The pre-Australian Open, the Australian Open and the first week of Davis Cup play have all taken place since January 1. It all seems to go by in a bit of a rush.
Here are a few off-the-beaten-path highlights of this reporter’s new tennis year.
The picture at the top here was taken during the Australian Open draw show in Margaret Court Arena on the Thursday evening before the tournament began.
Most players are a little superstitious about seeing the draw, or seeing too much of it, and generally try to stay away from close contact – but not Roger Federer.
On that Thursday evening he sat down with Hamish McLachlan, from the host Channel 7 broadcaster, and had a casual chat for at least 15 minutes.
To put some perspective on this – back in the day a Jimmy Connors or a John McEnroe would never have done anything like making themselves available for an appearance like that, and the same can probably be said of players of more recent vintage such as Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick et al – especially if the appearance was to take place in those anxious days right before the start of the first Grand Slam of the year.
But Federer could not have been more accommodating, candid and relaxed. The Channel 7 folks had dredged up footage from as far back as the Roger – Rafa giggling fit of 2010 and Federer played along, giving background details of what had happened that day while they filmed a promo for a Roger Federer Foundation benefit exhibition.
Okay Federer has won six Australian Open titles but it’s his generosity, decency, and remarkable ease (note the twist of fate with the ‘Norman’ men’s singles trophy in the background above) that also makes him a truly great champion, and someone who’s unlike any other sportsman in the world.
And by the way, Federer did not hang around for the actual draw – leaving Margaret Court Arena well before the procedure began.
It’s hard not to like Simona Halep. Despite a serious ankle injury, she played some phenomenal tennis on court during the Australian Open while maintaining a sunny disposition off it.
Her 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 victory over Angelique Kerber in the semifinals was as hard-fought and dramatic a match as you will ever see in tennis.
There was a nice moment late in the match when Halep was about to face her second match point. She looked over at her support group, including coach Darren Cahill, in the courtside seats and managed a smile at that critical moment. “I think it helped me a little bit to relax and to take it like it is,” she would explain later. “I didn’t put pressure on myself, and I think it was a good timing.”
Though undersized at 5-foot-6, Halep is a wonderful striker of the ball and an exemplary mover. Her increasing willingness to play aggressive tennis – 50 winners vs. Kerber – should pay off and give her a real shot at finally winning a Grand Slam title this year. No Slam-less woman deserves it more.
It has not been an easy road for 24-year-old Filip Peliwo. Five years ago he won the Wimbledon and US Open junior boys titles and was named the 2012 ITF Junior World Champion.
Now ranked no. 188, he didn’t break into the top-200 until November 13 last year.
At his favourite tournament, the Australia Open, last month, he was beaten 6-1, 6-7(4), 6-4 in the first round of qualifying by Cameron Norrie of Great Britain.
Peliwo had played the right way – aggressively and getting to the net whenever he could – but still wound up losing a very competitive contest.
Despite the tough loss he spoke to some friends immediately after the match and then, always positive, told a reporter that he simply would continue working in his quest to try to improve as a player.
He also earned bonus points for his friendly greeting to an older Canadian journalist who he had not seen for quite a while.
These days Denis Shapovalov gets all the recognition for his sensational run up the rankings but good men like Peliwo, who try just as hard, shouldn’t be forgotten.
This picture of the Canadian Davis Cup team – minus Peter Polansky – was taken to mark Frank Dancevic’s first tie as captain.
On the subject of Davis Cup – here’s a comment about a new rule change.
As many as five players on the team: This is clearly going to create options. Take Canada for example – you could name a Milos Raonic or a Denis Shapovalov and have him play just one singles match while still having available two other singles players and a specific doubles combination. The same, of course, goes for other teams.
While Davis Cup matches are still three-out-of-five sets, and a resolution to change that was narrowly defeated by the International Tennis Federation’s member nations last year, the sense is that two-out-of-three sets for matches will make it soon, probably for 2019. That should help more top players decide to play, knowing they won’t get involved in long drawn-out matches that could affect their fitness for future tournaments.
What can you say about Daniel Nestor in the first three sets of his and Vasek Pospisil’s epic 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 loss to Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig in the Davis Cup doubles last Saturday?
Nestor had been down on himself all week in practice – complaining that he had no jump in his legs and even going to the point of suggesting in an interview with Arash Madani on Sportsnet that it might be better if Pospisil and Denis Shapovalov took his place for the doubles.
But, playing in his 55th Davis Cup doubles match at age 45, he was a vision of his primetime self for most of the match, displaying his unique artful skills at the net, his angles and his uncanny ability to half-volley the most difficult of low balls.
Age will surely catch up with him soon enough, but on the red clay in Osijek this past weekend, it was vintage Daniel Nestor and an absolute treat to watch.
And if it’s any consolation, after the match when Cilic was told that Canadian captain Frank Dancevic had said that he and Dodig were “one of the best doubles teams in Davis Cup,” the mild-mannered Cilic corrected, “the best doubles team in Davis Cup.” He and Dodig have now won four Davis Cup doubles matches in a row against top-flight opponents dating back to a loss to Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini of Italy in 2013.
There will be setbacks for Denis Shapovalov in 2018 but so far he has lived up to the expectations after his rookie year – one where he beat Rafael Nadal in reaching the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in making the US Open Round of 16.
This past weekend, working with new captain Frank Dancevic, he efficiently disposed of no. 181-ranked Viktor Galovic in his first match and then gave a max effort in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to a red-hot Borna Coric.
Shapovalov, who turns 19 on April 15th, has a youthful enthusiasm and passion for the game. “I actually had a lot of fun out there,” he said after losing to the 21-year-old Coric, ranked one spot higher than him at no. 47. “I thought it was really challenging with the crowd and Borna playing so well – just trying to figure out a way how to beat him. Unfortunately I ran out of time but nonetheless I enjoyed my time out there, enjoyed playing by Frankie’s side and just giving it all I had.”
He now has two weeks off to train before a run of four hard-court events in Delray Beach, Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami.
The Canadian support group did yeoman’s work during all three days of the Canada – Croatia first round Davis Cup tie in Osijek, even in the snow – cheering, chanting, singing and yelling themselves hoarse in the process. Maybe the best line of the weekend came during the doubles on Saturday when a voice among them called out, “I’ve got the Halls (throat lozenges).”
There’s been a bit of overkill on Roger Federer these days in the wake of his landmark 20th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. Since the blog began with some words on Roger, we’ll close with a gift for Rafa fans – a picture of the World No. 1 in action before he was forced to withdraw against Marin Cilic in the AO quarter-finals.
Who doesn’t love a tugboat? This one was chugging along on a glassy smooth Drava River in Osijek last week.
And finally – a shout-out to the officials and volunteers in Osijek who did a terrific job making Canadian players, staff, supporters and media feel right at home.
NOTE: Fed Cup coverage of Canada’s opening round of World Group II competition versus Romania in Cluj-Napoca will be live-streamed this Saturday and Sunday beginning at 6 a.m. ET on Sportsnet NOW.