Two teenagers draped in the sky-blue and white flag of Greece lay in a heatstroke-induced stupor outside Rod Laver Arena Thursday afternoon. They had come to cheer on Australia’s last two remaining hopes in the men’s draw – both just kids themselves, both of Greek heritage and both being thrown to the wolves.Having presumably spent the night being tended to by St John’s Ambulance officers, they missed a glimpse of the future of Australian tennis.
Thanasi Kokkinakis drew the short straw. His opponent Rafael Nadal had his workout cut short on Tuesday night and was a markedly more menacing proposition Thursday. As always, he chased down balls like they owed him money. As always, he played with a blazing intensity rarely seen on a tennis court. It’s a more attacking and imaginative Rafa these days and a 17-year-old greenhorn was always going to be easy pickings.
That said, Kokkinakis has a certain something about him. Stick thin, dressed for the beach and inclined to lose his bearings every now and then, he nonetheless has all the makings of a serious player. His serve, reach and offensive mindset were particularly evident in the second set, when he pushed the world number one hard. Given that he was cramping horribly just 48 hours before, the idea of him taking a set off one of the world’s fittest athletes was always going to be a stretch. Suffice to say, this caper will only get easier from here.
On paper, his good mate Nick Kyrgios had the easier assignment. Ranked 28th in the world, Benoit Paire has a reputation as being something of a loose cannon and a rowdy, partisan crowd did little to help. As Kyrgios broke to take the first set, the Frenchman did a demolition job on his racket, copped a code violation and handed all momentum to the Australian.
Kyrgios saved a number of break and set points in the second, playing with the complete lack of restraint that 18-year-olds specialise in. Every time the Frenchman pushed ahead, the Aussie would unleash a first serve bomb or a preposterous drop volley. When Paire fired down half a dozen aces in the tie-break, Kyrgios held his nerve, chased down a lazy drop shot and raced his way to a two-set lead. A hitherto unknown Canberran with a mini mohawk and a major swagger was suddenly the toast of the tennis nation.
The third set continued in a similar vein, with Kyrgios playing without fear and Paire at the end of his tether with the crowd. But his superior conditioning was increasingly evident. This time he didn’t botch his 5-4 lead and took it to a fourth set. Then…drama! At 2-2, Kyrgios started cramping violently. Barely able to put one foot in front of the other, he paddled a couple of dinky serves and was duly broken. All square heading into the fifth, the Aussie was hobbled and the combative Frenchman had his strut back.
Early in the decider, the Aussie cramped again, was broken and pretty soon couldn’t even summon the energy to move from one side of the court the other. He was swinging hard but shooting blanks. The Frenchman strolled to victory but an unlikely new star had emerged.
Both of the Aussie Ks dodged the worst of the conditions. Maria Sharapova sometimes gives that impression that playing tennis will render her unconscious but yesterday was something else. The tournament director had invoked the Extreme Heat Policy, but a curious quirk in the rule meant that those already on court were obliged to keep playing. And keep playing Sharapova and Italy’s Karin Knapp did, flailing away for nearly 3-and-a-half hours, the longest match of either’s Grand Slam career.
By the end, the Russian resembled a rookie exiting a Bikram yoga studio, but she prevailed 10-8 in the deciding set, providing a sweat-soaked riposte to anyone who thinks that the first week of the women’s draw is just a hit and giggle.
The heat continues to polarise opinion. The tournament doctor insists that everything is under control, but the spectators and players going down like ninepins suggest otherwise. On Wednesday, Canada’s Frank Dancevic passed out and had hallucinogenic visions of Snoopy. Damir Dzumhur, the first player from Bosnia and Herzegovina to compete in a Grand Slam, says he was so distressed he thought he was dying.
No such problem for Roger Federer who says it’s “just a mental thing”.
“If you can’t deal with it, you throw in the towel,” he said.
The thing is, The Dodger’s early round matches are generally over before he even breaks into a sweat. Melbourne’s heatwave – now bordering on the sadistic – is presumably less of a concern than the Nadals, Djokovics and Murrays of this world, who lie waiting for him at the pointy end of the draw.