MELBOURNE, Australia – A huge crowd tried in vain to catch even a glimpse of Novak Djokovic a couple of courts over.
But Stan Wawrinka had a more manageable, but still impressive, crowd on Court 23 as he warmed up for an expected tough clash with American John Isner.
Isner, the No. 19 seed, had a good draw the first two rounds. He faced two South Americans – Thiago Monteiro of Brazil, and qualifier Alejandro Tabilo of Chile (via Canada).
The American served 46 aces in a four-tiebreak win over Monteiro. Against Tabilo, a straight-set win that took just an hour and 24 minutes, he added another 32.
So what do you do?
Assuming you can’t find Ivo Karlovic or Milos Raonic hanging around willing to hit you a few serves? You cheat a little.
Here’s what it looked like.
Short day at the office for Wawrinka
Wawrinka and his coach had the kid who was warming him up move up near the service line to hit serves, to mimic the speed and height from whence it would spring from Isner’s racket.
As well, even though the space behind the baseline on Court 23 was a little limited, Wawrinka backed his butt practically up to the fence to return.
In the end, Wawrinka didn’t have to do much; Isner retired down a set and 4-1 with a foot injury.
In 36 service points, Isner had seven aces. But of the 29 other points on the American serves, Wawrinka put the return in play 21 times.
The 2014 champion has made the semifinals in Australia twice since then. But he’s lost in the second round the last two years.
Now, he’s in the second week, to likely play No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev.
“You never want your opponent to pull out and to get injury. Then when it happen, you need to look from my side. I think I was playing well again today. I was really happy the way I was moving, the way I was playing. That’s very positive,” Wawrinka said. “It’s great to be back in the second week, that’s for sure. Feeling way better.”
Medvedev has beaten him twice in two meetings. Both have come in Grand Slams – in the first round of Wimbledon in 2017, and in the quarterfinals at the US Open last year.
FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – A few observations from a practice match on Arthur Ashe Stadium between Roger Federer and longtime friend and fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka.
The first, and most notable one, is that Wawrinka appears to have all of his speed back.
Maybe it’s happened at some point earlier this season.
But it was our first real close-up view of him at work in a (fairly) serious practice session. And he was quick, and explosive. Impressive.
The level at which these two fellows do things is truly off the charts – even well into their 30s. Which is probably why Wawrinka, a late bloomer, is a multiple Grand Slam champion and Federer is … well, Federer.
Still. They hit the ball SO hard. And they move SO quickly from side to side – and up and back. The pace was literally furious. And the conditions seemed pretty quick, too.
Here’s what it looked like (as always, we’d have shot video if we could. Rightsholders rights and all, to be respected).
Wawrinka MIGHT have won
On this day, Federer had some issues getting onto Wawrinka’s serve. But since we don’t keep score when watching practice matches, we can’t tell you who won (plus, we didn’t watch it all).
It appeared that Wawrinka broke Federer when he was serving for the first set. And then, he won the tiebreak.
We do know that Federer looked fresh as a new rose despite the conditions in Arthur Ashe Stadium when the roof is closed. It’s a looong, long way from the way he looked during the last match he played in there, against John Millman at last year’s Open.
In that one, the conditions got the better of him for one of the rare times in his career.
Meanwhile, the opposite was true of Wawrinka.
The man was a dripping hunk of sweat – until he finally changed his shirt after that first set.
We kind of like that about him, actually.
Anyone who’s not as naturally gifted as these top players (that is to say … everyone, basically) can appreciate someone who appears as though it’s at least hard work to play at that level.
Small crowd for Fed-Stan
Arthur Ashe Stadium is open to the public before the first official day of play for the first time this year, during “Fan Week”.
But there was a surprisingly small crowd to see these two play. It was astonishing, really.
It’s not all that easy to get in; you have to know which gates are open (there are only a couple, both leading to that one side of the court across from the sit-down chairs. A lot of entrances are locked. The main entrance at the front of the stadium, through which thousands enter, was blocked by the “Fan Week” stages.
And it appeared they were doing a little crowd control outside all week, to limit the number of fans in there.
But as you can see, there were loads of empty seats.
Later that night, on the shuttle bus back to the city, we might have solved that mystery.
A fellow passenger, who works in TV but whose son was at the tournament, said that her son had been told, when he went to try to watch, that they weren’t allowing anyone into the stadium.
To bad for the fans who missed it.
But it was good for Jenson Brooksby, who was playing his final-round qualifying match around the same time.
The 18-year-old American had a pretty massive crowd to watch him make the main draw. Great atmosphere, too.
There’s another week still to go before the rest of the top players come trickling back onto the circuit, after a post-Australian Open break.
But in the meantime, the typically wacky February things are happening.
