A day of two champions in Australian Open
THE Opening Day of the Australian Open Grand Slam Tennis Championships presented a challenge in picking the match of the Day. This resulted in my settling for the first round matches of two great champions, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Roger, four-time Australian Open winner was up against Lu of Taipei in Rod Laver Arena. In the opening set, games went with serve until Federer broke Lu in the 5th game of to take a 3-2 lead. He promptly started off the sixth game with a slice cross court first serve that Lu just managed to get a tip of his racket on. Games went with serve and Federer took the first set with a wristy-flicked return down the line off Lu’s second serve that pulled Federer wide to the left side of the court.
The second set went with games. At 2 games a piece, Lu was down 0-40, but managed to drive a crosscourt backahdn winer off Roger’s Second serve as the master followed his second serve to the net. Federer won game to break and take a 3-2 lead.
At 0-15, Federer hit a drop shot from baseline that had the ball rolling wide after landing. It was a masterly stroke.. The game reached duce, the ace hit another drop volley for advantage which Fededer held on to when Lu hit a backhand out to give Fededer a commanding 5-2 lead. He never let go as he served for the match at 6-2.
In the third set, it was the same pattern of players winning their service games. However, the barrage of shots from Federer’s arsenal, had Lu running from side to side and coping with slice shots, topspin backhand and flat forehand drives to every part of the court. Federer eventually got the crucial break to lead 6-5.
Serving for the match, the Master led 40-0 when Lu hit a cross court backhand return winner that had the crow on their feet. It was a temporary reprieve. At match point, Federer wrong-footed Lu to his forehand and while changing direction mid-speed, Lu hit a forehand out to end the third set and match at 7-5. The four-time Australian Open Champions and 16 Grand Slam Titles holder fired the ball in his characteristic style into the crowd in celebration of victory.
It was a match with many segments that qualified to be described as a “purple patch” of great retrieving in defence when pushed wide, perfect timing in attack when balanced, gazelle-like movements, fluid strokes and flawless tennis.
Nadal, was making his return to competition after a long lay-off caused by injury, Rafael took on Russian Mikhail Youzny. A hard server and one of the few (like Roger Federer and Phhilip Kohlschreiber) with one-handed backhand, it required Nadal’s returning to cope with the Rissian service delieveris.
Nadal won the first set with a dominating performance.
In the 6th game of the second set, after missing his first serve, Youzhny kicked a ball back over the net to Nadal’s side. Though a perfect” tennis shot” he still had a second serve to deliver. He lost the point for the game and set. He might well look back at that episode and wonder: was it a relief from the pressure or sheer frustration at Nadla unrelenting attack? Definitely, it took something off his concentration, at a key point!
In the thirst set, leading 4-2, Nadal drove Youzny all over the court. At a stage in the rally, Youzny just managed to get the ball back on court within the service box. Nadal closed in and hit a drop shot that landed near the net, veering off past the doubles line. Youzny raced the ball down and hit a backhand shot over the net post heading back to the singles court. Nadal, however, longed at it and succeeded in hitting a cross- court backhand volley winner! It was the rally of the match and the capacity crowd roared in thunderous applause that echoed all over the Rod Laver Arena!
In the post match on court interview, Nadal expressed his joy at being back on court, with happy memories and the bad experience of last year when a back problem made him cry at losing in the Finals. He acknowledged that the match was tough mentally; as his first contest after the layoff in the past year.
Definitely the “matador” had announced his return!
(Akindele is a founding member of United States Tennis Writers association.)