Simona Halep is the current world No. 1 in women’s tennis and has spent 64 weeks at the summit of the rankings.
The Romanian is a national hero back home, is one of the WTA’s biggest stars, and has earned north of $28million in prize money alone. Not to mention her endorsement deals with Mercedes-Benz Romania and Nike among others.
Her consistency on court is admired by her peers, her fighting spirit keeps growing by the minute (have you watched her battling wins over Kanepi and Kenin this week?) and her fans chant her name in three ever-so-familiar syllables heard in stadiums across the globe. Yet the thing that will strike you the most about Halep is how “normal” she is.
The other day, I got on the Australian Open shuttle bus that transports players and media to the tournament and the first person I bumped into was Halep. She could have easily taken an Aus Open courtesy car but she didn’t. Apparently she’s been taking the shuttle bus all week.
“You saw me on the bus, huh? I love it,” she told me with a laugh when I asked her about it.
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) January 12, 2019
Considering I saw Bernard Tomic storm off in his loud ‘Batmobile’ from the very same hotel where Halep takes the bus just the previous day, I couldn’t help but find it amusing how unassuming the world No. 1 really is. She stays at the official tournament hotels with everybody else while other stars opt for fancier or more private accommodation. She reminds me of when Andy Murray declined the Dubai tournament’s offer to put him up at the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel in favour of the on-site hotel so he could be with his team, and avoid unnecessary traffic to and from the tennis.
Halep says keeping things simple is part of her nature.
“I will never change the things. It’s much better to be like this. I do these things naturally,” she said.
“It’s nothing forced. I feel good this way and I will keep it.”
I ask her if she ever allows herself to go a bit crazy, she says: “I buy many things, I do some little crazy things but nothing extravagant because it’s not my type of personality.”
She really is the People’s Champion!
Andre Agassi is here at the Australian Open as Grigor Dimitrov’s coach and had a press event on Thursday at the Lavazza café onsite. While he admitted he hasn’t been following the next generation of players closely, he did light up when he was asked about Stefanos Tsitsipas specifically.
“I enjoy watching him. I think it’s been wonderful to see how quickly he’s adjusted to faster surfaces,” said Agassi of the 20-year-old Greek.
“When you look at him at first glance, it’s easy to see a big guy with long swings, who might struggle as the pace of the game picks up on faster courts, but he’s a competitor and he’s making little adjustments that’s proving that he can hang in there on multiple surfaces, which will give him a lot of looks. He’s going to have to be dealt with, he’s not going to give it to you.
“He’s a fighter and I like watching his spirit. I wish I had his hair.”
Thursday night witnessed the latest ever start of a match in the history of the Australian Open as Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza started their match 30 minutes after midnight. The previous match on Margaret Court Arena went on for too long as Alexander Zverev went up two sets to love, then dropped two sets before defeating Jeremy Chardy 6-1 in the fifth.
During the fifth set of that men’s match, organisers said they would move Konta-Muguruza to Court 3. A plan that was later ruined by the fact that there was too much seagulls poop on the court and all the cleaners had already gone home. Only in tennis!
They ended up playing on their originally scheduled court. Before the match started, umpire Tom Sweeney was going through the routine reminders that take place at the beginning of any clash, telling Konta and Muguruza that there would be a 10-point final-set tiebreak, one toilet break and then he paused before admitting: “I can’t even remember the last one, it’s too late.”
Us in the press room certainly felt his pain!
Bless Noura, Jo’s wife for surviving today. She was falling asleep in his presser just now (it’s close to 2:00am). Jo asked me on his way out: “I think we’re the only sport that plays at this time of the night”…. Is he right? Can’t think of another, really…
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 17, 2019
That was the same night that saw Lleyton Hewitt respond to Bernard Tomic’s claims that he gives preferential treatment to certain Australian players, among a list of other accusations. Hewitt in turn said on Thursday night after his doubles match – with his partner JP Smith sitting silently next to him throughout the entire press conference – that Tomic has been “threatening and blackmailing” him for over a year, he described him as a “clown” and vowed that he will never select him for Davis Cup duty. Just a regular night for Australian tennis!
