Tumaini Carayol ruminates on a fascinating fifth day in Melbourne, where Roger Federer wowed the crowd on and off the court and Venus Williams provided the most random interview answer in Australian Open history...
If there were any doubts surrounding Roger Federer’s preparation and form having been out of official tournament action since Wimbledon 2016, Federer answered them all in that way that only he can, violently leaving 10th seed Tomas Berdych for dead in the corner of Rod Laver Arena after a 6-2 6-4 6-4 demolition job. Such was his confidence in every single facet of his game, Federer finished with an equal number of baseline winners on both forehand and backhand sides, leaving with 40 winners to a laughable 17 unforced errors.
But aside from the tennis, Federer also reminded about what has been missed from him off the court. Nothing exemplified this more than when Federer was asked about how he perceived the differences between men’s and women’s serves after his experiences playing alongside Belinda Bencic at the Hopman Cup this year. Most players would mutter something about power and largely attempt to avoid uttering the derogatory term on the tip of their tongues. Instead, the Swiss responded with prescient detail, going off on a complete tangent yet never losing his audience.
“I guess pace is the number one thing,” he said. “Then number two, I feel that probably they have a tougher time to disguise the serve. Even though there are some good servers there, they have a nice motion and all that, but the serve is tricky. It's like a golf shot. You have time to set it up. You learn a certain way as a kid. To change it is always kind of tricky after that.”
“I think that first coach that teaches you the serve is super important. Maybe emphasis in the women's game is not the number one. They spend much more time returning, I feel, that we don't do at all. I don't anyway. I don't practice my return at all. I couldn't believe how good Bencic was on the return. She would crush all my second serves. I told her where I was going to go. That was something I can’t do. I was impressed with that.”
Federer’s reward for equal parts impressing on and off the court is a date with Kei Nishikori on Sunday, a match that will surely provide a far greater challenge than anything Berdych could provide under these conditions. For whatever reason, Nishikori has proven himself to be less fearful of Federer than he is of any other top player, and the Japanese star has secured two victories over the Swiss. This is not a match to miss.
Federer hammers Berdych to reach fourth round
Dan Evans’ character development continues
Dan Evans continues to demonstrate some of the best character development in the soap opera that is tennis since those times long ago when Andre Agassi put down his wig and grew into a man. From almost being the poster child for the generation of the LTA’s failing, entitled, boozing brats, Evans is suddenly a sympathetic figure this week after being forced to compete in £12 shirts he bought following Nike’s decision to part ways.
Meanwhile, from being infamously prone to distraction at any point of any match, the Brit arrived on the big stage and had the nerve to produce yet another disciplined display of aggressive tennis, backing up recent victories over Thiem and Cilic to reach his first Slam fourth round, defeating Bernard Tomic 7-5 7-6(2) 7-6(3) in front of a raucous crowd. Evans won 40 of 51 net points, exposing Tomic’s sloth-like movement and, by the end, chasing the net at every opportunity.
Finally, upon securing victory, Evans fought a titanic battle with his tears, one he was losing as he appeared choked up at the beginning of his interview. Evans later explained that he was thinking of his late former coach, Julien Hoferlin in a sober, emotional moment during his press conference.
“When he passed away, I sort of knew Jules was going to pass away,” said Evans, “He sent us a video at the Davis Cup in Belgium. We wasn't allowed to go see him because he was so sick. Like, I would never want anyone to see that video. It was harrowing. He knew he was going to die. He pretty much knew.
"So, yeah, it's one of those things, isn't it? That was probably the main thing. I was getting myself together before he died, but when he died, a lot of people said, who were close to Jules - I never got to see Jules again after he left the LTA pretty much. I seen him a few times with Maria. Once he got sick, he got sick pretty well. His family, or the doctors, didn't want anyone to see him.
"I just sort of took -- those things sort of hit you. Yeah, I mean, it's just not an easy thing. Those years I spent pretty much every day of my life with him, day in and day out, in my working life. So, yeah, it's difficult. But, you know, obviously I've got Hilt [coach Mark Hilton] now, but it would be good if Jules was in the court, yeah."
However, Dan Evans is still Dan Evans. To demonstrate this undeniable fact, he endeavoured to incur the wrath of the crowd as he got into a verbal scuffle with a fan he charged with deliberately coughing to distract him.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands plays dodgeball
Two weeks ago, Bethanie Mattek-Sands captured the Brisbane Premier title alongside Sania Mirza to become the number one doubles player in the world. But Mattek-Sands’ story comes with an interesting side-plot.
