Red Mud from the Sky – Australian Open 2020

By Vanessa Taylor, Russell Boxshall and Jacqueline Doyle

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Extreme weather regularly visits the Australian Open. But this year was almost apocalyptic. The peak temperature of 43°C happens often enough to require the tournament’s extreme heat policy. But this year from the qualifying event onwards, nature threw up a number of different challenges for players and officials.

The coastal bushfires that caused smoky conditions in Melbourne in January 2020. Photo: NASA

Smoke from bushfires 350 kilometres away blew into Melbourne, delaying the start of the quallies. Tournament medicos monitored the effects on the players as the air quality was ranked as hazardous by the environmental authorities. At the same time, practice sessions for Alexander Zverev and Rafael Nadal were suspended.

Several players came up with tennis-related ideas to support the fund-raising for Australians affected by the bushfires. Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams were among the players who staged the Rally for Relief at a sold-out Rod Laver Arena and raised $4,826,014.

The bushfire smoke in Melbourne on 6 January 2020. Photo: Paul Doyle

Zverev said he would donate all his prize cheque if he won (unfortunately he lost in the semis). Nadal and Federer combined to donate an extra $250,000. John McEnroe said he would donate $1000 for every set Nick Kyrgios won at the Open. Kyrgios himself donated $200 per ace he hit all summer.

A few of the women players realised they wouldn’t serve enough aces so devised other ways of accruing donations. Alice Cornet gave $50 for every drop shot winner, Belinda Bencic paid up $200 for each double fault and Simona Halep punished herself $200 every time she looked grumpily at her player’s box.

Simona Halep
Simona Halep playing in Melbourne. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

As it turned out, the smoke was a portent. On the first day of the tournament, torrential rain from 3pm to 10pm meant that only 27 matches could be completed for the whole day, meaning 32 scheduled matches were either suspended or not commenced. Not even the roof on Rod Laver Arena could save the day. It continually leaked and the diligent ball kids worked hard mopping up the court with towels.

Tennis fans were not deterred and the second day set an attendance record.

Happily, Melbourne Park was spared the 5 cm hailstones that pelted the outer suburbs later in the week. The crushing humidity though, continued through the event.

Jelena Dokic
Channel 9 courtside commentator Jelena Dokic feeling the heat. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

In the second week, however, play on the outside courts was delayed while red-brown mud was cleaned off the courts. It proved as sticky as honey and took three hours to remove. The substance was created by a dust storm as ferocious winds transported particles from interstate, which then fell to earth with the deluge of rain. Even the brown of the Yarra River became several shades darker and redder.

Through it all, the tournament progressed and the crowd wilfully sang “YMCA” at changes of ends at Margaret Court Arena.

On the women’s side, there were two rematches of US Open matches, Coco Gauff v Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams v Wang Qiang.

Osaka struggled with her usually reliable backhand as Gauff the 15 year old knocked out the defending champion in 67 minutes. Gauff was unable to back up the win, however, going out in the next round to the eventual champion Sofia Kenin.

Williams had been shaky in her previous match and lost to Wang, saying “”I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today”. In their previous match at the US Open quarters, Williams had thrashed Wang 1 and 0, with Wang hitting zero winners and losing in 44 minutes.

Caroline Wozniacki
Caroline Wozniacki at her retirement presentation. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

While Williams was losing on Rod Laver Arena, her good friend Caroline Wozniacki was defeated 5-7 6-3 5-7 by Ons Jabeur, the first woman from an Arabic country to get to a Slam quarters. Jabeur went on to the quarter finals where she lost to Kenin.

So this third round match was Wozniacki’s final match on the tour, as she had announced in December last year that she would end her career at the Australian Open. She had won the Open in 2018 and seven months later was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Ash Barty
Ash Barty practising on Rod Laver Arena. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

In the semis, Kenin beat French Open champion Ash Barty in straight sets. Barty served for the match but committed her first double fault and then after erratic play handed Kenin two match points. Barty could only save one.

The other semi featured one of the feel good stories of the tournament, the revival of Garbine Muguruza’s career. She was the only unseeded semi finalist. Having beaten Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the quarters, she beat Simona Halep in straight sets. The length of the match, over two hours, was more indicative of the quality of the match than the straight sets result.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeating 2nd seed Karolina Pliskova in the third round. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Muguruza couldn’t complete the fairy tale in the final. She seemed nervous but toughed it out to take the first set with 17 winners. But she struggled with her ball toss, serving eight double faults throughout the match, including on Kenin’s second match point.

