By Jane Voigt
Having it good is tough. Or so it seems, after a ragged start for Americans at the Australian Open yesterday, opening day of the first Grand Slam of 2018.
Jack Sock debuted as a top ten seed, number eight, for the first time in his young career, but lost to Yuichi Sugita, ranked number 40, from Japan. He should not have rattled Sock but did. This is only Sugita’s seventh Grand Slam. At 29, he seemed to intuitively know that it’s now or never.
That’s one American out.
John Isner, the newly wed and number 16 seed, bombed out to Aussie Matthew Ebden, a decent player who has spent a large part of his career injured and was ranked No. 696 a year ago. Ebden, though, avenged his loss to Isner from last year’s final at The International Tennis Hall of Fame tournament. Isner hasn’t lost in round one of Melbourne since 2014.
That’s two Americans out.
Sloane Stephens, the reigning U.S. Open women’s singles champion, was a couple points from victory against Shuai Zhang in the second set, but couldn’t control the conclusion. Stephens is now 0-8 since New York, a dismal reality for a woman so talented.
That’s three Americans out.
Finally, and with heartfelt regret, there was Venus Williams … the elder stateswoman of tennis, standing across the net from a tuned-in Belinda Bencic who had just won the Hopman Cup in mixed doubles with compatriot Roger Federer. Nothing like coming into the inaugural slam of the year, having shared court, and competition, with the Swiss maestro. Although Venus had never lost to Bencic in their five previous meetings, the emblematic Williams couldn’t find her rhythm or get an upper hand on Bencic’s steady barrage. Oddly enough, or is that ironically enough, Bencic lost round one last year in Melbourne to Serena Williams, which helped pave the way for a Williams/Williams final and Serena’s 23rd Grand Slam title.
That’s four Americans out.
The list is longer.
CoCo Vandeweghe, No. 10, proved once again stubborn and irascible, but nonetheless inadequate is a 2-set struggle with Hungarian doubles’ specialist Timea Babos. This was the Californian’s first Grand Slam seeded in the top ten, as well. You could tell CoCo was in one of her foul moods, like she doesn’t want to be there and puts on an ugly-attitude show that tries to fool fans as if her tough act meant commitment.
Catherine ‘Cici’ Bellis, America’s hope, lost to Kiki Bertens (No. 30) of the Netherlands. The loss wasn’t a harsh one for Bellis: A three setter for the 18-year-old, playing in only her sixth main draw at a major. Taylor Townsend, a gifted lefty, couldn’t find a form and strategy that would combat the wiggy, and highly effective, tennis from Magdalena Rybarikova (No. 19). Townsend had only played Down Under one other time, in 2015, when she also lost in round one. The 21-year-old is ranked number 94 currently, and needs a spark of inspiration. Yes, she’s young. However, her talent languishes amidst poorly orchestrated strategies. A new coach, say you? Yes, that could be the solution.
Alison Riske, berthed right next to Townsend, did all she could against another tricky player, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, but nonetheless was sent to the exit door after three tough sets. Same for Jennifer Brady. This American lost in three to the talented Pole, Linette Magda. And, finally, qualifier Irina Falconi and Sofia Kenin lost their bids to play their second rounds.
If you’ve kept score, that’s 11 Americans out. But let’s make that an even dozen because Qualifier Kevin King had nothing to combat the legendary efforts of Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, seeded number 15.
This torrent of loss from Americans on day one flies in the face of the giddiness the country and sport felt at year’s end. America’s Fed Cup team, led by CoCo Vandeweghe, won for the first time in 17 years. Jack Sock, as has been mentioned, zoomed to the top ten after winning the ninth, and final, Masters tournament in Paris. Because of that one win, he played in the ATP Year-end Final, an invitation-only gig. Venus Williams, who played in two Grand Slam finals last year, one semifinal, and made it to the fourth round of Roland Garros, had big expectations for her performance in Melbourne. So did millions of fans. To see her lose so soon and without Serena here to at least keep the Williams’ name alive, the tournament will suffer as has the whole of American tennis.
Fear not … eight American women remain strong and alive in the draw. Seven American men are still in it, as well. As much as we expect favorites to do well at the majors, surprises can delight.