The Australian Open is one of the cornerstones of the tennis tour, as the largest sporting event in the Southern Hemisphere. Simply put, Melbourne is hot, and it is getting hotter. Over time, protocol at the tournament has changed to maintain player safety, but in the future, the status of the entire tournament could be threatened.
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It is hot outside: 26 or 27 degrees, which I know is barely half of what Melbourne can do at its worst. A terrible city, Melbourne. But I am here, and I am playing the Australian Open, and I want the ranking points and the prize money.
My opponent is Sara Sorribes Tormo, who I know well. We played in the quarterfinals of Abu Dhabi last year. She won the first seven games, but I hit back to win 0-6, 6-1, 6-4. It was kind of great at the end, but mostly awful before that. I know she will run like Satan is chasing her on every point and somehow I will still get tired before her. I know that at some point during the match, I will hate her and tennis and pretty much everything on earth. But I’ll get to run her around a lot while not defending that much myself, which is always fun.
One thing I don’t recall from Abu Dhabi is her rally shot kicking up so damn high off the court. Sorribes Tormo hits with a lot of topspin, and this court fits her like a glove. I’m having to hit forehands at eye-level on every point, many of which I’m mistiming because we seem to be playing in the eye of a hurricane. It is windy. She breaks me in the first game, which I’m not overly concerned about since her serve is one of the weakest on tour. Holding is generally harder than breaking from what I recall of our previous matches.
My returns aren’t locked in just yet, so she holds easily. At 0-2, love-15 on my serve, I finally go on the attack. I’m moving her from side to side. At one point I nail a backhand down the line onto the baseline, which she somehow gets back after a shrieking slide. I end up hitting long on the 27th shot of the rally, and now I’m pissed. This is a match I want to be over as soon as possible, I’ve just expended a lot of energy, and none of the points I’ve won are reflected in the scoreboard yet. I end up getting broken again. How the hell is this happening? None of her shots are even vaguely aggressive.
You know what hot days in Melbourne are meant for? Eating ice cream.
At 30-all in the next game, I advance on a slightly shorter ball, ready to produce my first break point, but I slam a forehand into the net. But with Sorribes Tormo a point away from a 4-0 lead, I find my game at last. I destroy a second serve with a backhand winner down the line — I took it on the rise, well aware of the risks associated with taking my shots early. I have to time them perfectly. Still, this set will be lost if I don’t change something. I crush another backhand winner down the line, then break her with a perfect volley onto the baseline. That was some good freaking tennis, if I say so myself.
I’m having some sustained success at net. I make a couple forays to start the 1-3 game, and soon I’m up 40-love, having hit winners on six points in a row. Sorribes Tormo and the heat are starting to annoy me less.
I’ve stopped making errors, meaning that Sorribes Tormo either has to win points by playing 20-shot rallies or by being really aggressive, which isn’t her style at all. I break her to 15, and now we’re rolling. As irritating as it is to play Sorribes Tormo, there’s always just a bit of security involved, since she struggles so much to hold serve.
I might have understated how much I hate playing her. In six games of tennis, she’s made four unforced errors. I’m an aggressive player, but it’s nice to be able to count on an opponent handing you a point once in a while. She somehow lifts a lob over my head on the dead run, it kisses the baseline, and I’m down 15-40 because I’ve started to misfire from the ground again. She breaks.
This match has a weird vibe — usually there’s pressure on my service games because I know I need to hold to keep pace with my opponent, but here it’s almost like holding is an unexpected bonus since we know I’m going to break her and she’s going to break me.
To begin the 3-4 game, Sorribes Tormo tries to serve and volley. I blast a return past her before she even has time to cross the service line, but the serve was a let. Bullshit luck. At 30-all, she hits another lob over me. I manage to prolong the rally, but on the 20th shot I lose patience, go for a forehand winner, and end up missing. I don’t think people know how frustrating it is to be lobbed — it’s one of the slowest shots in the game, yet you end up having to sprint to get to it, and then have to hit a shot with your back to the court if you’re lucky enough to get there. She holds to 30, hitting her first winner of the match on a successful serve-and-volley play on game point. I do have to admire her creativity a little bit; she’s got less than zero easy power but figures out ways to win points anyway.
I really don’t want to lose this set. If I lose this set, I’ll have to play two more to win, and I want to have something left for the next round, where 6th seed Paula Badosa is probably waiting. I also just don’t want to be out here any longer than I have to be. Once I get tired, each one of Sorribes Tormo’s waaaaaAAA-EHHHHHH grunts are like a dagger to my heart, and I’m starting to get tired.
At 3-5, 30-all, I go on an inside-out forehand rampage. After what seems like an hour, I wrong-foot her and she doesn’t chase my last one. I clench my fist. That was satisfying, sure, but it was like making a dozen valid points to win a small argument when two or three should have been enough. Freaking exhausting.
I miss an easy backhand to start the 4-5 game, which hurts. She’s serving for the set, so I need to break, and cheap errors give her hope. I get back to 15-all, and that’s when we play a point that makes my soul ache. She is putting so much spin on her forehands that it’s practically distorting the shape of the ball. They are jumping off the court like bouncy balls. I have to jump on several consecutive shots to prevent the ball from flying over my head. I do stay in the point, though, and after 26 agonizing shots, Sorribes Tormo flubs an overhead. There is fairness in the universe! It hurt to play her game, usually it’s Sorribes Tormo marching to the beat of my drum, even if I do drop a stick now and then. But I have to stay in this set, so I’ll do anything. I go on to break.
We go to a tiebreak, which feels big. I am tired. The writer of this blog is tired just watching, and he is lying on his bed eating something called “Snack Size Italian Bruschetta Toasts.” I take a 6-3 lead, and now I feel good, even with the first two set points being on Sorribes Tormo’s serve.
I charge the net on the first, which has generally been a good play for me today, but get passed cleanly crosscourt. Then I hit long on the second. At 6-5, we play another bone-crushing rally, the kind that wipes your mind clean as soon as it’s over. We both ended up at net, and I’m pretty sure there was a net cord in there somewhere. 29 shots. Twenty-nine. Twenty-six wasn’t enough for you, Sara? I win the rally, meaning I’m up a set, and in with a chance of getting off this court (which seems to have been delivered directly from Hell) in straights. I clench my fist, then my muscles tell my brain how tired they are and I lean forward, one arm braced against my leg, the other arm bracing my racket against the ground. I must look like a defeated statue from some epic myth.
I swaddle my neck in an ice towel, then hold a bag of ice to my head (which I’ve just decided is my new best friend) and go off court for a comfort break between sets.
Curling seems fun. Hanging out in a cool ice rink, slowly sliding weights to a target…why couldn’t I have been a curler?
