It’s been a wacky Australian Open, even if no one’s around to see it

Aslan Karatsev (l.) pulled out a comeback Sunday after finding himself down two sets against Felix Auger-Aliassime (r.).
Aslan Karatsev (l.) pulled out a comeback Sunday after finding himself down two sets against Felix Auger-Aliassime (r.).
Photo: Getty Images

As we’ve previously stated, the Australian Open has a surreal quality, at least on these shores, where an already-niche sport takes place in the dark for only the truly dedicated/bewildered. It’s even more so this edition, as on Friday the live spectators were shooed out of the tournament altogether, thanks to the state of Victoria’s latest COVID lockdown (and it merely took a handful of cases on the outskirts of town for the government to put those in. Imagine having that kind of leadership, responsibility, and care for your neighbor. Maybe when you already live in Australia, amongst all the things that can kill you instantly, you’re more aware of avoiding the extraneous dangers).

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Anyway, that led to the bizarre sight of the Taylor Fritz-Novak Djokovic match having to be held up for 10 minutes while the crowd left, right at the time the stadium would normally be filling up to watch a possible massive upset. It was a cavernous echo that responded to Djokovic’s roar as he pulled out the 5th set against Fritz, instead of a rapturous roar (or begrudging acceptance and a guarded appreciation rather than a soaking-in of Djokovic’s greatness, as it tends to be with him and crowds).

But neither Djokovic nearly eating it early, nor home hero Nick Kyrgrios spitting away a two-set lead to Dominic Thiem on the same night is the biggest story on the men’s side of the draw (and that victory left Thiem a fine paste, as he was bulldozed by Gregor Dimitrov in his next match in straight sets last night).

Aslan Karatsev had never played in a Grand Slam before this one. He’s 27, which is generally when a player has established his career arc, for better or for worse. He’s ranked 114th in the world, though that’s a result mostly of tearing it up on the Challenger Tour last year, the tier below the ATP. He was ranked 300 before that. And now he has bulldozed his way to the quarterfinals where he’ll meet Dimitrov. Karatsev hadn’t dropped a set in his first three matches, and had only lost 20 games in his three wins. He rolled into the fourth-round having completely clubbed Diego Schwartzman, (ranked 8th) in straight sets in the third.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about watching Karatsev pull off an actual, tennis-version of Hoosiers, is that he plays like someone who has nothing to lose. Because he doesn’t. It’s the way you’ve always wanted to walk into a Vegas casino with a bankroll, until you remember your mortgage or kids’ college fund or how friendly your spouse seems to be with the neighbor. A complete, “Fuck it, it’s free cake” attitude toward life. Karatsev has been simply bombing it from the baseline, going for every shot that’s there and some that aren’t. It’s what American hope Frances Tiafoe has been attempting for years, but without the restrictor plates that would keep him within limits long enough to make serious noise. Karatsev thunders forehands and backhands to within inches of the baseline, because if you have his story, and you don’t know how much longer this will last, you’re not going to waste time with “feeling your way into a match” or “strategy” or “ logic.” It’s like taco night at college for Karatsev. We’ll worry about the gastrointestinal issues when we get to them. Schwartzman’s game is based on being a backboard, and he was basically reduced to a spectator to Karatsev’s laser show.

Karatsev’s latest rolling of sevens came against Felix Auger-Aliassime, the Canadian who has promised so much for a couple seasons now and yet hasn’t quite broken down all the firewalls on his game that would unlock so much. Karatsev was down two sets, and it appeared his pressing his engine to 7000 RPM for the length of the tournament had overcooked it. He piled up 26 unforced errors in the first two sets to just seven winners, while Auger-Aliassime played very cleanly and simply and let Karatsev’s lines blow. But Karatsev found the rhythm over the next three sets, piling up 30 winners in the final three sets, including 22 in the final two, as F.A.A.’s game broke down.

Karatsev is the first qualifier to get to the quarters in Melbourne in 32 years. He’s the first qualifier to get to any Slam in 10. He’s the first player to make the quarters of his first Slam in 25 years. It’s a complete joyride, and long may it continue.

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Elsewhere, Daniil Medvedev continued his tortured genius approach to life with a five-set win on Friday that saw him berate his own coach for so long and so often, and in three different languages just for variety’s sake, the dude just got up and left before Medvedev pulled himself out of his ennui to blitz Filip Krajinovic in the 5th set 6-0, which saved Medvedev from blowing his own two-set lead. The constant harassing of a coach not doing much more than sitting there in an empty arena makes for even more awkward viewing, but Medvedev’s rise to the top of the game has been a constant exhibition of absurdism, both in his game — he can vary wildly in style, tactics, and performance and that’s from game to game — and personality.

It’s been refreshing to have this kind of story now, because it still looks like the chalk is going to be left at the end. Djokovic complained of a foot injury against Fritz, and even wondered if he could make his next match, which he did and saw off without much fuss, sending Milos Raonic home in four sets. Rafael Nadal hasn’t dropped a set yet, and now won’t have to worry about strange women expressing their views in clear fashion toward him with no crowds being allowed.

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.