By: Andrew Eccles
Sunday night in Melbourne brought with it the blockbuster line up: sole Australian survivor Nick Kyrgios took on Federer-slayer Andreas Seppi, two time finalist Andy Murray went up against bendy Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, and the increasingly reliable Simona Halep faced an old foe in unseeded Yanina Wickmayer.
There was no shortage of victory screams, unnecessary f-bombs, and incredible hitting in three contests that were won and lost on the stretch.
Here’s how the night played out:
Halep vs Wickmayer: Roman(ian)’s Revenge
There are few who doubt her place at the top of the sport now, but No. 3 seed Simona Halep still had something of a point to prove coming out onto Rod Laver Arena for the final women’s match of the day. She played Belgium’s Yanina Wickmayer on three previous occasions, and had never been able to take a set.
But those losses had come in 2010, 2011 and 2013, well before Halep really found her footing. In 2015, she is a different prospect all together.
While she began her Australian Open campaign looking sluggish to start – her forehand seemingly not yet up for the new season – Halep has since found her best form, carving her way through the draw with relative ease. With every victory she earns locker room respect, and those few extra free points that come with an opponent who feels the pressure to perform.
Dominance looks good on her.
Although she’s had her struggles of late, Wickmayer has played a good tournament in Melbourne, reminding tennis fans of her notable capabilities. Against Halep, she would attempt to play on the front foot, move her opponent around, and play on her own terms.
To drop behind the baseline and allow Halep to dictate play is fatal.
Unfortunately for the former US Open semifinalist, it was Halep’s defensive play that most impressed in this encounter. On the stretch, Halep is capable of a multitude of shots, ranging from squash-forehands that land – with laser accuracy – on her opponent’s baseline, to stunning winners that take you by surprise.
The most captivating example of the latter came towards the end of the second set, when Halep sent this backhand roaring down the line from a defensive position – watch this with the sound on to hear Halep’s ecstatic reaction:
Roo (@roobynVC) January 25, 2015
Ultimately Halep’s capabilities in defense alongside her aggression prevented Wickmayer from having any meaningful impact. There were plenty of exciting rallies and Wickmayer looked to be having fun, but Halep came out on top for the vast majority of the time.
Halep finds herself in the Australian Open quarterfinals for the second straight year, where she will face the ever-difficult Ekaterina Makarova.
Keep an eye on that match, it could be a fun one.
Kyrgios vs Seppi: Walkabout
This match was a religious experience.
Nick Kyrgios is, undoubtedly, a polarizing character. Even Australian fans themselves seem to be taking their time to warm up to him. But with the performances he’s given thus far, he is becoming a character who can draw a crowd. He is enigmatic to the point of arrogance, foul-mouthed, a provider of a most interactive tennis experience…more on that later.
What Kyrgios also has is a walk to back up his talk. He doesn’t just play well, he plays with personality and flair – comparable to the court creativity that we’ve seen from Gael Monfils over the years. Having announced himself with a defeat of Rafael Nadal last year’s Wimbledon, the pressure is now on for Kyrgios to perform consistently. Flare and consistency are difficult bed fellows.
Across the net was Andreas Seppi, who was brimming with confidence after defeating Roger Federer, and took advantage of an errant Kyrgios in the first two sets. While the scorelines were relatively close, Seppi looked like the better, more stable player in the encounter. A one break lead was enough to seal the first set, 7-5, and the momentum carried into the second which he took, 6-4.
The home crowd was subdued, but Kyrgios was anything but.
The young Aussie, angry with his own performance, had spent much of the first two sets tossing his racquet to the ground and slouching his shoulders between rallies. Two sets down, he seemed to feel a release of pressure, perhaps buoyed by an aggressive and constant stream of cathartic f-bombs that went completely unpunished by umpire Fergus Murphy.
The third set was a tale of liberation for the teenager, while Seppi looked nervous trying to find his way to his first Grand Slam quarter-final.
Kyrgios took the third, 6-2.
From this point on, the match came to life. Both players went on the attack early in the fourth set, and became increasingly more passive as play approached the business end. The set would eventually go to a tiebreak, which was defined by long passive rallies in which each man waited for the other to make a mistake, rather than trying to wrestle control.
Kyrgios, who called out fans who deigned to leave the arena “Hey, where are you going?” was ultimately the braver player who stepped up as aggressor, and he was rewarded with the set.
The final set was a similarly tense affair. Kyrgios got an early lead and looked like he might dominate, but the nerves came back and so did Seppi. The match would eventually go beyond 6-6, but not far.
The unseeded Aussie truly seems to thrive on the big stage, taking energy from the home crowd and the dramatic spectacle of it all. Seppi became a bit player, shrinking beneath the pressure. Fittingly, Kyrgios won the match on a suitably controversial challenge, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5), 8-6.
Meanwhile, his quarter-final opponent was being decided over on the Rod Laver Arena…
Murray vs Dimitrov: The Scot and the Showman
Andy Murray has played a very solid tournament, dropping fewer games than any other man in the Australian Open. With new coach Amelie Mauresmo by his side, Murray looks relaxed and aggressive, playing with a clarity that was absent for most of 2014.
Grigor Dimitrov, who will spend this year on a mission to prove himself as one of the most exciting new names on the Tour, was not an opponent to be taken lightly. The Bulgarian’s record is somewhat overshadowed by contemporaries Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori at present, both players who both made larger leaps in the second half of 2014.
One would think he has a chip on his shoulder, but the proof will be in the results.
It was certainly Dimitrov who began the match firing, immediately breaking Murray and moving to a 3-0 lead. The Scot wasn’t held down for long, however, finding his serve and timing, breaking back to put the match back on an even keel. The first set would remain a grind until the final moments, when Murray would tease a break from his younger opponent to take the first set, 6-4.
There was little change in the second set. Murray took the first break, but Dimitrov roared back with a break of his own. The points were often long and dynamic – each competitor capable of chasing down the furthest of balls and flicking back a creative response. At 5-5, Murray stepped up his creativity, while Dimitrov faltered at the net.
At 5-6, Dimitrov stepped up his game to steal back the break, and force a sudden death.
The No. 10 seed won one of the best rallies of the tournament on his way to a 7-5 victory, which would trigger a thrown racquet and audible obscenities from Murray.
By this point, tennis was immune to the f-bomb. It was the “come on” of Sunday night.
His anger would carry into the third set, as Murray became furious with Umpire Jake Garner for missing a clear double bounce right next to the chair. The attrition continued too, with Dimitrov and Murray each neutralizing the best qualities of the other. Eventually it would be Murray who got the vital break to go up 5-3, which he consolidated to take the set.
At this point I feel it’s important to illustrate how hilarious the match had become. Dimitrov was doing his bendy-best to splay about the court, while Murray had descended into a burning rage that only a Scot can accomplish. Murray’s mood wasn’t helped by the Bulgarian’s race to 5-2 in the fourth set.
But Dimitrov became passive once he had the lead. Murray was happy (if happy is the right word) to take advantage, and fought back to 5-5 – the two-time Grand Slam champion looked poised for the win.
When he broke Dimitrov a game later, the Bulgarian could stand it no more, smashing his racquet with a ferocity that would have been better channeled into his game.
Murray held to take the match, the final ball hitting the tape of the net and cruelly dropping into Dimitrov’s court.
Murray won, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5, and set up what could be an explosive quarter-final with Kyrgios.
What was your moment of the night? Sound off in the comments!