Wednesday, January 13:
Play commenced at 2pm local time in, yet again, sweltering conditions. The sun at its zenith, I, along with a decent crowd, braved the full sunshine of court nine and mid thirty degree temperatures to see the promising Dominic Thiem play Gilles Muller in the second round. Muller had used a tired Borna Coric to play himself in to the tournament, whilst Thiem proved to be yet another tired opponent after making the Brisbane semi-finals.
Early in the match, it seemed as though Thiem’s powerful groundstrokes and ability to control topspin on both sides would undo the masterful net play of his opponent, breaking to seize a quick lead. Muller proved, however, that this would not be a routine match when he forced extended baseline rallies to expose Thiem’s lack of adjustment to the conditions. Subsequent unforced errors allowed Muller to break back, and though the rest of the first set continued on serve, Thiem looked far from comfortable in the tiebreaker where he would ultimately lose control of his precise groundstrokes to drop the opening frame 7-6(2).
Four holds of serve followed at the start of the second set, but Thiem had a brief exchange with his coach and unexpectedly meandered toward the net, shaking Muller’s hand in retirement. At first I thought there to be an ankle injury, but it was later confirmed as a foot blister issue. In other words, Thiem was satisfied with his Australian Open preparation in Brisbane and had no need to play in Sydney.
Partially relieved to escape the sun, I sheltered in the shade of centre court. There, Grigor Dimitrov had a set and a break advantage over Pablo Cuevas. Despite never taking chances to extend the break lead, Dimitrov also never yielded it, and he won the match 7-6(2) 6-4.
What followed was an objectively exciting matchup between Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep. Having seen two years of great form from Pliskova in Sydney, it was unexpected when she came to the court not with her game founded on aces and clean winners, but rather an error-strewn, disjointed and largely ugly display of netted groundstrokes and errant serves. Though Halep was by no means perfect, to her credit she found the balls to keep Pliskova off balance and build a set and a break lead. In a tight deuce game, Pliskova finally crunched a clutch backhand in to the corner of the court to take the match to 5-5, only to collapse on serve once more to concede the match 6-4 7-5.
If there were to be an upset in the women’s quarterfinals, it surely would not have come from the match which followed, contested by Sam Stosur and Monica Puig. The former held a 4-0 head-to-head and had never dropped a set to the Puerto Rican. Yet, in an unbelievably ruthless display, Stosur and the home crowd were shocked in to silence as it was Puig who blasted fourteen aces – five of which were on second serves – and held a +14 winner to error ratio in racing toward a straight set finish line.
Though it is customary for Stosur to lose unexpected matches, particularly in Australia, it is often under circumstances which see her play poor tennis. This was not the case against Puig, as she found her own serve to hit five aces, and was able to dictate points effectively when she got the first strike in. On Puig’s side, she demolished Stosur’s kick serves with extremely early returns, didn’t back down against off-pace balls, stayed patient yet aggressive, displayed phenomenal prowess when passing Stosur, served fearlessly and walloped winners off Stosur’s topspin forehand in order to make her first premier semi-final.
After Puig secured an emotional win, I raced to court one to see Ekaterina Makarova receive a first set bagel by Belinda Bencic. Judging by the surprisingly meek display off the ground, I expected Bencic to win the match in routine straight sets, but Makarova came back on to the court for the second set with a renewed vigour. Stepping in to hit raking, flat balls which skimmed the tape, the Russian was able to unsettle Bencic to break early, and with effective serving on her own side which saw her face no break points for the set, picked her moments to take two breaks, and the set 6-2.
