It feels like an annual ritual. Spending at least a day reporting about the oppressive Melbourne heat each time the Australian Open comes around.
Thursday was one of those days.
We all knew the heat wave was coming, we all know Melbourne weather is unpredictable and sways from summer to winter within the same day, and players usually prepare for the new season in warm conditions specifically to be ready for the Aussie furnace.
Yet we always end up debating and deliberating whether players should have been allowed to compete in such weather, and whether the Australian Open organisers have the competitors’ best interest at heart.
Let’s be real and agree that tournament organisers will forever prioritise their business as much as they possibly can. But that doesn’t mean they want to watch players drop like flies. Losing a high seed due to weather conditions is also not in their best interest.
The Australian Open has three courts with retractable roofs, if the conditions become unplayable, they would follow their Extreme Heat policy and shut the roofs on those three courts, and suspend play on all other courts. That is not an easy call to make, especially with players giving varying degrees of accounts of how oppressive the heat really was.
Take Naomi Osaka for example, who said this when asked about the heat on Thursday: “I didn’t really think it was hot. I think it has to do with the fact that I live in Florida. I actually really like the heat more than the cold, so…”
Still two things are for sure: Players’ safety should trump all. And two players grinding through a match in extreme heat makes for some really unwatchable tennis.
Seeing Gael Monfils really struggle that way against Novak Djokovic was fun for literally no one. Saturday’s cooler weather can’t come soon enough!
Here’s a quick look at highlights and lowlights from day four Down Under…
UPSET OF THE DAY
Croatian-born American lefty Bernarda Pera, 23, took out one of the contenders of the tournament in ninth-seed Johanna Konta and she did it in straight sets as well.
Here’s what makes this remarkable:
Pera takes on Barbora Strycova for a place in the fourth round.
MOST EFFICIENT OF THE DAY
On a day when players wanted to do anything to escape the heat, Madison Keys dropped just one game in her 41-minute victory over Ekaterina Alexandrova to set up a third round against Romanian Ana Bogdan.
Keys reached the final of the last Grand Slam played prior to Melbourne (runner-up to Sloane Stephens at the 2017 US Open) yet somehow she’s under the radar when it comes to title contenders this fortnight. Not for me though. I’ve had my eyes on Keys since the draw came out and see her as someone who can really test Angelique Kerber or Maria Sharapova down the road in her section.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 18, 2018
TRUTH BOMB MOMENT OF THE DAY
Most players tried to dodge questions about the players-only meeting in which Djokovic spoke to his peers about demanding more money from the Grand Slams. Most players took the diplomatic route when explaining what happened during that meeting, or refused to answer altogether. Roger Federer chose to drop truth bombs instead.
After coming through a two-hour three-set win over Jan-Lennard Struff in the second round on Thursday, the Swiss said this about the matter, talking specifically about the slice of the cake players get to take at the majors.
“Yes, they could definitely pay more, no doubt about it,” said the 19-time Grand Slam champion.
“They know that. We’re not partners. We’re just players. It’s always hard to rally. We had a good agreement, in my opinion, that made the Grand Slams happy, the players pretty happy. Seems like that has run its course.
“The moment that happens, there’s not the same increases any more, so players have to rally, get back together again, put in the effort. The Grand Slams know that. They will only react when we do so. We’re ready to do it. It’s going to be the same process over and over again.
“It’s a bit boring, to be honest, always having to ask for stuff. If you look at the revenue, the sharing process, it’s not quite where it’s supposed to be. But, look, you can’t go from here to right there in a day. We know that. We just hope they realise and they do appreciate us maybe more all the time and not just in waves, you know what I mean?
“But it’s all good. We have good contacts with the Slams. It’s all good. But it’s going to be a never-ending story.”
Leave it to the Fed to tell it like it is. In this particular case anyway.
HERO OF THE DAY
Dominic Thiem told me in Abu Dhabi that he had a “breakdown in confidence” after he blew a two-sets-to-love lead against Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open last year. He said it took him a while to get over it and assured earlier this month that he has moved past it.
Today we can officially agree that he has indeed put it behind him. The fifth-seeded Thiem came back from two sets down to defeat Denis Kudla 6-7 (6), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 and advance to the third round on Thursday.
“Not easy mentally, but, yeah, from that moment on I was a break up in the third set, the mind was again positive,” said Thiem after the match. “The physical fitness is the most important. It was 3 hours 50, I think, and almost 40 degrees. It’s very tough. Also, if you are physically fit, you stay mentally fresher, for sure.”
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) January 18, 2018
Struggling Swiss former champion Stan Wawrinka’s Australian Open campaign is over after a convincing second round defeat by American Tennys Sandgren on Thursday, while Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta also crashed out.
The 97th-ranked Sandgren downed ninth-seeded Wawrinka 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 and will next play Germany’s Maximilian Marterer.
