Tennis, at heart, is not the most complicated of human endeavours, and the number of things one can usefully say about it is limited. The trick (though sadly not always the goal) for those determined to talk about it at all is to say the same things in interesting ways.
Even so, there are limits. The most skilful and thoughtful commentators in the world will still inevitably repeat themselves from time to time, and most commentators by definition aren’t the best. This isn’t to say most commentators are wrong – some are, but tennis, broadly speaking, is a hard topic to misread – merely that they are endlessly right in the same way. The average commentator peddles repetition without relent. This is why, whenever Davis Cup comes round, we hear . . .
1. ‘Isn’t it great that doubles matters?’
Saturday was by broad consensus the greatest day of doubles in living memory. The centrepiece was of course the record-shattering match in Geneva between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, which ended 24-22 in the fifth set. That is the match destined to endure – breaking records tends to cement at least a temporary place in the annals – but there were others that were great in their own way.
Slovenia’s Blaž Kavčič and Grega Žemlja both suffered straightforward singles losses, then somehow backed up to defeat Poland’s mighty duo of Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg, 13-11 in the fifth. Marc López and Marcel Granollers kept Spanish hopes from guttering out entirely, defeating Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, again in five sets. Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares commenced Brazil’s audacious recovery with a five set victory over the Bryan brothers.
There were others, and taken as a whole they guaranteed that the middle day was the key to a fine weekend. Over and over again, the doubles rubber proved pivotal, stopping momentum or confirming it, inspiring a comeback or clinching the tie. It is ever thus – that’s the beauty of the format – but this weekend showcased it more succinctly than ever. If ever the Davis Cup format is altered, the crucial function of the doubles must surely remain.
2. ‘How about that Davis Cup atmosphere?’
When Pete Sampras defeated Gustavo Kuerten in the final of the Miami Masters in 2000, the day was cloyingly warm, the crowd was rambunctious, and the air was dense with samba. Local players often struggle with the Miami crowd – think of Andy Roddick facing Pablo Cuevas a few of years ago – since the support for South American players is overwhelming. There is close harmony chanting. There are jeers on double-faults. It is, in the parlance of tennis commentary, ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
For all that some would dearly wish it to be otherwise, tennis has few opportunities for blatant and macho patriotism in the normal run of events, at least beyond the early rounds where the wildcards and local hopefuls are weeded out. Davis Cup is all nationalism, all the time. Of course, local customs still prevail. The crowd in Ariake Stadium that watched Japan see off Indonesia was utterly unlike the one in Buenos Aires that witnessed Argentina dismantling Germany, but it was also more spirited than a usual Japanese audience. I’m not entirely sure why the USA chose to host Brazil in Florida this weekend, thus neatly ceding the crowd support to the visitors. After his loss to Thomaz Bellucci, John Isner professed not to appreciate the Brazilian supporters, although it probably wouldn’t have mattered so much had more than a handful of Americans turned up.
The atmosphere doesn’t merely inspire the players on to greater heroism, it alters the way they go about it. Would Bob Bryan have yelled ‘Come on’ so vehemently at Melo at a normal tournament? According to Bryan, no: ‘Davis Cup is an emotional atmosphere . . .There were some words said. You know, no hard feelings, no grudges. It’s Davis Cup. This sort of stuff happens all the time.’ Would Carlos Berlocq have shredded his shirt so exultantly upon achieving a win via retirement in any other situation?
Part of the function of Davis Cup is to provide a context in which overtly nationalistic behaviour is more or less tolerated, if not encouraged, so that the rest of the sport can relatively remain free of it. When such behaviour seeps across the other events – with exceptions – it tends to feel misplaced and leaden-handed. At best we indulgently chuckle and call it ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
3. ‘Davis Cup allows lesser players to shine.’
Fabio Fognini clinched the tie for Italy. If he’d lost that crucial fifth rubber, then Ivan Dodig would have clinched it for Croatia. Frank Dancevic played a crucial role in seeing off Spain. Andrey Golubev, among the most gifted underachievers in the sport, won both his singles rubbers, including a four set defeat of Jurgen Melzer to seal the tie for Kazakhstan. Who honestly saw that coming? How many of you had heard of Thiago Alves before he nearly sent the mighty USA crashing out yesterday?
None of these fellows are household names, except perhaps in their own countries, and, one presumes, in their own homes. The point of Davis Cup isn’t that lower-profile players achieve wins. These guys regularly win matches at the levels at which they compete (the exception being Golubev, who’s been known to indulge in losing-sprees that rival Donald Young’s). The Davis Cup enables them to secure meaningful victories in a tournament of global importance. Winning a tie means a great deal. Winning the Cup itself means everything.
Last year the deciding rubber in the final was won by Radek Stepanek over Nicolas Almagro. There is no event in the sport of comparable stature in which that might happen. A reformatted biennial format (the most commonly proposed alternative) surely would work against such an outcome.
