1. It's gotten hotter
Simon Reed lamenting 'rows & rows' of empty seats like it's a result of something other than the continent wanting to live 'til Friday.— Victoria Chiesa (@vrcsports) January 16, 2014
After 3:10h of suffering on court with the weather over 50C they took me for doping! Are you serious?!! Did I really looked that fresh?!!!— Galina Voskoboeva (@g_voskoboeva) January 16, 2014
After the match I couldn't stand up for 4 hours! Sunstroke, headache, upset stomach, shiver and sickness! Not enough?!! #AusOpen— Galina Voskoboeva (@g_voskoboeva) January 16, 2014
Heat at a major sporting event is a tricky thing. On one hand, it is a test of fitness and professional athletes are paid a lot of money to be fit. On the other hand, perfectly fit players are passing out on the court and/or going through major recovery periods after matches. Regardless, play continued on Thursday at the Australian Open, at least for the most part. On the outside courts, where shade is either minimal or non-existent, play was postponed until the evening. And not long after play resumed, a thunderstorm popped up and delayed play a bit further. The result was a lot of sweat in a set of night matches that continued well past midnight in Melbourne.
There was little evidence of weather as any sort of equalizer, however. There were certainly some close calls -- Maria Sharapova was taken deep into the third set by Karin Knapp before prevailing -- but the favorites mostly cruised. Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray*, Victoria Azarenka, Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Aga Radwanska all advanced with minimal struggle. In fact, the only major upset came late in the night, when the temperatures had dipped into the (incredibly humid) 80s. At about 1:20 a.m. Melbourne time, Roberto Bautista Agut finished off No. 5 seed Juan Martin Del Potro, 7-5 in the fifth set.
* Murray at least got a little bit creative in his blowout win over Vincent Millot. After plowing through the first two sets, he fell behind, 1-5, in the third before sweeping the final six games, including the final 23 points, of the match.
Galina Voskobeova, by the way? The purveyor of the above tweets fell to No. 16 seed Carla Suarez Navarro, 8-6 in the third. The only thing worse than playing in nearly 110-degree heat is losing in 110-degree heat. Nothing will make you question your career choice more quickly than that.
2. Sloane Stephens is maddening
Sloane Stephens is maddening. Great for five games, pouty disaster for four, great again when she absolutely has to be.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) January 16, 2014
Full-match stats don't really tell you the story of Sloane Stephens' three-set win over Ajla Tomljanovic on Thursday. Stephens, a semifinalist at last year's Aussie Open, fended off a solid upset bid from the 20-year old Croatian (currently 67th in the WTA rankings), and won the final three games of the match to advance to the third round. Few players come up with bigger shots with the match on the line than Stephens, and she further proved that here. For the match, she matched Tomljanovic in winners (25 each) and committed fewer errors (36 to Tomljanovic's 44). She did well with her first serve, won half of the points on Tomljanovic's second serve, and survived.
Aussie Open Reads
Maria Sharapova survives heat, Knapp
Play was suspended on Thursday at the Australian Open, but Maria Sharapova managed to finish her match amid the extreme heat, besting Karin Knapp in three sets.
Aussie Open Reads
But wow, did she fall asleep for a while. Her forehand, so destructive at times, was loose and self-destructive at others. And after seizing complete control of the third set before the aforementioned rain delay, Stephens dropped five consecutive games to go from 3-0 up to 3-5 down. Tomljanovic attempted to serve out the match up 5-4, and Stephens played a nearly perfect series of points to create break points; Tomljanovic then double-faultd on break point, allowing Stephens to even up the match at 5-5.
The woman who played the first four points of that return game was so completely different than the dagger-eyed, slump-shouldered player who went through the motions following the rain delay. Stephens has had notoriously slow starts at times and had two of them in this match, but she survived because she once again came up huge in huge moments. Stephens need fewer big moments if she could better avoid the slumps that put her in such a bind.
Make no mistake, Stephens is still just 20 years old. She is the youngest player in the WTA top 15, and the only such player within two years of her is Roberta Vinci. She reached at least the fourth round of all four slams in 2013 and already has two quarterfinal appearances and a semifinal appearance on her record. Plus, she's made what could be a hell of a coaching hire in former Federer mentor Paul Annacone, who has spent most of the last two decades working with Pete Sampras, Tim Henman, and Roger Federer. Granted, Sampras and Federer in particular didn't exactly need a massive amount of guidance, but Annacone can provide a steady, analytical presence for someone who needs to find steadier play.
