The women’s Australian Open this year has shaped up to be the strongest Grand Slam we’ve seen from the ladies in a long time and I believe it’s no coincidence.
The top quarter of the draw alone features two fourth-round match-ups that could easily be the finals at any major. World No. 1 Simona Halep faces No. 16 seed and seven-time champion Serena Williams, while former US Open runner-up and No. 7 seed Karolina Pliskova takes on two-time Slam champion Garbine Muguruza.
Some other marquee clashes include Maria Sharapova  against Ashleigh Barty , Madison Keys  versus Elina Svitolina , and Naomi Osaka  against Anastasija Sevastova .
It was a mere six months ago that people were stunned by the draw collapse at Wimbledon, where Pliskova was the only top-10 seed to make it to the fourth round, and where no top-10 seeds featured in the quarter-finals.
Here in Melbourne, seven of the top-eight seeds are in the fourth round (only No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki didn’t make it) and the last-16 line-up is as strong as ever.
I feel like the past few years of women’s tennis have been building up to this very moment at this Australian Open. The depth in the women’s game was not created overnight, and all of these so-called ‘upsets’ that we witnessed in the past resulted in a large pool of WTA players adding experience to their resumes.
Women’s #ausopen last 16:
Halep  v Serena 
Muguruza  v Pliskova 
Osaka  v Sevastova 
Keys  v Svitolina 
Kvitova  v Anisimova
Barty  v Sharapova 
Sloane  v Pavlyuchenkova
Collins v Kerber 
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 19, 2019
All that perceived instability and ‘chaos’ was just the tour’s way of ushering in new talent, and introducing different players to the big stage.
Seeds having a strong tournament in Melbourne this fortnight doesn’t mean this will happen at every women’s event moving forward, but it does show that the difference between a Wimbledon like we had last year and an Australian Open like we’re having now is not that huge. The margins are slim, the competition is off the charts, and either way, we get to watch some brilliant match-ups.
“I take it match by match. For me, I don’t feel any difference by playing seeded and not seeded. If you’re not playing Serena or somebody like this, which is completely different level, you still have to work for it. There’s not going to be anything for free, not even from the unseeded players,” is how Pliskova explained it on Saturday.
“Everybody is still talking about the seeded players, if they’re in the draw or not. I think it’s not only about the seeded players. There’s a hundred different players. You still have to fight for every round.”
Keys, who had a strong win over Elise Mertens on Saturday, agreed when I asked her if she felt that this is one of the strongest Slam fourth-round line-ups in a long time.
“I would 100 per cent agree with you. There’s a lot of really good third round match-ups yesterday and today. It’s not always the case. So seeing that, even fourth round, they’re all tough. It’s definitely shaping up to be a very interesting first Grand Slam of the year,” said the American.
She doesn’t necessarily have an explanation as to why the seeds are doing well this fortnight.
“I don’t know. I think everyone is just playing really well. Even the upsets aren’t really upsets. Everyone is just playing really good tennis,” added Keys. “I think more than anything, it’s just the depth of tennis because everyone who is winning is really good. Pretty much everyone they’ve beaten is also very good. No matter which way it went, everyone was thinking it was a good match anyways.”
Irrespective of who goes through, I think we’re guaranteed a phenomenal final come Sunday the 27th.
Elina Svitolina shared a lovely moment with Zhang Shuai after she defeated the affable Chinese in three sets on Saturday. She went over to her bench to console her and make sure she was physically okay. Zhang is one of the nicest people on tour and it was no surprise that Svitolina felt the need to go check on her.
“I think tennis match is a tennis match. You finish the match. Of course everyone wants to win as bad as the other person, but it’s done. She’s a very nice person. I played with her in Tie Break Tens and we had a good time. We practice sometimes. So it’s not only about tennis here,” Svitolina said later.
“I think it’s very important to be a person and to be open. That’s what I am. It’s not like a big deal for me, but when someone is hurting, it’s normal to help. Yeah, it’s not only about tennis, I’d say.”
Later in the day, Serena Williams also had a touching moment with Ukrainian teen Dayan Yastremska who was in tears the minute she lost her third round to the American legend.
“You did amazing. You did so well. You did amazing. Don’t cry. You did really well,” Serena was heard telling Yastremska at the net. She also had some kind words for the 18-year-old in the locker room, and even told her she didn’t think she deserved that time violation she was given during the match.
“As she was walking towards the net, I could tell she was quite upset. I kind of liked that. It shows she wasn’t just there to play a good match, she was there to win. She wanted to win. That really broke my heart. I think she’s a good talent. It’s good to see that attitude,” said Serena in her press conference.
Amanda Anisimova’s nonchalant beatdown of No. 11 seed Aryna Sabalenka was nothing short of remarkable. The 17-year-old, who is the first player born in the 2000s to make a Grand Slam fourth round, outplayed Sabalenka – tipped by many as a title favourite – in every way imaginable. Even Serena said she was impressed. The future is very bright for Anisimova. Remember that name!
PRESS CONFERENCE MOMENTS
– Frances Tiafoe’s description of Anismova’s win over Sabalenka was brilliant.