As outlined in detail in September by Ben Rothenberg, though with no sign of any wrongdoing herself, Mattek-Sands was once affiliated with a sports doctor, Dr. Eric Serrano, who previously claimed to have worked with "thousands of steroid-using athletes". Together, one of their applications for a therapeutic use exemption for the steroid DHEA was approved by the International Tennis Federation in 2013, before the World Anti-Doping Agency stepped in to cancel it, ascertaining that the DHEA would enhance her performance.
Rather than repudiating the release or acknowledging it in any way, Mattek-Sands chose radio silence and was able to avoid the issue throughout the fall of 2016. But as with any player in her lofty position, questions will eventually be asked, as they were after Mattek-Sands’ mixed doubles victory alongside Mike Bryan. It wasn’t a pretty sight:
Reporter: Bethanie, do you have any reaction to this Therapeutic Use Exemption controversy that you have been caught up in?
Mattek-Sands: Uh, no…
Reporter: Any explanation for what happened?
Mattek-Sands: I. No, I don’t...
Reporter: How did it feel when it leaked?
Mattek-Sands: I, uh, I don’t know.
Reporter: You don’t know how it felt?
Mattek-Sands: I don’t know how it did.
Reporter: You do understand why reaching number one might make these questions...
Mattek-Sands: Like I said, I’m happy to answer questions about my matches.
Reporter: Why wouldn’t you be happy to answer about other things?
Moderator: I think we’ll move on.
Reporter: It’s just going to be an issue. You’re number one, you’re very much in the spotlight. You’ve earned that. But it’s just going to be an issue until you put it to bed.
By the end of the interaction, Mattek sat with her lips pursed together and a smile stretched across her face. The only surprise was that she didn’t stick her fingers in her ears and begin to hum.
Andy Murray’s pocketful of wisdom
After rolling into the second week of the Australian Open with a routine 6-4 6-2 6-4 victory over Sam Querrey, the world number one was, as ever, on hand to provide some perspective as the shockwaves of Novak Djokovic’s defeat to Denis Istomin continued to reverberate across Melbourne.
“Compared with, like, most players, it's not been that bad really,” said Murray. “Obviously I think for him the early loss at Wimbledon and here would be disappointing. He'd want to play his best in the majors. But he still won the Masters Series in Canada. He was in the final at the US Open. He was in the finals of the Tour Finals [...] It's just not been as consistent as what it was the three years before. But how anyone is expected to keep up that level for their whole career, it's just unreasonable to expect that of anyone.”
The Other Zverev
That Alexander Zverev continues to look like a player who will compete for slams in the future is no surprise. But the resurgence of his brother, Mischa Zverev, however, is a shock to all. After wins over Kyrgios and Wawrinka catapulted him to right beneath the top 50 at the end of last year, the elder Zverev defeated Malek Jaziri 6-1 4-6 6-3 6-0 to reach his first career fourth round. Though the Williams sisters have made it look routine for two decades, sibling success remains an extremely rare feat in tennis:
Kerber and her Care Bear
The number one tennis player in the world’s surname is phonetically similar to the famed kids show Care Bears. Naturally, this means that the world number one should take part in a 6 minute interview on the topic, one that involves her drawing a character with the fingernail of an oversized hand.
Shot of the day
Though almost 32 years old and in the twilight of her career, Jelena Jankovic reminded onlookers why no player is characterised as a “diva” quite as often as she is in a throwback third round against Svetlana Kuznetsova. Though she would lose 6-4 5-7 9-7 in 3 hours, 36 minutes after holding a 3-0 final set lead, the former world number one left Melbourne with the point of the day.
Quote of the day
Such is the case with a seven-time slam champion who has competed in 949 career matches with press conferences after each one of them, at times both journalists and player alike grow tired of asking and answering identical questions. The result of such an event happening after Venus Williams destroyed Duan 6-1 6-0 to reach the fourth round was seen in the most off-topic press conferences ever witnessed in the Australian Open press room.
The true magic of the press conference was Williams, for the umpteenth time in her career, managing to extract meaning from complete meaninglessness. Tasked with one of the most pointless questions she has ever received after any of those 949 matches, a question about her eye makeup, Williams closed her response with a random, life-affirming catchphrase that will eventually be etched indelibly in ‘BrainyQuote’ for the ages: “Update, don’t be late.”