4. ‘It’s time to look at tiebreaks in fifth sets.’
Every Davis Cup weekend features at least one match whose heroic proportions compel most onlookers to shake their heads in wonderment, yet oblige others to resume their call for fifth set tiebreaks to be made universal, in order that so arresting a spectacle might never be repeated. This weekend it was the seven hour doubles match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
As far as I can make out, the most heated discussion around this issue occurs in the United States. Discussion elsewhere seems more measured and sporadic, and I can’t imagine the debate reaches any special incandescence in countries where cricket is popular. A test match has barely hit its stride by the seven hour mark. I’m also yet to hear many players vociferously calling for tiebreaks to be introduced in deciding sets, whether it be in Davis Cup, at the Majors (besides the US Open) or the Olympics.
If it all becomes too much, there is always a mechanism whereby any match can be shortened. It’s called losing. As it was, even the longest doubles match in history had little material impact on the tie.
5. ‘Davis Cup matters!’
Anyone who watched Alves huffing and heaving as he failed to contain his disappointment after losing in the live fifth rubber to Sam Querrey in Jacksonville was left in little doubt about what this match, and by extension the Davis Cup means to him. Ditto for Milos Raonic’s exuberant roar as he sealed the tie against Spain. Or Fognini collapsing triumphantly to the dirt in Turin. Or Stan Wawrinka prostrate on the hard Geneva surface. There were uncounted similar moments, twinkling and flaring across the entire weekend, pricks and gashes of light, all joining up to form a long archipelago across the doubting world, proving to us that for unnumbered players and fans, the Davis Cup matters as much as ever.
The last time Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic met at tour level – as opposed to the social level – was at the World Tour Finals in London, while the time before that was the final of the Shanghai Masters, in a terrific match that fell barely shy of being adjudged a classic. The time before that was the US Open final, a match that rearranged history as we know it, even if the raw tennis itself, addled and marred by hurricane-force winds, languished somewhere shy of perfection. Theirs’ is, we’re told often, the defining rivalry of the era. Tonight’s final, in the azure vault of Rod Laver Arena, was therefore anyone’s match.
It is, it must be said, not the most dynamic of rivalries at a point-by-point level. It is very often an example of what happens when an immovable object meets an immovable object. It is rare for a winner to be struck before every other possible option has been exhausted. Indeed, exhausted is the operative word. Shanghai essentially ended when Murray’s legs gave out. In New York the reverse occurred. It turns out even the sturdiest pins in the game will give way if you pound at them for long enough. So it proved tonight.
All the same, whether it was the absent gale or the fresh locale, the first set of tonight’s final featured plenty of short points. It kicked off with three quick winners. Mercifully, the rallying pace was more Shanghai than New York. Djokovic created more chances – an entire handful of break points – but in failing to take them he did little more than frustrate himself. This bore strange fruit in the tiebreak, which the world No.1 commenced with a double fault, and went downhill from there. Murray, solid, took it 7-2, his first set in an Australian Open final from three attempts.
The Scot maintained his momentum into the second set, and gained three indecisive break points early on, although he looked rather nonplussed, and handed them back. The tiebreak was still another eight games away, but it never felt as though it wouldn’t arrive. It did.
Then, in a moment that will live long in infamy, the match turned. A small seagull feather fluttered past Murray as he prepared to deliver a second serve. He paused, doubtless reflecting on the transience of all things and that we humans are, ultimately, but dust and shadow. Then he double faulted. Djokovic ran away with the breaker, levelling the match.
The feather was a tiny moment of beauty, but definitive contrast arrived when Murray called a medical timeout, so that his wrecked foot might be rebound and anointed (apparently with mustard). The foot was not attractive. Nor, it transpired, was it entirely functional. Murray looked decidedly hobbled as he returned to the court. Djokovic, ostensibly a good friend of the court, was justifiably less than sympathetic.
Games continued on serve until 3/4 on Murray’s serve, whereupon he collapsed to 0-40. Two break points were saved, but not a third. It ended (at 31) the longest sequence of holds to commence a Major final in history. If Djokovic was impressed he didn’t show it, and served out the set with ease.
The breaking commenced earlier in the third set, with the visibly struggling Scot losing his serve at 1-1, and again at 4-1. Djokovic came around to serve out the championship at 5-2. He was so confident that he began to rush the net behind double-fisted drive volleys, which didn’t work out well. A rather lucky and rare drop-smash righted things however, and he thereafter lost no more points, claiming his fourth Australian Open title when a last weary Murray backhand found the net. The final score was 6-7 (2) 7-6 (3) 6-3 6-2.
