Hi everyone, I’m Tom (@TennisZealot on Twitter) writing about my experiences at the 2016 Sydney International. This will be a mid-week recap, to be concluded with a final recap after the tournament’s conclusion on Saturday.
Sunday, January 10:
With play commencing at noon, there was time to watch Roberta Vinci hit with Ekaterina Makarova and Sam Stosur practise with Petra Kvitova on the outside courts in the late morning. While Makarova looked strong in a set against Vinci, up 5-2 before calling it quits, Kvitova looked noticeably ill against Stosur and would pull out later in the day. First up on Ken Rosewall Arena were Lesia Tsurenko and Tsvetana Pironkova who exchanged solid hitting from the baseline which, as has been seen in the previous two years, Pironkova is able to execute perfectly on the courts at Sydney. Pironkova won in two sets, which allowed me to escape to show court one and see the third set between Timea Bacsinszky and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. Bacsinszky, still troubled by a knee injury, was unable to outlast Schmiedlova who was starting to finally find her range after a patchy opening set, winning 1-6 6-1 6-3.
Next up on Ken Rosewall Arena was Australian Tammi Patterson against Svetlana Kuznetsova. Patterson, though popular with the crowd, proved her inexperience at this level when she was unable to sustain a performance which troubled Kuznetsova. Despite winning 6-2 6-0, Kuznetsova in her post-match interview said she did not play very well and would need to go work on her serve. A match pitting Jelena Jankovic against CoCo Vandeweghe followed in what turned out to be a decently close, but messy, affair. Though Vandeweghe was able to find brief moments of consistency with her big groundstrokes, her first serve never became a weapon and Jankovic, despite also not playing her best, was given room to breathe as the second set tightened. After a lengthy verbal bout with her brother and coach, Marco, and a subsequent time violation, Jankovic was able to find the shots to break once more and hold for a 6-3 6-4 victory, much to the delight of the pro-Serbian crowd.
What followed was a massively anticipated match between Ana Ivanovic and Karolina Pliskova. With the Serbian flags still dotted throughout the crowd from Jankovic’s match, the support for Ivanovic was known early on. Unfortunately for the fans, Pliskova seemed unperturbed by the lack of support, and her massive serve and dangerous groundstrokes wreaked havoc quickly. Down 5-1, Ivanovic fought back to only a 5-4 deficit in the first set, with the crowd far more involved in the match-up than had been seen throughout the day. Pliskova, however, found one more devastating service performance to take the first set 6-4, complete with eight aces.
The second set was far more routine for Pliskova as Ivanovic’s forehand began to find the net and she failed to get her serve going. Pliskova won the second set 6-2 with far less resistance than in the first, and a visibly disappointed Ana Ivanovic promptly left the centre court to conclude the first day of play.
Monday, January 11:
Ken Rosewall Arena was the best court to be seen as play commenced at noon, with an intriguing match-up between Elina Svitolina and Angelique Kerber. Though Kerber had won their previous match convincingly, she’d likely be tired coming from a Brisbane final, and Svitolina proves a nightmare to any fatigued opponent. Indeed, this was realised early, as Kerber was unable to find the power on her groundstrokes – particularly on the forehand – early on. Conversely, Svitolina demonstrated supreme patience in waiting for the short ball before crushing a winner off either side, winning the first set 6-4.
Kerber called for a medical timeout at the conclusion of the set, and when play resumed, Svitolina suddenly seemed far colder than she had throughout the first set. This seemed to give Kerber the confidence to step forward and begin to dictate more and, after an uneventful set from Svitolina, Kerber had the bagel and a third set was to follow. At this point, the sun became a real issue for the player serving on the far side of court (left of umpire), and Kerber, on multiple occasions, abandoned the ball toss and complained about the position of the sun. As such, many breaks of serve occurred on that end, which made momentum swings unpredictable. Svitolina, however, only found serious resistance early on in the set, eventually allowing Kerber to take the match 4-6 6-0 6-3.
Having been sheltered from the sun on Ken Rosewall Arena, I had to endure the mid-30 degree heat on show court one to watch Carla Suarez Navarro play Sara Errani. Early on, it became clear that the conditions suited Errani’s game founded on safe top-spin groundstrokes and deft retrieving. Suarez Navarro, struggling with her own game in the heat, later admitted to struggling with the conditions, and provided little resistance to Errani who went on to win 6-3 6-3.
Back on Ken Rosewall Arena, a disappointing match unfolded between Jordan Thompson and Martin Klizan. The Australian, Thompson, with a vast amount of crowd support, breezed through the first set 6-2 against an infuriated Klizan who, after smashing a racquet during the first set, later threw his racquet at his chair for his second code violation and point penalty. What resulted was half-hearted tennis from the Slovak until his eventual retirement down 4-0 in the second set.
