It’s hard to remember the last time one single day of a Grand Slam was packed with so many extraordinary storylines, certainly not one still in the third round of the draw.
Sport is not scripted, it’s raw, real-time storytelling. But if there was some being or force writing down the sequence of events that took place, you’d think were either a sadist or possibly a soothsayer.
There was heady triumph and despair, there was action and emotion, there was suffering and elation, there was suspense and even great dialogues. It was written like the kind of potboiler story that tries to offer maximum thrills and cater to every section of the audience.
If the season’s first Grand Slam is a festival to celebrate tennis, Friday had a week’s worth of pyrotechnics packed into one day, with both combustion and fireworks at the same time.
Here’s a quick recap:
- Teen sensation Coco Gauff beat defending champion Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4
- Serena Williams’ bid for No 24 was sensationally halted by Wang Qiang 6-4, 6-7 (2/7), 7-5
- Caroline Wozniacki played her final match – a three-set grind
- Roger Federer pulled off a great escape to beat John Millman 4-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (10/8) at 1 am
- Sixth-seeded Stefanos Tsitispas and ninth seed Roberto Bautista Agut were knocked out by Grand Slam finalists Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic
Remember, this was just the third round.
It started out as an ordinary day in the first week of a Major, with world No 1 Ashleigh Barty and last year’s finalist Petra Kvitova winning in straight sets. And then began the series of events that will have far-reaching effects on tennis.
In the film Freaky Friday, the bodies of a mother and daughter are switched and they have to live each other’s life. Friday’s rematch between Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff seemed a lot like that.
The Fearless Coco
At the US Open, Gauff had won a mere three games and was served up a bagel against the then defending champion. A phrase used was “reality check”, as the 15-year-old who had stormed to the second week at her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon was introduced to the pressure of playing the big players on the main courts.
Over three months later, Gauff took on defending champion Osaka at a Grand Slam again and completely turned the tables on her. This time, the 22-year-old Japanese said she got a reality check as the world No 67 was fearless in the face of pressure and hit her groundstrokes and serve with a surety that stumped the two-time Grand Slam champion.
Gauff has beaten Venus Williams twice at Majors and won her first WTA title already. But facing up to one of the top players in front of a capacity crowd requires more than talent and the sensational skill set she possesses, it needs composure and belief of a different kind.
The ‘passing the torch’ takes are passé, but Gauff’s run at two of the three Grand Slam she has played in her young career is heartening sign for the future of women’s tennis.
Williams, Wang, Wozniacki and work ethic
Another one-sided match at last year’s US Open was when Serena Williams played China’s Wang Qiang in the quarter-finals. The 28-year-old suffered a loss worse than Gauff, managing to win just one game in the match.
One of the things she said after the match was that she unable to handle the power Williams generated and would work on building her own muscle.
The work in the off-season must have been intense because when she faced the 23-time Major winner on Friday morning, she had the answer to her power: physically and mentally. While Williams leaked errors (56) and wasted chances (1/6), Wang stuck to her game, made the returns and didn’t overcomplicate things. When the Chinese player was broken while serving for the match and then lost the second set, she didn’t wilt. She kept hitting cleanly and capitalised on her chances. Her late coach Peter McNamara, who was sure she was destined for big things, would have been proud of the temperament she displayed.
Williams has been stunned by a younger, inexperienced players on her quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam a couple of times now. But this very early loss was different, the 38-year-old was not outplayed like in the last couple of Majors, she fought till the very end and still lost. Not very much like the Serena Williams we have seen. As noteworthy as the loss was, the American’s response was remarkable as well: “I can’t play like that. I literally can’t do that again. That’s unprofessional. It’s not cool. I’m definitely going to be training tomorrow.”
Never give up, right?
The sentiment is very familiar to Williams’ long-time friend, Wozniacki, who played the final match of her career.
After the 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 loss to Ons Jabeur, the 29-year-old made everyone smile when she said: “It was only fitting that my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder and that I would finish my career with a forehand error.”
As true as the words were, even the scoreline is indicative of what Wozniacki did all through her career – fight and fight some more.
The 29-year-old faced constant jibes about being an undeserving world No 1 because she had not won a Grand Slam. Yet she finished as the top-ranked player for two straight years in 2010 and 2011 despite no Major and won 30 WTA titles in addition to 25 runner-up plates. Fittingly, she won her first Major by beating Simona Halep in gruelling Australian Open final and fittingly, her last match was also a grind in Melbourne, the Dane has come a long way.
The work ethic that Williams, Wang and Wozniacki have shown is a template to be followed, in tennis and beyond.
Mentality of champions
It was an emotional moment all around and even Williams wept in her press conference while talking about Wozniacki. Osaka, on the other hand, showed great maturity while facing the press – rare given her struggles while talking about her emotions. Her honest assessment struck a chord: “I don’t really have the champion mentality yet... which is someone that can deal with not playing 100%.”
And in case anyone wondered what is the “champion mentality” she was referring to, one didn’t have to wait long to find out.
A certain Roger Federer was demonstrating yet again how to deal with not being your best and try to do the same thing, again and again, even when the results are not showing.
Federer and Williams, who have been playing the same Grand Slam since 1999, had never lost on the same day. But on Friday, he came dangerously close to bucking the trend after 20 years.
Against a player who had beaten him at a Major before (US Open, 2018) Federer was alarmingly erratic, even when he had the momentum. He dropped the first set, failed to finish the fourth, got broken early in the fifth and was 4-8 down in the Super Tiebreak and the eulogies were all but written.
But the 38-year-old battled for four hours – even as he messed up multiple chances and second serves, committed a whopping 82 unforced errors – to beat unseeded Australian by sheer force of will and personality.
A visible emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved – the players, the split crowd, Mirka Federer, Lleyton Hewitt (in Millman’s box) – it was also a lesson in an important quality: perseverance of champions.
After the match, the 38-year-old acknowledged his mental demons and said he was already thinking of how he would explain this loss to the press. But none of his freaking out showed during the match, even as he rattled his opponent with a paradoxical fierce calmness. Playing a record 21st Australian Open and becoming the first man to win 100 matches at two Grand Slams, the veteran served another epic match with a valuable lesson for all.
In the midst of such intense action, the third-round exit of ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas almost flew under the radar. The Greek youngster had stunned Federer in the fourth round last year to make his first Major semis and start a breakthrough year. But his early loss served to Raonic – who had also stunned Federer at a Grand Slam and peaked at world No 3 – another reminder of the challengers who have come, shown promise but failed to conquer the biggest stage.
It would do him and several others good to learn from Friday’s class – whether Federer’s great escape or Gauff’s fearlessness or Osaka and Williams’ vow to continue working. It was a day that will impact the coming year, after all.