Wawrinka, who was playing in his first tournament since Wimbledon six months ago following double knee surgery, was nowhere near his best and is still rebuilding following a lengthy absence from the game.
“Today was extremely tough to feel that way on the court, to lose that way, even if he was playing well,” Wawrinka said.
“When you have won three Grand Slams, you don’t feel great on the court like today. But I need to be still positive. I think the last 12 days was more than what I could have dreamed for coming here.
“I really came without thinking I will be able to play the first match. That’s a big step for me.
“I only had surgery five months and three days ago and to be that far already, it’s more than what we could have expected with my team.”
He was never in the contest and had his serve broken five times and made only 21 winners and 35 unforced errors.
The triple Grand Slam winner, who defeated Rafael Nadal to win the 2014 Australian Open, has slipped to nine in the world rankings and faces a battle to climb higher after his early round exit.
He made the semi-finals at last year’s Australian Open where he lost to eventual champion Roger Federer in five sets.
Wawrinka had a troubled lead-in to the year’s opening Grand Slam, pulling out of an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi on his way to Australia.
He had not played a competitive match prior to his first round win over Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis, having only decided to take part last weekend.
“My plan is to leave here and go back to practice, especially fitness-wise at the beginning,” said Wawrinka, who has runner-up points to defend at the French Open in June.
“I know I have a lot of work to do. I need to be really patient. It’s going to be tough. But I’m ready for it.”
He said his next tournaments would be Marseille and Rotterdam.
Sandgren’s next opponent, world No. 94 Marterer, reached the third round with a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-3 win over Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco, who had upset No. 20 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in his Melbourne opener.
Third-seeded Muguruza succumbed to the sweltering heat as she fell 7-6 (1), 6-4 to Taipei’s Hsieh Su-Wei in one hour and 59 minutes earlier in the day on Rod Laver Arena.
The reaction says it all! 😱
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 18, 2018
Ninth-seeded Konta of Great Britain was sent packing by Croatian-born American world No. 123 Bernarda Pera 6-4, 7-5.
Konta, who made the semi-finals in Melbourne on her tournament main draw debut in 2016 and reached the quarter-finals last year, said her defeat was not a “massive catastrophe” as she contemplated an early flight home.
The ninth seed had been tipped as one of the contenders for the title in a wide open field.
She looked in good form in her opening win over Madison Brengle but struggled to find her game in very hot conditions at Melbourne Park and came up against an inspired opponent.
Pera had never even played in a Grand Slam let alone won a match before arriving in Australia and appeared to be going home after losing to Viktorija Golubic in the final round of qualifying only to be given a second chance when Margarita Gasparyan withdrew.
There was no doubt the 23-year-old played well above her ranking but this was a poor performance from Konta and another sign of the anxiety issues that have stemmed from the five-match losing sequence with which she finished 2017.
Konta said: “I think she played very inspired and I didn’t quite do as much as I wanted. I think in the points I did okay, and I think I stayed quite strong. But I don’t think I did enough with my service games, and I don’t think I did enough with my returns.
“It’s a bit frustrating, but I’m still taking good stuff from this. I don’t feel, by any means, it’s a massive catastrophe. I play every event to be there until the end, so I definitely don’t want to be going home this early.
“But I think in terms of building myself back up again and then playing the way I want to play, I think I keep moving forward.”
Novak Djokovic has called for the ATP Finals to travel from their London base Thursday, saying they were a big asset that should be exploited more.
In its current format, the elite season-ending tournament has been held in the British city since 2009.
But with the announcement that Shenzhen in China will host the WTA Finals from 2019, with prize money doubled to $14 million, the Serb said it made sense for the men’s event to also cash in.
“I mean, that’s a big success for WTA, for all the female players. They deserve it. No doubt about it,” he said at the Australian Open.
“When it comes down to World Tour Finals, for us and the ATP, London has been a great success for us.”
“Because it’s just probably the biggest leverage that we have. I mean, outside Grand Slams, ATP is obviously not behind Grand Slams. This is the biggest event that ATP has,” he said.
“I think it’s probably the biggest asset. Best eight players in the world, singles players, best doubles players, are playing there.”
He acknowledged that London was a “safe” option and virtually all players only had praise for the event, but suggested it could be “exploited a little bit more”.
“It should be leveraged more because of the promotion of our sport,” he said.
“If we want to grow our sport, especially in regions like China or those parts of the world where tennis is popular, I think we should think about it, just maybe travel it a little bit more.”
He said he wasn’t pinpointing China as a possible new venue, where women’s tennis is more popular than men’s thanks to the exploits of players such as Li Na, but it could be an option.
“Men’s tennis is picking up (in China) as well,” he said.
“We also have some big events there that they are doing very well. Obviously they have great facilities. Chinese economy is obviously doing great. They love tennis. They put a lot of money into tennis.”