First published on 17 Jan 2013. Updated on 25 Feb 2014.
The first ball struck on day three of the Australian Open was a serve that wouldn’t dint a wet lamington. Unheralded World No. 4 Agneszkia Radwańska’s feeble delivery and small frame belie the punch she is able to pack. Radwanska wowed Rod Laver Arena and displayed her cagey brand of tennis in a mesmerising straight-sets win.
Following Radwanksa on centre court was the robotic Czech Tomas Berdych who dispatched of his opponent sans concern. Then it was time for the match every person with a Southern Cross tattoo in the stadium had been waiting for: Australian Samantha Stosur’s second round match.
There is a posse of green-and-gold clad Australian tennis fans, called the Fanatics, who trot around en masse to every Australian Open matches featuring Aussies and attend David Cup religiously. They were in attendance and made their presence known, chanting those age-old, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…” kind of refrains.
True to her reputation of playing poorly at home, Stosur was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. She frequently hit balls off the edge of her frame, sent serves past the baseline and dumped backhands into the bottom of the net. The more the crowd tried to rev her up, the worse her play seemed to get.
After losing the first set 6-4, Stosur showed what her sculpted arms were good for: hitting winners in every corner of the court. She cleaned up the second set 6-1 and took a commanding 5-2 lead in the deciding set. Two points away from defeat, her diminutive Chinese opponent Zheng Jie seemed to find another gear and began doggedly retrieving every one of Stosur’s powerful groundstrokes and sending them back with interest.
Stosur’s response to this onslaught wasn’t exactly heroic; her face tightened, she began shanking balls again, and with the poorly timed whack of a ball high into the stands, she had lost her fourth games in quick succession to go behind 5-6. Having beaten Stosur just last week in Sydney, Zheng had no doubts that she could beat the higher ranked Aussie, and dominated the final game to complete a 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.
The jubilant mood that had sashayed around all afternoon suddenly came to a screeching stop. With Stosur’s loss went Australia’s best chance of a home-win. The marathon match had run over-schedule and a PA announcement asked the shell-shocked crowd to leave as swiftly as possible so the night session could get underway. Amidst a blur of green and gold attire, sunburnt shoulders and “Go Sammy” placards, I made my way out of Rod Laver Arena.
Around the grounds of Melbourne Park, one is instantly calmed by the relaxing sound of tennis balls being struck on surrounding courts. There is a cheerful lightness about people’s temperament and there is never much aggression or hostility. Whether your favourite wins or loses, a day spent at the tennis is always a lovely day. And when the sun’s rays shine in accompaniment of a crisp zephyr as was yesterday, it’s especially lovely.