The cameras in the tunnel that takes players onto Rod Laver Arena showed Naomi Osaka, who was warming up for her second round against Tamara Zidansek, congratulating her fellow Japanese Kei Nishikori, who had just walked off court following an emotional five-set victory over Ivo Karlovic that lasted nearly four hours.
Osaka was asked later what she told Nishikori at that moment.
“You had a very, very long match. I had to warm up four times, so thank you for that,” she revealed with a laugh.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 17, 2019
PRESS CONFERENCE MOMENTS
You never know what you can get in a press conference and in Tsitsipas’ case, it was a Greek restaurant recommendation from a journalist, who actually handed the restaurant’s card to the player, assuring him he wasn’t getting any commission for this. Tsitsipas jokingly questioned the reporter’s motives, wondering why he was walking around with the restaurant’s card.
“I’ve been going there for 25 years,” said the reporter.
“Even more reason to think there’s more to this,” laughed Tsitsipas.
I still think he’s not convinced!
Meanwhile, Sharapova had the following exchange in her press conference on Wednesday.
Q: You said on court it’s past your bedtime. What is your bedtime?
Sharapova: 10:30. Like in bed at 10:00, sleep by 10:30. My boyfriend challenges it quite a lot, but 10:30 is my time.
SIZE DOESN’T ALWAYS MATTER
It’s been a good couple of days for some of the shorter players on tour as 173cm Thomas Fabbiano beat 211cm Reilly Opelka before 178cm Nishikori overcame 211cm Karlovic, who hit 59 aces but still lost.
In his on-court interview, Nishikori was told Karlovic hit 60 aces against him.
“That’s almost my one year of aces,” admitted Nishikori.
American Next Gen player Frances Tiafoe took out No. 5 seed and last year’s Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Anderson in four sets on Wednesday.
STAT OF THE ROUND
3 – games dropped by Sharapova en route to the third round.
Andre Agassi believes Novak Djokovic is on track to win two Grand Slams each year for the next couple of seasons at least, the American told reporters at the Australian Open on Thursday.
Djokovic hired Agassi as a coach at a period when the Serb was struggling, both physically and mentally, and they parted ways last April after an 11-month partnership.
Since then, Djokovic has managed to recapture his form, winning Wimbledon and the US Open after undergoing elbow surgery last February. He returned to the No. 1 spot in the world, after dipping to as low as 22 mid-season, and reunited with his old team, spearheaded by head coach Marian Vajda.
Asked if he believes Djokovic would have got back to such heights had they continued to work together, Agassi said: “It’s a good question. It’s hard to get inside somebody’s head. My hope was that I added but it takes two, you know. There’s probably a lot of things along the way that I was force-feeding, and I don’t know if that takes a while to process or I don’t know if I created more angst in his life but at the end of the day, tennis is getting the results of what it deserves, which is him being at the highest level.
“I’m thrilled to see him doing it, he’s somebody I… I root for him, too.”
Djokovic has taken his total Grand Slam tally to 14 titles, and is now three behind Rafael Nadal on the men’s all-time list, and six behind Roger Federer. At 31, Djokovic is 10 months younger than Nadal, who just returned from a knee injury and ankle surgery, and nearly six years younger than Federer. Time seems to be on his side in his pursuit of Federer’s record.
“I was convinced when we started he would win two [Slams] a year for the next three or four years and he’s certainly on pace for that,” added Agassi, when asked if he believed Djokovic can catch up to Federer.
Agassi is back in the coach’s seat helping Grigor Dimitrov alongside Dani Vallverdu. Dimitrov rose to No. 3 in the world after winning the ATP Finals at the end of 2017 but struggled to build on that momentum and has slipped to his current position of 21 in the world. The gifted Bulgarian, who was a semi-finalist in Melbourne two years ago, is still searching for that major breakthrough and a level of consistency that matches his highly-touted talent.