This match, like many others, proved that Stephens is still a work in progress. But anybody who saw the way her forehand was firing in the final four games of the match was reminded of the absurd potential she still has. And she has already matched some of that potential with actual production in the tour's biggest events.
3. Hello, Donald Young
Donald Young is still only 24 years old. It feels like he's been around for quite a while, and in some ways he has -- he was the No. 1 junior player in the world almost nine years ago, his first slam appearance came in Paris in 2008, and he's already endured an incredible, yearlong slump in his career -- but at 24, he could still put together a strong career.
To date, Young has been known mostly for tidbits, and not necessarily flattering ones. He took down Stan Wawrinka on his way to a third-round appearance at the U.S. Open in 2011, then completely fell apart. He lost 17 consecutive ATP tour matches in 2012. His rankings history is baffling. He cracked the Top 100 for the first time in July 2010, then dropped to 146th the following February. He was 128th in August 2011, then 39th by November 2011. A year later, he was 190th. Three months after that: 202nd.
Now? We'll say 91st with a bullet. After failing to qualify for the first three slams of 2013, he reached the second round at the U.S. Open, then pulled off probably his biggest win since 2011, outlasting No. 24 seed Andreas Seppi, 7-5 in the fifth set.
Careers rarely fit a bell curve where you rise until you reach your peak, then you fall, and Young is nothing if not proof of that. And on Saturday, he'll get to play in another Biggest Match of His Career, this time against No. 16 seed Kei Nishikori.
4. Day 5 headliners
The third round begins on Friday (Thursday night here in the states), and with minimal upsets in the first two rounds come some pretty impressive headlining matches.
Women's third round: No. 14 Ana Ivanovic v. No. 17 Sam Stosur
Anytime Sam Stosur takes the court, it seems she's battling both her opponent and herself. One of the stronger and more athletic players on the tour, the 2011 U.S. Open champion still struggles to right the ship when her game frays; that goes double in her home slam. The Brisbane native has never made it past the fourth round at the Australian Open, and she didn't escape even the second round in 2012 or 2013. She has played well through two matches this year, however, and her reward is a huge matchup with Ana Ivanovic, who has also played well thus far.
Stosur has taken four of seven matches from Ivanovic, including four of five on hard courts. It bears mentioning that Ivanovic won the last such battle (6-2 in the third set in Bulgaria last year), but historically Stosur's power has been too much for Ivanovic on this surface. The reward for the winner is a likely date with Serena Williams, but ... hey, worry about that later.
Men's third round: No. 9 Richard Gasquet v. No. 17 Tommy Robredo
This isn't the best surface for either player, really -- in the AB hard court rankings, Gasquet ranks 14th and Robredo ranks 32nd -- but Gasquet did make the U.S. Open semifinals in 2013, and this is still a pretty high-powered matchup for a first-week Friday in a slam. These veterans have played four times before and have each won twice, but they've only battled once since the fourth round of the 2007 Aussie Open, when Robredo won in four sets.
Men's third round: No. 1 Novak Djokovic v. Denis Istomin
Djokovic should cruise because he's Djokovic, but it bears mentioning that Istomin is the No. 26 player in the world according to the Advanced Baseline hard court rankings. The 27-year old from Uzbekistan has reached at least the third round of a slam four times, and three were on hard courts. He actually reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open in September and took Andy Murray to four sets before falling. Djokovic is phenomenal, but Istomin should make him work.
5. Aussies are fun
Don't kill them with heat, and they create a pretty fun atmosphere. Hey, Captain.
The crowd was at its most glorious at Margaret Court Arena, where 18-year old Aussie Nick Kyrgios battled No. 27 seed Benoit Paire. Kyrgios played some incredible, fearless tennis in taking the first two sets from Paire in tie-breakers. But he began to cramp in the fourth set and couldn't rally. Paire took the final two sets, 6-2, 6-2, relishing the villain role in front of the home crowd.
The early action on Day 4 in Melbourne was more grueling than entertaining. The late action made up for it.