On Long Island, an unseeded 21-year-old and a 23-year-old qualifier squared off looking for their maiden Tour title.
In Rotterdam, two warhorses emerged from injury funks (one of them a wild card) to produce a display so entertaining, it’s yet another example of why there’s no rush for the current generation of 30-somethings to leave the game.
And in Buenos Aires, a local fellow named Diego Schwartzman reached both the singles and doubles finals – and won a total of five games.
Next week, with events in Marseille, Rio and Delray Beach, offers promises of similar nutsiness.
ON THE UPSWING
Kei Nishikori (JPN): No. 7 ————-> No. 6 (With his effort in Rotterdam, Nishikori slips past Roger Federer by 90 points)
Daniil Medvedev (RUS): No. 16 ————-> No. 15 (Another career high for Medvedev, who is 14-3 on the season so far).
Marco Cecchinato (ITA): No. 17 ————-> No. 16 (The Italian’s title in Buenos Aires only moved him up one spot. But it’s a new career best).
Gael Monfils (FRA): No. 33 ————-> No. 23 (The Rotterdam champion puts himself back into the seeded conversation, as he should be).
Stan Wawrinka (SUI): No. 68 ————-> No. 41 (It’s been a long road back after two knee surgeries. But Wawrinka has to be encouraged by his recent performances).
Reilly Opelka (USA): No. 89 ————-> No. 56 (A career high, a maiden Tour title. Good week on Long Island for the 21-year-old American).
At the top of the rankings, the news is that by defending his French Open title, Rafael Nadal will remain No. 1.
Because he had such an off-the-charts clay-court season a year ago, and because he and Roger Federer are so close, points-wise, he went into nearly every tournament during the spring defending that honor.
And he did.
They remain just 100 points apart, with Federer defending last year’s title at Wimbledon, and Nadal defending only round-of-16 points.
On the flip side, check out the two big names at the bottom of the tumblers’ list. Crazy times.
Jeremy Chardy (FRA): No. 86———–> No. 72 (A winner at the Surbiton Challenger)
Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA): No. 87 ———–> No. 77 (A third-round effort in singles – and a cherished doubles title at his home Slam and a return to the top 10).
Matteo Berrettini (ITA): No. 96 ———–> No. 80 (A career high for the 22-year-old from Rome)
Alex de Minaur (AUS): No. 105 ———–> No. 96 (The 19-year-old Aussie jumps into the top 100).
Jaume Munar (ESP): No. 155———–> No. 104 (The 21-year-old from Spain impressed in his Roland Garros debut, qualifying and beating countryman David Ferrer in five sets. Then, last week, he won the Prostejov Challenger to follow up).
It’s a training block that is to last 10 days, if Wawrinka returns in Madrid. If he postpones his return, it may last a little longer.
As of Saturday, Wawrinka is still on the Madrid entry list.
Wawrinka said last December that he would look for a second coach to complement Fattebert. But he has played so little. The knee clearly didn’t respond in his early comeback efforts in Australia and on the European indoor circuit.
Wawrinka hasn’t played since mid-February, when he retired during his first-round match in Marseille.
Le Matin said he sounded out a couple of coaching possibilities. But in the end, he turned to Norman once again.
There are a lot of things to like about Stan Wawrinka.
His rawness, for one – his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve and show his vulnerability
And his tennis, of course.
But his decision to voluntarily return his appearance fee this week to the tournament, the Open 13 Provence, isn’t something you’ll see every day.
Wawrinka, still struggling to return to form after offseason surgeries on his left knee, had to retire after two games of the second set of his first match of the tournament, Thursday night against qualifier Ilya Ivashka of Belarus.
On a missed volley at 3-3 in the first set, Wawrinka felt a pain in the knee. He didn’t show any reaction then. But after his next serve, he did.
The scar is still very much in evidence – it almost looks angry, still.
Early in the second set, he pulled the plug. Wawrinka left the court with a towel over his head, clearly in tears, as he managed a wave for the crowd.
Before he left Marseille, Wawrinka told Caujolle he was willing to give his entire appearance fee back. As a multiple Grand Slam champion, this is not an insignificant sum.
“Part of it will stay in the tournament, and part of it will go towards various organizations. That was Stan’s wish, and I thought that was a good thing. We could have said we’ll keep it all, but that’s not our mentality,” Caujolle told l’Équipe. “That’ll be about 60,000 Euros, or a bit more, for various organizations. A few chosen with advice from the regional government, and two more that Stan is involved with – all of them relating to children.”
Interestingly, Caujolle said this wasn’t the first time Wawrinka offered to give back his appearance fee in Marseille. “He thought he hadn’t fully done his part. Even though once he lost 6-4 in the third (in 2015), and the next year 7-5 in the third. He did his part!” he said. (Caujolle turned him down).
