Jonathan Newman and James Rogers are the hosts of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast. In the The Body Serve Diary, Jonathan and James write conversationally about the various happenings in the wild world of tennis.
Jon: Holy cow, what an opening day of the Australian Open! Only ONE of the 10 ‘merican women (Nicole Gibbs) who played in Melbourne yesterday survived the carnage. Among the defeated: Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe, CiCi Bellis, Taylor Townsend, and Alison Riske. Within the first four hours of play, Venus, Sloane, and CoCo -- three of the four semifinalists from the 2017 U.S. Open -- were out. The top two American men, John Isner and Jack Sock, also bowed out in the first round. I certainly can’t remember a day like this for American tennis at a Slam, can you?
James: There were probably a few French Opens back in the day that saw this much American blood spilt. But to your point, it was a shocking display from the U.S. contingent. I was actually most surprised by Vandeweghe’s performance; going in, I felt that she had momentum and a tricky, but not impossible, first round. I heard reports that she had the flu, though. What about you -- any true shockers for you, or was it just jarring that this all happened on the same day?
Jon: Not really. I think it’s not so much that these individual American players lost to these particular opponents, but that they all lost on the same day and in such a large volume. Bencic was always going to be a tough out for Venus; nobody has played and won more matches than her since Singapore. Sloane Stephens hasn’t won a match in a long time and she was playing Zhang, ranked #34 and the highest ranked first round opponent for a seeded player. I take your point about CoCo; she came in fresh off that ESPNW article aiming to debunk the perception of her being arrogant, and was viewed as a legit threat on these fast courts to build on her two Slam semis last year. Babos played top tennis, and if you’re not at your fighting best physically, then it becomes all the more difficult to perform at this level. While her loss may have been surprising, CoCo’s outbursts were not, just as they weren’t again from Ryan Harrison. These two continue to lower the bar for expectations of Americans overseas.
James: There’s just no excuse for hurling obscenities at your opponent or your opponent’s fans. I’ll never understand the bloc that believes that this abusive and embarrassing behavior is “good for the sport.” It is amazing to me that Ryan Harrison, especially, has any fans left. At least Colleen, for her part, put on her gentle, reasonable voice when conversing with the chair last night after getting a point penalty. The universe is serving Jack Sock a bit of restorative justice lately; after his less-than-full-effort performance in Auckland, there’s talk of rescinding his $100k appearance fee, and now he’s out in the first round in Melbourne after ending the 2017 season on a high.
Jon: Sock says it’s been very difficult to deal with the start of a new year after finishing on such a high at the end of 2017 (winning Paris to qualify for the year-end championships). Paraphrasing here, but it’s been a struggle for him to get motivated after having such a short turnaround between seasons, having never played that deep into a season before. All that makes perfect sense, but it’s not a good look when your performance is so bad that people are calling it tanking, and not for the first time in your career. Being in the top 10 also means added scrutiny, and having to answer for behaviour that would have flown under the radar when he was a less accomplished singles player.
As for Harrison, it’s not just about the swearing on court, which some have suggested dismissively. It’s about, as you pointed out, swearing at your opponent (in the case of Hanfmann), and your opponent’s supporters. It’s certainly not behaviour that would be tolerated or excused if done by someone like Nick Kyrgios; there is absolutely a double standard there, one that I believe has to do with race. Context is very important when debunking the “oh, who hasn’t cursed before” argument. This is an American player, casually and aggressively saying "fuck THOSE people" directed at an obviously majority Jewish group of people, on foreign soil. It reinforces some really ugly stereotypes about Americans, ESPECIALLY in this day and age.
James: Yet totally in keeping with the tenor of our national conversation. Can we talk about something more fun? Sloane Stephens’ press conference, for example. When Sloane feels like participating, she is such a hilarious presence in press. Take this, haters: “Relax, everybody. It will be okay. Don't worry. We will get back to having fun soon.” I’m not too worried about Sloane, because she took this attitude last summer right before she went on a tear through the American hard courts. Just as she did then, she ensured the assembled press, “I’m going to beat someone eventually. I’ll have the best Instagram picture when I snap this losing streak.”
Obviously, Sloane was not in fighting shape to start this tournament. It’s really only her second tournament back after her knee injury, which she played on for much of the fall. Nike’s atrocious kit certainly didn’t help her mystique.
Jon: Sloane’s mystique? We need to do a segment to delve into what you mean by that at another time. To expect Sloane Stephens to have continued that otherworldly form in New York through the rest of her career was just never on the table. She will never be Serena, nor Venus; she is Sloane, and that’s (BIG SHOCK) totally OK. I’m glad to hear she is comfortable enough in her skin to push back against the press for trying to pigeon hole her into that lane. She will come back and win again, and continue to do HER in the meantime.
One of the most anticipated storylines of day one was Rafa’s return to sleeveless tops, a full decade after he last wore one on the ATP Tour. I am saddened to report that it was a big big miss.
James: Perhaps “mystique” is not the word I was going for! As for Rafa’s kit, Nike is trash. They gave us a full line of unimaginative, bland, and just plain ugly kits for their top players this year. Fumbling Rafa’s return to the sleeveless look is something I cannot forgive. But, I was glad to see that Rafa got through his match without drama.
Sadly, I was asleep during Rafa’s match, as it started at 3 am here. I just went to check the stats on ausopen.com, and wouldn’t you know, they don’t work! It’s actually impressive how the tournament has fumbled just about every aspect of their digital technology: the app and website went down simultaneously in the first minutes of play, and even when they are purportedly working, they are full of bugs. As a layperson when it comes to technology, all I can do is laugh. I don’t understand the need to completely rework the app each year; I don’t recall having any problems before. Between the tech problems, the “draw ceremony,” and having to reckon with the ever-irritating Margaret Court, there’s a dark cloud over the Happy Slam which hopefully moves away soon.
Jon: If I know you, those last few sentences read like you’re about ready to put a wrap on this Diary entry! Let me just say about Rafa’s kit...the pink is the LEAST of the trouble with it. For whatever reason, the arm holes of the shirt are enormous and have Rafa’s still-very-ample musculature swimming, and the grey colour of the shirt just makes it look dirty. It looks like one of those patterns that designers first cut to put on a mannequin. It looks entirely unfinished and unwashed. A bright white shirt or even charcoal (although not hot weather friendly) would have done much better.
James: Why not an homage to Rafa’s signature pre-2009 look? What a shambles. Anyway, you’re correct that I was wrapping up; we have to save something for the podcast! To look out for: who will take advantage of holes in the draw left by Venus, Sloane, and CoCo? CoCo’s section now looks like a cakewalk for Wozniacki to reach the semifinals. I’ll also be especially interested to see Novak and Stan tonight. ‘Til next time!