Australian Open, First Week (Bottom Half)
Fourth Round: Kyrgios d. Seppi, 5/7 4/6 6/3 7/6 8/6
Nick Kyrgios has reached the quarterfinals of the 2015 Australian Open, recovering from two sets down to defeat Andreas Seppi, in much the same way Roger Federer didn’t two days earlier. It is the first time a local has reached this stage of their home Slam since Jelena Dokic managed it in 2009, and the first time a male player has done it since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005. For those viewers whose passion for the sport extends only to those men and women with little Australian flags next to their names, it is a rare chance to keep watching past Sunday. It is a long time since the Fanatics have had to find tickets for the second week. Some years even tickets to the second round are a gamble.
Kyrgios is also the first teenager to reach multiple Major quarterfinals since Federer in 2001, which is an even bigger achievement considering that outside of Grand Slams and Davis Cup he has so far recorded precisely one tour-level victory. That may conceivably change, but for now it is safe to say Kyrgios is built for big moments on big stages. The backhand winner up the line with which he sealed the fourth set tiebreak testified to that.
The way he kept barking ‘Towel, Bro!’ at the ball-kids suggests that his on-court manner needs further work, whatever you think of the rest of his behaviour. Of course, having reached the quarterfinals elevates him virtually above media reproach. Given the ratings-boost Channel 7 enjoys whenever Australians go deep, just about anything short of a baby-punching spree can be passed off as youthful joie de vivre, unless you’re Bernard Tomic.
Fourth Round: (7) Berdych d. Tomic, 6/2 7/6 6/2
Tomic, you may recall, ‘wasted the nation’s goodwill’, and is thus one transgression away from deportation. He had also progressed to the fourth round, but was unlucky to encounter in Tomas Berdych an opponent even more ferocious than Seppi. Had it been otherwise, Tomic may well have progressed instead. As it was, his fourth round provided a succinct demonstration of what happens when a top player encounters a sophisticated game built on guile, placement and subtle variations of pace and torque. The top player just shrugs and hits right through it.
Tomic sometimes looks like a throwback to an earlier era, and proves that there are plenty of good reasons why those kinds of players aren’t competitive these days. The frustrating thing is that Tomic doesn’t necessary have to play like that. Against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round he stepped in, controlled the baseline, and blasted winners with his weird forehand. Still, fourth round was a good result.
Third Round: Seppi d. (2) Federer, 6/4 7/6 4/6 7/6
Shock of the week was undoubtedly Seppi’s four set upset of Federer, who’d numbered among the tournament favourites. It was Federer’s first exit before the semifinal stage of this tournament in over a decade. It’s hardly news that good players have bad days. What was surprising was the discovery that even great players in otherwise excellent form can have days that manage to be bad in nearly every direction at once.
In the normal course of events, Federer is significantly better at Seppi at every aspect of the sport – movement, serve, return, groundstrokes, net-play, twin-fathering – which explains how he compiled a record of ten wins against the Italian for the loss of just one set. Yesterday, however, Federer was markedly worse than Seppi in just about every conceivable way. His first serve was more potent, naturally, yet his returning was such that Seppi’s modest delivery looked like Raonic’s, a musket effectively doing the job of a howitzer.
Seppi’s lunging squash-like forehand pass on match point is the shot fated to make the highlight reels, but it wasn’t indicative of the match (especially since Federer played a strong, decisive point). A far more indicative shot was the high floating backhand with which Seppi took the second set tiebreaker: instead of executing an easy volley into the open court, Federer left the ball, and looked unimpressed when it dropped onto the line. For the most part Seppi was solid, happily pushed the number two seed around while playing well within himself, and remained unflappable where so often before he has flapped. Federer afterwards offered no excuses beyond the concession that sometimes you just have a bad day. As for Seppi, he has probably played better in previous losses, but you can only take the chances you’re presented with – many don’t – and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Second Round: (3) Nadal d. (Q) Smyczek, 6/2 3/6 6/7 6/3 7/5
Rafael Nadal’s bad day occurred two days earlier, at night, when a laughably kind second round against American qualifier Tim Smyczek threatened to turn nasty. Those who’d feared this match was a virtual walkover were duly reminded that Nadal has lately struggled against players ranked outside the top hundred. Apparently his troubles are such that he’s now sick of the very sight of them. He was fine for a set, but thereafter began to experience acute discomfort: nausea, dizziness, bewilderment, Weltschmerz; the whole shebang. Smyczek valiantly seized his opportunity, darting to a two sets to one lead while Nadal was doubled over groaning.
Whatever treatment the Spaniard received began slowly to take effect by the fourth set, whilst Smyczek, like Wawrinka in last year’s final, succumbed to the strange terror that often comes when facing a disabled opponent. He suddenly couldn’t hit the ball away from Nadal. Nadal felt no such compunction, and took the fourth. Smyczek regathered in the fifth, and they traded holds until 5/5, when Nadal broke. He then held for victory, having ‘found a way’. (You could fashion a drinking game around Nadal’s matches and the phrase ‘found a way’: one shot of whisky ever time it is uttered in commentary or on social media, and you too would be doubled over groaning in no time.)
Much was subsequently made of Smyczek’s sporting gesture late in the fifth set, when he instructed the umpire to give Nadal another first serve after the previous one was marred by a shout from the crowd. It was pretty classy, and Nadal afterwards couldn’t say enough kind things. It would be nice to live in a world in which such gestures were commonplace. Alas, common courtesy isn’t, and Smyczek is a rare gentleman, which he further proved in his post-match interview.
Nadal’s reward for surviving the diminutive world No.112 was a third round date with the even smaller world No.106 Dudi Sela, whom he found a way past whilst shedding only six games. His fourth round opponent Kevin Anderson was ranked about 90 places higher, and for ten and a half games played like it. Alas in the eleventh game Anderson gained no fewer than five break points on Nadal’s serve. Failing to convert these sent him into a black funk from which he emerged an hour later to discover Nadal was up two sets and break. Nadal’s water bottles blew over at one point, providing momentary interest. He’ll face Berdych in the quarterfinals, against whom he hasn’t lost in nine years, a period that includes seventeen straight wins for the Spaniard.
Fourth Round: (6) Murray d. (10) Dimitrov, 6/4 6/7 6/3 7/5
Kyrgios’ opponent will be Andy Murray, who until the fourth round had travelled so far under the radar as to be undetectable, especially if you’ve been searching on Rod Laver Arena. That said, none of his matches had merited centre court billing, and he was drawn in the same half as Federer, Nadal and most of the Australian men. His fourth round against Grigor Dimitrov deserved a bigger court, however, and through four sets both men ably demonstrated why.
Even as Kyrgios was being canonised by the Hisense burghers, Murray and Dimitrov were assembling a highlights reel in real-time. Momentum careened about until the very end. The Bulgarian served to send the match into a fifth set – Kyrgios is an expert at the mechanics at play here – but comprehensively stuffed it up, and never recovered. Murray broke and again and served it out, whereupon he was punished with an interview with Hamish McLachlan.
Notwithstanding his second serve, which looks more meek than ever, he is otherwise showing the sceptics that great form in lead-up exhibition events can actually be translated into great form in a meaningful tournament. If he gets through Kyrgios – one imagines he will – he’ll probably have another opportunity to prove it against Nadal.