The tournamennt director added that as it was, Wawrinka already had cut his usual appearance fee in half. And that, even though he was still No. 4 in the world when the agreement was signed.
“He had already made that gesture, and now he’s giving it all back,” Caujolle said. “It’s one of the nice stories, players like that, who have a certain humanity.”
Supporting the smaller, struggling events
The struggles of 250-level ATP events to find the budget to attract top players, and to make a go of it generally, have been well documented.
Caujolle has played his part in bring that to light even if, with the current generation of French male players so strong and deep and generally faithful to the ATP events held in their country, the crunch hasn’t hit him (yet) as hard as it has other similar events.
It seems Wawrinka may well be conscious of that.
His next tournament is scheduled to be Indian Wells.
MELBOURNE, Australia – If they didn’t pull out of the Australian Open before it even began, it was because both former champions felt they could be competitive.
But after six months away, there was no way for Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka to know exactly how their bodies and minds would react to getting back on the match court at a Grand Slam, in a best-of-five set situation.
Both came through beautifully in their first-round matches Tuesday.
Djokovic’s modified service motion cost him no velocity and little of its former effectiveness in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over American lefty Donald Young.
Wawrinka, facing a harder hitter in Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania, dropped the third set but still pulled through 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (2).
Djokovic sharing the love
After he sealed the deal, the six-time Australian Open champion Djokovic dropped to his knees to and showed his appreciation for the Rod Laver Arena center court that has been so good to him.
“I just tried to embrace whatever emotions are coming, but at the same time trying to focus myself as much as I can on the present moment,” Djokovic said. “Well, the first two sets went extremely well, considering that I haven’t played for six months. The third was, you know, up and down a little bit, but in general was a great performance.”
Some pain, but it was victory pain
Wawrinka was quietly emotional.
He also didn’t necessarily pull up as well physically as Djokovic did. But that was to be expected.
“It’s great to be back. It’s great to win, for sure. Was a tough one in all aspect of the game, of the energy. But in general, I’m really happy to get through a match like that, to fight the way I did today, to win the match like this,” Wawrinka said.
“As I say, I still have some pain. It depends the way I’m moving, how I push on it. In general, it’s going the right direction. That’s the best news. To see that the knee is keeping it, that I can play a match with the stress, back being tight, with hesitation. The knee that doesn’t move even after three hours, so that’s great.”
MELBOURNE, Australia – Stan Wawrinka and his surgically-repaired knee traveled all the way to Australia without even knowing if he – they – would play.
Even the decision to fly down was made at the last minute.
Finally, after a practice on Saturday, Wawrinka gave his knee the green light.
There is still pain when he makes certain movements. He hasn’t played a match in six months, not even an exhibition match. He doesn’t even know if he can even get through a set or two – let alone a potential five-setter against his first-round opponent, Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania.
But the victory is in his presence in Melbourne. And the ability to practice with the best players in the game, to push the knee several hours a day and push through the inevitable little setbacks, was worth the trip even if he didn’t play.
Heavy practice schedule
Wawrinka practiced with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He practiced with Tomas Berdych and Gaël Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov. He didn’t spare himself.
“It’s a big victory. It’s the best that I could have dreamed when I had the surgery, is to be here sitting in front of you and to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play the first match.’ That’s something really good from my side, especially from the knee. The knee is getting way better. I still have a lot of work to do physically and also tennis-wise to be to my top level,” Wawrinka said Saturday.
“I’m going to take the time I need for that. I know I need to get through those — I need to start somewhere anyway. I think here was a good start. It’s a good place to start, to get pushed, to see also mentally how I’m going to react, how I’m going to feel when I’m going to be playing matches.”
Wawrinka said that the decision to take a pass on the Tie Break Tens exhibition Wednesday was unrelated to the decision to play the Australian Open. He considers the format, the quick points, the pace, as something completely different – something he wasn’t ready for.
And when there is surgery involved, there are always fears that it won’t come back all the way.
After eight weeks on crutches, Wawrinka’s heavy-duty exercise as he began his rehab was … walking.
He wrestled with feeling too sorry for himself publicly, even if he felt terrible, lonely, sad at times.
Wawrinka has enough perspective to realize that there are far bigger problems in life than an athlete with an injury.
“It’s tough to explain because some people will always think, ‘C’mon, you have (an) amazing life, why you complain, why you complain about feeling not great? It’s always difficult, what you can tell people and what you have to keep for yourself,” he said. “For sure, I’m not comparing myself to a lot of people where they get a big problem in their life. It’s just an injury in a career. (But) it can be really tough for an athlete to get through this.”
