On a day when conversation was, inevitably, dominated by the sins of cyclist Lance Armstrong, Sam Querrey’s decisive, if honorable, defeat at the hands of Stan Wawrinka by 7-6(8), 7-5, 6-4 meant that there were no American men left in the Australian Open draw after round three.
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But at least Venus Williams’ 6-1, 6-3 loss to Maria Sharapova did not have such dire consequences. She is not even the last member of her family in the draw. Nevertheless, it was a disappointing performance from the older Williams sister who went down to a player at the top of her game.
If Sharapova was concerned about having to enter this Grand Slam with no tournament practice after being forced to pull out of the WTA event in Brisbane with a collar-bone injury, the Russian answered it in the most decisive fashion. By the time she led Venus 4-0 in the first set, Maria had won her first 28 games following double bagels in both her opening matches. It is an Open-era record and could stand for some time.
Venus could console herself with the fact that Sharapova was striking the ball with ferocious accuracy during the early exchanges and did not really falter until she came to serve for the match at 5-1 in the second set. Then Williams came up with a couple of good returns and, fighting to the bitter end as she always does, broke back to force Maria to try a second time at 5-3. Even then she got to 30-before she was forced into error and was left to witness Sharapova practically bursting a blood vessel as she let out a primeval scream.
The intensity of Sharapova’s celebration had much to do with the fact that these two have always been big rivals and never been close off court. There was a feeling in the Russian’s camp that Venus always managed to up her game against Maria, a thought borne out by the fact that all three of Williams victories in the eight matches they have played had come in straight sets, going back to the Wimbledon semifinal of 2005 when Maria was defending champion.
But Sharapova was not getting into any of that. Asked about her reaction to victory, she replied, "It was swinging back and forth for those last couple of games and then I was 30-0 up and then it was 30-all and I served out that game really well. I was just really pumped. Why shouldn’t I be?"
Venus was her usual enigmatic self. Admitting that Sharapova played "really well" she added, "Honestly, every day that I practice is a day that I’m motivated to be better. Regardless of my results I want to be better, the best – the best that I can bring."
Querrey, who did not drop serve until the end of the second set, found himself facing an opponent who handled the difficult conditions better out on Margaret Court Arena. The tall American does not enjoy really fast surfaces and Warwinka, who called the court "really fast," kept up a heavy tempo with his ground strokes which finally wore down Querrey’s defenses. "I try to make him play every ball; every shot," said the Swiss. "Try to push him to make the mistake."
Eventually he did.
Novak Djokovic found himself engaged in the day’s most entertaining encounter when he faced the quirky Czech, Radek Stepanek, on Rod Laver arena. Djokovic won 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 but it was not quite as easy as that as Stepanek got in to volley at every opportunity and prevented the world No. 1 from finding his customary rhythm off the ground. And then there were the antics – playing to the crowd; suddenly leaping around like a kangaroo after hitting a great shot and waving his arms around like a windmill.
Djokovic tried hard to keep his concentration but even he could not conceal the occasional smile.
"He loves the big stage," Djokovic said afterward. "You saw how much fun he had. I also had a lot of fun playing. It was a very entertaining match. He’s very skillful, comes to the net, never gives you the same ball twice. That’s something that makes him a different player from most of the guys."
Then, of course, came the Lance Armstrong question. "I think it’s a disgrace for the sport to have an athlete like this," said Djokovic. "He cheated the sport. He cheated many people around the world with his career, with his life story. I think they should take away all his titles because it’s not fair towards any athlete. It’s just not the way to be successful. So I think he should suffer for his lies all these years."
Sharapova said she felt it was a really sad story. "I’m happy that our sport is as clean as can be and that we’re constantly tested. You know, we give whereabouts of where we are every single day of the year. Hopefully not on birthdays or Christmas Eve, that would be tough."
Then Maria added a little levity to a depressing subject. "Actually they (the drug testers) did show up on my birthday a couple of years ago and I was very disappointed. I said, ‘if you bring flowers I’m OK with it.’ But they came empty-handed!"
After the laughter died down, she added, "So long as we’re getting tested, whatever it takes, blood, urine, we’re all here to make the sport as clean as it can be."