Kenin had taken control of the match in the final two sets. Despite getting teary early in the third set, she mostly stayed calm and kept the pressure on Muguruza.

So Kenin claimed her first slam at the age of 21. After the match she kept looking over at her coach/father in disbelief and could barely focus on proceedings.

The tournament was more predictable on the men’s side, in that a regular world number 1, multi-slam winner and multi-Australian Open winner took the trophy.

Day 5 provided one of the most interesting matches. Beforehand came the rare sight of the opponents warming up side by side on the same court. On Rod Laver Arena, Federer hit with Marat Safin while John Millman hit with Lleyton Hewitt.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer in his third round match against John Millman. Photo: Roger Parker

Millman beat Federer in the fourth round of the 2018 US Open and this return match was keenly anticipated. Millman came out of the blocks fast, going to a 5-2 lead before Federer’s cleverly devised points got the set back on serve. Then a loose game from Federer gave Millman three set points. Millman took the opportunity, breaking to love and winning the first set.

In the tiebreak for the second set, Federer increased his average first serve speed to 11 kms faster than for the match to that point and won the breaker 7-2. His form continued in the third set, which he won 6-4. Millman came back to take the fourth set by the same margin.

The fifth set was determined by a match tiebreaker. Federer’s errors and Millman’s brilliant play gave the latter an 8-4 lead but somehow Federer won six points in a row finishing with a slashing cross-court winner.

Another exciting match was Kyrgios v Karen Khachanov. At 4.26, it turned out to be Kyrgios’s longest ever match. Khachanov came into the match carrying a lot of court time from his previous matches. He went down two sets but forced the match to five and a match tiebreak, after Kyrgios held match points in the third, fourth and fifth sets.

Nick Kyrgios
Nick Kyrgios in his match against Rafael Nadal. Photo: Corinne Dubreuil

Having gone up 3-0, Kyrgios lost the next four points. Eventually, Kyrgios got his final matchpoint one hour and 54 minutes after the previous one and won 10-8 as Khachanov hit wide.

Kyrgios went on to play Nadal, who had said he would prefer to play Khachanov, given his 7-0 head to head.

There was a short tribute to the late basketballer Kobe Bryant before the match and Kyrgios entered the arena wearing Bryant’s 24 singlet.

Kyrgios broke Nadal as he served for the match in the fourth set, but Nadal led the tiebreak 5-4 with two serves to go and a Kyrgios error lost him the match. The score of 6-3 3-6 7-6 7-6 was the same as Nadal’s winning effort at Wimbledon last year.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal practising on Rod Laver Arena. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Former champion Stan Wawrinka had a good tournament, back to some vintage form against Next Gen’s Daniil Medvedev and yelling out Allez! after his winners, before falling to Zverev in the quarters.

Tennys Sandgren repeated his break-out performance at the 2018 Australian Open, making it to the quarters. Unseeded and ranked 100, he beat the number 12 and 8 seeds before losing to Federer in a close five setter.

A touch sluggish from his long match against Millman and playing his first match of the year in daylight, Federer relied on grit and chipping the ball to get through. He managed to save seven match points, four of them by simply keeping the ball in play and craftily waiting for a Sandgren error.

The match was also remarkable for two incidents: Federer was reported for an audible obscenity by a lineswoman, and subsequently fined $3000, and a ball girl accidently ran into Sandgren’s outstretched leg at a sit down.

Unfortunately for Federer fans, after his remarkable effort against Sandgren, he lost his semi to Djokovic in straight sets. Nadal fans also experienced disappointment as he went out in four to Dominic Thiem in their quarter final.

Thiem had travelled smoothly through the tournament despite sacking his coach Thomas Muster after a first round coaching warning. The only playing hiccup was a surprising five setter against world 171 Alex Bolt in the second round.

Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic wish each other a good match before the final. Photo: Frank Molter

An incredibly talented all court player, Thiem had the bad luck to play the French Open final against Nadal in 2018 and 2019.

Now in the Australian Open final, Thiem faced an opponent in Djokovic who was hitting both his backhand and forehand faster than his tournament average. And as a surprise tactic, he served and volleyed at break points later in the match.

Thiem had spent six hours more on court during the tournament. He was brave and brilliant but Djokovic had already won seven Australian crowns and knew how to do it again.

Djokovic won 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 in just under four hours. In his victory speech, Djokovic predicted that Thiem will win more than one grand slam trophy. “Probably one point and one shot separated us tonight. Could have gone a different way.

Title photo by Frank Molter

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