Thankfully, the second set is a little bit easier, though Sorribes Tormo continues to insist on hitting perfect lobs. Aside from a scary moment at 2-3, 15-30, I’m in control. She helped me out a bit with two double faults in the 3-all game, including one on break point. I saw angels as the serve fluttered into the net. I break her again to win the match, piling on the pressure. Despite hitting almost triple as many unforced errors as Sorribes Tormo, when I focus my power accurately, it’s game (and set, and match) over.
I yell a celebration at a few people in the crowd — the seats for this match were sparsely populated, but I had way more support than Sorribes Tormo. (Not that it helped my legs feel better.)
I applaud her as she walks off the court. I don’t envy how hard she must have to work for her wins, but I also don’t want to play her again anytime soon. Badosa may be ranked higher than Sorribes Tormo, but if I can survive the trial by attrition I just endured, I can survive anything.
Sooo three of the players from my last article have already suffered an early exit (Basilashvili, Kenin and Norrie) and some of the others are living precariously Down Under (Sabalenka, Pegula)…
I’d say I’ve started with a pretty decent strike-rate for once so I’m going to have another go!
This time I’m calling players that could get upset (competitively not emotionally… well, I guess I mean both) in the round of 64.
Karen Khachanov (28th seed): Like all Karens, Khachanov likes to make a mountain out of a molehill. He’s already played thirteen five-setters in his career and six of these have come to players ranked outside the top-50. Bonzi has won a ton of matches on the Challenger Tour but hasn’t quite made that teeny-tiny step up in level to contend consistently among the elite. Having served bombs against Peter Gojowczyk, is this finally his time, squeaking out a fifth set against Karen?!
Pablo Carreño Busta (19th seed): Yep this is brash… but hear me out. Like Bonzi, Griekspoor is a Challenger Tour ledge. The Dutchman has a few more tricks up his sleeve, in my opinion. The service delivery has historically been more potent than Bonzi’s (though maybe that’s changed over the off-season) and his forehand is…*woof* – don’t give him time or he will mess you up. Even on the run, he can be extremely dangerous. It’ll be interesting to see if PCB comes into this match with the right tactics because if he doesn’t, this could become very sticky.
Andy Murray (WC): I’m not actually worried about Andy but a word of warning on his next opponent nonetheless… Taro Daniel has improved his serve from last season, upping his T-serve delivery to over a 120mph average. This could be a problem for Andy if he’s not feeling it on return (e.g. his return performance v FAA at the 2020 US Open still haunts me). He’ll be ready for this serve, right? I don’t have to tweet Andy to tell him about it, right??? Here’s hoping for more of the below kind of serve he faced against Basilashvili…
Markéta Vondroušová (31st seed): Markéta Vondroušová should not be underestimated in Australia having made the fourth-round here last year. Her fabled drop-shot doesn’t have quite the same effect as it would on a natural surface however and I believe this will make all the difference against her next opponent, Ludmilla Samsonova. The Russian has the power on serve and the injection of pace required mid-rally to find a way through Vondroušová (Marketa loves an angled forehand) – if she’s in full flow, she won’t give the “the Drous” many opportunities to play her own game. Plus I had Samsonova down to make the quarters so…
Belinda Bencic (22nd seed): A true roll of the dice. A gamble on the chaos that is Amanda Anisimova’s game. It really wasn’t a tidy match against Hartono but I’m counting on her settling into the conditions. If she does, Anisimova’s one of the few players that can make an impact on Bencic’s backhand wing. Bencic’s last five losses alone (Badosa, Rybakina, Kontaveit, Samsonova, Raducanu) suggests players with at least one frightening weapon in their arsenal are able to turn Belinda blue. Don’t let me down AA!
Maria Sakkari (5th seed): Okay, hands up, this is a stretch… but here’s my reasoning.
I’m honestly not sure if Sakkari’s first-round win against Maria (lol) would have done her any favours. Getting through a player with jenkie slices and chip-and-charge tendencies is a nice confidence booster but she might have walked away from that match feeling as though she’d played only a handful of ordinary patterns of play.
Her next opponent is Qinwen Zheng. (This is a pretty iffy if but) If Zheng manages to land enough serves, her game from the back of the court could see her through. Sakkari’s game is fairly predictable, locking her opponents into tough-to-counter patterns of play – Zheng has the brawn to indeed counter. Also, though Zheng is erratic, not knowing what’s coming next could make Maria a little edgy…
The image of the match was one of a hunched over Andy Murray, gulping the burnt Melbourne air for all it would offer him, glaring at his camp as though they themselves had forced him on court by gun-point. This look is, of course, the Scot’s calling card, one that he’s signed off on and stamped as his own as he’s kicked and screamed his way through career fluctuations of immensity rarely seen in professional sport.
We’ll join him deep in the fourth set, having cruised in the first, let slip the second and stolen the third. It’s the Australian Open 2022 and it’s Andy Murray after-hours and so the language was as colourful as it ever has been, an expression of his tendency to expect impossible perfection. This was his first match in this arena since that fateful night in 2019 when the sun seemingly set on his career, back before he burned through his hands in order to push the flames back skywards.
His ability to overcomplicate storylines within his matches have left fans who love and adore him cursing his name, watching as he makes the eyebrow-raising look easy and the straightforward look Everest-like.
And that was very much the case here as his defensive style of play went to war with Nikoloz Basilashvili’s, an aggressive base-liner who rips the fuzz off balls with racket strings loose, motoring shots for winners or into the back wall, leaving nothing in between. When he’s on, the Georgian is – unfortunately – on and in this match, he was light-switching, doubling-or-nothing.
Murray, for his part, ran. Scooping and slicing, floating balls at awkward angles, searching to befuddle. The result was an artwork that was difficult to properly appreciate, a match that hung as much on lung-busted errors as it did name-up-in-lights headliners.
It was energy sapping in its every happening and we’ve seen it often throughout Murray’s tour years, a natural tendency to avoid fire-with-fire play, other options tempting him in with promises of success.
So into the action of the fourth, Murray broke back having been down in the set early and finally drew level, leading his fans the world over to believe in the power of internet prayer circles. I can speak for only myself here when I say that the excitement that this push-back provided was very much of the accidentally-spilling-my-morning-cornflakes-down-my-pyjamas variety.
A tiebreak then and for Murray, not happy hunting grounds as he fell down in the score quickly and struggled to muscle advantage, a tired swat of a slice into the net on a return enough to secure the set for Basilashvili.
This period of the match attested to Murray’s continual commitment to the over-complicated, decision-making that benefitted him in his younger years on fresher legs but impacts him heavily now when trying to work his way through early tournament stages.
