Since our website was down over the weekend and things got backed up here, and because it is now early Sunday and what I was going to write about is ancient history, I may as well talk about those feisty Americans down under. You remember the Americans, they were the ones many people wrote off before the tournament even started. We were injured, we were aging, we were just a mess, the sport was dying in America, blah blah blah.
Well, lo and behold, as the Australian Open reached its first weekend of play there were a handful of Americans left alive. Mardy Fish started the proceedings on opening day with his upset of Number Four seed Ivan Ljubicic and he’s just kept on going. I thought Fish could face Roddick in the quarterfinals. Now they will, because Fish took out another higher-ranked player yesterday, Spain’s David Ferrer. Fish jumped out to a two set lead only to see it melt away. Like the other David here, namely Nalbandian, Ferrer likes to do things the tough way. He had to come back from five sets in his prior match against Stepanek and now he was threatening to do the same thing against Fish. But Fish hung in and won in four sets, 6-1, 7-6(4), 2-6, 7-5. Good work guy, I don’t think you stand much chance against your buddy Andy Roddick but it is great to see you here. It will be Fish’s first grand slam quarterfinal match.
Robby Ginepri played well early and made it into the first weekend before succumbing to fellow American James Blake. Ginepri is kind of the B version of Blake, he can do a lot of the same things shot-wise but Blake does it bigger and more consistently. Blake has been stellar, I am picking him to be in the final next Saturday against Federer.
After his match Blake said, “Going for my shots on set points, it shows just how close tennis is, how quickly it can change, how close all the guys are on tour. ‘Cause if you change literally two points in that whole match, it’s a completely different match. If he wins the set points in the first set, four set points in the second, any one of those goes a different way, that’s a whole new match.”
That observation certainly applied to Andy Roddick in his ferocious matches against Marat Safin and Mario Ancic. They were two of the best matches of his career. The key for Roddick’s matches has not been his serve so much as his return of serve and his ability to make his backhand more of a weapon, especially going up the line. Funny how these two things have become keys for all the other players here. The court is playing faster this year so the servers have an advantage again, and that means their opponents have to find ingenious new ways to return the firepower. Taking care of your serve and going after the returns were the marching orders of the day.
There was really not much between Ancic and Roddick. Both had their chances. Roddick had a bit more gas late in the match, he got an early break in the fifth set and preserved it with serving that got more powerful as the match went along. The key stat was this: Andy guarded his serve better. Ancic broke his serve only 5 of 14 chances while Roddick broke him 3 of 4 times. Roddick had an astonishing 60 winners to only 33 errors, but Ancic was not far behind with 52 winners to 19 errors. Incredibly good-looking power tennis from two of the biggest servers in the game. How nice to see guys actually rushing the net again!
On the women’s side, we could talk about the blood-letting that went on yesterday with Mauresmo, Kuznetsova and Dementieva following Petrova out of the tournament. In case you are wondering, that’s our 2, 3, 5 and 7 seeds. Somehow I don’t think we were expecting the names of Ashley Harkleroad and Serena Williams to be under discussion this weekend. Harkleroad got divorced and took time off but is now resurrecting her career; she had an excellent run here and was on the brink of snatching a win yesterday from Daniela Hantuchova. But not quite. The American let it slip away in heart-breaking fashion, having gotten the lead in both the second and third sets. The final score was 6-7(8), 7-5, 6-3.
Serena Williams has gone from being a lime-green eyesore to something like a revelation from on high. I will gladly eat my dollop of crow here, since we felt Serena needed a bit more seasoning before she was back in good form. The news is she’s nearly there already. Petrova slapped her around for a set and a half and that was all. Then Nadia pulled out her usual I-am-still-not-ready-for-the-big-occasion choke at the critical moments and the match went to Williams in three sets.
After Williams got blitzed in the first set 6-1, I hoped that Petrova would really rub it in, maybe even bake her a bagel and get Serena fired up so she would go home and train like a fiend and get herself fitter. That would be the best thing for her, I thought. Serena had other ideas. Like why don’t I just beat her right here right now? 6-1, 5-7, 3-6 was the final score. Petrova is certainly fitter, but there is nothing wrong with the competitive zeal of Serena Williams. And that was a major weapon, the deciding weapon in this match. For a woman supposedly fat and a bit out of shape, she produced some beautiful tennis. My mouth kept dropping open. How did she cover that much court? What a great thing it would be for tennis if we got at leat one of the Williams’ sisters back!
Serena pushed Jelena Jankovic aside too. Jankovic is the rising Number 11 seed who was expected to give Williams her comeuppance. It was not a pretty match though. Errors flowed. Jankovic was not on her game yesterday, she could not get into a grove, she seemed distracted and never fully into the match. The really juicy news for Serena now is, she has a road chartered from heaven through the draw. What’s not to like about facing either Shahar Peer, Nicole Vaidisova, or Lucie Safarova? Serena Williams could very well be another American player who will make the final next weekend, probably against Maria Sharapova.
ESPN2 must have thought that they had died and gone to some equivalent of tennis heaven: they had on their TV schedule not one, but TWO marquee matches. Andy and Serena. Prime time Saturday night.
Seems like old times, doesn’t it?