- Ravi Ubha, Tennis
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Each day at the Australian Open, ESPN.com is tracking the game's brightest stars, providing an inside look at their matches, practices and routines.
Friday, Jan. 23
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The morning after, disappointment still is etched on the face of Venus Williams' mom and coach, Oracene Price. Williams, considered the favorite by many at the season's opening major, inexplicably collapsed Thursday evening against an inexperienced 20-year-old from Spain who didn't have any success on hard courts last season, Carla Suarez Navarro.
Williams blew a match point after sending a backhand return long off a cheap serve in the third set, squandering a 5-2 lead in the deciding set.
It shouldn't have gone that far, since Williams took the opener 6-2 in a blink.
Price busily files her nails as folks walk by, getting to courts, the refuge of the player lounge and wherever else on the fifth day at Melbourne Park. She summed up the mood in her camp in the third set Thursday, dipping her head and shaking it from side to side after Williams attempted a high-risk drive volley that found the corner. The crowd at Rod Laver Arena, noticeably rooting for the underdog, chuckled when the expression was replayed on the big screen.
Call it a tough day, relatively speaking, for Price.
"Yeah, I know," Price, a soothing sort, said with a laugh. "At 7:30 at night, it was almost time to relax. It becomes pretty nerve-racking at times, but you get used to it."
Last spring at the French Open, Price saw both daughters exit on the same day in the third round, so it could have been worse.
On Thursday, Suarez Navarro displayed her flowing one-handed backhand throughout, given ample opportunity, as Venus Williams' ball lacked depth. On other, too frequent occasions, the seven-time Grand Slam champion missed, evidenced by more than 35 unforced errors and 16 in the third set alone. The Happy Slam hasn't been that for Williams: In her past five visits, only once has the 28-year-old made it past the fourth round.
"I think maybe in the second set she was too confident, and she just let up on her intensity," Price said. "She wasn't hitting with penetration as she normally does, and I didn't understand why. I just felt Venus wanted to do really well here because she's never really done as well as she would have liked."
What to expect from Williams in the immediate future?
"She's probably going to be angry with the way she played, rethink it and come back firing," Price said.
Dudi Sela will be a major underdog Saturday. He'll face the explosive Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who lost in the final last year and is one of four highly touted Frenchman still in contention, in the third round.
Not being the favorite is nothing new to the Israeli.
Sela is one of the smallest players in a big man's game, generously listed at 5-foot-9, so simply sneaking into top-level fields is a triumph. Judging by his interactions with his peers, he's one of the most popular, too. Rohan Bopanna of India yells, "Dudi!" on his way outside, while Taipei's Yen-Hsun Lu offers a thumbs up. Sela's smile is never far away.
Sela says tournament officials sometimes do a double-take when they realize he's a tennis pro. Battling taller, more muscular foes takes a toll, as the likes of fellow little guys (and brothers) Olivier Rochus and Christophe Rochus can attest.
"I think it's very tough," Sela said. "It takes a lot out of me, but I try to do a lot of fitness work. I try to take the ball early. I try to finish the point much quicker. For sure, it's more difficult for me than guys who are 6-foot-2."
Sela rests barely outside the top 100 after peaking at 57th last year, the latter ranking resulting from his performance on the challenger circuit. He's pulled off some notable wins, eliminating Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in a five-hour marathon in Davis Cup duty in 2007. He also upended Nicolas Massu in Israel's 3-2 win.
As for Tsonga, Sela knows him well, having squared off against him in the juniors. In their lone ATP encounter, Tsonga prevailed in straight sets at the 2008 Indian Wells Masters in California. This time, Sela intends to target Tsonga's backhand.
"I know Jo pretty good, his weaknesses and his strengths," Sela said. "I have a lot of confidence, played a lot of matches, and I'm not tired. I really like to play in Australia. There's a big Jewish community here, and a lot of Israelis who travel here in Australia, so I have a lot of fans here. Hopefully they'll come and support me."
Tsonga beat Croatian Ivan Ljubicic in a four-set slugfest Thursday. He is trying to avoid the curse of the unlikely Australian Open finalist. Marcos Baghdatis and Gonzalez made the finals in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and neither reached the fourth round on the following visit.
If there's such a thing as an American quietly easing into the third round of a Grand Slam these days, James Blake fits the bill. With Amer Delic making headlines by pulling off rowdy back-to-back five-set wins before falling to Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams' abrupt departure and sister Serena's struggles, Blake, a ninth seed with fond memories of Australia, has gone unnoticed.
Unlike at previous majors, Blake hasn't lingered with journeyman opposition, dispatching Canadian lucky loser Frank Dancevic and French qualifier Sebastien de Chaunac comfortably in straight sets.
"I'm not worried about whether it's quiet or loud," he said after practicing and signing a bevy of autographs on Court 4. "I'm just happy I'm playing as well as I am."
Uncertainty surrounded Blake on the eve of 2009. Following a promising start last January, reaching his first Grand Slam quarterfinal outside New York, the 29-year-old didn't find himself past the third round in the three other big ones. He did finally overcome Roger Federer at the Olympics, although that was tempered by a contentious loss to Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the quarterfinals. He left Beijing empty handed, and burned out, he took a brief sabbatical.
Blake came to Australia early, competing in the Hopman Cup in Perth, and got a good dose of practice in Melbourne.
"I feel good," he said. "It was perfect to have a week here on these courts. Just the exact same conditions, and you can tailor-make your preparations. You can have a real long day in the heat if you need it, or you can have an easier day when you need to rest. So I feel like my legs are perfectly ready. I feel like everything about my body is ready to go."
Blake enters his tilt with Russian Igor Andreev, he of the huge forehand, as the distinct favorite. Andreev is 0-5 against Blake and is coming off two five-set matches in the first two rounds. Blake also can take away Andreev's ability to take a big swing on the forehand.
Speaking of favorites, Blake was bummed when his beloved New York Giants unexpectedly lost early in the NFL playoffs. He hopes he won't be in Tampa Bay, which he calls home, when the big game unfolds Feb. 1.
The reason? The men's final is scheduled the same day.
"Disappointed about the Giants, but what can you do?" he said. "I'll hopefully miss the Super Bowl, that's my goal."
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
As if Oracene Price wasn't nervous enough already, Venus Williams didn't do her mother any favors by becoming the first big casualty of this year's Australian Open.