The best match of the day, and of the tournament during the first three days, took place immediately afterwards to curb the disappointing quality of tennis. It was contested by Roberta Vinci and Australia’s Sam Stosur, the latter whom traditionally struggles during the Australian swing. In the first set, this struggle appeared as though it would continue, with constant double faults from Stosur allowing Vinci to keep breaking and eventually hold herself. Stosur struggled with Vinci’s slice backhand, and when she tried to play a safer ball off the extremely low-bouncing replies, Vinci was quickly in with a solid forehand and perfect volley to finish the point. Vinci took the first set 6-4, and went up an early break in the second set. Stosur, however, finally started to find her big serve and forehand combinations. Vinci, eager to keep control, responded by hitting her slices closer to the lines and following in forehands that she was beginning to crush deep on to the baseline of Stosur.
A high level of tennis followed, with Stosur unleashing a barrage of heavy forehand winners cross court at vital times, while Vinci outfoxed the Australian with intelligent plays which saw multiple slice winners down the line and a stunning passing shot with a flicked forehand. The crowd was probably the difference in the second set, and though I tried to balance out the bias with my own support of Vinci, Stosur was ultimately able to find her best tennis to finish off the second set 7-5.
The final set was extremely dramatic, and another instance of Stosur’s inability to close matches. Leading 5-2 with a single break, achieved with much of the tennis which gave her the second set, Vinci found one more level again, playing an excellent return game founded on powerful forehands and sublime volleys. At 5-5, Stosur was able to dig deep on serve once more to secure a 6-5 lead, leaving Vinci to serve to stay in the match one more time. The crowd was relentless in their support for Stosur during the changeover, and when Vinci came out to serve, she seemed a step too slow, a moment too hesitant, and centimetres too wide to find the answers required to take the match to a final set tiebreaker. Stosur won the match 4-6 7-5 7-5 in what was probably her best win in Australia in recent times.
I headed out to show court one at the end of the second set of the match between Belinda Bencic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. At the time I got there, Bencic was down 4-1 after taking the first set 7-6(6) and seemed resigned to losing the set. Lucic-Baroni, dangerous after having come through qualifying, was demonstrating power and accuracy on both sides off the ground and on her serve, and she took the match to a final set. Though Bencic quickly regained control again, under the eye of Martina Hingis on the show court one balcony, she stuttered once more with her own 4-1 lead. With Bencic visibly and audibly frustrated, Lucic-Baroni was able to get one of the breaks of serve back.
Just as Lucic-Baroni was threatening Bencic’s serve once more, the umpire seemed to think she took too long to tie her shoe, giving her a time violation. This upset Lucic-Baroni, who expressed her disagreement with the decision, and lost enough focus to allow Bencic to hold. Lucic-Baroni held one more time for 5-4 but it was too late. Bencic served the match out to win 7-6(6) 1-6 6-4 and continue her more promising Australian swing after the troubles of 2015. After briefly viewing Rafael Nadal sneakily warming up on court nine in preparation for the Fast4 Tennis exhibition, I concluded my viewing of the tennis on day two.
Tuesday, January 12:
With Ekaterina Makarova slated to play Kerber first up on Ken Rosewall Arena, it was disappointing to find out that Kerber had withdrawn at some point in the morning. Despite this, a new exciting match-up was scheduled for centre court in the form of Jankovic against Errani. In what was a closely contested first set, Errani always seemed to have the answer on big points to prevent Jankovic from taking the lead, and traded breaks of serve and holds of serve which led to a first set tiebreaker. Jankovic had picked up right where she left off from her previous match in frequently expressing her annoyances with her brother and coach, Marco, which didn’t help her efforts against a Sara Errani who was once again enjoying the midday heat.
Errani commanded the first set tiebreaker against an errant Jankovic, winning it 7-3. She was immediately met with resistance in the second set, however, with Jankovic relaxing in to the match a little to make more returns and take a 5-2 lead. In what proved to be yet another gritty performance from the determined Italian, Errani fought back to lead 6-5 on serve, and with Jankovic finding the tennis required to hold, the second set, as the first did, went to a tiebreaker. There would be no repeat of Errani dominating the tiebreaker, however, as Jankovic was able to fight off match points to reach set points of her own. Though she seemed to be in control on a couple of the set points, Errani refused to give anything away. When Errani reprimanded herself for making an error which gave Jankovic another set point, it gave her the focus to string consecutive points together and take the second set and match, 7-6(3) 7-6(8).