Murray needs to find other ways to survive the rot of match-ups like this going forwards, contests that have the potential to suck out souls through the players’ mouths and leave them running only on all of the nothing much. Finding himself locked in for the long haul is unsustainable when working to see that second week of a Major again, something he’ll undoubtedly be aware of.
He may well still be searching for the certainty and belief in his own body and ability that he had when he sat atop the rankings but he’ll need to try and at least pretend to have found them if he’s to avoid being dragged through rigorous physical cross-examinations such as this.
It’s highly unlikely that Andy Murray will ever be a one-two punch point-over sort of player but with time, perhaps he’ll be able to settle back into being a three-four-punch one.
For now though, it was time for the fifth and the final and Murray of course came up with answers, stumbled upon too late to clock out at the end of the fourth but utilised now to break down Basilashvili’s game. Naturally, Murray did as Murray does and kept us guessing through to the ending, letting Basilashvili back in and requiring another drive forward to finally take it.
This was his first match won at the Australian Open in five years, completed in a roundabout way if the roundabout in question wove like a snake between hills and through valleys, crossed jagged thorny patches of unmapped land, and lost itself in forests of noises loud and quiet and hidden from view in the darkness.
Indeed, as the crowd in John Cain stood, Murray fans globally collapsed back, empty crinkled cans of energy drinks and coffee mugs strewn about amongst crisp packets and sweet tubes, empty beer bottles and whiskey glasses, headachy tiredness blurring visions, the signs of the stresses and struggles that we hate and love him for forcefully inflicting. Our plans for the day ruined, our sleeping schedules torn to shreds by one man’s ability to reach in to our hardwiring and mess with the circuit boards, calling us to attention to watch these agonising tribulations.
Our hearts now find themselves attending weekly support groups, meetings and tuition classes in an effort to re-learn how to avoid cracking over the course of Andy Murray matches. We send them there willingly now though, aware of the fact that it can all end in a press-conference room on the other side of the world when we very least expect it.
As Andy Murray proceeded with the after-match interview, it struck many of the watching that this was the second part of a bookended journey that had begun on this very court with a five setter lost to the Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut three years ago and ended here and now with a five setter won.
Heart racing, the sound of it thumping loudly in your ears, mouth bone dry and scratchy, palms sweating. Waves of nausea coming and going as you try to control your emotions.
It can only be an Andy Murray match.
He lulled us into a false sense of security in the early hours of Tuesday morning as he comfortably took the first set from an error strewn Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-1 in just 23 minutes. Hopes were raised…did we dare to think it would all be this easy?
Some of us did. Some of us made plans to get a bonus hour of sleep before starting work. Others decided an early morning walk with the dog would be lovely. The wise among us however remained cautious. The world-weary Murray veterans, and the not-so-veteran quick learners, knew there were some twists and turns to come.
And weren’t there just.
A dream first set became a nightmare second: a single break of serve from Murray wasn’t enough to save him from conceding 3-6. Basilashvili had found his rhythm and it was game on with Murray forced to fight for a chance to move into R2 for the first time since 2017.
He’s a man Murray has faced off with twice previously in the past six months: Wimbledon in July last year and, more recently, last week in Sydney. Both times was a battle. Both times Andy won. Would it be third time lucky for Basilashvili, or would Andy take their head to head to 3-0?
By the end of the third set we took a collective deep sigh of relief: Andy had it by a whisker and was in the lead once again. Surely it would be over in four?
In short – no.
A break from Basilashvili had us on the edge of our seats – this wasn’t looking good. This couldn’t be how it ended. Round two was in sight and Andy wasn’t going to go down quietly. He snatched the break back to take the set to a tiebreaker. It wasn’t ideal but it was a chance. Long-suffering Andy followers will cry from the rooftops that tiebreaks are not our friends. They’re unwelcome guests who give you anxiety, forcing you to watch them through one open eye or faces covered by hands. They are unpredictable and more often than not leave you curled up in the fetal position wondering what just happened.
In case you missed it, spoiler alert, Andy did not win that tiebreak. We go again.
An early break of serve from Murray wasn’t enough to calm the nerves, with Basilashvili firing shots as though his life depended on it. As he pushed Murray deeper and deeper into the court you could sense the shark was circling, ready to move in for the kill. And he did. The break back came and they were on serve once again. Four all and Andy served to put himself in the lead, a magnificent hold taking him to within one game of the second round. Could he hold his nerve and finish the match before another tiebreak?
I was on my feet. My heart was racing. My mouth was dry. My palms were sweating.
As Basilashvili raised his arm to serve my internet cut out, taking my live tennis stream with it.
The panic. The frantic race to get it working again. The desperate pleas for updates via social media. The silence was deafening. I had no idea if it was game set and match, or heartbreak – sorry, tiebreak – central.
Four minutes later all hell broke loose on Twitter. It was over. He had won. I may have missed those final points but I felt every second of the hysteria and emotion.
He’s back. It wasn’t over in 2019. It still isn’t over.
A smile sat on his face that said anything but happy.
Just two days prior, Thanasi Kokkinakis had lifted his first ever ATP tour title, taking it in his hometown of Adelaide in front of a crowd that had plugged themselves in and powered themselves up to energy levels delirious in what would turn out to be a successful effort to slingshot one of their own over the line.
Now, not more than 78 hours on, Kokkinakis stared down an impending first round Australian Open exit as it crept towards him in the afternoon heat, his opponent excelling as he fell away, unable to get it all moving after two weeks of emptying-the-tank efforts.
Back-to-back warm-up events had paved his way to this opening major of the year, a semi-final showing at the first improved upon by a trophy-lifting snapshot for the photo albums at the second leaving him feeling at the very least hopeful heading into Melbourne Park.
However, that triumph the week prior now played catch-up, licking at his consistency which in turn left his game error-strewn and struggling to provide, the Australian’s play altogether bedraggled and gone. As he looked to his box between the final few points, it was with an expression of desperate exasperation at how quickly tennis moves on.
Moments later, Yannick Hanfmann claimed the match atop a thick bedrock of three trouble-free sets.
The never-pause nature of the tennis tours often impacts heavily in situations such as this, taking a title player one week and rotating them and their trophy through the opening rounds meat-grinder the next, reality-checking them with a reminder that reads “that’s great, but what’s next?!” as it dusts up their chances. The system of rolling ever onwards is built in to the very structure the ATP and WTA circuits and it’s because of that that the focus only seems forever focused on the here-and-now-and-immediately-after.
Tiredness is rarely forgiven and good tournament runs rarely rewarded beyond the weeks that they’re achieved within, carried away as they are with exhausted wheeziness on the winds of the opening day of the next event beginning.