Novak Djokovic is now the only man in the Open Era to win three consecutive Australian Opens. Afterwards he was ecstatic (believe it or not), but unlike last year’s final and this year’s fourth round he opted not to shred his clothes. It hadn’t been that kind of match. Still, his smile was endless, and deserved.
Both players delivered appropriately warm speeches at the trophy presentation, taking special care to endorse Craig Tiley’s stewardship of the event, echoing the broader sentiments of the player-bases. Probed later about the feather that blew open the second set, Djokovic laughed, conceded that momentum had indeed shifted at that moment, but suggested that his opponent might have more to say on the matter.
In all, it was a decent final, even if it won’t go down as a great one. For sheer drama it probably needed a fifth set (plus a roof closure and a fireworks display). But this wasn’t to be, thanks to Djokovic’s sporadic but timely brilliance, Murray’s damaged and weary body, and – if we believe the British journalists – one rogue feather. It is Djokovic’s sixth Major title, and there is almost no chance it will be his last.
Prior to tonight, Roger Federer and Andy Murray had never met before the final stage at Grand Slam level. It’s the kind of statistic that seems revealing until it’s explained away. Really it reflects nothing more sinister than a quirk of the rankings, coupled with that species of coincidence that provides the rich loam in which conspiracy theories take root. In some quarters, the belief flourished rather too well and for rather too long that Federer and Novak Djokovic kept meeting in the semifinals due to the nebulous machinations of the presiding authorities, although an adequate explanation as to why was never proffered. It seemed Murray and Federer were just destined never to meet.
Whatever the outcome of tonight’s match, history was thus on the line. Federer fans inclined to seek succour from precedent were perhaps comforted by the stat that no man had ever backed up winning his first Major by reaching the final of the subsequent one. Similarly-inclined Murray fans could rightfully point out that no one had ever won 18 Majors. Everyone else presumably looked on bemused, and just waited for the players to arrive.
Judging by the respective cheers when the players entered the stadium, a majority of those within Rod Laver Arena supported Federer. Murray, entering first, received a thunderous cheer, but it was immediately eclipsed in volume and duration by the uproar that ushered in his opponent.
Upon winning the toss, Murray, unusually, chose neither to serve nor receive, but picked the end. He chose to begin with the wind at his back, wisely as it turns out. Through the early going Federer’s serve was pummelled, eventually yielding up the break in the third game on the fifth breakpoint. But Murray hardly relented after that, holding his own serve well, while continuing to press on return. At one point the statistic flashed up that the Scot had returned 23 of 24 Federer serves. The pattern was established early whereby Murray would attack Federer’s backhand wing almost without relent, although the times he did relent proved decisive, as he caught the Swiss out repeatedly by going hard into the forehand. He rode his break to the end of the first set, serving it out comfortably.
The patterns grew more varied in the second set, and the players settled into a mounting series of holds, fragmenting the momentum yet escalating the tension. For all that neither player achieved a break point, a tiebreak hardly felt inevitable until it arrived. Momentum continued to lurch drunkenly, with Federer leading by 4-1, before the score returned to parity. The key point came at 5-5, when Murray essayed a foolish slam dunk overhead, leapt too early, framed it and was passed. Federer levelled the match on his first set point.
Fears or hopes that we were thus watching a reprisal of the Wimbledon final proved unfounded. The quality remained stellar from both men in the third, but for a single loose game from the second seed at 2-3. Murray held firm, and once again sealed the set with a strong hold.
The fourth set saw breaks exchanged, though otherwise it cleaved to the patterns of the second. As each hold ticked by, the tension ratcheted up. The key moment came at 5-5, with Federer serving. Three errors brought him to 0-40. A tight rally ensued, with Murray weathering Federer’s assault, and then unloading when he could finally set his feet on a forehand. He served out his first Major victory over Federer with deceptive . . .
Wait, hang on. Actually they fought to 30-30 on Murray’s serve. Federer then constructed a magnificent point to earn the break opportunity, which was converted when Murray overcooked a crosscourt forehand wide. Suddenly it was locked at 6-6, though there was fortunately a mechanism by which this tie could be broken. The subsequent tiebreak belonged to Federer, winning it seven points to two. Murray later confessed that the disappointment of failing to serve out the match had gotten to him. Suddenly a very good tennis match took a bold step towards becoming a classic.
It veered away sharply as Murray shrugged off his disappointment and broke early, leaping to a 3-0 lead. The statistic that Federer had never played back-to-back five setters was ushered out, and duly paraded. He looked weary, while Murray emphatically did not. The persistent story of the night had been Murray’s prowess on serve, and his solidity on return. The most revealing stat was that he won 63% of points on his second serve, while Federer only won 42%. Murray thus earned fistfuls of free points on his own delivery, and guaranteed that his opponent did not. Really, the wonder was that Federer kept it so close. But he couldn’t keep it close in the fifth set, and was eventually broken a second time to lose 6-4 6-7 (5) 6-3 6-7 (2) 6-2.