Though the day was slightly overcast, unlike the full sun of the day before, the persistent humidity made conditions difficult again for the players. Stosur was next to play Hantuchova on Ken Rosewall Arena, but the fifth seed, Pliskova, was pitted against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on show court one, and it was there I headed next. It was as though Pliskova had picked up where she left off with Ivanovic, holding routinely and giving Pavyluchenkova no rhythm on serve to take the first set 6-3.
At that point, I left once more to glimpse Hingis and Mirza – on a 26 match win streak – play the Rodionova sisters on court nine. It became apparent that Mirza’s intent was to bully the Rodionovas at the net with blistering forehands, leaving Hingis to cut off the volley for the putaway. This was a successful tactic, and upon taking the first set 6-2, it was evident why “Santina” were the best doubles team in the world, despite all efforts by the crowd to support the Australian opponents. The Rodionovas led early in the second set due to poor serving from both Mirza and Hingis, but I left the match with the assumption it would not be a sustained lead. Inevitably, Mirza and Hingis won the second set 6-3 to secure the match. I got back to show court one to see the end of Pliskova-Pavyluchenkova but it proved too late with Pliskova demolishing the Russian 6-0 in the second set for a 6-3 6-0 victory.
At the conclusion of the match, show court one began to fill very quickly to glimpse the promising teenager Borna Coric play Gilles Muller. Coming off a final run in Chennai two days prior, I stayed to watch the match with a strong suspicion Muller would be too strong on the occasion. The match began with exchanged holds of serve, but Coric’s fatigue became evident quickly. Failing to land first serves, Muller ran him side to side in order to give himself time to get to the net. Extremely competent at the net, Coric was no match for the pattern of play, and he lost the first set 6-1.
In what was a steely performance, however, Coric tried to use the supportive crowd to find energy to compete in the second set. Despite again struggling with Muller’s ability to get to the net when Coric was a couple of steps too slow on the baseline, he made an apparent effort to make deeper rally balls and fight on the many deuce games that resulted. Muller, however, broke early in the set, and he was able to ride that advantage to the end of the match, finishing it 6-1 6-4.
James Duckworth was finshing up with the lucky loser Cervantes on centre court by the time I got back in to watch, and anticipation was growing for Simona Halep’s first match of the year, in which she was to contest Caroline Garcia. With both starting conservatively, there was no clear winner in the first set in terms of quality, with Halep slightly more solid from the back of the court. When Garcia could get to the net she proved dangerous, something which could be attributed to her doubles play, but she was finding it difficult against the highly competent baseline abilities of Halep.
Losing the set 6-4, it was clear that Garcia had more aggressive intentions in the second set. Dangerously changing direction off Halep’s solid and deep rally balls, Garcia flirted with lines and took on second serves to build a break lead and, from 5-2 up, stunted Halep’s start to the season by taking the set 6-2.
The crowd, eager for the underdog to win, favoured Garcia, and when Halep took a medical time out, play resumed with the wind behind Garcia. Halep began to demonstrate her experience in this kind of match-up, however, and against the impatient Garcia, Halep was able to provoke errors with deep balls, particularly with her backhand down the line. On a critical point in an important service game for Garcia, Halep hit a forehand winner off Garcia’s first serve, who didn’t play the ball and believed her serve to be a let. In a great display of sportsmanship, Halep, replayed the point. This didn’t help Garcia, however, who went on to drop serve, allowing Halep to take the final set 6-1 for a 6-4 2-6 6-1 victory. In her post-match celebrations, I was able to catch one of Halep’s signed balls which was a nice touch to the evening.
Sam Groth followed in a match against Delbonis. In an uneventful first set which was dominated by serve, Delbonis broke to go up 6-5 before faltering to get broken straight back. In the tiebreaker, it was Delbonis’ consistency in rallies which proved too much for Groth, and he took the set 7-6(4). Though Groth was able to break in the second set and hold the advantage briefly, his inability to compete in the rallies once again cost him, and he dropped the break. More holds of serve followed, and with Delbonis building a 6-4 lead in the second set tiebreaker, the match seemed decided. The dwindling crowd during the night session was as tired as Groth was uninspired, and though he saved one of the match points, he netted another rally ball in a point which served as a microcosm for the match, Groth not able to damage Delbonis with anything but his serve. Hence, Delbonis won the match 7-6(4) 7-6(5).
Thus concluded the first three days of play. As the in-form players advance, more intriguing match-ups are sure to result. I’ll be back to share my experiences of the rest of the tournament after its conclusion on Saturday.