“I mean, she’s got everything. She’s got everything. It’s like she’s been a veteran, she’s going out here and Sabalenka is playing great tennis, she routined her like it was nothing. It was barbecue chicken for her. It’s unbelievable,” he said of his compatriot.
“She’s quite quiet. We haven’t spoken too much. I always try to get her to laugh or something, try to get her to crack a little bit. She’s a bit shy. I mean, she goes about her business every day, extremely professional. Yeah, she’s going to have a hell of a career. You guys are going to be talking to her a lot. Sky’s the limit for her.”
– Ace machine Milos Raonic was asked if he thinks aces should be included in a players’ winner count.
“I think aces should. I think aces should, yeah. If it’s a shot that you hit that somebody is not able to put their racquet on, a winner is a winner.”
“Are you biased about that by any chance?” a reporter quipped back.
“I’m always trying to pad my stats,” responded Raonic.
– Sloane Stephens press conference took an interesting turn after her third round win over Petra Martic. Stephens’ family owns a funeral home and apparently she enjoys many aspects of the family business.
“It’s cool, a lot of dead bodies. I think that a lot of people are scared of dead bodies but you can’t be scared, they’re like the only thing that you shouldn’t be scared of. You should be scared of people walking around because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s kind of a different outlook on like to, appreciate – like I’m not allowed to work funerals anymore because I did it one summer, I was helping my uncle, because he told me he’d pay me, and then when the families started coming in and they were crying, I started crying. So he was like, ‘You can’t work here anymore’. I was like, ‘Okay, this isn’t for me’. I think it just gives you a good perspective on life, just appreciate your loved ones while they’re around and your family and stuff. It’s cool.”
Is she used to being around dead bodies?
“I don’t think you ever get used to it, but I’m like into the bodies and cremation – I like that stuff. I’m kind of strange. I like embalming, seeing the bodies, that type of stuff. I don’t like dressing the bodies, I’ve had to do that and I don’t really like that. But making them look nice for their family to see them one last time is rewarding,” she added.
On-court interviews are often a toss-up but when Jim Courier is asking the questions, you can almost 100 per cent rely on the fact that something hilarious is going to happen. In his on-court interview with No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, Courier asked the German about his fitness trainer Jez Green, who previously transformed Andy Murray’s physique. Courier asked Zverev how much weight he’s been able to put on since he teamed up with Green five years ago.
“You can’t really tell still, I’m disappointed in that. I’m still called a ‘skinny dude’ on tour for some reason, even though I put on about 15 kilos,” admitted Zverev.
“When he started working with Andy, you could see that he became one of the strongest duds on tour, with me, I’m still looking like… I don’t know, I’ve been called ‘asparagus’ a few times… Even though nobody can tell I still work very hard in the offseason, I still do lift a lot of weights, but as you said, my wrist, I can still do that to it (puts his thumb and index around his wrist).”
Courier suggested Zverev try wearing sleeveless shirts like Rafael Nadal, to show-off his arms.
“No, no, who’s going to be scared of that really, Zverev said while lifting his shirt sleeve to reveal his biceps. When Rafa puts that on, it’s intimidating, if I put that on, they might start laughing. I’m just going to keep away from the sleeveless,” added Zverev.
– Osaka took a tumble when she was serving for the second set against Hsieh Su-Wei on Saurday. The umpire asked her: “Naomi, are you okay?”
“No,” she replied sarcastically, sending the crowd into a fit of laughter.
She later said of that moment in her press conference: “That’s just funny to me. He was like, ‘Naomi, are you okay?’ I mean, I was, but I wanted to see his reaction if I said no.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 19, 2019
– Frenchman Lucas Pouille scoffed at the idea that his coach Amelie Mauresmo is faster than him. Pouille has posted a couple of videos from his training, in which he and Mauresmo were running on side-by-side treadmills, and another with them running on a track. Mauresmo looked like she was outpacing him both but he insists that is not the case.
“She’s not faster than me. No, no, no,” he said smiling. “No chance. I did it once and we were in the gym. The other time she was at the track and field, I was not running. I was just here to watch her run, so…”
Nice try, Lucas!
McEnroe asks Rafa if he wants to thank his physio Maymo.
Rafa: Why? I am always injured 😂
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 18, 2019
Andy Murray is yet to make a final decision on whether to have hip surgery but has pulled out of a tournament in Marseille next month.
The former world number one headed home from Melbourne earlier this week, following his emotional first-round defeat by Roberto Bautista Agut at the Australian Open, weighing up whether to have a resurfacing operation that could extend his career or end it completely.
Even if Murray does not have the operation, he has stated he would spend the time getting ready for a farewell appearance at Wimbledon, so it was no surprise to see a statement from the Open 13 in Marseille announcing Murray’s withdrawal.
He will also miss tournaments he had committed to in Dubai and Montpellier but Murray’s management insisted he has not made a final decision about surgery.
The 31-year-old strongly hinted ahead of his departure from Melbourne that he would have the operation, and was encouraged to do so by American doubles great Bob Bryan, who is playing at the Australian Open five months after undergoing the same procedure.
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.