“It’s going great. I couldn’t be more thrilled with who he is as a person and how close we’ve sort of become so quickly,” Agassi says of his partnership with Dimitrov.
Expanding on his vision for Dimitrov’s game, Agassi said: “In my estimation there’s three clear parts of tennis: There’s when you’re in control, there’s neutral and then there’s defence. When he used to be in control, he did it with risk, when he used to be neutral he was quickly falling behind, and when he was behind he didn’t have a lot of transition, he just had a lot of horsepower. So if you can do the dance between those three parts and play to your strengths and use your speed in a more offensive, proactive, controlled way, it’s a big difference. There’s a lot more to it than that but that would be more the technical side that has kind of limited his ability to – that you have to work too hard if you don’t do it smartly, right?
“So if you work too hard it’s hard to do it match after match it’s kind of accumulative so you could have great weeks, not as good weeks, you can have great matches, not as good matches. So my hope is he can do it a lot easier for a lot longer now.”
* Andre Agassi was speaking at the Lavazza Cafe at Grand Slam Oval at the Australian Open on Thursday. He is a Lavazza ambassador.
The Australian Open is known as the ‘Happy Slam’ but ever since news of Andy Murray’s forthcoming retirement broke last Friday, there’s been a somewhat somber mood at Melbourne Park.
I got to watch Murray’s first-round match against Roberto Bautista Agut from the photo pit on Monday and it was arguably the most emotional four hours I’ve ever experienced on the job. The photo pit is as close as you can get to the players on court, and it also positions you in a way where you feel you’re at the centre of the whole arena.
I was relatively close to Murray’s box that included his mother Judy, his brother Jamie, his coach Jamie Delgado, his physical trainer Matt Little, his agent Matt Gentry and other members of his team along with his former hitting partner Dani Vallverdu (now Grigor Dimitrov’s coach), young British player Katie Swan (who is represented by Murray’s management company) and many others who all turned up for what might have been the very last match of his career (that fact remains unclear).
The crowd was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed live in tennis. Melbourne Arena (formerly Hisense) is a special stadium that is partly ticketed and partly open to the public. It’s perfect for matches with a rowdy atmosphere and it’s where I once watched Nick Kyrgios come back from two sets down to defeat Andreas Seppi back in 2015. I thought the crowd that day was the loudest I’d ever seen. It was even more electric for Murray on Monday.
After tearfully explaining to us on Friday that the “pain was too much” and his hip was ending his career, Murray had us all invested in his every move on court against the relentless Bautista Agut.
“Of course I watched it, I think everyone watched it,” said Novak Djokovic on Tuesday of that Murray match.
It wasn’t emotional because it was potentially Murray’s last match, it was emotional because of the grit and fight he showed on each point, despite the pain he was so obviously in. I kept looking up to see the reaction on Judy’s face every time he lunged for a ball or sprinted from one side of the baseline to the other. She would go from peak stress to utter jubilation within seconds, as Murray laboured for every point.
It wasn’t looking good for the Scot when he dropped the opening two sets but buoyed by the bellowing crowd and an emotional charge that can boost an entire power plant, Murray rallied.
“After two sets, I think no one expected him to really come back, considering how he feels. He showed once again his amazing champion spirit, why he’s such a fighter, why he’s so respected and appreciated around the tennis world, and sports world in general,” added Djokovic,
“You could see everything that he is in that match yesterday. Unfortunately, ended up him losing. He can be proud of what he showcased.”
Before he lost in five sets, serving at 1-5 in the decider, the entire arena gave him a standing ovation – the applause was literally deafening. Murray stopped before he was about to serve and thanked them, Judy was tearing up, I honestly felt that the whole place was shaking. It was a moment that summed up the entire match. We thought that was going to be the end of it. No way Murray can hold serve after that emotional ovation, and after running for the past four hours. But he did, and he forced Bautista Agut to serve out the win, because that’s what Andy Murray would do.
“I was emotional at that moment. It was cool. I don’t think I’ve had that before in any matches,” said Murray of that standing ovation at 1-5.
