Day 6 preview: Standing firm

  • Vivienne Christie

For all the talk of the history that could be made at this Australian Open, the season-opening Grand Slam is also unfolding as a potential marker of change.

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Seventeen players aged 22 or under progressed to the third round in Melbourne – seven women and 10 men winning through to that stage. It creates a remarkable dynamic at a time when 30-something players also continue to thrive.

Dayana Yastremska, who became the first 2000s-born player to break into the WTA’s top 100 last season, has already defeated the more-experienced Sam Stosur and Carla Suarez Navarro in only her second Grand Slam main draw.

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Now comes a megastar challenge for the 18-year-old Ukrainian as she faces the prolific Serena Williams for the first time. Yastremska wasn’t even born when Serena won the first of her 23 Grand Slams singles titles at the 1999 US Open, prompting the now 37-year-old to note: “I think, God, Serena, are you still out here on the tour, seriously?”

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Joking aside, the most accomplished woman of the Open era understands that Yastremska, already a winner of her first WTA title in Hong Kong last year, is a legitimate threat to the eighth Australian Open title that would draw her level with Margaret Court on the all-time Grand Slam winners’ list.

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“I'm going to just go out there and obviously take her extremely serious,” said Serena. “She's here, made it this far, and she's here to win.”

So too is Denis Shapovalov, the youngest man in the world’s top 100, in his maiden meeting with Novak Djokovic. The 19-year-old’s quest to stop the world No.1 from claiming an unparalleled seventh title in Melbourne appears a monumental task: while Djokovic is a 14-time Grand Slam champion, Shapovalov is contesting only his seventh Slam at all.

But a big stage – against big names – is where the big-spirited Shapovalov has best shown his ability to shine. Shapovalov stunned major champions Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal in a career-defining run at Montreal in 2017, the-then 17-year-old becoming the youngest player in history to reach the semifinals of an ATP Masters 1000 event.

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Shapovalov can embrace his next challenge with both a measure of confidence and the refreshing outlook of youth. “Novak is definitely one of the big guys I really admired and looked up to growing up. It's definitely going to be awesome, just awesome to play against him, see how my game matches up against his,” said the Canadian, who has claimed straightforward wins over Pablo Andujar and Taro Daniel this week.

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“Honestly, there's no pressure on me now. Obviously he's the favourite to win. I'm just going to go out there, give it my best shot, and see what happens. I think I've been playing really good tennis, so if that continues, I think I could have a chance to really make it a battle and a tough match for him.”

Djokovic agrees. “He's impressive not just as a talented tennis player but also how he goes about his professionalism, his commitments, how he deals with pressure, how confident he is on the court,” said the top seed, who progressed in contrasting matches against qualifier Mitchell Krueger and 2008 finals opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
 

“He brings a lot of energy to the court, which is great to see. I expect a really interesting encounter. He will not have anything really to lose, so I'm sure he's going to come out really pumped.”

The world No.1 can appreciate the threat in that dynamic. As a first-time Grand Slam champion as a 20-year-old at AO2008, Djokovic himself was once a harbinger of change.