With the completion of Bernard Tomic’s match on centre court, defeating Jordan Thompson 6-2 6-2, the court one stadium filled to capacity with the crowd spilling out of the stands and on to the hill on the side opposite the chair umpire. In a match which grew increasingly tense as Bencic, too, found her best tennis, Makarova recovered from a break to get the match on serve at 4-4. As Bencic became rattled, she began to argue line calls, and though she lost focus and handed Makarova opportunities, she was able to steady herself to keep herself in the match each time. At the end of the third set, Makarova’s camp was getting rowdy, Makarova herself kept shouting each time she lost a point and Bencic continued to scream at every line call that didn’t go her way. On a lengthy deuce game on Belinda’s serve, with a break lead at 5-4, she was finally able to seal the match, and with an extended session of crowd-pleasing, play concluded for day four.
Thursday, January 14:
Rain, rain and rain. Play began at 2pm once again and a solid Alexandr Dolgopolov clinched a 6-4 first set over an errant Grigor Dimitrov before heavy rain began to fall, backed by a large thunderstorm which was forecasted to last until the following day. As such, I didn’t stick around for the rest of the day.
Friday, January 15:
Due to rain delays, the men’s quarter-finals and semi-finals, as well as the women’s semi-finals and final, were scheduled to be played all on the Friday. I arrived a little later in the day to see Monica Puig play her semi-final against Belinda Bencic, but from play resuming with Puig up 4-0, Bencic quickly received the bagel and then retired.
On centre court, Svetlana Kuznetsova had just taken the first set 7-6(5) over Simona Halep when I took my seat. Neither player found their best tennis in the second set, but it was Halep’s consistency during the important moments which helped her take it 6-4 to level the match. In the third set, Kuznetsova’s superior forehand did most of the damage in a performance which was still far from both players’ bests. Halep faced only one break point and had five chances of her own, but her inability to play the big points well cost her, and she went down 6-3 to hand Kuznetsova the win 7-6(5) 4-6 6-3.
The final match on centre before the women’s final was the semi-final between Grigor Dimitrov and Gilles Muller. Dimitrov displayed all-court ability in the first set to bamboozle Muller and his net game, breaking twice to take it 6-2. In what was a patient second set, Muller served well and applied pressure at the right times to have three separate chances for a break lead. Dimitrov always had the answers throughout the set, however, and despite three rain delays, the set culminated in a tiebreaker. Muller provided some level of challenge, but his game lacked potency at the critical moments, and a relieved Dimitrov closed the match in straight sets, 6-2 7-6(4), to finally escape the stop-start weather.
Navratilova, Philippoussis, Leconte and Sanchez Vicario filled the time leading up to the women’s final at 7:30pm with legends’ mixed doubles, and then Puig and Kuznetsova took the court under what was finally a clearing sky.
Early on, it was clear Puig was nervous, winning the toss and choosing to receive, then lacking the fearlessness she had displayed throughout the week. Kuznetsova, on the other hand, played at a level that hadn’t been glimpsed all week, serving extremely well and keeping Puig completely off balance with punishing, deep groundstrokes and consummate net play. Little more could be said for the first set as Puig quickly lost it 6-0.
Kuznetsova only grew in confidence as the second set began, firing six more aces to take her tally to eight and finding ridiculous winners from completely defensive positions. To the delight of the crowd, Puig held to make the score 3-1, and once again to force 4-2, but there was a permeating feeling that a full comeback would be impossible. Serving down 5-2, Puig attested that impossibility when, after a tentative second serve let facing match point, she found not one of the aces that were so prevalent against Stosur earlier in the week, but a double fault, handing the match to an elated Kuznetsova.
During the presentation, Puig expressed her joy at reaching the final as a qualifier, while Kuznetsova reminisced of her previous final appearance in Sydney and her own happiness at winning it on this occasion. With more rain looming, I forewent the women’s doubles final and concluded my day of viewing, as well as my week.
For both Puig and Kuznetsova, it was a promising week for varying reasons. Heading in to the Australian Open next week, Puig will have the confidence of some great form and big wins, while Kuznetsova will try to continue winning in order to add a third slam to her tally. It was a fun week in Sydney; thanks to those of you who took the time to read about my experience.