“It was brilliant. The atmosphere the whole match was amazing. I loved it. I’m really appreciative that the people gave me that atmosphere to play in.”
Whether he plays again or not, that hot and humid day at Melbourne Park is one we’ll never forget.
THE BAKERY SHOP
It was bagels galore in the first round with Maria Sharapova crushing British qualifier Harriet Dart 6-0, 6-0, Serena Williams ousting Tatjana Maria 6-0, 6-2, and Timea Bacsinszky posted a virtual double bagel, losing the first three games against Daria Kasatkina before winning 12 game s in a row for a 6-3, 6-0 success.
Last year’s semi-finalist rallied back from two sets down for the first time in his career to defeat Bradley Klahn 6-7(5), 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. A much-needed win for the South Korean, who is defending a lot of points this fortnight. Kei Nishikori and Pablo Carreno also escaped early exits by rebounding from two sets down.
PRESS CONFERENCE MOMENTS
– Murray wasn’t the only one to shed tears in the press conference room these past few days. Victoria Azarenka cried at the end of her chat with the press following her first-round loss to Laura Siegemund on Tuesday. The Belarusian is struggling to find her form and admits she’s not sure what the solution is.
– Nick Kyrgios managed to avoid questions about a rumoured rift within the Aussie Davis Cup camp. Here’s how that conversation unfolded.
Q. Is there a rift between you and Lleyton Hewitt?
Kyrgios: Not really.
Q. Not really?
Kyrgios: Is there an echo in here?
– Rafael Nadal spotted a journalist snoozing during his press conference and called him out for it. “It’s not interesting today,” he joked. “I know you were closing your eyes to be more focused on what I’m saying.”
– While fielding questions in her last-night press conference on Tuesday, a Japanese journalist asked Naomi Osaka how much she weighed. She laughed and said: “Wouldn’t you like to know? I don’t know, I haven’t weighed myself in a while. You shouldn’t be asking people’s weight like that. I don’t know, though.” She took it all in good humour.
– Wondering what to call the green romper Serena Williams wore in her opening round? Is it a romper? Is it a onesie? Is it a leotard? She chose to go with ‘Serena-tard’.
There were quite a few retirements in round one but the ones that stood out were Thanasi Kokkinakis and Ernests Gulbis who both had to retire from their matches due to injuries (pectoral for Kokkinakis, back for Gulbis), despite leading their opponents by a set. It was particularly unfortunate as both players are trying to fight their way back up the rankings and have shown decent form as of late. It also made for some more emotional viewing at the ‘Emo Slam’.
Feisty American Danielle Collins took out Auckland champion and No. 14 seed Julia Goerges in three sets while 21-year-old American Reilly Opelka edged past fellow big-server, No. 9 seed John Isner in a tiebreak fest.
Contesting his fifth consecutive Australian Open main draw, No. 11 seed Borna Coric finally notched his first match-win at the tournament after losing his first round in each of his last four visits here.
Canadian 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who opened her 2019 season with a brilliant week in Auckland, where she reached the final as a qualifier, has kept up her form by qualifying for the Australian Open and winning her main draw first round on Tuesday. Her victory over 16-year-old Whitney Osuigwe gave Andreescu her first-ever Grand Slam main draw win.
2 – Tatjana Maria hit just two first serves in her first set against Serena on Tuesday. She lost both of those points.
2:08 – am, the finish time for Dominic Thiem’s five-set win over Benoit Paire in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
11 – wins against just one loss for Andreescu in 2019 (qualifying and main draw).
39 – year-old Ivo Karlovic became the oldest man to win a match at the Australian Open since Ken Rosewall in 1978. The Croat defeated Next Gen player Hubert Hurkacz in four tiebreak sets.
87 – combined aces struck in the match between Opelka and Isner.
90 – per cent, Milos Raonic’s success rate on his first serve against Nick Kyrgios.
SECOND ROUNDS TO WATCH
Serena Williams v Eugenie Bouchard
Novak Djokovic v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga