Saturday, January 19, 2008

Day 6: Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This

Day 6 was precisely why it's wise to invest in Starbucks Double Shot and Red Bull. For, when it can be a ridiculously late night in BOTH Australia and the U.S. -- at the same time -- you know some very extreme happenings are taking place.

And, boy, did they ever.

With rain finally threatening to wreak havoc on the schedule at Melbourne Park, the Australian Open closed the roofs of Rod Laver and Vodafone Arenas and became an exclusively indoor affair. Technology has rarely ever been so welcome.

Rarely has Roger Federer looked so mortal, either. At least not without Rafael Nadal on the other side of the net... on clay. Against Serbian (no, not THAT one) Janko Tipsarevic, the #49-ranked player in the world, the would-be Greatest Who Ever Lived found his every move matched. His every winner copied. The usual awe with which opponents approach a match with him no where to be found. Seemingly with the supernaturally transplanted old soul of a long-ago champion, Tipsarevic tangled with Federer for four hours and 27 minutes, twice taking one-set leads and threatening to bounce him from a grand slam before the final for the first time in eleven slams, and from the Australian Open for the first time since Marat Safin did it in the 2005 semifinals.

And to think that, in the early going, Tipsarevic's ending of Federer's 30-set Melbourne winning streak seemed as if it would be enough to be the match's top headline.

It wasn't.

At various moments throughout the match, in what I believe were the very early morning hours at Backspin Headquarters -- whose clocks I now know DO indeed work between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 am, Federer did appear to be on his last legs... maybe. Remember who we're talking about here.

Tipsarevic just wouldn't give an inch, and didn't even appear to be sweating (hence the idea that some sort of supernatural occurrence might have taken place). Federer is just never pushed like this in the early rounds of a slam. Never. He wasn't taking advantage of break point chances, and his forehand was uncharacteristically letting him down. And Tipsarevic wasn't going away.

Suddenly, the #1 ranking was at stake, and the historic implications of a possible Grand Slam or Golden Slam season were set to go by the wayside. But it's in moments like this that all-time champions find the heart that has enabled them to reach such a high plane in the first place, and Federer did just that on Day 6.

As the fifth set dragged on... 6-6, 7-7, 8-8... Federer began to hold his serve more easily. The match's "classic" status was already a foregone conclusion, and it was just a matter of whether it would be a career highlight or a rare stumble for the Man Who Would Be the All-time King. But, come on, this is Roger Federer, so the former had to be the predestined outcome, right? (Hey, that'll be the story written in the history books if Federer ends up pulling off a season to beat all seasons in 2008, one that nearly was sidetracked on an almost-momentous day in Melbourne.)

Federer finally broke Tipsarevic, who had led the game 40-love, for 9-8. Realizing this might be his last chance to escape the Serbian's web, he put the match away and let out a breath heard 'round the world.

Whew! Federer prevailed 6-7/7-6/5-7/6-1/10-8 in 4:27... at somewhere around 5:30 am at the ol' HQ.

Needless to say, "Zzzzzzzzzzz" was able to be heard reverberating around here a few moments afterward.

Then, just when you thought the day couldn't be any more remarkable, Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis followed up Venus Williams' 7-6/6-4 test against Sania Mirza (which I just couldn't coax my body to actually stick around to witness without risking an all-organ strike that would drag on longer than that of the WGA) and made a little history of their own, beginning play at an all-time late 11:47 pm local time (or so I'm told... since I can't actually admit to seeing any of this match through live-and-clear eyes until my alarm clock nudged me from my cadaver-like slumber about half-way through).

Baghdatis fairly well outplayed Hewitt in the opening sets, but found the Aussie staying with him on the scoreboard... then inching ahead after three sets were complete. A turned ankle by the Cypriot appeared to signal an anticlimactic close to Day 6, but Baghdatis got back up on his feet and joined Hewitt in one for the ages, to the delight of the crowd... if they could keep their eyes open, that is.

Down 5-1 in the 4th set, Baghdatis fed off the crowd support, flashing his ever-present smile and reaching deep down for reserves that he didn't appear to have just moments earlier. A saved match point and string of back-against-the-wall games later, it was 5-5 with the contest going later into the night than any other grand slam match ever had before. As the clock ticked toward 4 am, Baghdatis amazingly tied the match by claiming a tie-break.

In the end, renowned battler Hewitt won the 4-6/7-5/7-5/6-7/6-3 match as his cut tennis-player-turned-bodybuilder sister Jaslyn (serving as the ESPN director's official favorite go-to reaction shot subject) and others cheered him on from his rooting section, but it was Baghdatis who'd etched his name into the collective tennis fan psyche once again by participating in another dramatic marathon, a fine companion piece to his dramatic defeat at the hands of Andre Agassi in the early morning hours in NYC two seasons ago. This one, though, didn't end until 4:35 am in Melbourne.

I can hear Federer now, rolling out of bed after a well-deserved night's sleep... stumbling past Merka and her half-eaten mid-morning snack... half-listening to the news as he searches for a breakfast energy bar. Merka starts to take a bite, then is startled by a shocked Federer's words from the kitchen.

"They played until what time?!?!," Roger shrieks. He chuckles to himself, then emerges with a big smile. "I guess I didn't get the bad end of things, after all."

Even when he's spent the better part of five hours dangling from the cliff overlooking the graveyard of all-time champions shocked into temporary submission (Hingis at the '99 Wimbledon, Sharapova at last year's US Open, etc.), Federer finds a way to come out on top.

I'm sure he didn't REALLY say that... but he could have.

Now... time for a nap.

And to think, if Day 6 took place at Flushing Meadows, NOTHING would have occurred on what turned out to be one those great, stirring grand slam days in Melbourne that you'll remember forever... and create tennis fans from whole cloth right on the spot.

It's shocking what a few arenas with retractable roofs can produce, huh?

You know it was a wild day when the upset of the #2 women's seed turns out to be an afterthought when all is said and done.

In a true "deja vu" moment, Agnieszka Radwanska knocked out the Russian-born #2 seed in the 3rd Round in a second consecutive slam. Only this time it was Svetlana Kuznetsova in Melbourne rather than Maria Sharapova in New York. But in her latest big-stage upset, A-Rad didn't have to pull any just-this-short-of-doing-jumping-jacks antics before her opponent served, and instead simply out-thought and outmaneuvered the Contessova in a surprisingly routine straight sets wins, 6-3/6-4.

Now, the Polish teenager will try to do what she couldn't do at the US Open, where she was dumped out in the Round of 16 by Shahar Peer. This time, she'll face the winner of the all-Russian Petrova/Makarova match up.

Meanwhile, James Blake surprisingly avoided sealing a woeful fate for the remaining American men in the draw. Once he fell down two sets to none to Sebastien Grosjean, it appeared that he would join the likes of Roddick, Fish and Querrey (and probably, Spadea) and play the sitting duck in the carnival sideshow while the Frenchman was the sharpshooter.

But, then, something remarkable happened. Blake didn't choke. In a grand slam. In a five-setter (he was 1-10 in them before Day 6). Against a player he'd never beaten (he was 0-3).

Imagine that.

Rather than continue to be the American version of Tim Henman, constantly tempting but continually frustrating his fans on the biggest stages, he showed that there might just be a champion's heart lurking inside him somewhere, after all. Down 4-1 in the 4th set, he battled back. Down 4-1 in the ensuing tie-break, he survived and prevailed. In the 5th, his superior fitness won out and he was the star of the day.

Well, for a few minutes, at least.

[Women's Top Half]
#1 Henin def. (Q)Hsieh in 2 sets
#5 Sharapova def. #11 Dementieva in 2 sets
#3 Jankovic def. Dellacqua in 3 sets
#7 S.Williams def. #12 Vaidisova in 2 sets

[Men's Bottom Half]
#8 Gasquet def. Tsonga in 4 sets
#14 Youzhny def. #4 Davydenko in 5 sets
#29 Kohlschreiber def. #24 Nieminen in 4 sets
#2 Nadal def. #23 Mathieu in 3 sets

The junior draws have been issued. Here are the top eight seeds in each:

1. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS (again!?)
2. Ksenia Lykina, RUS
3. Nikola Hofmanova, AUT
4. Madison Brengle, USA
5. Bojana Jovanovski, SRB
6. Cindy Chala, FRA
7. Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, THA
8. Katarzyna Piter, POL

1. Cesar Ramirez, MEX
2. Jerzy Janowicz, POL
3. Daniel Evans, GBR
4. Ryan Harrison, USA
5. Bernard Tomic, AUS
6. Andrew Thomas, AUS
7. Jared Easton, AUS
8. Yuki Bhambri, IND

TOP QUALIFIER: Julia Schruff / GER
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Maria Sharapova / RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): (vacant)
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): (vacant)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st - Jankovic def. Paszek 2-6/6-2/12-10
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): (vacant)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): (vacant)
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Julia Vakulenko / UKR (1st Rd.-Vesnina)
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
IT GIRL: Casey Dellacqua / AUS
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Jelena Jankovic / SRB (1st Rd.- down 3 MP to Paszek)
DOUBLES STAR: (vacant)

All for Day 6. More tomorrow... OMG.


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