Though the upsets have stayed away, we've been treated to some great matches thus far at the Australian Open. Some of the early round highlights:
-- In the women's draw, the match between Roberta Vinci and the veteran Alicia Molik, which was not promising at first glance, was an epic battle that ended in an exciting fashion. The Australian, Molik, ended by winning 8-6 in the third after having to rally from down a break at 3-5. At 30 years old and after a forced break from tennis due to an infection of the inner ear, she showed once more that the Australian fighting spirit isn't just a myth. It's a real part of their sporting culture. Not that Vinci didn't fight either, though. The two players delivered the highest quality tennis during the last two sets. Both had been going to net a lot and then tried to change the pace and attack in order to use their chip to run to the net. It was in the volleying game that they were most successful. For those who still assume that the women game is dull, this match was a true example otherwise.
-- I was very sad to see Kimiko Date-Krumm losing that match against Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5 in the third after leading 4-1 in this deciding set. I have nothing against the 21-year-old from Poland, mind you, but you feel an endless admiration for Date-Krumm. At 40 years old and after a 12-year break from this sport, she's now able to reach the top 50 again and competes with the best players. I know her quite well and she's a very surprising person. I saw her the night after this match and she had cried a lot. With all her experience and after having far exceeded all her goals with her comeback she was still in tears. (She told me this summer that she stopped setting goals because of this.) What a competitor! She's one of those players who just can't accept losing; it's unbearable for them. Much respect.
-- On the flip side, Kim Clijsters and Dinara Safina showed how cruel this sport can be. In front of the world's eyes, the Russian, a former No. 1 player in the world, was crushed 6-0 6-0. If some could think the Belgian was cruel not to let at least one game to Dinara, it's so far the opposite. Instead, it's a true mark of respect from her. If sport is sometimes violent, the Belgian showed that she was taking her opponent seriously by never keeping the pressure down.
Many now wonder how you can fall so deep after having reached the top, and it's a logical question. It's just once more the proof that this game is a mental one. Dinara didn't lose her shots in a snap. She lacks confidence and is doubting herself, especially since losing the person who believed in her most, her old coach Zeljko Kajan. So now she's suffering a lot, losing 6-1, 6-0 in Hobart against Marion Bartoli and now 6-0 6-0 in Melbourne. She's starting a long fight against herself and will have to remain very brave and patient.
-- On the men's side, the fight between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian was as good as expected. The "Revenge of the Wimbledon 2002 final" was played, and what a match on this Rod Laver Arena! I was talking earlier about the Aussie fighting spirit, and it was relevant for that match. It was a true thriller and an amazing match. Nalbandian got the last word really late in the evening, despite cramping and two match points saved. I admit my worries regarding the ability of Nalbandian to play this way again, as he's not as prepared as he should be.