Make no mistake, in time, Kokkinakis will want to build up from this point and skyscraper his way past first round matches into consistent contention. But given the temperamental terrain of a career that has frequently seen him snatched clear of success and thrown bloodied and bed-ridden into a colourful array of medical crazy, this is but a light scratch of a stop-gap.
With time to digest, the disappointment of defeat should drain for Kokkinakis, the bigger picture of his year up until now no-less impressive in the wake of this loss. Indeed, perhaps he can now give himself a moment to look at his trophy from last week and examine all that it reflects back, all of his desire that overcame the detrimental.
Tennis might stop for no-one but that’s exactly why sometimes, the players must.
The tears hooked him even as he jogged up to shake hands with his opponent at the net.
He took this moment and let it wash over him, feeling it digging in at the dirt of so many years of derailment, out from between the layers of his muscle that had so often constricted and sent him spinning into ever more serious career questions.
A walk back to the baseline followed and a symbolic kiss of the white painted ADELAIDE letters grasped the arena roof once more and shook it fervently with a childish glee, locals revelling a triumph certainty of one of their own in a time of tumultuous political activity.
And then finally, the ceremony.
At 25 years of age, this was Thanasi Kokkinakis’s first ATP tour title, a landmark long dreamed of finally reaching from faraway hospital beds and rehab rooms back when even the suggestion of this happening would have seemed like the work of a torturing comedian, raising laughs of outrageousness that drowned in aches and pains and choking hopes of the one granted the misfortune of listening.
But as those dreams finally poured up and over the brim of impossible things and into the waking world of reality, they stretched put, uncoiling as they coloured everything they touched inside the Memorial Drive Tennis Centre on the way down to the court surface, sloshing against the local legions and sending them ever further into religious fervour.
Their man was there, holding the Adelaide International 2 trophy close as though ready to beat anyone away should they try to take it from him, so much had he went through, such seeds of doubt he had to crush beneath hours, days, weeks, months and years of monotonous over-again-and-over-again commitment to pursuing a cause that had seemed so intent on ripping itself forcibly out of reach and into the arms of wanting others.
He’d wanted it today though, so bad it had almost escaped him again, running away through a maze of a first set lost on a tiebreak, his opponent Arthur Rinderknech taking it and in doing so, sticking a pin in the balloon of an atmosphere that had steadily been building up within the stadium.
The second went much the same way, the crowd see-sawing between living and dying, Kokkinakis’ success the only thing keeping their heart pumping blood hot around their bodies that were tight with anxiety that either lifted them or lost them depending on how points played out. But with the tiebreak this time, a different result, one that left the Australian screaming for more of the madness of it all as his army prepared themselves for one last push.
And with the flags of his country draping shoulders the stands over, Kokkinakis dug deep for something and came up with more, a break of the Rinderknech serve in the first game of the third enough to hot-wire the set and guide it his way. A second break sealed it, Kokkinakis crouching into emotion beneath a volcanic-like uproar.
Until this point, the career of Kokkinakis had been a temperamental plethora of talent and heartbreak hung together as one, a macabre piece that made you smile before making you cry. A win over Roger Federer in 2018 was painted bright against the darkness that backgrounded it, shadows in which lay hidden fractures and strains that inflicted themselves upon him, dragging him from these highlights into stresses that only intensified with each hand he was dealt.
Indeed, so often are things in tennis described as rollercoaster rides, journeys of intensity with peaks and troughs that find climax in ultimate moments of here-and-there euphoria. But the trajectory of Kokkinakis stands out more for its persistence in the face of severe injury stoppages. His has been a chessboard filled with moves of his noteworthy momentum, only for the board itself to disappear into nowhere and send his pieces marbling away as though magnetised to anything other than his touch.
This win, then, is a reminder to bubble-wrap your ecstasy against all of your agony.
From the moment that Rick Macci pops up on our zoom call from the comfort of his office at the Rick Macci Academy over in Florida, USA, you can tell that he’s as passionate as he ever has been about the sport that’s brought us all here together.
”I was on the court six to three straight, drove home, grabbed an apple, and you’re here.” As hectic as his day has been, he sounds excited to get into the interview rather than put-upon.
His enthusiasm shines through his words, his body language forever eager and intrigued from the get-go. Any nerves that we had prior to this interview dissipate as Rick soothes us into a conversational rhythm by telling us about his childhood and how he first found tennis.
“I grew up in a small town called Greenville, Ohio. It’s about twenty-miles south-west of Dayton, Ohio, right next to Union City, Indiana. It’s a small town of 10,000 people and I played all kinds of sports, y’know? Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf and I was actually very, very good at golf.”
The Macci family were all particularly active, both his parents leading the way as golf county champions with his sister excelling at swimming. However, the death of his father when Rick was twelve years old meant that he could no-longer play golf regularly because the country club where the family practiced only permitted members. None of the rest of the family were and so that meant finding another sporting outlet.
“We lived a half-mile from the park and there was tennis courts. And so I went down there at 12 years old and I picked up a racket. You gotta’ remember though, I’m 67 now, just had a birthday last month and so I guess that was, what, the late 60s? Before you guys were on this Earth and I just grabbed a racket and a ball. The courts, they were all chipped up and the nets were steel. Steel nets! And so I just hit the ball against the wall and I really liked the sound of the ball. But the one thing I really liked was that it always came back to me!”
Rick tells this story of his upbringing with an almost child-like nostalgia but he switches gears quickly as he talks us into his teenage years, recalling his rise to becoming the number 1 ranked player in Ohio Valley. At that point, he found himself jumping from sport to sport again, taking his racket with him everywhere and making the most of any opportunity to play that came his way, an enthusiasm that sticks with him all the way until this day.
“Sometimes I would shovel snow and I had a path and I’d just hit groundstrokes because I couldn’t play indoors because it was like thirty miles away. So I got real good real fast because I was athletic and mentally strong. So I grew up a half-mile from the park and taught myself how to play. Fast-forward through my whole career, I live a half-mile from the park. I’m here at Rick Macci Tennis Centre at South County Regional Park. It’s the crown jewel of Palm Beach County. And so I live a half-mile from the park, I started a half-mile from the park, my whole career has come full-circle.” There’s a brief pause before he rounds us out. “But probably the biggest thing is that I feel the exact same way and have the same passion as I did when I was 22 years old and I first got into teaching.”
Out of everything that he’d told us so far, this last sentence was by far the least surprising.
Macci plays a big role in the recent film King Richard, whichhas gotten a great reception. He has been flooded with interviews since its premiere. The film depicts Richard Williams’ intense drive to help his daughters (you may have heard of them), Venus and Serena, to tennis superstardom. Macci was their coach from around 1991 to 1995, and he embraced the entire family, somehow putting up with even Richard’s more difficult traits.
