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Day Thirteen: Holding Court on Tennis

Recovery & Redemption

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Families, friends, foes – all have come together at this year’s Australian Open. “The Happy Slam,” Roger Federer’s term for the event has panned out marvelously.  But what’s occurred over these last two weeks is more than sheer happiness.  Call the 2017 Australian Open, the Slam of recovery and redemption.

+ A year ago, Lucie Safarova could barely walk, the result of a bacterial infection.  Yesterday, she and Bethanie Mattek-Sands won the women’s doubles, regaining the title they’d won here in 2015.

+ Mike and Bob Bryan haven’t won a major since the 2014 US Open.  Tonight they’re in the finals, keen to take this title for the seventh time.  A Bryan brothers victory would also be their 17th doubles major, tying them for the most ever with Australian icon John Newcombe.

+ In 2011, Venus Williams announced she had Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease.  Already 31 years old at that time, no one would have questioned a Venus retirement.  Instead, she persevered – and tonight will play her first Grand Slam singles final since Wimbledon 2009.  Is it good or bad news that her opponent is her sister?  Either way, Venus’ success here is yet another reminder that the journey of the Williams sisters is arguably the most incredible story in the history of sports.

+ Federer hasn’t played a tournament since Wimbledon and has now become the oldest man to reach a major final since Australian legend Ken Rosewall reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open at the age of 39 in 1974.  And while over the years he has justifiably often earned comparison with the great Rod Laver, perhaps the tennis legend he bears more similarity to is the remarkable Rosewall.  Like Federer, Rosewall had magnificent footwork, covering the court with off-the-charts elegance to strike deft blow in all corners of the court.  Like Federer, Rosewall had an exceptionally lengthy, productive career.  To wit, he won the French title as a teenager in 1953 and again at the age of 33 in 1968, beating Laver in the final.  Rosewall was also the oldest man to win a singles major when he snapped up the last of his four Aussie titles in 1972 at the age of 37.

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Every year at this event, Rosewall writes a letter to Federer wishing him well.  “We don’t speak about him enough,” said Federer.  “I think he’s a wonderful man. He wrote me a letter again this week to wish me well again. He does it every year at the Australian Open. Still haven’t seen him, unfortunately. I know he’s around.”

+ As fate has it, Federer’s opponent bears more than a passing resemblance to the man who beat Rosewall in those two 1974 finals, Jimmy Connors.  Like Connors, Rafael Nadal is a fire-breathing, left-handed dragon, patrolling the court like few in the sport’s history.  Nadal too has been on a mission here, having failed to go deep at a Slam since winning Roland Garros in 2014.  While the likes of Federer and Rosewall seemed to glide across the court like ballerinas, Nadal’s fate is to take hard route.  He proved it again last night with a brilliant five-set victory over Grigor Dimitrov.  Down 3-4, 15-40 in the fifth set, Nadal fought back and won the last three games in a match that ended past midnight.  To win this tournament, Nadal will have to be on the court three straight days – and perhaps a fourth should the final go long.  This was precisely what happened when Nadal won his sole Aussie title back in 2009.

+ Federer is the downstream player, the man with the game and sensibility that never seems to be fighting nature.  Nadal is often in defiance of nature, most notably when, as a child, the young Rafa, a natural right-hander, opted to play left-handed (then again, the silky smooth Rosewall did just the opposite).  Where Federer’s gestalt is to glide, Nadal’s is to fight.

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+ But then, this final plot point: The shot Nadal strikes best — his crosscourt forehand – is precisely the one that inflicts the most damage on Federer.  A similar matchup pattern played out in the two 1974 Rosewall-Connors finals, Connors’ forceful service return helping him jump over Rosewall’s single weakness, his serve.  The pairing of Nadal’s forehand versus Federer’s backhand is the major reason why Nadal leads this rivalry 23-11, including all three times they’ve met in Melbourne.  Of all possible opponents, how amazing that versus the brilliant Federer, Nadal in this case mostly need just follow nature.

Australian Open ’17: Flashback

(big thanks to key source — “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh

January 28: Mary Pierce Owns The Zone

They call it “the zone” – those moments when the ball goes everywhere you want and it’s seemingly impossible to miss.  It might last a set, a match or even an entire tournament.  But it’s best when it happens during a Grand Slam event.  Such was the case for Mary Pierce at the 1995 Australian Open.  Long known as a streaky player, the fourth-seeded Pierce that year tore her way through Melbourne.  In the semis, Pierce handily disposed of reigning Wimbledon champion, second-seeded Conchita Martinez, dropping just four games.  In the finals, she played her stylistic opposite, Arantxa Sanchez, who’d beaten Pierce in the finals of the ’94 French Open and had also that year won the US Open.  But Sanchez’s resume meant nothing.  All Pierce saw that day was the ball, winning the match 6-3, 6-2 – and taking the title without the loss of a set.

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Joel Drucker is currently in Melbourne, working as a writer-researcher on Tennis Channel’s Australian Open production team.  Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first started airing in 2003.  Among his Tennis Channel activities: co-producer of the interview show, “Center Court with Chris Myers,” story editor-researcher for several “Signature Series” documentaries (most recently, “Barnstormers”) and work at all of the Grand Slam events since the network first began to cover the majors a decade ago.  One of the sport’s preeminent writers, Drucker is also an historian-at-large for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Original author: Joel Drucker
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