A more serene Serena
Serena Williams was not at her best on Monday, dropping serve four times and committing 46 unforced errors in just two sets. But for once, only the fact of the two-set victory over 16th seed Barbora Strycova seemed to matter. It is not always this way. For most of her career, Williams has been determined to let the world know that she is a perfectionist, almost to a fault. Even after the most impressive displays, Williams is a pro at finding aspects of her own game to criticise. A 6-1 6-1 first round beatdown, for example, is never enough if her first serve percentage was below 50%.
But this first week in Melbourne has showcased a different, more content Serena Williams. On Thursday, she faced Lucie Safarova, a player she last competed against in the final of 2015 Roland Garros, in an almost unfairly difficult second round. This was reflected in the spectacle of the sometimes high quality, sometimes gritty and always tense battle. Though a great performance from Williams, it was one that would elicit some self-flagellation under normal conditions. Instead, when a reporter incorrectly suggested that Williams’ level was poor, she pushed back and backed her level in a response that will go straight into her endless cache of great, if controversial, quotes.
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After moving into the quarterfinal on Monday, Williams’ relaxedness was further evident. Rather than rubbishing the irrelevant questions asked of her recent engagement to reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, she chuckled as she coolly embraced the inanity before her.
Is this chilled Serena an ominous sign for the rest of the field? On one hand, it would appear so, as this calmness off the court was reflected in how calmly she dealt with her on-court obstacles; how she solved the problems presented by Safarova and how focused she was in the face of Monday’s lukewarm performance. Moreover, after struggling with injury throughout 2016 it could also be a general reflection on an apparent rich vein of health after countless injuries for the 22-time Slam champion. But, no matter what, this won’t be truly understood until her quarter-final against a flying Johanna Konta provides a clear litmus test as Williams edges closer to number 23.
The Konta process
Konta: I'm looking forward to playing Serena, it will be a privilege
Nobody expected or quite understood how Konta tore through the ITF Pro Circuit in the summer of 2015 and finished it with a fourth round at the US Open. Meanwhile, few besides some hopelessly optimistic Brits thought she would better that run at the very next Slam, reaching the semi-finals in Australia last year. But 12 later, Konta continues to prove people wrong. Her progress and improvement has only accelerated and she is now playing the tennis of her life. With the combination of some of the best serving in the world, aggression, intelligence and athleticism, she has captured the smouldering scalps of Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Melbourne-lover Ekaterina Makarova. These were demolition jobs, not mere victories, and they have left little doubt about what Konta is capable of.
Konta isn’t the most interesting character in tennis. Her lack of charisma is reflected in how little fellowship she has garnered in this period. Britain’s first top 10 female player and now, officially, genuine Slam contender in two decades still has only 39,000 Twitter followers, 340,000 fewer than Laura Robson and around 130,000 fewer than Heather Watson. When she speaks, almost every answer to every question circles back to her modus operandi of taking one match, one point and one shot at a time. It’s a boring, age-old cliché in tennis, and often used by those uninterested in saying anything else, but her sincerity is evident in how often she is apologetic and embarrassed by the mundane honesty of her comments. However, after her 6-1 6-4 destruction of Ekaterina Makarova, she shone more light on her inner workings.
Konta’s process may be simple and unriveting, but beneath it and her recent supreme physical showings, this introspection provides the most compelling evidence of why she has continued to consolidate her results when unexpected success for most players is usually fleeting. On Wednesday she will face Serena for the first time. The existential panic she detailed will surely come again, and she’ll wonder if she’ll ever find herself facing the greatest players deep in a slam. But, after the progress she has shown over the past year, nobody else will doubt that again.
Nadal's comedy turn
Rafael Nadal closed out the eighth day of play with a riveting four-set victory in which he stared down the possibility of squandering a two-set lead before immediately righting the ship to defeat Gael Monfils. All eyes are on Nadal and his old pal Roger Federer after the upsets of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, and most will see a player who appears to have returned to somewhere near the form he exhibited before his wrist injury at the French Open derailed his 2016 season. Whether that will be enough for his second Australian Open title remains to be seen, but his comedic timing in English continues to soar.
Dimitrov's love probe
Image credit: AFP
Grigor Dimitrov, as famous for his romantic exploits as his lone slam semi-final run, appears to be finally putting it together again. His brilliant run to the Brisbane title and now his second Australian Open quarter-final provided an opportunity to discuss his love of tennis. As always, his love of other things aren’t far from the discussion...
Q. Talking about falling in love, do you think that falling in love with something else than tennis did delay a little bit your rise?
GRIGOR DIMITROV: What are you referring to (smiling)? Go ahead, say it to me. It's okay.
Q. When I was young, I did like very much the young girls. Sometimes I got distracted. So I'd like to know if you get distracted, too.
GRIGOR DIMITROV: You deserve the best answer now. Let me think about it (laughter). That was the greatest thing I've heard, man. Oh, wow.
I obviously have a soft spot for that. You know, on a serious note, I always try to keep whatever else outside the court. I think when I was younger, I was struggling to kind of differentiating love from a personal love or a tennis love or whatever else, for sure.
You know, there was time, a period, that I wasn't, like, kind of sure how to deal with both things in the same time. But you learn. I guess we grow. I mean, I don't want to say I've learned from my mistakes, but I've learned myself a little bit better. I think that helps me. Hopefully it's going to help me for the future through any kind of falling-in-love stuff. But yeah.
Q. Good luck.
GRIGOR DIMITROV: Thank you (smiling).
Quote of the day
The period of tennis sparked by the Williams sisters between the late ‘90s to the mid-’00s is often considered the golden era of the women’s game. But as women’s tennis transformed into one of the hottest sports in the world, it would host countless examples of parents and adults pushing young female players to the limit in search of money and fame. One such example was Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, a former prodigy who reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1999 at 17 years old before vanishing from the tour in a slew of personal problems stemming from the abuse by her father.
Since returning to the tour, recent years have seen victories over Simona Halep and Venus Williams, but this fairytale run to the quarter-finals tops them all. In victory, Lucic-Baroni delivered one of the most satisfying salutes possible.
“People think they know a lot about my history, but they really do not,” Lucic-Baroni stated afterwards. “One day when I feel like talking about it, I will. Right now is not that day. But people think they know. They have no idea. A lot of the times when I hear, like, injuries and things, those were not the problems at all. Yeah, I had some interesting people I worked with and interesting people that had interesting opinions. [My comments were] very defiant, and it was very much my honest opinion at that moment today.”
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One of the annual peculiarities of the Australian Open is the small paragraph of the Herald Sun dedicated for the daily gossip during the tournament, ranging from players dancing on tiles...
... to “changing sides”
Believe them at your peril, but an appreciation for the euphemisms is mandatory
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