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Australian Open

Champions and awakenings: a 4-act play in Melbourne

Matt Zemek

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While the women of the Australian Open prepare for blockbusters in Round 4, the men in Melbourne created quite a show in Round 3.

Yes, the women’s Australian Open bursts into color on Sunday when Naomi Osaka faces Garbine Muguruza in a heavyweight showdown which has the quality of a final but will be in the Round of 16. The match between Serena Williams and Aryna Sabalenka feels like a semifinal, but that Sunday battle is also just a fourth-round match.

Yet, before we get to Sunday, we are left to marvel at what the men’s tournament gave us on Friday in Australia. In four distinct layers, fans gained more than they were expecting on a night which crackled with consequence.

Novak Djokovic played through pain and uncertainty to fend off Taylor Fritz in five sets. Djokovic fears he has torn a muscle.

We will simply have to wait and see if Djokovic can play — and play reasonably well — but for now, it is worth removing ourselves from the major championship count and focusing solely on Djokovic’s coping skills within the context of a single match.

If there was any doubt about Djokovic’s continued ability to clear his mind and summon his powers of concentration in a highly adverse on-court situation — doubts which might have emerged for some people after seeing him at the ATP Finals in London — Nole dismissed those doubts. He still has that winning knack, and if this muscle tear sidelines him, he will leave Melbourne still feeling he did the best he could, which is no small thing and not a matter to be diminished or discounted.

Even in the midst of pain and uncertainty, Djokovic triumphed. In some ways, he might cherish this match more than most when he looks back on everything.

Djokovic forged a champion’s moment. Whether he gets a trophy for it is a separate concern and a topic which will be dealt with later in this fortnight.

Felix Auger-Aliassime entered the court with Denis Shapovalov as the less-proven player. This does not — and did not — mean that Felix had a lower career ceiling than his Canadian counterpart. This did not mean Felix had somehow failed or underachieved in his career. HE IS ONLY 20 YEARS OLD!

Yet, hype and expectation being what they are, Felix was seen as the Second Coming by some. He gave occasional glimpses into his potential, which feeds the beast of publicity in a tennis nation (Canada) which has produced its first major champion (Bianca Andreescu) and is hungry for more success.

Yet, the vigor with which media outlets or commentators hype athletes should not be taken as a measure of how ready an athlete is to actually succeed at the highest level. It is a process which must be given time. In men’s tennis, players rarely have it all figured out by age 20. Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg are exceptions which prove the rule. Felix wasn’t underachieving heading into his soiree with Shapo. Denis had merely accumulated more moments of evolution to that point in time.

Friday, Felix made a big forward step in his development, and Shapovalov was on the receiving end. Playing very much within himself — the true measure of a player learning how to perform; this wasn’t red-lining or “playing out of his tree” — Auger-Aliassime methodically dissected Shapo in straight sets. His evolution — slow but not behind schedule — gained a promising new dimension of awakening.

Speaking of awakenings, though, no one in Melbourne is emerging from obscurity more than Aslan Karatsev.

The man had won only three main-draw ATP Tour matches heading into this tournament… and he is 27 years old. Karatsev had bounced around the challenger circuit for several years. His first main-draw win came over Mikhail Youzhny in Moscow in 2015… and he didn’t win another main-draw ATP match until 2020 in adjusted pandemic-related circumstances (Tennys Sandgren and Taro Daniel were his two victims in separate European tournaments).

Yet, from years of laboring in tennis’s equivalent of the minor leagues, Karatsev has suddenly captured lightning. He had never won a main-draw match at a major, and now he has three such wins after dismantling Diego Schwartzman with the ultimate routine scoreline: 3, 3 and 3. Nearly every time Karatsev got a forehand inside the court, he obliterated it and put Diego on the defensive.

“Who is this guy?” The ATP is learning about Aslan Karatsev, who beat a bunch of notable players in straight sets — Haase, Gulbis, Laaksonen, Herbert — at the Prague Challenger last summer before losing to Stan Wawrinka in the final. Though that wasn’t a main-tour event, it certainly had main-tour quality, and it showed Karatsev that he could compete with the big boys. He has taken that experience and run with it. Karatsev now faces Felix in the fourth round. Two awakenings will create a fascinating clash for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Novak Djokovic displayed the heart of a champion on Friday. Dominic Thiem did the same, but his feat is magnified by the fact that he took down Nick Kyrgios in the place where Kyrgios is actually a legitimate threat to achieve richly. In Melbourne — in his home country, in front of his countrymen and women — Kyrgios calibrates his tennis better than he does on other continents. Kyrgios is a threat on Wimbledon lawns, but the Australian Open remains the major where he is (by far) the most dangerous.

Thiem fell behind Kyrgios by two sets, and it would have been very, very easy for the Austrian to think this simply wasn’t his day or his tournament.

Pandemic? Get me home.

Thiem was focused on this match, but fans and journalists knew that the five-day lockdown placed by the local government was going to begin on Saturday. Thiem had to deal with a vocal crowd just before the lockdown, in a case of exquisite timing working against him.

In the final three sets, Thiem displayed the composure witnessed in the fifth set of the U.S. Open final against Alexander Zverev. All the accumulated experiences Thiem has used to sharpen his competitive instincts and fighting qualities were used to great effect. Thiem didn’t win a championship against Kyrgios, but he certainly gave himself a chance to win one in Week 2 of this fortnight.

Moreover, with Djokovic not at 100 percent, it can reasonably be claimed that Thiem is now the favorite to at least make the final, if not win the tournament, with Rafael Nadal also facing questions about his physical health.

Maybe Thiem will get a chance to go through Djokovic or Nadal. Maybe he won’t. Given how he escaped Kyrgios in Australia, will it matter all that much if Thiem lifts another major trophy?

Champions — Thiem plus Djokovic — and awakenings (Felix and Karatsev) gave us a four-act play in men’s tennis on Friday. Who knew we were going to get so many riches? Tennis has a way of doing that.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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