Unlike the other injured stars, Wawrinka somehow didn’t fall out of the top 10 during his absence. That can change in a hurry, though, with semifinalist’s points to defend in Melbourne.
But he was gone so long, it’s easy to forget the impressive results he put in during the first half of the season. Wawrinka reached the final at Indian Wells, and at the French Open.
With Norman, he graduated from the “just below the top level” type of player to being a Grand Slam champion and a threat at nearly every tournament.
He wasn’t angry. He was hurt. Because he considers Norman like family.
“When you in a tough place like that as an athlete, you want the people who know you the best to stay around you, to stick with you. You want your team, your family to be here. They will help you the most to get back where you want to be,” he said. “For me, Magnus, he was my coach, but he was a friend, even closer than a friend. It was tough to know that he will not be here to start again with me.”
60 per cent return rate
The tally, so far, is that three of the five question marks will make their date in Melbourne.
Kei Nishikori wasn’t quite ready, and will start back in a week’s time at a Challenger in California.
Andy Murray had hip surgery and hopes to be back for the grass.
Djokovic’s situation seems positive for the moment, although we’ll know more when he plays his first match Tuesday against American Donald Young.
Raonic played a match in Brisbane, and filled in for Wawrinka in the Tie Break Tens. That he lost in Brisbane to young Aussie Alex de Minaur, in hindsight, doesn’t seem nearly as bad a loss given that the teenager has done since then.
But we’ll also know more when Raonic faces Lukas Lacko of Slovakia on Tuesday.
The “big return” on the men’s side at the Australian Open wasn’t as complete, or as edifying, as it would have been had all the injured players returned at full strength.
Now that he’s out of the Australian Open, as well, a long trip to Australia for naught, Murray will head back to Great Britain to assess his situation.
After diligently working on rehab to try to avoid hip surgery, the Brit intimated earlier this week that the surgery option can no longer be completely off the table.
And that’s a sad state of affairs.
Nishikori in Newport Beach
Nishikori has taken a wild card into the Newport Beach Challenger, one of two new events sponsored by Oracle (whose owner, Larry Ellison, owns the Indian Wells event).
It will be Nishikori’s first appearance at the Challenger level since he lost to Amer Delic in the second round of the Champaign Challenger in Nov. 2010.
That’s a huge boost for the inaugural edition of the event, which takes place the second week of the Australian Open.
For Nishikori, the appearance in a Challenger is a savvy move, assuming he has progressed as expected from the wrist issue. He, too, wanted nothing more than to avoid surgery. He has seen how so many talented players have struggled to return after being operated on their wrists.
This way, he will be able to ease back into tennis slowly, after being out since losing in the first round of the Rogers Cup in Montreal to Gaël Monfils in early August.
He also can return playing best-of-three sets, rather than the best-of-five Grand Slam format.
Tennis.Life also is told that Nishikori has accepted a wild card into the $125,000 Dallas Challenger the week after Newport Beach. If true, that’s even better. He also is scheduled to play the inaugural New York Open in mid-February.
Nadal in the house
On the positive side, Rafael Nadal has arrived in Melbourne.
The world No. 1 played just one match before withdrawing from the ATP Tour Finals in London in November, with his right knee giving him trouble again.
Before that, he had pulled out of the Basel tournament, and gave opponent Filip Krajinovic a walkover in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters.
Nada withdrew from Abu Dhabi and from the Brisbane warmup event.
Along with Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, Nadal is scheduled to test out the knee in the Tie Break Tens exhibition next Wednesday in Margaret Court Arena.
He is arriving a good 10 days before the Australian Open starts.
The Swiss No. 2 has been very low-profile on social media for a month. But he has been on Snapchat. And today’s posting was the best-news snap for his fans.
Wawrinka left Geneva for Abu Dhabi Thursday night. There’s a direct flight to Melbourne from there, leaving some three hours later, on Friday morning.
So it appears he will give it a go at the Tie Break Tens, and go from there.
Expectations, after knee surgery, with no matches and the best-of-five format, will no doubt be rock-bottom.
But with the loss of Murray and Nishikori, that’s at least two of the top guns who are at least going to try.
As for Milos Raonic, he lost his first match in Brisbane to young Australian wild card Alex de Minaur, 6-4, 6-4. But at least he’s back.
The former No. 1 withdrew from the Abu Dhabi exhibition when he experienced pain in his elbow during practice before his first match.
A day later, Djokovic pulled out of this week’s ATP Tour event in Doha.
He will be in Australia. Djokovic has signed on for Tie Break Tens event, as well as the Kooyong Classic that takes place a 10-minute drive away from Melbourne Park. It’s not known how many matches Djokovic will actually play there.
The Serb hasn’t played since retiring in the second set of his quarterfinal match at Wimbledon against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic.