Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tour group bids fond farewell to Melbourne

   CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — This was a difficult time for our tour group to leave Melbourne, Australia.
   Four blockbuster semifinals were set in the Australian Open, and Thursday (Wednesday in the United States) was Australia Day. Oh, well. I'll just have to suffer sightseeing in beautiful New Zealand for five days.
   On the men's side in the Australian Open, second-seeded Rafael Nadal upended No. 3 Roger Federer 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 Thursday night (early Thursday morning California time), and No. 1 Novak Djokovic will meet No. 4 Andy Murray on Friday night in a rematch of last year's final, won by Djokovic in straight sets.
   In the women's draw, No. 4 Maria Sharapova edged No. 2 Petra Kvitova 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in a matchup of Wimbledon champions (Kvitova last year and Sharapova in 2004), and No. 3 Victoria Azarenka outlasted No. 11 Kim Clijsters, the defending champion who battled injuries last year, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.
   The 22-year-old Azarenka, taught as a child in Belarus by Sacramento State men's coach Slava Konikov, reached her first Grand Slam final. The 28-year-old Clijsters, who has won the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford four times, played in her last Australian Open.
   Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships at Sydney Cove in 1788. The state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, published a 22-page booklet listing Australia Day events.
   On our last day at the Australian Open on Wednesday, I watched three quarterfinal matches at Rod Laver Arena in mercifully cooler weather. My seat during the tournament always has been in the shade in one corner of the court — for which I'll be eternally grateful — but other group members have not been as fortunate. One reported that sitting in the sun in the intimate, 14,820-seat facility, which has a retractable roof, can be unbearable because of a lack of circulation. And that's just watching the matches — never mind playing in them.
   In all three matches Wednesday, the bigger, physically stronger player won.
   Kvitova, a 6-foot left-hander from the Czech Republic, made some ghastly errors, prompting shrieks of despair, against Sara Errani, a gritty 5-4 Italian. But Kvitova prevailed 6-4, 6-4, winning the last five games, to gain her first Australian Open semifinal.
   Similarly, the 6-2 Sharapova overpowered fellow Russian Ekatarina Makarova, a skinny, 5-11 left-hander, 6-2, 6-3. Sharapova, who has won every Grand Slam except the French Open on clay, displayed a devastating serve and forehand but an erratic two-handed backhand against Makarova, who had stunned five-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams in the previous round.
   The last match of the day session at Rod Laver Arena featured two players, Murray and Kei Nishikori, with ties to the San Francisco Bay Area. Brad Gilbert of San Rafael coaches Nishikori and formerly tutored Murray, who won the SAP Open in San Jose in 2006 at 18 years old and in 2007.
   Murray, a 6-3 Scotsman, frustrated the 5-10 Nishikori, the first Japanese man in 80 years to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, with his power and incredible shotmaking in a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 drubbing.
   In the first game of the third set, Nishikori ripped a deep return of serve for an apparent winner. But Murray, using his tremendous athleticism and reflexes, lunged and slapped a half-volley forehand cross-court passing shot. Shortly thereafter, it was sayonara, Nishikori.
   It was time for our group to leave the Australian Open, too. I took the 30-minute walk along the Yarra River back to our hotel to shower and change for our farewell dinner.
   Walking around Melbourne and Sydney is, shall we say, revealing. If some women's dresses and skirts get any tighter or shorter, their necklines any lower or their heels any higher, somebody is going to have to call the vice squad. Not that I'm complaining ...
   Other Australian Open matches — Second-seeded Daniel Nestor of Canada and Max Mirnyi of Belarus, and unseeded Leander Paes of India and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic advanced to the men's doubles semifinals.
   Mirnyi, who formerly worked with Konikov, and Nestor, the World TeamTennis Male Rookie of the Year in 2003 for the Sacramento Capitals, defeated No. 12 Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and Christopher Kas of Germany 6-1, 6-7 (4), 6-2.
   Paes and Stepanek beat No. 10 Eric Butorac of Rochester, Minn., and Bruno Soares of Brazil 6-4, 7-6 (2). Stepanek won the singles and doubles titles in the 2009 SAP Open. Butorac captured the 2007 doubles crown in San Jose and played for the Capitals in 2008. 
   In the juniors, Mackenzie McDonald of Piedmont (near Oakland) and Stanford-bound Krista Hardebeck of Santa Ana breezed past seeds in the third round of boys and girls singles, respectively.
   McDonald knocked off No. 6 Andrew Harris of Australia 6-2, 6-3, and Hardebeck drilled No. 8 Anna Schmiedlova of Slovakia 6-1, 6-2.

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