One was almost a big upset, the other a showcase of five-setter magic but Simona Halep and Nick Kyrgios’ thrilling second-round wins at the Australian Open on Wednesday were memorable for a reason other than just the superlative tennis on display – the energetic crowd support that has been missed in times of the pandemic.
Ajla Tomljanovic stretched second seed Halep to the extreme before the Romanian won 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 while Kyrgios fought back from the brink to beat 29th seed Ugo Humbert 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4. And neither were on the Rod Laver Arena.
Tomljanovic squandered match points while Kyrgios saved two match points but irrespective of the results, the crowd was the absolute winner.
Jim Courier, speaking for fans everywhere, said after the men’s match: “This is the best tennis has sounded since the pandemic.”
And it couldn’t be truer. The flags, banners, kangaroos and raucous Aussie cheering was a reminder of days gone by.
Tennis, like all other aspects of life, has a changed look post due to the coronavirus pandemic and the absence of crowds is one of the most striking differences. But in Australia, where life is close to normal due to strict quarantine regulations which even players had to follow, the situation is different. While the US Open was played to closed doors and the French Open had minimal stadium presence, the ‘Happy Slam’ has seen a sizeable crowd. Although the numbers are restricted and masks are mandatory, the number of fans at the venues is still more than we have seen in recent times.
And it has made a difference.
This change is atmosphere was never more wonderfully evident than when the Australian players were on court. It helped that two of the best matches on the third day involved locals and they served up a treat. The tennis was sensational the Aussie crowds made the entire experience miles better.
Showman Kyrgios stays alive
Often volatile in crunch situations on court, Kyrgios rode on the overwhelming support he had at his favourite court like only he could – smashing a racquet, delivering underarm serves, ranting at the umpire and saving two match points.
The Australian Open brings out the best in the 25-year-old and it was no different when he was up against a seed and in the fifth set after not playing for almost a year due to the the pandemic. He drew a passionate crowd to his favoured John Cain Arena and kept them highly entertained, with the atmosphere electric in a gripping clash
Make no mistake, the 22-year-old Humbert is no pushover, having won two Tour-level titles last year, at Auckland and Antwerp. But playing to the crowd and unleashing trademarks, the unseeded Australian was the highlight reel that he is.
However, it didn’t take long for more drama to unfold, with Kyrgios taking issue with the let machine at the net after two questionable calls, demanding the umpire reset it or he wouldn’t play. (It was not reset and he played.)
Constantly muttering to himself, he was unable to settle with Humbert returning well and getting under his skin. The Frenchman broke Kyrgios to take the first set with the Australian smashing his racquet in frustration.
The scene was suddenly all too familiar. But he quickly shook off the disappointment seemingly in response to the support and broke in the third game of the next set, again ranting about the let machine.
Humberg kept his cool and was unrelenting, with Kyrgios earning a warning for racquet abuse after being broken en route to losing the third set.
With the wheels coming off, Humberg broke immediately in the fourth set and looked on course for victory. But Kyrgios saved two match points to break back and with the crowd roaring him on, he raced through the tiebreaker to take it to a fifth set, throwing in another underarm serve for good measure.
The Australian was all praise for the crowd at the end as they helped drown out his own self doubts. He’s going to need it even more because next up for him is third seed and US Open champion Dominic Thiem. These big matches bring out the showman in Kyrgios: remember the five-set epic against Karen Khachanov last year? If the second-round was any indication, the third will be a cracker with the noise to match.
Fighter Halep tuned out the noise to survive scare
Big-hitting local Tomljanovic had it all in her second-round – her A game, lead after an hour-long first set, a break in the decider, match points and tremendous crowd support. But 2018 finalist Halep had the experience and it counted when she fought back from 2-5 down in the third to force a win.
The two-time Grand Slam winner survived a major scare by winning five third-set games in a row to prevail 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 in two hours and 34 minutes.
In a match marked by high-quality punching, the world No 2 started with a break but the feisty, world No 72 Tomljanovic, buoyed by the home support at Margaret Court Arena, hit back and edged ahead.
An angry Halep remonstrated in the direction of her Australian coach Darren Cahill en route to dropping the opening set, but composed herself to hit back and draw level with five breaks in each set.
The twists continued in the final set with Tomljanovic unable to close it out on serve and committed a crucial double fault which allowed the Romanian to sneak in; her remarkable fight and court coverage did the rest.
To tune out the crowd and focus on just hitting back the ball is not always a quality the 29-year-old Halep possessed, which makes her win even more special.
One win showed how to make the most of the vibes from the fans while another was special for an athlete’s ability to overcome such pressure: in the end, as cliched as it sounds, tennis was the winner.
With AFP Inputs