Happy Slam the Australian Open may be — it certainly looks like a happy place to those following it wistfully on TV from the other side of planet Earth — but you had to admit it was rather grim. With arsonists and woke forest management policies causing raging fires in New South Wales that raised, or rather lowered, Melbourne’s air quality to dangerous levels, there was serious talk of canceling the event. The players rallied, with donations for disaster relief, and the international fire-fighting fraternity sent volunteers, and the show, as it must, went on.
Roger Federer had a close call with local lad John Millman, his nemesis from a few months ago at the U.S. Open, who forced him to go the distance in their third round match. It was smoother sailing in the next round, with a quick win over little Hungary’s Marton Fucsoviks despite a sluggish start that caused him to drop the first set.
The ATP No. 3, who won here in 2017 and ’18 (and several other years), goes into the quarters to meet the last American standing in the men’s draw, Tennessee’s own Tennys Sandgren, who stayed unfazed through four sets of head-games by Fabio Fognini, who is married to Flavia Pennetta, 2015 U.S. Open champion. Fognini is a great player, whose gamesmanship, I always thought, distracts him from playing his best far more than it bothers his opponents. But he is who he is, and Sandgren, who also beat Sam Querrey to get to the second week, is as solid in his game as he is in his Christian faith and he showed the endurance and the smarts, as well as the mental strength, to stay focused. Ranked about a hundred places below Federer, the odds are against him, but you never know.
Neither Novak Djokovic, the defending champion who is aiming for his eighth trophy here, nor Rafa Nadal, 2009 winner and finalist last year, had any trouble to write home about. Djokovic next meets Milos Raonic and Nadal goes against the brilliant and mercurial Nick Kyrgios.
This is supposed to be the year of the change of the guard, but they said that last year, and as I recall they were already beginning to say it the year before that. Several of the rising stars may yet prove that their time is coming. If Nick Kyrgios cannot beat Nadal, Daniil Medvedev, who almost did at the U.S. Open final last September, will get another shot, and if he does not it will be up to someone else, such as past champion Stan Wawrinka or Dominic Thiem, whom Mr. Pleszczynski persistently mistakes for a Vietnamese pro. He is Austrian. Alexander Zverev, another promising “next-gen” player who is still in the mix, is German, not Russian, as Mr. Pleszczynski — who played tennis in high school and college — knows, so what it is about Mr. Thiem, whose name is clearly not Thieu, I cannot fathom, but readers who do can send us their answers to this mystery.
On the women’s side, Red China’s Qiang Wang, whom Serena Williams demolished in a way that was downright embarrassing the U.S. Open semis last September, showed an entirely different side of her game as she beat the best player of the last 20 years in a skillful 3rd-round match. Miss Williams was her masterful self through the first two rounds, but the native of Tianjin — which is near the two Koreas! — must have spent the past three months running tapes of her New York humiliation, because it was an entirely different Miss Wang who faced the most winning woman of the past 20 years. It went wang for wing, I mean point for point, for three sets, with Miss Williams prevailing in the second-set tiebreak before falling short in the decider.
Coco Gauff beat Venus Williams and defending champ Naomi Osaka but ran into another American starlet in the fourth round, Sofia Kenin, who was neither intimidated nor overconfident, which seems to be the problem when playing 15-year-old prodigies. Miss Gauff, to be sure, is a uncommonly talented player, with an enthusiastic game that — like Miss Osaka’s when it is on — not unfairly is compared to both Miss Williamses’. Miss Kenin is a counterpuncher who stays calm and focused. Notwithstanding their contrasting demeanor on court, both young ladies were in tears at the end of a match that stayed tense all the way through, even in the third set when Miss G. was served a bagel.
That was the week, and it ended sadly with the death in a helicopter crash of a sports legend, Kobe Bryant, who was a great tennis player and supporter. The show goes on, as it should, even as terrible infernos and appalling accidents remind us how our very smallness as humans is a reason to give the best of whatever it is we’ve got, by way of showing respect for others, and for the creator of all things.