Friday January 20th, 2012

Both with unique styles of play, Bernard Tomic's defeat of Alex Dolgopolov (right) made for a highly entertaining third-round match. (Greg Wood/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- On Day 5 of the Australian Open, John Isner, the last American in the men's draw, lost to Feliciano Lopez, controversy arose in Bernard Tomic's defeat of Alexandr Dolgopolov and the crowd turned on Victoria Azarenka. Here's a rundown of the day's action.

What happened

Variety is the spice of life: For three hours and 49 minutes on Friday night, Tomic and Dolgopolov turned Rod Laver Arena into their own personal junkyard. And it was beautiful. When the 19-year-old Tomic eventually prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (0), 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3, Australia had finally come to embrace its new star and tennis caught a glimpse of its future.

The two really put on a show in a match that will be talked about for a long time, a throwback for traditionalists and purists who have long lamented the rise of power baseline tennis and the demise of variety. As Tomic and Dolgopolov hit backhand slice after backhand slice, with Tomic using it to goad Dolgopolov into errors and Dolgopolov using it to set up a short ball he could attack, it was a game of cat and mouse with the roles of Tom and Jerry switching from point to point and the momentum turning on a dime.

Not that the match went without controversy. At the end of the first game of the fifth set, Dolgopolov sent a forehand slice long that Tomic thought was out, and it sounded like someone in the stands called the ball out (see video below). The Aussie played the shot back but looked to the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, and raised his racket, seemingly signaling for a challenge. But Ramos didn't stop play. Dolgopolov thought Tomic had challenged, half-heartedly returned the ball wide and gave the game to Tomic. The replay clearly showed that Tomic raised his racket, though he didn't audibly request the challenge, and once he realized the umpire wasn't going to overrule or stop play, he continued to play the point.

"I knew the ball was long called [sic] but I looked to the umpire's chair because I sort of had my head down," Tomic said. "I knew where the shot was. So even though I looked to the ref to see what his reaction was, because I didn't hear him I didn't say a thing. I knew I got the slice back.

"I was looking at him whether he was going to say, 'Out,' but I continued to play. He thought I was going to challenge it. Got lucky I didn't say anything."

Was Tomic in the wrong here? Yes and no. The rules don't require an audible challenge, only that the player stop play. When the shot looked long the crowd erupted, with a number of fans sitting in that corner of the stadium yelling that the ball was out. It was loud and chaotic, and for a split second, Tomic looked confused as to whether there was an out call, an overrule or a non-call.

Ramos was adamant that Tomic did not stop play. From where I was sitting, Tomic paused but he didn't abandon play, so there's some degree of interpretation there that goes in Tomic's favor. But Tomic's insistence that he didn't call for the challenge, or at least intend to call for the challenge, is disingenuous at best. He wanted the challenge, didn't get it, and when he got the benefit of the non-call, he denied ever wanting the challenge in the first place.

It was no more or less dishonest than Justine Henin's refusing to acknowledge that she held up her hand against Serena Williams at the 2003 French Open. And we all know how much stick Henin got for that.

U.S. men gone: With Isner's 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-7 (0), 6-1 loss to Lopez, no American man will be in the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time in the Open Era (there were none in 1972 and '73 because no American men entered the tournament). That's a remarkable stat. Some might chalk it up as a fluke since Andy Roddick could have made the fourth round if not for an injury against Lleyton Hewitt, but that's precisely the problem. U.S. men's tennis is in a transition phase. While Roddick used to be relied on to be the last man standing, the fact is that time is ticking and his body is breaking down.

Isner had a fine chance to keep the streak alive against Lopez, but the Spaniard has shown over the last year that, pardon the double-negative, he's just not as unreliable as he once was. That was always the book on Lopez. And sure, he double-faulted at key moments in this match and his propensity to get tight is still there. But he came out in the fifth set and simply snatched the match and the momentum away from Isner, who admitted he just let it get away from him.

"I just wasn't as sharp as I needed to be," Isner said. "Wasn't as mentally sharp as I needed to be at the beginning of that fifth set. It just kind of spiraled out of control there, and it just -- I couldn't climb out of the hole I dug."

The question the American men will continue to face is whether they can climb out of this dip in results. There's no reason to think they can't. Isner, the 16th seed, proved a lot in his comeback, five-set win over David Nalbandian, and even Friday, while slightly hobbled, he was able to rally and force a fifth set.

