It boasted no fewer than three Grand Slam champions: one the top seed, Rafael Nadal; one a home-grown favourite, Lleyton Hewitt; and one arguably the most influential player in men’s tennis, Roger Federer. To leaven the man-packed day, there was also the women’s defending champion, Victoria Azarenka.
On the third day, the ‘happy Slam’ made the Rod Laver arena just as happy with a near-replay of that sizzling schedule. Here again were three Grand Slam champions: one the top seed, Serena Williams; one a home-grown favourite, Sam Stosur; one arguably the most influential player in women’s tennis, Na Li. And yes, there was some leavening of this female dominated day from men’s defending champion, Novak Djokovic.
What also made these three particular women stand out, though, was the increasingly loud message in tennis: age is just a number.
Williams, at 32, has just completed her best ever season, and in this her 14th Australian Open she is aiming to equal Martina Navratilova and Christ Evert by winning an 18th Grand Slam.
She is already holder of a record five Australian titles, and could not have started her 2014 campaign for a sixth any better. She won the Brisbane title for the second year in a row and, more impressively, beat Maria Sharapova in the semis and Azarenka in the final.
Looking fit, calm and oh-so-strong in Melbourne—no glitz, not an ounce of wasted energy, not a shred of doubt in her body language—Williams sailed through her opener against the talented young wild card Ashleigh Barty, 6-2 6-1.
In her second match against Vesna Dolonc, she again lost just three games, advancing to the third round after precisely two hours of tennis. What’s more, she notched up another milestone, her 60th match win at the Australian Open, to tie Margaret Court for the most career match wins in the tournament.
And while the heat may have taken a toll around Melbourne Park, it seemed to suit Williams just fine: 10 aces, 24 winners and a meeting with another of the over-30s club, the No31 seed Daniela Hantuchova. The willowy Slovakian reached a ranking of No5 more than a decade ago and the semis in Australia in 2008. She is playing in her 14 Australian Open, her 51st Grand Slam, but her progress to that Williams showdown does not bode well.
Hantuchova was taken to three sets in the first round by Briton Heather Watson, and was kept on court even longer by her second opponent, Karolina Pliskova—a marathon 3hrs13mins. Indeed the final 12-10 set lasted only seven minutes less than Williams entire time on court in two matches.
So look out for another record-equalling match from the top seed come Friday: She could hit Lindsay Davenport’s record 69 matches at the Australian Open.
Li has also enjoyed plenty of success in Australia, reaching the finals in 2011 and 2013. Like Williams, her year also started well with the Shenzhen title. The charismatic 31-year-old arrives, too, on the back of one of her most consistent seasons.
This late bloomer—smart enough to have a university degree, witty enough to pack every press conference, popular enough to earn more endorsements than any woman except Sharapova—didn’t play her first Major until 2005, and made only two quarter-final runs before reaching the semis in Melbourne in 2010.
In 2011, after a final finish in Australia, she won the French Open, and bounced back from 2012 slump with another Melbourne final last year, backed up by the quarters at Wimbledon and a career-first semi run in New York.
Coming from the fastest-growing tennis market in the world, Li was the first Asian player to win a Major and appeared on the cover of a Time magazine, which named her among the world’s 100 most influential people.
Even so, she wanted to do better, took on a demanding coach—Carlos Rodriguez insists on punishing regimes—and ended 2013 at a career-high No3. Against the best-of-the-best at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, she lost only to Williams.
In the Slam that regards itself as the Asian as well as Australian Major, Li is hugely popular—and it shows in her tennis. In the first round, she wiped out the youngest woman in the draw, 16-year-old Ana Konjuh, 6-2, 6-0.
Then she moved to the second youngest, the 16-year-old Belinda Bencic, winner of both the French and Wimbledon junior titles. The young Swiss player, touted as the next Martina Hingis not only for her nationality but her style of play, came through three rounds of qualifying to play her first main-draw Grand Slam match, where she beat the oldest woman in the draw, Kimiko Date-Krumm.
Again Li, she initially looked overwhelmed, losing the first set 6-0, but in the second, she broke Li twice—though the nimble No4 seed broke back and they headed to a tiebreak. Li took control with the latest addition to her all-court game, some strong volleying, and won the match in just an hour and 20 minutes. She finished with more winners even than Williams: 30 of them.
Li next plays Lucie Safarova, and with the No15 seed Sabine Lisicki and No6 seed Petra Kvitova already out of her quarter, she is looking a strong contender to meet Williams in the semis in a week’s time.
When it comes to last of the Day 3 ‘big trio’, there could not have been more support. Such is the affection—and expectation—for Stosur in her home country that she has often found the burden a heavy one. Since playing her first match in Melbourne in 2002, she has made the fourth round only twice, yet she is a Roland Garros runner-up and winner of the US Open—the first Australian woman to win that title there since Margaret Court took her fifth in 1973.
Stosur turns 30 in a couple of months’ time, and had an outstanding doubles career—titles in the US and French doubles, runner-up in Australia and Wimbledon—before making her breakthrough in singles.
In 2007, she developed viral meningitis that took her out of tennis for almost a year, but it proved to be a spur to change. She worked her way back to fitness and to her first Major singles final in Paris in 2010, beating Williams on the way.
It took her just 73 minutes to beat Williams for the US title in 2011, yet her home title seemed to recede further from her grasp. But while the worst of the draw has yet to hit her—she has fallen into Williams’ quarter—Stosur has looked in very fine form indeed in reaching the third round for the first time since 2009.
Her opener was against Klara Zakopalova, who missed a seeding in Australia by just a week. Ranked 32, she reached the Hobart final last week by beating Stosur.
This time it was different. Stosur advanced, 6-3, 6-4, only to faced Tsvetana Pironkova, who came through qualifying to win the Sydney title last week.
If Stosur was feeling the nerves that usually undermine her tennis in front of her home crowd, they didn’t show as she calmly, indeed ruthlessly, went about her athletic business to break twice for the first set, 6-2, in an efficient 39 minutes.
As for the second set, it was a masterclass in domination. Stosur dropped just one point on serve, broke three times on her way to a whitewash 6-0.
Whether this becomes Stosur’s year to take her home crown remains to be seen. The draw throws another Grand Slam winner into her path, the resurgent Ana Ivanovic, who is currently ranked above Stosur at 14. Their matches have invariably been close, and they took one win apiece last year. It seems a certainty, then, that Stosur will again be on Melbourne’s centre stage, and once more if she advances to the fourth round for a likely Williams battle.
Beyond that, Stosur may face fellow late-maturer Li in the semis, in what could become the biggest fight for seats at this year’s championships
Talking of whom, the Chinese star got in some one-liner practice in her post-match news conference. She was asked if, having beaten two teenagers, she felt like the ‘old lady’ of the draw: “No—I think I’m mostly young in this room, right?”
Sharp both on and off court.
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