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Rohit at Australian Open: In second week, an intense Open

Published on Jan 22, 2014 4:51 PM
 

Novak Djokovic has left the premises. Victoria Azarenka is emptying her locker. The Open is quieter and I'm not just alluding to a Belarusian shriek. The crowds are thinner, fewer ball boys scuttle around, Hisense Arena is closed. Fewer coaches stand in clusters miming forehands and imitating footwork. Only from Rod Laver Arena, as Rafael Nadal battles Grigor Dimitrov, do the ragged remnants of a cheer trickle through the air.

The hopefuls, the comeback kids, the injured, the journeymen have gone. They go to the prize money office, then the tax office, then the bank -- all on the premises -- and then sit in a courtesy car and take their dreams elsewhere. The four locker rooms are less wet with sweat and it is no longer as tight a huddle of the victorious and defeated. Locker Room A, where the main draw singles players sit, has eight TV sets, eight showers, treatment rooms, and now players will take their corners like boxers.

Tom Larner, the Open's director of events and facilities, notes that 228 players arrived for qualifying, another 200-plus stayed for the main draw, then 160 doubles players arrived, followed by 150 juniors. Now, in the singles at least, four women are left of 128 players and by night only four men. It is no longer a tournament of survival but of possible victory. In the comparable silence can be felt intensity.

The Open is two separate weeks, two divided tournaments. In the first week, says doubles player Leander Paes, "you fight off other people's great moments, in the second you have to find your own greatness'. Little is new now for most. Only Eugenie Bouchard, the teenage Canadian, has never been to a major semi-final.

The rest know each other, their styles and preferences, eccentricities and twitches, sometimes from a distant, childhood past. Agnieska Radwanska remembers her upcoming semi-final rival, Dominka Cibulkova, from "under 9 or 10" events from Europe. The strokes are familiar, desire is to be seen. As Carlos Rodriguez, Li Na's coach, tells me, "there is a little evolution (in how players perform) but no secrets".

It is now only the little things. Li Na finds her practice court is better attended. "People are more interested in you. More people come to see what you do. More attention is around you". People change their focus, but players cannot. "I try to do the same thing from first match till the end," she says.

Little changes are occurring in pressure. As Rodriguez explains: "You already feel you have made a good performance (by coming so far). Now there is a new pressure, for now you can be one of the contenders." Pressure never goes away, but it's meaning has changed.

Thinking ahead, projecting to the future, to a final, is dangerous. Like a dutiful coach, he says, "you go point by point". Because now it is only a point here, a point there. It is about reserves, of energy, of determination, and being able to release your best game, as a brave Dimitrov could not against Nadal, precisely at the right point.

Players retreat into cocoons. "You isolate yourself," says Rodriguez. "Go into the zone, manage emotions." Not everyone can, especially the inexperienced who get paralysed. Simona Halep, after winning only three games in her first grand slam quarter-final, said: "Just I couldn't play today. I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn't manage this. I didn't feel the ball at all. I couldn't move my body and I couldn't play."

By now bodies are feeling the running. Wawrinka went four hours and then tweeted a picture of himself in an ice bath. Rafa's taped hands suggest he has been labouring at a construction site. There is no choice but to shrug it off. As the Swiss said, almost profoundly, of his match with Djokovic: "I had to fight within myself to fight against him."