"He's this kind of player that must be in the top, in my opinion," Rafael Nadal said, "because there is no one reason why he is not in the top 13 of the world, top 14 of the world."

But the disappointment will sting, and for the man whom I tap to be the next American No. 1, Isner will have to learn how to shoulder the burden.

He hate me: Azarenka has an uncanny knack for alienating crowds, and she hasn't had much of a warm-and-fuzzy reception here. First there was the crowd's imitating her whooping grunt during her match against Casey Dellacqua, and on Friday came a swarm of boos when she dropped some expletives and angrily threw a ball into the backstop after clinching her 6-2, 6-4 victory against Mona Barthel.

Having burned through her all her second-set challenges, Azarenka saw two match points lost on disputable line calls. She had spent much of the match at an even keel, calmly working her way through against the German. Barthel picked up her game in the second set and, though she was down a break, fought through three deuce games to force Azarenka to serve for the match. Azarenka was getting visibly frustrated and the unforced errors were racking up. When the two line calls went against her, you could see her starting to simmer.

"I had to get a little bit not angry like in a bad way, just a little bit to get my emotions going to finish the match, because I had few chances, I didn't convert them," Azarenka said. "But sometimes you just have to push yourself a little bit to get you going again."

The slow burn did seem to help, and when she was finally able to convert her fifth match point, she let it all out. The crowd didn't like it. It booed her as she walked to the net and a familiar look very quickly flashed across her face. I've seen it before when fans have gotten a bit testy with Azarenka. For a brief moment she has this look of "What'd I do?" and in a blink it's gone and she goes about her business.

It's unclear whether the crowds will ever warm to Azarenka (her notoriously loud grunts can't be good for the relationship), but it doesn't seem like she cares. Azarenka's the ultimate jock. She's there to win and she'll do whatever it takes to do so, whether you like it or not.

If only Ivo were taller: He's 6-foot-10, wears size 16 sneakers and closes on the net in two easy strides. But against Roger Federer, Ivo Karlovic needed to be about two inches taller. The Croat had set point at 6-5 in the first-set tiebreaker and hit a drop volley that looked like a sure-fire winner. But Federer raced forward and somehow hit a lob that Karlovic couldn't get his strings on. Karlovic said after his 7-6 (6), 7-5, 6-3 loss that it was a 1-in-100 shot. All I know is the shot defied physics. I mean, how do you lob over Ivo Karlovic from 5 feet away?

Photo of the day

Nicolas Almagro, taking his relationship with Show Court 2 to the next level after beating Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets. (Zumapress)

Go figure

19... Code violations issued so far in the tournament, all to male players.

1... Game lost by Lisa Raymond in two doubles matches Friday, teaming with Liezel Huber for a 6-0, 6-0 win and with Rohan Bopanna in mixed for a 6-1, 6-0 win.

174... Points won by both Tomic and Dolgopolov in their third-round match.

Video of the day

Tomic, Dolgopolov and a slice of controversy:

*****

Bits and bobbles

• Friday's scoreboard premonition: "LACK NADA." Rafael Nadal lacked nothing in his 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 win over Lukas Lacko. This totally works.

• Nalbandian was fined $8,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct after his loss to Isner. It's been reported that he threw water at a tournament staff member after the match. So much for all the talk about him handling the controversy with class.

• Quite a few people took exception Thursday to Pam Shriver's asking Vania King, who has a great voice, to sing during an on-court interview after her second-round upset of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. King kindly obliged and absolutely nailed a few verses of Dream a Little Dream of Me. Amer Delic called it "awkward" and others found it unprofessional. Me? I liked it. It gave King an opportunity to show off her personality to an American audience and afterward she excitedly tweeted a link to the video.

The problem came one match later, when Shriver was again dispatched to interview an upset winner, this time Greta Arn. Clearly feeling confident after getting Vania to sing, Shriver, who as far as I know doesn't know Arn, asked her if she had any special hidden talents to show for the camera. Arn was completely flustered. Instead of backing off, Shriver pressed on. The ESPN commentator suggested that Arn juggle, forcing the 32-year-old Hungarian to tell the world that no, she had no special talents because she was a boring person. Now that was awkward and unprofessional.

They said it

"He won the match point. [Smiling.] That's a joke. Nobody is laughing."

-- Ivo Karlovic, on how Federer was able to win the match.

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