Macci has seen the movie three times, loving it more each time. “It’s not a highlight reel of them [Venus and Serena] playing tennis,” he says. “It’s about inspiration, dedication, perspiration, education, motivation…there’s a lot of stuff about the real world. It’s about life lessons…they [viewers] saw a father protecting and on a mission.” Venus and Serena’s on-court accomplishments are the stuff of well-known legend, but Macci emphasizes how King Richard depicts their upbringing, the why before the how.
“It’s going to go down, in my opinion, as the best sports movie ever…if you don’t laugh, and you don’t cry, you’re not human. I was right there in the nitty-gritty…and I’m sitting there with tears in my eyes…Venus and Serena cried!”
“Every parent should take their kid to it,” he says. “I think every kid should see this.”
Macci has been blown away by the overwhelmingly positive response to King Richard. What he is happiest about is that the movie communicates love, support, and determination. “What I liked about the movie itself,” he says, “it showed how much I cared about the girls. I pushed all the chips into the table.” He trusts his coaching instincts unconditionally, then and now.
As Macci fondly recounts his memories of the film, he tells us that he called Venus “VW,” and Serena “Mek,” short for her middle name, Jameka. “She [Serena] told me at the after-party at the red carpet thing, ‘Rick, you’re the only guy I let call me Mek, other than my dad.’”
His favorite scene is one of the most pivotal in the film and in the early stages of Venus Williams’ tennis career.
“It was a scene where I was there with Venus — and this happened, by the way, true — she wanted to play the pro tournament, okay?” Richard Williams, wary of burnout, was adamant that his daughters avoid the stress of junior tournaments and turning pro until they were sure tennis was what they wanted to commit to. “She was begging Bernthal, who played me,” Macci continues. “And I just said, ‘listen, you’re preaching to the choir!’… And [she said] ‘please Rick, please Rick, please,’ ‘Vee, I can’t! He doesn’t listen, your dad.’ And she’s just like ‘please Rick, please Rick, please,’ and she’s smiling at me, and she goes ‘does that mean yes, does that mean yes?’ And I go ‘all right, yes.’ And then she comes and hugs me and I go ‘ah, Jesus, all right.’ That’s exactly what happened. I think that shows how much I was a part of the family… And by the way, she did play the tournament, and I did get the wild card, and she did beat 57 in the world, and she almost beat #1, and she did get twelve million dollars eight months later. So if I wouldn’t have pushed for that and got the wild card, we probably wouldn’t have been here like this today. Who knows how this plays out?”
There are people who have made great differences in tennis but downplay their achievements — it’s all credit to my support team, I couldn’t have done it without their help. Macci is not one of them. He knows the impact he has made and isn’t afraid to talk about it unabashedly. It’s this kind of confidence that makes it easy to see why he’s one of the best prospects to coach a promising junior. He believes in his strengths and his ability to transform raw talent into a refined champion a great deal. When he talks about his days of playing tennis, at one point he simply says “I was mentally strong,” but his evident confidence gives the cliche some material weight. It’s easy to envision him on the court, down break point, utterly certain that his bread-and-butter play will get him out of the jam.
As much as Macci loved King Richard, he does have a couple small critiques. The first is the movie’s portrayal of Jennifer Capriati, another of Rick’s former pupils. In the film, Capriati is portrayed as a bright young talent who burst onto the scene astonishingly early only to be leveled by burnout. Drug problems are mentioned, a mugshot is shown. “When they used Capriati,” Macci says, “and you saw that mugshot come up, which is brutal in itself…they portrayed it as that’s what happens [when a junior player encounters burnout].” What is not shown is that Capriati managed to work through her issues and make a comeback, winning two additional major titles and returning to #1 in the world. Macci feels that this was a notable omission.
“At the end of the movie, when they did the credits and you saw the video and stuff, and you saw some writing, they should have put by the way — and they should have shown her picture — Jennifer Capriati disappeared from pro tennis, came all the way back, became #1 in the world, won two grand slams, a gold medal in the summer Olympics, got a multi, multi million dollar contract from FILA and other companies. Now, you talk about the American dream…getting knocked down and disappearing, and not just coming back, coming all the way back to #1. That’s a movie in itself! So that’s the only thing, if I was involved, I wish they’d have done that. Because the movie was over, they got what they had to, what could happen, burnout, drugs…but she came back!”
The second is the fact that outside of conversations with Jon Bernthal, who played Macci in King Richard, Macci largely was not consulted to help put together the film. “I was a little surprised…no, I wasn’t consulted…they didn’t even talk to Richard about the movie!”
“I even told the people at Warner Brothers this after I told Jon [Bernthal]. I said ‘it’s just kind of weird, because I not only was there every day, and had a better front-row seat than anybody, other than maybe the wife [Oracene], and the stories I have are beyond epic. I woulda had stories where people would have been on the floor laughing,” he says.
On form, Macci talks a big game, but has the substance to back it up. He delivers a fantastic anecdote of a young Serena Williams training session that captivates us both.
During a hot July day of practice when Serena was eleven and had already played for three hours in the morning, Macci tells us, she was having trouble finding the motivation to move her feet.
“What do I have to do to get you to move your feet?” Macci asked her. Her response, relayed to us by Macci, paints a vivid picture of a young Serena Williams.
“She goes, ‘Rick, I’m really hungry. Can you get Scott to go to the snack machine? I want some hot curly fries, I want a Snickers bar, I want a Pepsi, and on the way to work today, on Linton Boulevard’ — we were in Delray Beach — she goes ‘Daddy drove by a stand and they were selling Green Day T-shirts. If you get me the curly fries, the Snickers bar, the Pepsi, and you have Scott get me that Green Day T-shirt, you see that tall skinny girl over there?’She was pointing at Venus, because Venus was all arms and legs…’I’ll make her look slower than molasses.’”
Macci obeyed, arranging for Serena’s snack to be brought. The Green Day shirt was promised to be delivered the following day. “Serena has her snack for 15 minutes,” he tells us. “And you’ll like this — she’s in the corner with the hitting partner: crosscourt, down the line, one hour straight, no water…sweat is coming off this little girl like Niagara Falls. It got to be fifteen after three, I’m now on the other court, helping Venus, and she [Serena] goes ‘Rick, Rick!’And I turn around. ‘We’re done, and you better have that Green Day T-shirt in the morning.’”
Though at eleven, Serena’s maturity wasn’t quite there, he continues, her feistiness was ever-present. “That’s an epic story,” Macci concludes. “Can you imagine that in the movie? That would have been amazing, people would have been laughing, crying.”
Macci emphasizes just how hard the Williams sisters would work — six hours a day, five days a week, draining a shopping cart of tennis balls every night. He recalls how when Richard wasn’t looking, Serena would toss a few balls out of the cart.
