Ahhhh the Australian Open

Which brings us to tennis. The original idea of this extended vacation in Australia started with a fantasy of watching the Australian Open in person, which idea sprang from comments heard over the years from players and commentators that the Australian is the most relaxed, friendly, and open (and easy-to-get-good-tickets) of the Grand Slam tournaments. (As the common stereotypes go, Wimbledon is the most grand and traditional; Roland Garros is also grand and full of tradition, with the added element of being highly unpredictable and unusually hard-fought due to the red-clay surface, and highly emotional because, well, it’s in France; the US Open is loud, brash and very New York.) The fantasy took on more potential for reality when my current life with MSF made it possible for me to take extended breaks between assignments, without some corporate bigwig thinking I’d lost my mind and will to work — after all, it’s hard to lose a career when you no longer have one! 🙂 What pushed the idea over the line into true reality was realizing how many friends I’d met in recent years who live here, and who might welcome a visit – which made it both more appealing, and more feasible since I’ve taken shameless and very enjoyable advantage of the hospitality of three wonderful hosts/host families here in Australia.

…Aussie fans are so much fun, especially in the first week when there are still Aussies in the draws for whom they can get drunk, paint themselves in the national colors (officially the flag, but yellow and green for sport), and shout out “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” endlessly during changeovers.
But getting back to tennis. It’s now Monday AM in Melbourne, I’ve only a few more days in Australia before moving on, last night I sat in row JJ to watchRafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the first five-set men’s final here for more than 20 years, and I feel like posting some of the tennis pictures I’ve taken over the past two weeks and indulging myself in some of the thoughts I’ve had while watching all this tennis. I was treated, two nights ago, to the best match I’ve ever watched in person and one of the best I’ve seen even on TV — Nadal/Verdasco in the second men’s semi-final; a five-set match that will likely live long in history and is already the longest match in Australian Open history (last night’s final was excellent, but since Roger was clearly not playing his very best, it didn’t feel quite so satisfying to me). I’ve never seen two players so consistently come up one extraordinary shot after another, and one extraordinary return after another. The entire stadium was in awe as the match unfolded, wondering if Verdasco would ever have a Cinderella moment of realizing how out of this world he was playing, against one of the true all time greats, and fold…but indeed, it was literally not until Nadal had actually won the match in the fifth set that one knew that would be the result.

An advantage to being in the stadium is you get to see all the matches, including doubles which TV usually short-changes, because the audience usually short-changes it. We moved down to excellent courtside seats for most of the men’s doubles final which followed Serena’s demolition of Dinara, which the Bryans Brothers from Southern California won in three sets. I was close enough to get Bob’s left shoe, when he threw it into the crowd! Now if only I could figure out what to do with it…

…Venus serving to Dinara, above and below, during the women’s final.
I was quite chagrined, Saturday night, to see Dinara Safina live down to the worst fears of her possible underperformance in the underwhelming women’s final, rather than living up to the clearly tremendous game she is capable of. Trudi, in the stands with me before the match, asked why there were so many empty seats; I told her a) that it would fill up more by match start and b) that frankly the women’s matches at this year’s AO have usually been either lopsided, or see-saw matches where first one player then the other goes off her game — not battles of will with two players consistently producing their best tennis over multiple sets. (E.g. Verdasco-Nadal.) And anyone who loves tennis has to be asking themselves some hard questions about competition in the women’s game. When we demand money for women’s matches and so on, fans have the right to expect more of the women’s tour than we’ve seen in this tournament. Men’s matches are best of five sets to begin with, so they’re frankly working harder throughout the tournament; but what lover of good tennis would prefer to watch Serena wipe the floor with Dinara in less than one hour, rather than the 4-1/2 hour epic which confirmed Rafa in his place at the top of the game, and told us we’re likely to have another year of tremendous rivalry as Roger tweaks his game to show Nadal he can still be #1?

…I saw several of Venus & Serena’s doubles matches, including this quarter-final trouncing of a Chinese team on an outer court where I had the pleasure of sitting in the very front row.

Serena gamely tried to make it sound like she ‘had’ to go for broke becuase Dinara hit the ball so hard, but let’s be real — Serena worked far less hard in the final of this year’s first grand slam, than she would in a casual practice during one of her off days this week. Like most fans, I was charmed by Ana Ivanova’s ready smile and great game at last year’s French Open final — and I wonder what the heck has happened to her since then?! What the DEVIL is wrong with the women’s game? Why is women’s tennis beset by women who can’t come up with the goods when the pressure is on? Where are the long hard-fought matches between Graf and Seles, or Navratilova and Graf or Evert? The game is crying out for some great new players to emerge and really claim their place — to challenge Serena in a meaninful way. Dinara can do it, but she’s gonna have to believe she can and develop some consistency; and until she and a few others raise the bar and contend consistently for the top spot, I for one am going to find women’s tennis boring and very secondary to the current excitement on the men’s side.

