Surprises, Upsets and the Hot Australian Summer of Tennis

By Jesse Pentecost

The Australian Summer of tennis is under way, mainly in Perth and Brisbane, but also in those parts of the country unaccountably located in Doha, Shenzhen, Auckland and Chennai. We have now commenced the single month of the year when Australia strives mightily to convince the rest of the world that it is a tennis-mad nation, a month otherwise known as January.

Indeed, for a month Australia is mad for tennis. Last night there was a news feature about the guy painting lines on the Rod Laver Arena court-surface. In a couple of weeks Channel 7, the Australian Open’s official network, will relocate its entire base of operations to Melbourne Park, from which to broadcast its nightly news. Meanwhile, two-time defending Australian Open champion and world No.1 Novak Djokovic has finally arrived amidst general fanfare, fresh from triumph in Abu Dhabi. Amongst his unnumbered mainstream media commitments, there is some hope he’ll be permitted to play tennis.

Of course, Djokovic landed in Perth, and not Melbourne, but he’s well on the way. Paired with Ana Ivanovic, he’s contesting the Hopman Cup, which to the enduring outrage of the ATP and WTA maintains the highest profile of all the lead-up events. Within hours of arriving, and on virtually no sleep, Djokovic saw off Andreas Seppi. By his own admission he took a while to hit his stride, but thereafter demonstrated that it is possible to be at once the overwhelming favourite and the sleeper in the draw.

Interviewed on court immediately afterwards the question was put to Djokovic that having just flown in from the Middle East, he was therefore well-qualified to say which city was hotter, Abu Dhabi or Perth? It was akin to the cringe-worthy old practice whereby visiting movie stars were breathlessly asked for their thoughts on Australia even as they exited the plane, but before their feet had found the tarmac. Djokovic, by now an old-hand at reading the subtext, remained sufficiently awake to provide the desired answer. ‘Perth’ he replied, after only a slight hesitation. The crowd duly cheered: damn right we’re hotter.

In any case, Djokovic was probably right. Perth is suffering through a heatwave that can be readily termed biblical, insofar as it is only justifiable as divine retribution. Most days have seen the temperature exceed 40C (104F for those countries – the Cayman Islands, the United States – that have retained Fahrenheit). Happily, New Year’s Day has brought blessed relief. Today it is merely 34C (93.2F). The Hopman Cup is intended to provide useful acclimatisation for Melbourne, but so far it has usefully prepared its attendees for a manned mission to Venus.

It helps that its new venue – the evocatively named Perth Arena – is a truly leading-edge facility. Its designers had the foresight to install individual air conditioning units under every seat. Spectators are thus afforded the rare treat of watching professional athletes expire from sunstroke even as their own buttocks remain blissfully climate-controlled. Truly we live in an age of wonders.

The Perth Arena’s other defining characteristic is blue. It is probably the bluest venue I have ever seen. Indeed, great swatches of retina-searing cobalt more or less define the entire Australian tennis summer, to a degree that must make even Ion Tiriac weep with envy. Tiriac’s contention, amply borne out in Madrid, was that blue courts make for greater visibility. It’s a hard contention with which to argue. The ball in Perth is clearly visible from Melbourne. The venue itself is clearly visible from space.

Meanwhile the Queensland Tennis Centre in Brisbane looks, from low geosynchronous orbit, like nothing so much as an extravagant arrangement of swimming pools, although the main Pat Rafter Arena rather ruins the effect with its bone-white roof. Nevertheless, beneath that roof Sam Stosur has already initiated another defining characteristic of the Australian summer, which is for her to suffer home-soil losses that would be more shocking if only they were less common. She fell to Sofia Arvidsson in straight sets. It says a lot that the same domestic media that is busily canonising Bernard Tomic for beating Tommy Haas didn’t even bother to act surprised. Meanwhile the first-round loss for Marinko Matosevic, the nation’s top-ranked male, generated barely even a ripple.

Australians expect their elite athletes to be world-beaters, but in Stosur’s case they no longer expect her to do it in the part of the world she lives in. She already proved she can do it in New York, and the same impulse that compels Australian reporters to demand validation from foreign visitors before they clear customs, elevates triumph overseas above triumph at home. If Lleyton Hewitt had won the Australian Open in 2005 it would have meant the world, but it would have done so because he’d previously claimed Wimbledon and the US Open. By not winning he wasn’t the least diminished in his compatriot’s eyes (for all that he himself was bitterly disappointed). He’d already proved himself to be ‘world-class’; it’s a tired phrase, but in Australia there is no higher accolade.

Hewitt, incidentally, will open his season later today in Brisbane against Radek Stepanek, whose Davis Cup triumph may or may not do for him what it did for Djokovic in 2011. Time will tell. The only guarantee is that, win or lose, the prevailing opinion of Hewitt won’t change, just as it hasn’t changed for Stosur.

For Tomic, on the other hand, there’s still a great deal to prove, and, Wimbledon aside, the Australian tennis-mad summer is time in which he is obliged to prove it. He proved it the other night against Haas, twice recovering from desperate situations. Tomorrow night he’ll get to prove it in the azure immensity of Perth Arena against Djokovic, who by then may have shaken off the vestiges of jet-lag and the Hopman Cup ball. It’s a perfect match for the Australian, assuming he gives his all. There’s no shame in losing, but if he wins, he’ll be anointed as world-class.