“She was like a little prankster. But I loved that feistiness, because it meant that she wasn’t going to take crap from people. And that’s probably why eventually, Richard would always start saying when they got to about thirteen, he thinks Serena will be better. She was kind of like a pit bull, in a nice way. They get a hold of you, you’re history. They don’t let go. Venus is like that, but she might let go.”
Macci did consult frequently with Jon Bernthal, who played him in King Richard.
“…Jon Bernthal called me, we talked many times, he read my book…he talked to hundreds of people who I coached…and I think he got a real snapshot of who I am as a person: the passion, the energy, how much I love the game, and how I felt about the girls. Remember, it’s easy to feel good about something if someone’s won ten grand slams when you start coaching them. When they’re nothing, and you gotta build the house or put Humpty Dumpty together, and you go all in? That’s a whole different animal.”
“It’s hard for me to look at someone that’s playing me, because I know I was that energetic all the time, but I think it captured how much I cared…and I was there for one reason: I was on a mission to make these girls number one. It wasn’t anything other than that. I think people saw the inside character of Rick Macci being able to deal with Richard, so they captured the most important thing, and that’s what I was most pleased about.”
“If I’d have been involved, it would have been even better…but the way they did the whole movie was great.” The only thing that was different about Bernthal’s performance from Macci’s actual performance, the coach tells us, was his mustache.
Macci has noticed a new dimension of King Richard each time he has watched it, so plentiful are the layers of the film.
“When I saw the movie the first time…I didn’t know what to expect, and it happened so quickly that I didn’t catch a lot of it, even though I was laughing, because Will Smith was so much like Richard that it blew me away. The subtleties, the nuances, the walk, the talk, the one-liners, just the facial stuff he had to put on, the toothpick in the mouth, and no one knew Richard better than Rick Macci…I was laughing in the movie, and no one was laughing! I was just sitting there laughing about the way he was. But I didn’t catch a lot of the movie. Then the second time, when I saw it at the red carpet, I enjoyed it more, because I saw more stuff. Then the third time I saw it…it made me feel even better the third time, because people now are giving feedback and their perception is how much I did for this family. And how I took a chance. And even a lot of people in the African-American community are saying how I went in there and I took a chance! This could have catastrophically blown up. I’ve been wrong before, but that’s why I’m usually right, more than most.”
“I’m just glad I’m still on this planet Earth, because a lot of the time when people play you [in a movie], you’re in the ground already. It was amazing, and to be able to have it come full circle, to have the story come out on a big screen…”
It is easy to let motivation drop after an especially successful or cathartic endeavor, but Macci’s passion for tennis is immune to roadblocks. As astonishingly, unprecedentedly good as the Williams sisters were, Macci didn’t let his drive dip after they parted ways. “The way I’ve handled everything since 1995 — never an axe to grind, always complimentary of everything — a lot of people aren’t like that. I just reload and build other players, or coach other players,” he says.
Macci emphasizes how established he was as a coach prior to meeting the Williams sisters. “I had Tommy Ho, who was the youngest player at age 15 to win the boys’ national 18. I had him in 1988, along with Jennifer [Capriati]. I had the youngest ever to win the boys’ 18 and the youngest ever to win the girls’ 18 in the same year. And they were twelve and fifteen in 1988. Records that still stand today.”
“My blueprint or baseline for greatness — in my opinion — was better than anybody in the world.”
“Richard calls me up, as you see in the movie. He wanted me to come to Compton, California. And I said that I either see people at a junior tournament or they come to the academy. I’ve never in my life — even to this day — got on a plane or drove somewhere to see a kid play, unless it was a tournament.”
Macci’s trip to Compton was sparked not just by the promise of watching two immense talents, but by the allure of Richard Williams’ personality. “He goes ‘Rick,’ — he was laughing and joking, sounded like a really funny guy — ‘I promise, if you come to Compton, I promise I won’t let you get shot.’ And I just said, ‘I gotta meet this guy!’”
“Went to the hotel that night. Whole family comes to the hotel…Venus is sitting on one leg, Serena is sitting on the other leg, arms around the dad. Hugging, kissing, very close-knit family. I was very impressed. Oracene was there too. He asked me thirty questions. I think he had them on a piece of paper. I thought I was in a deposition. The guy was grilling me! But I got it. Because I think if he was going to let someone in their circle — they had acquaintances, probably, but no friends.”
“So we talked for two and a half hours.” The rest, much of which he gets into during the interview, is history.
Macci vividly recalls the first time he watched Venus and Serena practice. “We pull up to some park, there’s about 20 guys playing basketball, there’s people drinking, passed out in the grass. The whole place smells like pot.”
“We get out of the bus. I definitely stood out in the crowd. We get out, and they go, ‘hey, Richard!’ Listen to this. ‘Hey, King Richard!’…’Hey, VW! Hey, Mek!’ They know who they [the Williamses] were.”
“I had a brand new box of Wilson balls shipped there earlier. Richard goes ‘Rick, we don’t use new balls. We only use old balls that don’t bounce. I want their butt digging them out, bending their knees.’”
“Little different,” Macci says, “but I got it.”
Macci animatedly describes the conditions of the court — chipped surface, steel nets, the shopping cart that Richard wrapped seven chains around to prevent from being stolen.
“We get the old balls, and I start doing drills with Venus and Serena…it was a mess. Arms going one way, legs going another way, beads flying off their heads…it was Improvise City! That means they were winging it.”
“Remember,” Macci reminds us, “I had Capriati! She had her knees bent…the racket back, center of gravity, she could have a cup of water on each shoulder and her head, and I’m looking at this, and I’m going it was all over the map.”
“But it’s a great lesson for every parent coach, or even Rick Macci. You don’t judge a book by its cover. The cover could be amazing and the book terrible, the cover terrible and the book amazing. So then, I said ‘let’s play some competitive points.’”
Then everything changed.
“So we started playing points, and right there, guys, it blew my socks off. After another five minutes, I go, this is crazy stuff. The footwork got a little better, the shoulder turn got quicker, the preparation was better.”
When Macci first watched Venus and Serena play, it wasn’t their serves or backhands that captivated him. It was their determination.
“But here’s what I never saw, and I haven’t in my whole life: the burning desire — the burning desire — to get to the ball; they almost fell down. And I think both of them did a couple times. It wasn’t because they were uncoordinated, they just ran so hard and tried to get to the ball when it was low that they fell down! There was a rage… a rage inside these two little kids.”
At this, Macci’s mind started racing. “So I’m sitting there going, whoa, whoa, whoa. Six feet tall, 160, five-ten, 145 — I’m projecting as a coach where this can be at 17, 18…the technical part, that can be done. The financial part, that can be done.”
