Two days ago the second-best women’s player in the world, Anett Kontaveit, stood on the surface of the vast Arthur Ashe cauldron in New York ready to play.
Amid the crowd waiting to watch her face Serena Williams sat Tiger Woods, Dionne Warwick and filmmaker Spike Lee, bedecked in the sort of stripy jacket favoured by fictional fop Bertie Wooster.
In more normal times the combatants would have a quick hit, listen to the umpire’s last-dash directions and then play.
Only this is the Serena show and Kontaveit, a pleasant and urbane type, had to wait by her chair as a video tribute to Williams played out on a giant screen, as indeed it had been before the American’s opening match two days before.
Narrated by Oprah Winfrey the montage was a saccharine overkill, but the home crowd lapped it up regardless.
Kontaveit, meanwhile, was beaten and later fled a post-match interview in tears when asked about the crowd’s antipathy, which included cheering her unforced errors.
It was not unexpected. The gathering of 24,000 mostly Americans had come for a Williams farewell bash – win or lose – and the party girl was not about to go home early. The hard hitting Kontaveit played admirably, but ultimately fell well short.
This combination of high-pressure and pantomime is what Brisbane’s Ajla Tomljanovic will likely encounter at around 9am AEST today.
On the plus side, she is in solid form and beat world No 4 Paula Badosa in Cincinnati last month, but Williams has just beaten the world No 2.
At 29, Tomljanovic inhabits an anomalous world. Australian number one since Ash Barty retired earlier this year, she is a strong, athletic player with some good results, but is yet to win a professional tournament of standing.
Williams is back
At world No 46, she is ranked 559 places higher than Williams but already it is a mismatch.
After not playing at all from Wimbledon 2021 to Wimbledon 2022, Williams is back. That she has played just six matches this year matters not.
Today will see a most oppressive and one-eyed crowd for the third-round encounter. Its disdain is not personal, as Kontaveit conceded, but any Williams opponent is seen to be making up the numbers only and their wishes or wants will be given little credence.
Loud chewing, apparently a pet peeve for Tomljanovic, will be the least of the background clatter. This is going to be beyond loud.
Everything is against Tomljanovic, yet nothing in sport is certain – think Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal from Wimbledon this year when he was just one match away from the final – but it would be the achievement of her life for the Aussie to prevail.
Curiously, there are the tiniest of omens. Eleven years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, Williams lost on this court to another Queenslander, Sam Stosur, pulling out the match of her life as she clinched the US Open single crown.
Stosur’s then coach, David Taylor, has also coached Tomljanovic. But it is unlikely to be enough.
Ominously for the Tomljanovic, Williams has been watching her in the build up to New York.
“She has been playing pretty intensely and I have been watching her matches, and I saw her play a week and a half ago,” Williams ventured after beating Kontaveit. “She has been through a lot with injuries and I respect that.”
Tomljanovic, an admitted Williams fan, has made public her desire to play the great champ while still possible. It drew an instant response.
“The fact she wants to play me is good, I have to be ready for all matches,” said Williams, who claims she is trying to strike a balance between focus and embracing a tournament that will almost certainly be her last.
Glint in her eye
Maybe so, but she has the glint of someone who has set her eyes on a prize, but is not going public about it just yet.
By admitting she wants to play Williams, Tomljanovic looks already to be deeply in sync with the occasion and not the result. It is not a mistake Williams, who will not yet discuss how far she might progress this Open, will make.
The burden of expectation is for once absent, she says.
“I have had a big red cross on my back since winning the US Open when I was 17, my first grand slam.”
Williams turns 41 next month, and a 24th grand slam title demands another five wins this fortnight. The draw is falling nicely for her – and Tomljanovic – but at this age and short of match practice, every day will draw heavily upon Williams.
It will call for a superhuman effort, but this is what she does.
High hopes for Kyrgios
Meanwhile, at around 10.15am over on Louis Armstrong Stadium, will be a man unfamiliar with sharing the Aussie spotlight, Nick Kyrgios.
It is some time since he was not the main attraction and if Friday night (New York lags AEST by 14 hours) in downtown Queens is made for Serena, then it is for Nick too.
Kyrgios faces an American who sounds like he should have a TV series named after him – JJ Wolf – and the proud bearer of one of his sport’s very few mullets.
Despite his baggage and chaotic demeanour, Kyrgios is not someone to underestimate an opponent he has not played before, and the Wimbledon finalist’s focus will not yet be on a potential round-four match with defending champion Daniil Medvedev.
At 23 and ranked 87, Wolf is a fine player but will be a threat only if Kyrgios permits him to be.
Medvedev should be next up for Kyrgios in what would be the men’s match of the Open so far. Kyrgios will take heart from a 3-1 career lead over the Russian that includes an emphatic victory at last month’s Montreal Masters.
In many ways, the world No 1 player is what Kyrgios could be. Yet Medvedev, nine months younger and equally talented and quirky, has taken his chances and succeeded where the Aussie has not.
This year, though, the trajectory of both men has been almost identical, a 34/12 win-loss record for Medvedev before this week and 31/9 for Kyrgios, who is not so much approaching the top table as having already arrived. He is that good.
An adjunct almost to the fortnight is Alex De Minaur who will face Kyrgios in the last eight should they both keep on winning. Ranked No 20, De Minaur has been Australia’s top male player for several years, but despite ever-impressive consistency and determination, the spotlight rarely shines his way.
It is a shame. De Minaur has six career titles to-date, including July’s Atlanta Open. Understated and pleasant more than gregarious by nature, the 23-year-old is a very good player indeed and is rated highly by Australia’s Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt.
Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta is the roadblock on the Grandstand court today with a scheduled start time around 7am.
The pair have met just once, the Spaniard victorious on the French Open clay three years back. Ignore that, a quarter-finalist here two years ago, De Minaur has the capacity and drive to overcome the 12th seed who has twice reached the semi-final in New York. Five sets loom.
Source: Read More