MELBOURNE—Remember when one of the Big Four was guaranteed to win the men's title at a major? Or when Serena Williams was a lock for the women’s crown and you just sat back to watch some great, if slightly predictable, tennis?
Now, all that’s for the history books. We have entered a new and slightly perplexing age of chaos. As the first week of the Australian Open came to a close, the player’s restaurant and media center at Melbourne Park was populated with experts who looked at you blankly if you dared ask what was going on.
Fourteen-that's 14—American women had lost in the first round and a man rejoicing in the name of Tennys Sandgren had emerged as the lone American survivor in the men’s singles in the fourth round. Jack Sock? John Isner? Sam Querrey? Ryan Harrison? Gone.
But it wasn’t just American upsets that were causing headlines. Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza fell in the second round to Su-Wei Hsieh, also a Wimbledon champion—but in doubles. During her stellar doubles years, Hsieh was coached by Paul McNamee, who twice won the Wimbledon doubles title himself and had much to do with Su-Wei’s growth as a person and player. Hsieh finished last year 96 in singles but wrong-footed Muguruza with so many sudden, slashing, under-cut forehand drop shots that she won 7-6, 6-4.
Hsieh then bamboozled Agnieszka Radwanska, a former world No. 2 and semifinalist here two years ago, 6-2, 7-5, to reach the quarterfinals. It was more undercut forehand drop shots and great movement. Hsieh’s funny, engaging on-court chat at the end of the match reminded one a little of the former champion, Li Na. Even at 32, there is still time for Su-Wei to turn into a big crowd favorite.
British No 1 and No 9 seed, Johanna Konta, lost 6-4, 7-5 to Bernarda Pera, an American who still thinks of herself as Croatian and produced a brand of smooth hitting tennis that suggested a talent way above her ranking of No. 123. Pera has been hiding in college tennis, but that should change very rapidly now.
We also had a 15-year-old from the Ukraine, Marta Kostyuk, beating the 25th seeded Shuai Peng in the first round before losing to No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina in the third. Shades of Martina Hingis? The Swiss won a match at the same age at the Australian Open, and then won the title for three straight years. Time will tell.
Another Chinese player had better fortune. Shuai Zhang beat Sloane Stephens on the tournament's very first day. Since that triumphant moment at the US Open last September, Stephens hasn’t won a match. Impossible, right? Not in today’s climate. Sloane was philosophical afterwards. “Tennis is definitely a roller coaster,” she said. “But I have learned not to panic. I’ll be OK. I’ll always try to be the best person I can, the best version of me. Tough times don’t last.”
The Battle of the Baltic didn’t go according to plan, either. Jelena Ostapenko, the French Open champion and No. 7 seed from Latvia, was lined up against Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, who finished last year at No. 34. Ostapenko was considered the favorite, but not by Paul McNamee who, as we have seen, knows a lot about some of the lesser known women
“I helped Anett for a while a few years back and saw her beat Ostapenko on grass in Birmingham, losing just one game,” said the animated Aussie, who now runs the ATP tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria. “I didn’t have much doubt Anett would win.”
She did, by a score of 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. Kontaveit might have gone further, too, missing out on a quarterfinal spot because she played a horrible game while serving for the match against the hard-running little Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro. The Estonian's backhand and forehand errors allowed Carla to break back and close it out 8-6 in the third.
Somehow, No 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki saved herself from joining the long line of big names catching early planes home by extracting herself from two match points at 1-5 down in the final set against Croatia’s Jana Fett. Wozniacki is nothing if not dogged and she simply refused to give in, clawing her way back from the deepest valley to emerge at the mountain top, a winner by 3-6, 6-2, 7-5. Caroline, still searching for that elusive Grand Slam title, has gone on the reach the quarters, by way of a 6-3, 6-0 win over Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova.
Lauren Davis from Gates Mills, Ohio, put that town on the map during the course of an extraordinary battle with world No. 1 Simona Halep, which lasted three hours and 44 minutes. Staged on Rod Laver Arena, it could easily have ended in Lauren’s favor. The 5'2” American matched Halep at every turn and eventually reached three match points at 0-40, 10-11 on the Romanian’s serve. But three well placed 1st serves altered the destiny of this epic, which was the third longest women’s match ever played at the Australian Open. Halep eventually took it, 4-6, 6-4, 15-13.
As we have seen, Davis was not alone in producing a performance way above her normal standard.
Maria Sharapova, returning to the scene of her positive drug test in 2016, won a couple of rounds before running into another former champion, Angelique Kerber. The German confirmed her recent return to form—she had won the Sydney title the previous week—by winning in straight sets. Going into the second week, Kerber, Halep and Wozniacki seem the most likely contenders for the title. But at this point, really, who knows?
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