Macci cites a conversation he had with Richard thereafter where he told him that he had the next Michael Jordan on his hands. “Nah brother-man,” Richard responded, according to Macci. “I got the next two.”
From then on, Macci was all in. Money and time were irrelevant to him, he tells us. No matter the cost or timeline, he knew he could help mold Venus and Serena into champions.
Macci goes on to tell a story about Venus, as well. He reminds us of Richard’s insistence that his daughters not play tournaments during their developmental years, so adamant he was that they avoid burnout. Richard did allow them to play an exhibition, though — “forget the hamburger, I’ll go for the filet!” Macci laughs. The exhibition was played in front of 5,000 people, he continues. Venus and Serena played doubles against the legendary Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals.
The Williams sisters were returning so far inside the baseline that a confused Billie Jean King was wondering if she should tell them where to stand, Macci tells us. But their return position wasn’t born out of cluelessness, it was an aggressive mindset taught in practice.
“So here’s these two little girls from Compton, California…Billie Jean’s ready to serve, Serena’s ready to return. She’s standing closer to the service line than the baseline! And Billie Jean was like should we tell them where to stand? They thought they were in the wrong place!” But their aggressive return position, Macci says, was part of the way the Williams sisters were training, as was the strategy of hitting right at the net player. They knew little about doubles strategy, but their will to win made the atmosphere intense. “It was a Compton street fight,” Macci says twice.
Then, with Macci in the station wagon after the match with Richard, Oracene, Venus, and Serena, he heard someone ask “hey, Venus, how did you serve today?” More questions followed about the other parts of Venus’ game, and each time she responded positively. Macci looked around the station wagon and realized that Richard, Oracene, and Serena were all in his vision, and none of them were talking. “Venus is having a conversation with a doll,” he exclaims. “So the moral of the story…and Richard knew that I knew…is that they’re kids first, and tennis players second.”
Macci was and is close with the titular Richard Williams. “I never got upset with Richard, I really didn’t,” Macci says. “I loved the guy to death, because I saw how he was with those kids.”
He commends the way Richard raised his daughters: “look at these kids: educated, smart, look you in the eye, articulate…game, set, match Richard Williams.”
Macci also mentions that Richard’s extremely unorthodox method of keeping Venus out of junior matches only made sense because she was such a ferocious, talented competitor. He emphasizes that for essentially anyone besides the prodigious Williams sisters, juniors is the way to go.
Macci is still close with the Williams family. Asked what his relationship with them is like now, he immediately says “it’s unbelievable. Serena says she will probably bring her daughter to the park. Who knows, might do it all over again if she [Serena’s daughter Olympia] plays tennis!” He mentions that he no longer goes to pro tournaments, so doesn’t see them often. The memories remain warm, though, and he says reuniting with the family was “one of the best days of his life.” Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka were there as well, and Macci says that on pure adrenaline, he stayed up longer than he had since he was our age.
“The icing on the icing was three weeks ago, when I went to West Palm Beach, and I reunited with Richard. We were telling stories, and we were both crying. His memory — there’s all these stories of not good health — guy’s in great health, seventy-nine, mind like a steel trap. He’s my best friend.”
“It was me and him against the world,” Macci recalls. “He was my best friend. We would joke all the time.”
Another striking scene from King Richard was Arantxa Sánchez Vicario turning the tables on Venus from a set and a break down after taking a momentum-killing bathroom break. As disappointing as the loss was for Venus, such painful losses are often vital learning experiences for young players. Macci agreed that the loss was an important building block, an especially valuable one at the early age of 14. “All our yesterdays make us what we are tomorrow,” he says eloquently.
Macci would regularly have Venus train with a male pro — a lefty with heavy topspin. “She was never gonna beat him,” he tells us. Ahead of the Oakland tournament in which Venus played the top-ranked Sánchez Vicario, Macci told Venus’ practice partner to lose on purpose in a close tiebreak set. After pulling out the tiebreak, Venus excitedly told Macci that she was peaking at the right time. Soon after, she beat the 59th best player in the world, Shaun Stafford. Venus was 14. It was her first professional match.
“That’s the art of coaching,” Macci says. He finally told Venus what he had done at the film’s after party, having kept the secret for 26 years. Professional athletes, to achieve an ideal mindset, often have to lie to themselves, an illustration being Novak Djokovic telling himself the Wimbledon crowd’s screams were for him rather than Roger Federer. As Macci demonstrates, a coach can help with that delusion.
As for American men’s tennis, Macci believes that one of the upcoming crop — Opelka, Tiafoe, Sebastian Korda — might have what it takes to win one major, but that staying at the top is another challenge altogether. “I don’t see it,” he says. “So, now what do we say? ‘We’ve got all these people in the top 100.’ Give me a break! We’ve pushed the goalposts so far back. We should have forty people in the top 100!” To produce a great champion, Macci continues, the USTA’s development of players needs a full overhaul.
The day after Macci met the Williams family in person for the first time, they picked him up at seven in the morning to head to practice. He recounts the experience. “So they pick me up in that bus — you see it in the movie, same color, wobbly, that Prince logo on the front. I get in the front seat, okay, there’s a harpoon — a spring — sticking out of the seat, and I get harpooned in the buttock. I sit on a spring! … And I look in the back, and there’s Venus and Serena, these two little kids. There’s about four months’ worth of McDonald’s wrappers. There’s dirty clothes. It smells. There’s ball hoppers, there’s rackets, it looks like a bomb went off in the back of this thing. I’m going, this is like a movie.”
Rick Macci is a seven-time USPTA Coach of the Year. He runs the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. You can read more about him at rickmacci.com.
King Richard is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.
This week Andy Murray fans dared to dream that he would go all the way at the Sydney Tennis Classic after he received a wildcard invitation to play. And he very nearly did.
Seeing him hoist another runner’s up trophy above his head in Australia is usually a crushing blow – however, three years after the resilient Scot’s career almost ended, the sight of him holding that silver plate brings a feeling of hope and positivity for the future.
And although he choked back the tears as he thanked his team and his family for their support the former world number 1 must be feeling optimistic ahead of the first slam of the season.
“I’ll keep trying my best to come back and have more nights like this.”
This week Murray went deeper than he’s done in any tournament since he was victorious in Antwerp in November 2019 – 11 months after he underwent (what turned out to be career saving) hip resurfacing surgery. Five days, five matches, two of them extremely physical and exceeding the three-hour mark have surely given us all hope that 2022 is going to be a good year.
