Feast after famine

Six days of the Australian Open have passed. The tournament began on Monday, with 256 players entered into the two singles draws proper – and that’s not to mention the doubles players. The fourth round awaits – and the 128 men and 128 women have been whittled down to 16 a piece. You could call it, quite literally, a decimation.

Such is the exponential nature of a tennis tournament – especially a grand slam. The first round is packed with what seems like an overwhelming amount of tennis, and before you know it the draws have been whittled down to what is considered the business end of the tournament – the second week.

A lot of tennis has been played, and a lot of stories have been told. The first week of a grand slam is hectic – it’s easy to forget the sheer extent of what happens. Already, we’ve seen Simona Halep lose in the first round, and Agnieszka Radwanska fall early too. Nick Kyrgios lamely folded against Andreas Seppi – to the disappointment of his home slam fans, and the general dismay of the tennis world. Dan Evans – the plucky Brit who used to have all of the talent and none of the work ethic – applied himself to upset Marin Cilic, and has backed it up with a career-best fourth round at a grand slam. Roger Federer has returned – and was absolutely vintage in his crushing third round victory over Tomas Berdych. Rafael Nadal is back amongst it too – initially with less fanfare than his long-time rival, until an explosive fourth round encounter against rising star Alexander Zverev, Rafa coming through in a battling five sets.

I am primarily a women’s tennis fan – I blogged on the eve of the tournament on how taking a break from following the game has left me feeling unsure of the state of the women’s game. It’s quickly transpired that that is true of those most well-versed and up to date on the happenings of the WTA Tour. Halep and Radwanska exited early on, young guns Muguruza and Pliskova have endured, albeit with some challenges, and the two favourites in Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber are heading up their halves of the draw with little incident, but neither particularly impressing – although Serena certainly edges Kerber. Nobody has really taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck, and set the tone. Truthfully, although I already feel much more familiar with the undulations of the game, I can’t say I’m any closer to calling who wins this tournament. This tournament, and the WTA in general, really does seem like anyone’s game right now – ripe for somebody to make it their own.

The most seismic story of all thus far in the tournament comes not out of the women’s draw, but the men’s, with Dennis Istomin’s quite astounding upset of Novak Djokovic on Wednesday. Multiple narratives unfold from that one match: what seems another checkpoint on a troubling downward trajectory for Djokovic, Andy Murray looking a sure bet for the Number 1 ranking through to Wimbledon at least, and being an overwhelming favourite to win his first Australian Open, not to mention Istomin himself – who graced Rod Laver Arena with the best match he’s ever played in his career, having won a wildcard to the main draw.

That’s what is emergent from just one match. So far, in six days, 224 tennis matches have been played, and most of them haven’t been contested by these familiar top 20 names, but by players who fly under the radar of the general tennis consciousness. This is the nature of tennis. Matches which to those players are of as much significance as Djokovic’s early loss will be to him, but go entirely unnoticed by most tennis fans. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni received acclaim for her upset of the third seed Radwanska in the second round, but have many really appreciated the significance of the veteran’s run to the fourth round? She first played at the Australian Open in 1998, and has only once previously won a match here. This tournament for her is a career highlight, but not many will know about it.

By the end of the second week, these stories and narratives of the early rounds will have faded even further from our memories. Will we remember Jennifer Brady in years to come? The 21 year old American is playing in her first grand slam here, and upset Elena Vesnina to reach the round of 16.

To be fair to ourselves – this is an awful lot of tennis to digest, especially when you’ve fallen out of the loop as I have. At the same time, it’s almost like a crash course – I feel at the end of this first week absolutely full to the brim with new knowledge and insight. The novelty of the countless narratives grand slams bring with them can’t help but fill you with excitement for the season to come – and that’s one of the brilliant things about the Australian Open. Being the first major tournament of the year, and so early on in the tennis calendar, it sets the year ahead up so tantalisingly, and comes after just enough of a break over the off-season to make you hungry for tennis again.

As appetisers go, you’re left feeling pretty full. And with 16 players left in each draw, there’s a long way to go before the main course.


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