MELBOURNE – They come in all shapes and sizes and contexts. They come at different times and in different rounds. Sometimes they’re predictable, or at least there are advanced signifiers of their arrival. Other times, they come unexpectedly.
Nothing causes a tournament to convulse, quite like an upset.
The anatomy of an upset: the underdog shows bark to match bite and meets the moment. The favorite falls out of favor, defeated—and sometimes self-defeated.
So far, the tournament has provided triple tremors. And we still have a week to go. Three underdogs, unseeded, yes, but also unintimidated.
The men’s defending champ, going for a record seventh title, was sent off in five sets. Novak Djokovic was not merely beaten by wild card Denis Istomin but out-battled. Istomin broke Djokovic in the fifth set and at 5-4, stepping up to the line before the biggest service game of his life, Istomin made all five of his first serves and rightfully pounded his heart after the last one.
The headline “Zverev d. Murray” would have been a mild shock…if the Zverev in question had been Sascha, the teenager anointed as a future champ. Instead, it was brother Mischa, older by a full decade, a lefty, lifelong journeyman. Serving-and-volleying, applying constant pressure and knocking off some sensational winners at the net, he rattled Murray and won in four sets.
The Sunday Night Special pitting defending champ and No. 1-ranked Angie Kerber against American Coco Vandeweghe was an upset of an altogether different variety. Bringing her power and athleticism to bear—this is a player who can throw a tight spiral 40 yards—Vandeweghe simply blasted her opponent into submission 6-2, 6-3.
Upsets do many things. Like a crowbar, they open draws. They remind top players of their vulnerability; and lesser players of their potential. They remind us that of the great virtue of sports derives from, one is lack of a script. In the wake of an unexpected result, we often remember the image of champions dispirited as they leave early. But it's worth remembering: the upset leaves one player anything but….
I didn't read your Australian Open midterm grades until this morning, but even before Vandeweghe crushed Kerber didn't she deserve mention? Or at least American (arguably Californian) women as a group; you covered American men but the American women are doing way better despite missing a couple of the top young stars. Besides being a "California girl,” Vandeweghe has a HUGE game, lots of tennis smarts, great personality on and off court, and has been steadily improving her mental game over the last few years. Thanks for great writing and commenting. Love your work.
• This tournament is always funky in terms of time differences and rhythms. But, yes, if we had to update our grades, Vandeweghe is at the head of the class. Not a lot of nuance, either to her game or her personality. This tournament we’ve seen what happens she fires away with abandon and her hits marks.
ATP is never lost for praise. Only the WTA get 'weak' thrown at it with similar circumstances.
• I have to confess that this thought crossed my mind. Djokovic and Murray lose and praise rains on the vanquisher. Kerber loses and she is maligned as mentally weak. Without discounting some good old-fashioned sexism, I would point out that both men’s upsets were real battles, whereas Vandeweghe beat Kerber 6-2, 6-3. I would also point out that Murray and especially Djokovic have much more extensive track records (cementing just how much it requires to beat them in the first week of a major.) In the case of Kerber, this was her first time defending a Slam, and she fizzled. So the momentousness—to use a quasi-word—of the men’s upsets loom larger.
Becker was two-time defending champ, Doohan was not out of left field, topped out probably in 40s in the rankings, and similar to Istomin, and he played well rather than Becker playing badly, although an in-form Becker (as with Djokovic) would have come through no doubt. Other analogies don't work because one player was at end of career (Sampras-Bastl), surface issues (Nadal-Rosol, and many other "upsets" on grass or clay). As far as an upset on a neutral surface and for a player in the prime, or near-prime of career, on the men's side, last night's match and Becker-Doohan practically stand alone.
—Leif Wellington Haase
• Lot of continuing discussion in re: “biggest upset.” I would add that Becker had won Wimbledon twice when Doohan had beaten him. Djokovic had won in Australia SIX times. I would also add that grass occasions much more variance that a best-of-five match on hard courts.
Thank you for including my question in your Mailbag. However your reply only furthers my point. You say that Monfils "comes here with his highest seeding ever (at) a major. Through two very clean wins, we’ve barely mentioned him." The same is true of Raonic—highest seeding ever and two clean wins (even with a virus that's left him barely able to speak). Just sayin'.
• Fair point. I still say it's remarkable how little we’re talking about Monfils, especially since he’s usually a centerpiece. He plays Nadal on Monday night and we’ve barely mentioned him.
Four points: a) scheduling can play a large role in who does and doesn't get attention at these. Murray loses! Federer wins in five sets! Serena starts the day session today! Easy for Vandeweghe d. Kerber to get a little lost in the folds. (We all need sleep!...Theoretically anyway.)
b) I do want to reinforce that, as always, this is never personal. This will sound humblebraggy, but I saw Raonic just the other day and we were joking about the Blue Jays and baseball. Not my pick to win the event, but an awfully nice guy.
c) Raonic has the flu.
d) For what it’s worth, you know who IS picking Raonic? Pat Rafter.
I saw in your Mailbag a question about why Murray was on Hisense and that you would try to find out. I read this on the Australian Open site:
“Murray wasn’t insulted. A few eyebrows were raised when the order of play revealed Andy Murray to be playing not just on the second court but the third. Murray’s match against Sam Querrey was scheduled for Hisense Arena, now the third in the show court pecking order, but Murray wasn’t in any way insulted; in fact, he chose it. The top seed, and now favourite since Novak Djokovic’s defeat, was offered the first match on Rod Laver Arena or later in the day on Hisense. Having played the last match on the Wednesday schedule, he didn’t want to open on Friday, so he opted for Hisense and was glad he did. “It’s a great court to play on,” Murray said after his straight-sets win, “great crowd, the stadium was full before we finished our warm-up in the morning. It was pretty much packed, nice atmosphere.” Hisense may be the third arena, but it’s the main show court which fans can access with ground passes.”
• Thanks. Yes, it strained credulity to think a top seed would be placed on that court without consultation. We could discuss the fairness of some players having input in their court assignations….Speaking of:
I wonder what would happen if Nishikori match was in the daytime heat. Scheduling favors Federer.
• Given that it was Nishikori—not Federer—whose body went into revolt in the fifth set, I’m not sure this is the best example. But, yes, Federer benefits from the schedule. Not only does he seldom play during the day but he has the knowledge before the tournament begins that we will likely be the featured night match on the big court. Compare this to other players who must keep their eating and sleeping and scheduling flexible because they never know when their shift will begin and on what court. I’m not sure there’s a solution or a better alternative. You’d be a fool to put Federer on court 7 at 11 a.m. But there are built-in advantages for the stars.
Is the podcast bump an official thing now?
• Or is it lucky No#18? (If you’ve made it this far in the column, you likely know this, but ….the reader is talking about Federer’s seeding. I’m talking adding to his majors haul.)