Day 5: Finding Amanda Anisimova

I wasn’t sure what to write about today. The extraordinarily late finish following Konta vs Muguruza had left me feeling drained, and regrettably I felt compelled to prioritise getting a bit of rest over getting to Melbourne Park for the first matches of the day. When I arrived, Barty vs Sakkari had finished, and Tsitsipas vs Basilashvili was well underway. In an ideal world, I would have liked to have covered both of those. 

So, I was looking for inspiration. And it came in the form of 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova

Amanda Anisimova

Amanda Anisimova

I’d popped over to the Margaret Court Arena expecting Anisimova to challenge Aryna Sabalenka, not to demolish her. Sabalenka is pure brute force: the way she lashes at the ball, the way she’s built, the way she grunts. She has a presence, she’s intimidating, she’s very, very good. She’d been picked by so many people as a dark horse that she was no longer a dark horse; she was a title contender. 

And yet none of this mattered. She was there, but she couldn’t influence the match or impose her style. She was there, but no one’s eyes were trained on her, because down the other end was Anisimova, playing like a dream. 

I kept thinking it was a purple patch, that Anisimova surely had to snap out of it sooner rather than later. It shouldn’t have been possible to do the things she was doing with such ease at SEVENTEEN years old. There were intelligent short-angled backhands to open up the court, clean return winners off both wings, even a drive volley winner from the baseline for good measure. There was other stuff, too, like timely first serves, dynamic court coverage, and dropshots. And yet as her dazzling brilliance went on and on, I came to realise that this was no purple patch. Amanda Anisimova really is this good. 

Whatever Sabalenka tried, Anisimova had a response. She used Sabalenka’s power and turned the tables on her, particularly with her otherworldly backhand. You got the feeling that if Sabalenka had attempted to body slam Anisimova – which she didn’t, because that’s still not allowed in tennis – Anisimova would have had the perfect counter. 

The name ‘Maria Sharapova’ came up a couple times in the post-match interview. She’s Anisimova’s idol, and she’s also the last teenage winner of a Grand Slam (at the US Open in 2006). Inevitably, the conversation turned to whether Anisimova could follow in her footsteps this fortnight. My initial reaction was that we shouldn’t get carried away – Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova are all still in the draw. We should give Anisimova all the time she needs. 

I still believe that. But then I thought, “would it really be the most preposterous thing in the world?” Look at how complete her game is. Look at her quiet confidence on court. Look at her press conference transcript: “I want to win this tournament right now.” Look at the way she’s carved through the draw: 7-6, 6-4 against Monica Niculescu; 6-0, 6-2 over Lesia Tsurenko and now 6-3, 6-2 vs Sabalenka. Those are three opponents with completely contrasting styles – a slicer and dicer, a counterpuncher and an aggressive baseliner. This bodes so well. Her tennis brain is outstanding. 

And so, I, along with everyone else I’m sure, left the Margaret Court Arena stunned, inspired, moved, and grinning from ear to ear. Anisimova had just become the first player born since the turn of the millennium to reach a Grand Slam last 16, and it certainly felt like we’d all witnessed a performance of epochal significance. 

  • Denis Shapovalov is into the third round of a Grand Slam outside of the US Open for the first time in his career. By his own admission, he’s playing ‘exceptional’ tennis, but what’s really notable is his improved serving stats. He spent much of 2018 tinkering with his motion and racking up a surfeit of double faults in the process. In many matches he was hitting more doubles faults than aces. He had the second highest average number of double faults on tour in 2018. But a quick glance at his Australian Open numbers so far reveals significant improvement. In round one: 15 aces, 3 double faults. In round two: 16 aces, 4 double faults. Those are good numbers, and he will need more of the same if he’s to stand any chance against Novak Djokovic tomorrow. 

  • I wish there were a measurement for “cleanliness of ball strike” because I’m convinced that nobody has ever hit a tennis ball more cleanly than peak Tomas Berdych. Particularly on the forehand side, the ball zips of his strings with unmatched ease. I must have watched Berdych close to a hundred times in my life. And yet I almost feel like I’m discovering him for the first time again this week, having pretty much written him off following his ranking slump and injury lay-off. He’s playing so well, but we will have to wait before finding out if he really is a new man: this is now the eleventh time he’s reached the fourth round in Melbourne. It’s what happens next that will tell us more. 

  • One of the highlights of my day was finding out that there’s a quiz question every day in the Australian Open press centre. Today’s teaser: which two female players have the longest gap between winning their first and last Australian Open singles titles? Answers in a tweet, please.