Australian Open 2020: Williams, Osaka, Tsitsipas lose and Federer tested to limits in day of drama
Federer reaches 100th win; Gauff impresses; Wozniacki departs for good
When the Melbourne Arena at the Australian Open saw one of their favourite daughters, Caroline Wozniacki, lose a compelling two-hour, three-set match to Ons Jabeur, many may have thought that was the headline story of the day.
The former No1 and 2018 Australian champion, and one of the most popular women on tour, had decided to end her impressive career, at the age of 29, at this tournament.
She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis soon after winning that first Major and returning to No1, and ended 2019 ranked No38. She had not added to her 30-title tally since Beijing at the end of 2018, and now married, was ready to walk from tennis.
It was not the fairytale ending, but it was a good one: Her 15-year career ended with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 defeat by Jabeur, and admitted:
“It has been a great ride… It is fitting my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder, and I’d finish my career with a forehand error—those are the things I have been working on my whole career!”
But that would not be the highlight on a D-for-Drama Day at Melbourne Park.
Seven-time champion and No8 seed Serena Williams arrived fresh from winning her first title in three years, in Auckland, and a favourite to finally win her record-equalling 24th Major. She sailed past her first two opponents for the loss of just eight games, but against No27 seed Wang Qiang, she came unstuck, losing 6-4, 6-7, 7-5.
It marked Williams’ earliest exit in Melbourne since falling at the same stage in 2006. The shell-shocked former champion, who had beaten Wang in 44 minutes at the US Open last September, later admitted: “I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today.” She had hit 56 of them.
Yet more upsets were to come. The prodigiously talented No4 seed and defending champion, Naomi Osaka, took on the 15-year-old prodigy, Coco Gauff, for the first time since their first meeting at the US Open last autumn. Then Osaka cruised to victory, 6-3, 6-0. This time, Gauff, playing with the same free-swinging power and mentality as Osaka herself, was better prepared.
The American teenager had a clear strategy here—take the ball early, pummel wide to the backhand, take the game to Osaka. And the champion responded with too many tight errors, and was broken for 5-3 in the first set. The super-focused Gauff served out with a love hold, 6-3.
She carried her momentum into the second set with an immediate break, but this time Osaka responded in kind, breaking back. Now with both playing solid tennis, they edged to 3-3, but then Osaka tightened again, and made a couple of wayward errors. Gauff did not need encouragement: she broke and held for 5-3. Osaka held on, but she could not break the big serving of the youngster, who sealed victory with her 13th straight point on serve, 6-4.
This smart teenager, currently ranked 67 but already looking at the top 50 after her first visit to Australia’s main draw, is still juggling tennis with her school work, but admitted:
“My teachers are giving me some time, letting me put in some assignments late!…
She hoped, she said, to get a photo with Rod Laver to post on Instagram to mark her debut in Melbourne: He will surely be more than delighted to oblige.
And along the way to the last match of the day, there was no shortage of other cliff-hangers and upsets. How many expected Milos Raonic, seeded 32 only after the withdrawal of No23 Alex de Minaur, and returning from the latest of a string of injury problems, to upset No6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas?
The young Greek has been tipped as one of the new generation likely to break the triumvirate of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and win a Major. He made his first big semi in Australia last year, upsetting Federer in the process, beat Nadal on Madrid’s clay, and Djokovic on Shanghai’s hard courts. He ended the year as the ATP Finals champion.
But against the serve and forehand power of Raonic, he had few answers. The Canadian hit 19 aces, 55 winners, won almost 90 percent of first-serve points, came to the net far more than he once did, and never faced a break point. He ran out the winner, 7-5, 6-4, 7-6, after two and a half hours.
Raonic will next meet 2018 Australian Open runner-up Marin Cilic, who is unseeded this year at No39 following his own struggles with knee injury. The 31-year-old Croat won his second five-setter against a seed. On Wednesday, it was No21 Benoit Paire, today it was No9 Roberto Bautista Agut, who has been enjoying some of the best form of his career. Cilic won 6-7, 6-4, 6-0, 5-7, 6-3, having lost to the Spaniard in their five-setter in Melbourne a year ago.
But the biggest drama of Friday’s schedule kept most of a packed Rod Laver Arena in their seats until little short of 1am when Federer took on the hugely popular home player, John Millman—the man who shocked the Arthur Ashe faithful in New York last year by beating the Swiss in the fourth round, and from a set down.
The writing was soon on the wall in Melbourne, too, as the super-fit and in-form Millman showed his intent from the off. He plays fast, hits flat and with depth and angle, and his serve proved to be a challenge, too.
His aggressive play soon got its reward with a break for 3-1, as Federer’s forehand flew long and wide time and again. Millman pressed wide to Federer’s backhand, forcing defensive replies, and he was soon serving for the set, 5-3. The Swiss responded with a break, only to make a slew of errors to concede break and set, 6-4.
The second set was a closer affair, though the former champion continued to make errors, and he failed to take advantage of a break chance at 6-5. Instead, it was a tie-break, and at last, Federer found his range, and took the set, 7-6(2) with a volley winner.
There was little between them in the third, either, but this time Federer did get the break for the set, 6-4, and he looked ready to surge to the winning line, but Millman had other ideas. He pumped, bristled with energy, hurried the pace, and stood toe-to-toe with Federer through some bullet-fast rallies.
He pulled off passes when the Swiss came to the net, and by 2-2, Federer’s error rate was up to 50. Millman pounced in the seventh game with some brilliant returns, and served out to love, 6-4.
The Aussie had the momentum, and it seemed as though he had the energy, too. But Federer’s fighting spirit—perhaps one of the more underestimated elements of his game—did not flag, even after a double fault and long forehand offered up a quick break in the decider. He broke back at the third time of asking, and with the clock at midnight, they stood at 3-3, 150 points apiece.
Come the seventh game, Millman was ready to pounce again, worked two break points, but Federer dug in: They would head to a championship tie-break, first to 10.
And still Millman, loving every minute of his four-plus hours with this crowd, looked the favourite to clinch it. He went 3-0 as Federer again hit way long. Millman aced for 5-2, and he dictated three straight points to lead 7-4—what would have been victory in a regular tie-break.
It went 8-4 in Millman’s favour courtesy of a stunning cross-court pass, but Federer scrambled both points on the Aussie’s serve, held both of his, and it was a first match-point. Against the run of play, but with no fuss, he edged the win, despite 22 errors in this set alone, and a massive 82 in the match. His 62 winners, 16 aces, and, he afterwards admitted, two decades of experience, saw him through, 7-6(8).
He looked exhausted as he faced the obligatory on-court interview:
“Thank God it was a match tie-break, otherwise I would have lost this one… Where to start? I think John played a great match… He is a great fighter, a good guy, and it came down to the wire.
“I thought, ‘OK, I guess I tried.’ I didn’t play too bad after all, and I was getting ready to explain myself in the press conference…” He smiled, and added: “The demons are always there.”
After such a match, it was almost as an afterthought that he was reminded that this was his 100th match-win at the tournament. There was, of course, a video of highlights through those 100 wins, but his mind was already elsewhere. After all, Federer’s next match will come all-too-soon for that 38-year-old body after more than four hours and 359 points. That match will be against Marton Fucsovics, a man 11 years Federer’s junior, and with just one set dropped so far.