The two- and a-bit years since that Antwerp final against Stan Wawrinka have been turbulent to say the least, with many wondering if Murray could push his body through the barriers and return to the top of his game. A bruise to his pelvic bone, that led to a groin injury, sustained at the Davis Cup ruled him out of the 2020 Australian Open, before the COVID-19 pandemic put the world into lockdown in March that year – then with a string of poor results at the tail end of the resumed season, a bout of COVID and another groin strain at the beginning of 2021 it’s fair to say that it often seemed like one step forward and two steps back for the two-time Wimbledon champion.
So, as an avid Murray fan, it’s hard for me to fully put into words what this result in Sydney really means. The final outcome wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for – but at the same time it’s so much more than I expected. I’m an eternal optimist when it comes to Andy, but I’m also a realist and I know how much of an oxymoron that is. I never write him off, but I am acutely aware that when he comes up against an in-form player – such as Aslan Karatsev – the likelihood of him being beaten increases.
The right side of my brain fully expected Andy to win this entire tournament. The left side told me to calm down and be pleased to see him play two or three matches in the build up to the Australian Open. In the end I got a fairly happy in-between and I am so proud of what he has achieved. We witnessed some incredible tennis from Murray this week – particularly pleasing to see after his first round loss to Facundo Bagnis in Melbourne when many of us were left feeling confused and frustrated that the form which saw him convincingly beat Rafa Nadal in Abu Dhabi just a couple of weeks earlier seemed to have disappeared.
But they don’t call this ride a Murraycoaster for nothing – so we’ll take this runner’s up plate in Sydney, and we’ll keep coming back for more.
The final qualifying rounds for the Slams are some of the biggest days of the year for professional tennis players.
With the money and points at stake for a first-round appearance, the margin for error is low and the intensity is high.
This year’s women’s qualifying featured many fascinating battles between players young and old, between power players and counterpunchers, and from all over the world.
Now that the 2022 women’s qualifying draw has wrapped up, the focus turns to the main draw. Which qualifiers are the most dangerous? Who should tennis fans keep an eye on?
Let’s dive into the three women’s Australian Open qualifiers to have your eye on.
World No. 111 Qinwen Zheng was a player who was probably disappointed to not make the main draw cutoff. However, she didn’t let this deter her and had both a very strong qualifying campaign and overall start to the season.
Zheng started off the year qualifying and making the semifinals of the Melbourne Summer Set 1 tournament. In order to make the semifinals, Zheng had to beat a tough group of opponents that included Bernarda Pera, Mai Hontama, Vera Zvonareva, and Ana Konjuh.
When Australian Open qualifying started, however, it seemed like it would be a short stay for Zheng. Down 1-6, 6-6 (1-5) to CoCo Vandeweghe, Zheng was on her last legs.
However, in an incredible display of resilience, Zheng fought back and won the match 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-1. She then followed that up with a straight sets win over Seone Mendez, and another victory over Mai Hontama.
The 6-3, 6-7(3), 6-3 win over Hontama was the second in two weeks, but neither victory was easy. Hontama does a great job keeping the ball consistently deep in the court, which can defuse the power of many players.
Zheng, with her low-margin, high-power game struggled to pull away from Hontama, but eventually she was able to hit her way to the main draw. She was also very clutch, saving 11 of 13 break points.
Zheng, who was ranked at World No. 324 after the 2020 season, will be dangerous in her first round match with Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Sasnovich has been very solid, coming within a set from the Melbourne Summer Set 1 crown before falling to Amanda Anisimova. However, you can’t teach the raw power that Zheng possesses, and if she’s able to keep the unforced error count relatively low, she has a real shot in that match.
It was looking like the party might be over quickly for Hailey Baptiste, as the World No. 168 found herself locked 4-4 in the final set tiebreak of her opening match in qualifying against Samantha Murray Sharan.
Baptiste looked off, appearing fatigued as she crawled towards the finish line.
But, somehow, Baptiste came through that match 7-6(8) in the third set and didn’t look back.
The draw didn’t get easier from there, with Baptiste then facing World No. 118 Nina Stojanović. But Baptiste didn’t need a third-set tiebreak in this match, comfortably taking the victory 6-3, 6-4 without dropping serve.
Baptiste’s final hurdle to get into the main draw was a big one: Yue Yuan. Dating back to last season, Yuan had won 17 of her last 18 matches. Baptiste would have to reproduce the level she showed in the Stojanović match.
Baptiste was able to do so and, in a match lasting over two and a half hours, pulled off the stunner. The American beat Yuan 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 6-3. Baptiste hit 45 winners compared to 23 for Yuan. Baptiste wasn’t afraid of the moment and tried to make something happen with her groundstrokes.
And that was a theme throughout qualifying, as Baptiste had a higher winner count than her opponents throughout her qualifying campaign. Now, there were plenty of unforced errors, but Baptiste was fearless. She served big, attacked the net when possible, and wasn’t afraid of trying to crack a winner when she saw an opening.
While Baptiste might have lost in the Melbourne Summer Set 2 qualifying, she completely redeemed herself here.
And with a matchup against the erratic Caroline Garcia coming up, this is a huge chance for the American to get her second-ever singles victory at a major (the first being at the French Open last season).
The road to this point hasn’t been easy for World No. 158 Viktoria Kužmová. From Auckland towards the start of the 2019 season until the $25k in Jablonec nad Nisou at the end of 2021, Kužmová hadn’t made a single semifinal at any level.
During that time, there were only two occasions when she even won three consecutive matches during the same tournament, with the early exits piling up. Her once-powerful baseline game and serve consistently faltered.
But things started to click once again for Kužmová late last season at Billie Jean King Cup, where she beat Carla Suarez Navarro and Shelby Rogers. From there, Kužmová made the quarterfinals of the $100k event in Dubai before playing the aforementioned tournament in Jablonec nad Nisou.
After qualifying for the Melbourne Summer Set 1 tournament, which included a good win over Magdalena Frech, but falling in two tiebreaks to Veronika Kudermetova in the first round, Kužmová set her sights on Australian Open qualifying.
Despite a tough qualifying draw, Kužmová qualified without a losing set. She beat Anastasia Gasanova, Jana Fett, and Aliona Bolsova to reach the main draw. During those matches,
Kužmová won over 70% of her first-serve points in all of those matches. But it wasn’t just her first serve leading her to victory, but also her return game. In her three qualifying matches combined, Kužmová broke serve 16 times.
Kužmová’s baseline game was back in business after struggling so long and a favorable first-round matchup against Xiyu Wang. Wang has a very powerful lefty serve and baseline game, but she’s also very erratic in all aspects of her game and will gift a lot of free points to Kužmová.
This feels like a real chance for Viktória Kužmová to win her first singles match at a major since the 2019 French Open.
So what do you think of the three players I chose as this year’s Australian Open women’s qualifying players to watch? Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments or @tennisblogger1 on Twitter!