…the first week, I had literally courtside seats on Hisense Arena, the second-largest arena, as well as being able to see any match I wanted on the rest of the courts. That’s where I got these really close up shots of Venus – good thing I saw her in singles action during the first round, which she won; and of Andy, below.

…this being one of those smaller, outer courts, on which I watched Ernests Gulbis in the first round. One of many lovely things about the AO is that Melbourne Park is literally in the heart of the city, so sitting in the stands you’re seeing the skyscrapers of downtown right there, plus of course it’s easier to get to.

By far the most interesting women’s matches I watched were doubles matches featuring Ai Sugiyama and Daniela Hantuchova. Ai Sugiyama has to be the most polite player ever to grace a tennis court. Not only does she play her big heart out on the court, which is always great to watch, but she literally holds out her hand in semi-apology every time she hits a winning volley at the feet an opponent or between two opponents at the net. The message, it seems, is ‘I’m so sorry that in order to win I have to beat you.’ Probably the best women’s match for me was Hantuchova/Sugiyama’s three-set thriller over Black/Huber, a match whose final outcome wasn’t evident until the last point had gone down in the third-set tie-break.

Gulbis (a Latvian) is a supremely talented quite young player, and wonderful to look at for both his shots and his looks; I’m not alone, I think, in hoping that his mental game can mature to match his skill level.

Close runner-up to Sugiyama in the Outstanding On-Court Demeanor awards is Elena Dementieva. This player, who can smack the crap out of the ball from the baseline with the best of them (her semi-final against Serena was far better than the final with Dinara, though she too choked on key points), took balls from the ballkid to hit over the net during serve warmup, so Serena wouldn’t have to wait to keep warming up her serve (when all the balls had ended up at her end of the court, because Serena was booming so many practice serves). She waited with great concern to make sure Serena was really OK after Serena fell in returning one of Elena’s great shots. During her service games, when every other player man or woman would take a few balls, and then just toss the unwanted ones backwards behind them as they head to the service line, for the ballkids to more or less scramble after, what does Elena do? She looks at the ballkid, asks for a ball; once the ballkid has tossed out the new ball, Elena throws the old one directly back to the ballkid, so it looks rather like some child’s game with both of them tossing balls through the air — but what it really is is Elena taking the ball kids seriously and making it easier for them to do their job, rather than harder…

…since I love his backhand and his game in general, and never mind looking at him, I caught all Richard Gasquet’s early matches and cheered loudly in French for all the good points. Even enjoyed seeing him hatless – which never happens in a match – at a practice session.

…Which brings up a contemplation of politeness vs winning toughness and confidence, selfishness and boorishness vs focus and determination. Most fans would agree, I think, that among the many things that make Federer, Nadal, and Serena unique and special among great players of the game is that they not only bring absolute commitment and determination – utter lack of doubt or fear, essentially – to every point along with their great skill. They are single-mindedly focused on their games, yet they also never act up or behave rudely or nastily – I’ve seen them all wait patiently while an opponent threw a tantrum or the fans behaved badly; I’ve seen them all give gracious post-match interviews whether they won or lost. Roger, of course, is the unequaled leader in being both tremendous gentlemen and deadly predator on court (last night’s loss notwithstanding…though Rafa really is getting ever closer to Roger’s greatness, and is also truly a well-behaved and well-spoken player). It’s that combination that, to me, makes these players among the true greats of all time. So do Elena and Dinara need to just get more selfish – perhaps even more boorish? During the women’s dubs final between Venus/Serena and Hantuchova/Sugiyama, Venus and Serena were never rude on court, but they also generally didn’t seem to take account of their opponents except when a ball was coming off one of their rackets — their opponents existed only as obstacles en route to another trophy. As a player myself, I long for that focus and know I’ve almost never brought it to the court — I like my opponents usually, sometimes I don’t, but for me the social aspect of tennis is usually as enjoyable as the competition, and I appreciate their great shots as much as mine. But I’m a duffer, and no one’s ever paying to watch me play. Dinara, much as I love her – and however adorable her apology to Australians for having to beat their lone remaining singles player – owes us a better match than she gave us last night – especially when we all know she can deliver if she just gets over her mental block.
It is, indeed, their humanity that allows us to welcome these players into our hearts the way many of us do. But ultimately, what we want from them is great tennis – not charm or apologies or good manners on court. Even I, who loathed John McEnroe’s on-court behavior, would far rather watch McEnroe play any day, even at his racket-throwing ballboy-and-umpire-abusing worst, than see another set of Dinara double-faulting away games. (I also think McEnroe was often right on the points he wanted to argue – he had and has among the best eyes in the game and is now one of the very best and trenchant commentators on TV.) So: give us more Federer from here to eternity: grace and lyricism on court, killer instinct with gentlemanly behavior and never a moment’s doubt of his ability to win. And let more of the women emulate him, Serena and Nadal — yes, sometimes Nadal’s intensity can be scary, but the boy leaves his heart out there, and always behaves well on court and toward his opponents. Onward and upward, dear game of tennis.

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