It’s been a wacky Australian Open, even if no one’s around to see it


Aslan Karatsev (l.) pulled out a comeback Sunday after finding himself down two sets against Felix Auger-Aliassime (r.).Photo: Getty ImagesAs we’ve previously stated, the Australian Open has a surreal quality, at least on these shores, where an already-niche sport takes place in the dark for only the truly dedicated/bewildered. It’s even more so this edition, as on Friday the live spectators were shooed out of the tournament altogether, thanks to the state of Victoria’s latest COVID lockdown (and it merely took a handful of cases on the outskirts of town for the government to put those in. Imagine having that kind of leadership, responsibility, and care for your neighbor. Maybe when you already live in Australia, amongst all the things that can kill you instantly, you’re more aware of avoiding the extraneous dangers). Anyway, that led to the bizarre sight of the Taylor Fritz-Novak Djokovic match having to be held up for 10 minutes while the crowd left, right at the time the stadium would normally be filling up to watch a possible massive upset. It was a cavernous echo that responded to Djokovic’s roar as he pulled out the 5th set against Fritz, instead of a rapturous roar (or begrudging acceptance and a guarded appreciation rather than a soaking-in of Djokovic’s greatness, as it tends to be with him and crowds). But neither Djokovic nearly eating it early, nor home hero Nick Kyrgrios spitting away a two-set lead to Dominic Thiem on the same night is the biggest story on the men’s side of the draw (and that victory left Thiem a fine paste, as he was bulldozed by Gregor Dimitrov in his next match in straight sets last night). Aslan Karatsev had never played in a Grand Slam before this one. He’s 27, which is generally when a player has established his career arc, for better or for worse. He’s ranked 114th in the world, though that’s a result mostly of tearing it up on the Challenger Tour last year, the tier below the ATP. He was ranked 300 before that. And now he has bulldozed his way to the quarterfinals where he’ll meet Dimitrov. Karatsev hadn’t dropped a set in his first three matches, and had only lost 20 games in his three wins. He rolled into the fourth-round having completely clubbed Diego Schwartzman, (ranked 8th) in straight sets in the third. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about watching Karatsev pull off an actual, tennis-version of Hoosiers, is that he plays like someone who has nothing to lose. Because he doesn’t. It’s the way you’ve always wanted to walk into a Vegas casino with a bankroll, until you remember your mortgage or kids’ college fund or how friendly your spouse seems to be with the neighbor. A complete, “Fuck it, it’s free cake” attitude toward life. Karatsev has been simply bombing it from the baseline, going for every shot that’s there and some that aren’t. It’s what American hope Frances Tiafoe has been attempting for years, but without the restrictor plates that would keep him within limits long enough to make serious noise. Karatsev thunders forehands and backhands to within inches of the baseline, because if you have his story, and you don’t know how much longer this will last, you’re not going to waste time with “feeling your way into a match” or “strategy” or “ logic.” It’s like taco night at college for Karatsev. We’ll worry about the gastrointestinal issues when we get to them. Schwartzman’s game is based on being a backboard, and he was basically reduced to a spectator to Karatsev’s laser show. G/O Media may get a commissionKaratsev’s latest rolling of sevens came against Felix Auger-Aliassime, the Canadian who has promised so much for a couple seasons now and yet hasn’t quite broken down all the firewalls on his game that would unlock so much. Karatsev was down two sets, and it appeared his pressing his engine to 7000 RPM for the length of the tournament had overcooked it. He piled up 26 unforced errors in the first two sets to just seven winners, while Auger-Aliassime played very cleanly and simply and let Karatsev’s lines blow. But Karatsev found the rhythm over the next three sets, piling up 30 winners in the final three sets, including 22 in the final two, as F.A.A.’s game broke down. Karatsev is the first qualifier to get to the quarters in Melbourne in 32 years. He’s the first qualifier to get to any Slam in 10. He’s the first player to make the quarters of his first Slam in 25 years. It’s a complete joyride, and long may it continue. Elsewhere, Daniil Medvedev continued his tortured genius approach to life with a five-set win on Friday that saw him berate his own coach for so long and so often, and in three different languages just for variety’s sake, the dude just got up and left before Medvedev pulled himself out of his ennui to blitz Filip Krajinovic in the 5th set 6-0, which saved Medvedev from blowing his own two-set lead. The constant harassing of a coach not doing much more than sitting there in an empty arena makes for even more awkward viewing, but Medvedev’s rise to the top of the game has been a constant exhibition of absurdism, both in his game — he can vary wildly in style, tactics, and performance and that’s from game to game — and personality. It’s been refreshing to have this kind of story now, because it still looks like the chalk is going to be left at the end. Djokovic complained of a foot injury against Fritz, and even wondered if he could make his next match, which he did and saw off without much fuss, sending Milos Raonic home in four sets. Rafael Nadal hasn’t dropped a set yet, and now won’t have to worry about strange women expressing their views in clear fashion toward him with no crowds being allowed. .

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Venus Williams is still there


Despite a debilitating ankle injury, Venus Williams put on an inspirational performance at the Australian Open.Image: Getty ImagesThe Australian Open is candy for the insomnia and drunk crowd, both of which I happen to be a member. I guess it has the same charm as New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom. Not only is it a must-see event, but you know that only the truly die-hard fans are watching along with you… or the truly lost. And those two circles can intersect pretty heavily — genius and insanity and all that. It’s a great event for tennis fans too, because it’s generally the only Grand Slam that the players come into completely healthy. They’ve had six weeks to two months off from the previous season, and have only played a tune-up event or two, if that, before the tournament. The rest of the calendar sees a host of players carrying nagging ailments from the weeks and weeks of play and training, and you don’t always get everyone at full-strength. By the time the US Open rolls around in late August it can look like a lunch break on the set of The Walking Dead.Of course, that’s not always the case, especially this year. Players have had an unusual run-up to this event, with Australia’s COVID protocols, and some had to spend a full two weeks in a hotel room. Which would be the antithesis of the highly-tuned training schedule and bodies these athletes carry for the entire tour and their entire careers. Venus Williams was no different, though she may just be carrying the nagging aches and pains that anyone who’s, y’know, 40 carries. Much less someone who is 40 and has been on tour full-time for 24 years, a good portion of which has been playing and training on concrete. She came into the Aussie Open with her left knee barking. It’s a wonder her back isn’t graham crackers, considering. Venus hasn’t been a real threat in a while, though it’s important to remember she was in two Grand Slam finals in 2017, which was only four years ago, and she did that at age 37. Only two other women have made Finals at 37, and those are Serena and Martina Navratilova, perhaps the two greatest players of all-time. That’s the company Venus keeps, though it’s forgotten a little too often. “Venus has been lost in the light of her younger sister Serena for even longer, as Serena, with 23 grand slam titles to her name, remains on the cusp of tying and breaking Margaret Court’s record for most grand slam wins. (Being the younger sibling of two, I’m tempted to say that the younger one is always the superior one, but I’ve gotten enough typewriters and noogies by saying that in my lifetime to tempt fate once again).G/O Media may get a commissionSo occasionally we have to remind ourselves that Venus is also one of the greatest players of all-time. She’s second among active players, to her sister, in Grand Slam titles, with seven. She’s 10th all-time in Final appearances, 10th all-time in Grand Slam semifinals as well. She’s fifth in Grand Slam match wins, and also collected 49 singles titles in total. Basically, every tennis player ever save a handful would drink a warehouse full of cow’s blood to have the career Venus has had to this point. “To this point” is key there, because she’s still going. And that’s been the thing about Venus for the past few years. She shows up. She’s got the most Grand Slam appearances of anyone in history, with 87. In the 24 years she’s been playing, she’s missed a total of seven Grand Slams. That’s one every three years. She gets to the post. Last night was a testament to that. Carrying that knee problem, and down 1-5 in the 1st set to Sara Errani and serving to stay in the set, Venus did this to her right ankle. It was immediately obvious that this wasn’t just some little turn or sprain. Williams fought back tears as she hobbled around and through back-to-back medical timeouts. Every commentator was positive that she would retire, that she should (and maybe she should have, she could have easily ended her career). She was down 5-1, couldn’t move, and the days of her making serious inroads in a Grand Slam are probably over. What does she have to prove? Why gut out this pain to likely lose, and even if somehow finding a way through this one, how would she get through the next match? No one would have batted an eye if she had called the match then and there. But Venus Williams gets there. She is there. That’s her strength. She’s there because there’s a match to be played, and that’s what she does. So she gutted out the next set, even looked a little spritely at times, and even fought off two match points even when there was no hope of a comeback. Sometimes the value is in just putting up a fight, playing one or two points really well. She validated Errani’s win by sticking it out, by competing to the very end. She gave Errani a victory, not a pass. That’s not to disparage other players, almost all of which have had to retire from a match at some point. Again, Venus could have easily done lasting damage last night, and we might find out later she did. There’s a risk calculation. Of course, there are more than enough players who look for the towel to throw at the slightest urging. Or some who jake their way through matches for a check, and look a lot of times like they can barely be bothered with a profession that makes one rich, allows them to see the world, and play a game for a living (rhymes with “Kyrgios”). Certainly, it will be a curious juxtaposition for the next player who does that this tournament after Venus’s performance. Venus kept on because that’s what she does. She’s not going to win tournaments anymore, likely. But she loves the game, she loves being out there, and that’s all the meaning she needs. It’s all the meaning we should need. It makes her happy, even if it’s excruciating as it was yesterday. There’s a match to be played, and that’s enough for Venus. Venus is there. The value is in playing. We’ll notice when she’s gone, and you can’t help but feel like that day is soon, but it’s never as close as you’d guess with Venus, because she’s there.  .

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