed a circuit of the complex they’d relocated to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s court, otherwise known as Court 23. The Frenchman was fending off groundstrokes from Thanasi Kokkinakis, and inspiring slogans from Roger Rasheed. Nearby Milos Raonic was nodding his head to serving advice from Galo Blanco. Like I said, it was all a bit strange.
I re-entered Hisense, mainly because it was there, beating Ana Ivanović and Jelena Janković by mere seconds. Their match was probably the best thing I saw all day, conducted in fine spirits, although stray patches of Monfils Madness danced in the air. If you turned your head quickly, you could just about glimpse them, sparkling gaily. As she lead 5/2 30-0 in the first set, Ivanović was enmeshed in one, and lost fifteen consecutive points to trail 5/5 40-0. Then she won another handful of points to break, and eventually serve out the set. The second set was steadier, as the innate lethality of her forehand was matched by steadiness (and occasional virtuosity) on the other wing. Janković, on the other hand, only looked dangerous when she could launch a backhand up the line, which is a perilous shot to live by.
Out in the grounds the nationalist frenzy of the first two days had largely died away, mostly because the Australian players had all lost, although the start of the mixed doubles competition had inspired the flag-wavers to a resurgence of hope. Chris Guccione and Bojana Bousic saved four match points to push Anabel Medina Garrigues and Bruno Soares to a match tiebreak, before falling meekly. The flags fell limp, and the green and gold sombreros drooped in disappointment. Over on Court 6 the mood was morose, as two local doubles teams fell to superior European doubles exponents, including a reunited pairing of Sergiy Stakhovsky and Mikhail Youzhny.
A swelling roar issued from Margaret Court Arena as Julien Benneteau secured the early break from Janko Tipsarević, but I opted instead for Showcourt 3, which was due to host the fiercely anticipated dust-up between Nicolas Almagro and Jerzy Janowicz. Through a tight first set we learned that the Spaniard can more or less match the giant Pole on serve, even in the fitfully prankish breeze, and that what the Polish fans lack in vocal prowess and breadth of repertoire they make up for in devotion and volume. Sadly, it was noise that saw a number of them removed by the police, as they failed fully to heed an official warning to stop rattling the hoardings quite so enthusiastically. It would be wrong to point to this as the moment that Janowicz proved unable to stay with his more loftily-ranked opponent, since he was already trailing by two sets and break. Nonetheless, until that point Janowicz had played Almagro quite close. After that he spiraled away. At least by reaching the third round he has played to his seeding. Almagro will next face Tipsarević, who soon after sealed his second straight five-set win. Expect another long one.
There was nothing more to be done. I’d put it off for long enough. It was time to return to the scene of Monfils’ crime. Hisense Arena beckoned, which is a fairly difficult gesture for a large sports stadium to make. Perhaps I imagined it. It had been a long day. Within, Fernando Verdasco and Kevin Anderson were commencing their fifth set. As I took my seat, both enervated and anxious, I glanced to my left. For a moment, I thought perhaps I glimpsed sparkles, one last pocket of madness in the air. Then I looked at the court, and I knew that madness was precisely what I’d seen.