No middle ground as Open inevitably hits annual flat spot
Maria Sharapova ... the most impressive player so far in either singles draw. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
The middle Sunday at the Australian Open is, traditionally, flatter than Geoff Boycott's vowels. It is the day after the Great Australian Hope has been eliminated in a heavily promoted ''blockbuster'', and the final chauvinistic flag erased from Channel Seven's scoreboard.
It did not help that, as the beardstrokers ruminated about Bernard Tomic's performance against Roger Federer - a decent pass mark from most - the afternoon schedule was no more alluring than the optimistically labelled fried ''food'' on the concourse. Not unusual at an Australian Open where, so far, seats at Rod Laver Arena have provided dubious value.
The marquee name was Maria Sharapova, the most impressive player so far in either singles draw. Which is not a prurient allusion to the Russian's appearance, but a nod to the three matches in which she had exerted no more energy than during a particularly rigorous session with the hairbrush.
Anna Kournikova's overhyped and lucratively exploited looks obscured the fact that, dollar-for-dollar, she was merely a decent slugger with a serve more suitable for ping-pong when the heat was turned up. Sharapova's statuesque physique and haughty demeanour has, paradoxically, obscured just how good she is. At least when her shoulders are in their sockets and the 25-year-old applies herself to the game as conscientiously as she applies her lipstick.
Sunday's ruthless 6-1, 6-0 routine dissection of Kirsten Flipkens meant Sharapova has lost just five games in four matches. Despite the brevity, there was much to admire. Most obviously, the precise and powerful hitting that left the Belgian pinned to the backdrop like an exhibit in a butterfly collection.
Yet, as impossible to ignore as a kick in the crotch, there is the shriek. The nails-down-the-blackboard caterwauling that, by 15-all in the opening game, prompts fantasies about shoving Sharapova's racquet down her wailing throat. Suffice to say, had van Gogh performed his aural amendment while watching a Sharapova match, his mental health would not have been questioned.
Impressive ... [Bernard] Tomic deserves credit for doing the work required to prepare himself for the summer season. Photo: Pat Scala
Still, Sharapova moves relentlessly, and acoustically, towards a possible final against Serena Williams. A match that might compensate for some of the early round yawners, and ease the threat of the type of blink-and-miss-it whitewash that has been too common in the women's decider.
Sharapova's yelps were preceded by another competent performance by fourth seed David Ferrer against the wounded Kei Nishikori. Ferrer is the understudy handed the plumb role in the top four in Rafael Nadal's absence. Although, such is the Spaniard's record against the top players, he seems more like the veritable short man in the elevator who can't reach the highest buttons. For all his earnest shuffling, the top few floors - or seeds - are beyond Ferrer's reach.
Inevitably, the talk drifted back to Tomic. By winning the Sydney International and making the third round here, had he enhanced his claim that a top-10 berth was not merely likely, but inevitable? Had his admirable performances, and the confident manner in which he took on the Federer match, won hearts and minds?
At a time when even the very best teenagers have to buy a ticket to get into the majors, you can put a tick beside the first box. Tomic presented as a bigger, stronger and - particularly in the way he fought through a tricky second-round match - more tenacious competitor than the gangly, splay-footed kid we had become used to seeing before.
The second? Tomic deserves credit for doing the work required to prepare himself for the summer season. Some will have cringed at Tomic's bravado before his encounter with Federer.
But the thing that will continue to confound those who do not warm to Tomic, including his opponents, is that he doesn't seem to care. Self-confidence? Arrogance? Give him the benefit of doubt and take Tomic as a talented athlete still growing into his game, and his world.