The handshake afterwards was warm and respectful, and did not reflect the few moments of tension that had punctuated a fine match that was mostly played in tremendous spirits. Federer left the arena to rapturous cheering, his disappointment plain. He must have felt confident after that fourth set fight-back, only to succumb relative quickly. Nevertheless, he was relatively relaxed by the presser, and reiterated several times that he’d been beaten fair and square.
Displaying a confident disdain for historical precedent, Murray thus becomes the first man to progress to a Major final after claiming his first Major title. He has also defeated Federer for the first time in a Major, and for the first time in five sets. If nothing else, the Scot is discovering that no one makes it to the big time with accruing a panoply of obscure statistics.
Try this one: for the first time in approximately 150,000 years, a British man will face an opponent whose nation is experiencing a longer Grand Slam title drought than his. That man is of course Novak Djokovic, and no Serbian man has won a Major in precisely twelve months, although this particular Serb will also be attempting to become the first man to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. Either way you look at it, history will be made, or unmade.
If that sounds painful, there’s every chance it will be. Foreshadowing the final, Murray remarked with a wry smile: “I’ll have to be ready for the pain. I hope it’s a painful match because that means it will be a good one.”
By Jesse Pentecost
Being essentially a radioactive substance, a tournament draw at a tennis event conforms to a fixed and exponential rate of decay. At Grand Slam level, each event discards precisely half its mass as charged particles every two days, although inevitably some of the particles are more charged than others. Some are less so: Gilles Simon was an almost-inert particle. Janko Tipsarevic discarded himself. Four half-life cycles are complete, and the original 128 participants have been reduced to just eight. Nuclear scientists usually refer to this point as the ‘quarterfinals’, which has recently passed over into the common vernacular, whereupon it was adopted by tennis. To those watching on television, the ‘quarterfinals’ represents the point at which a Major really slides into gear. For those still roaming the grounds, the opposite is true.
To attend a Major tournament in its first few days is to be immersed utterly in tennis. You learn to breath it or you suffocate. There are singles matches happening on every court, even those so remote from the center that they boast radically different atmospheric conditions. However, the rate at which tournament draws decay means that by the first weekend even the showcourts are hosting farcical ‘Legends’ doubles matches featuring Mansour Bahrami or Henri Leconte slipping racquets down their trousers, in the probably justified hope that the capacity crowd will watch anything. It certainly doesn’t hurt attendance. (At the US Open they were so worried that top-class tennis would bore the crowd that they finagled in Adam Sandler and Kevin James to contest a night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium.)
Even by the second round, the remote courts are repurposed for doubles, then after that to mixed doubles, and then to the juniors. By the second week they’re exclusively the province of wind and ghosts. Today, out by Court 15, I idled with the charmless phantasms and listened to the faint roar of human voices emanating from Rod Laver Arena. But then, what do you expect? That’s the way it works.
Some clearly expect more. Judging from those I talked to, no few of the grounds pass holders were suffering acute disappointment at the discovery that they wouldn’t be able to see Roger Federer or Serena Williams play, except on the big screen in Garden Square – which is like paying to watch television in the sun – or on the practice court, which is about as perilous as venturing into a mosh pit. Still, many do venture in, willingly. Regardless of age, an elbow to the face is a small price to pay for the chance to stare at Maria Sharapova as she confers with her coach.
One of the fans I spoke to must have been in her fifties. I’d earlier encountered her as she waved her flag at Sara Tomic, and she proudly showed me her autograph haul. Her pride was later surpassed by disappointment when the announcement came through that Federer’s practice session had been moved indoors, away from adoring eyes. She clearly had a mental check-list of players she simply had to see – perhaps she had a real list secreted about her person – and now at least one name would have to remain unchecked. Alas, she didn’t have tickets to Rod Laver Arena – no one told her they’d be necessary – but resolved to watch Federer play the ‘Canadian boy’ tonight from Garden Square, which is actually circular.
Then again, another man I spoke to said he preferred to watch the matches on the big screen. According to him, you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in the main arenas; you’d be shushed by snooty patrons for opening a packet of crisps, or sipping your beer. There was always the possibility that I’d discovered the world’s noisiest eater, but it’s unlikely. Somehow he’d confused Rod Laver Arena with an art-house cinema in a Cistercian monastery. For the record, eating is permitted, not to say encouraged. The lines of RLA ticket-holders bearing trays of Heinekens and nachos provided overwhelming visual evidence of this. Still, he too would watch Serena and Roger from Garden Square. At least it was a gorgeous evening.
Anyway, my point is that plenty of people don’t quite realise what they’re getting themselves in for when they buy a grounds pass in the second week. They expect to see big name players plying their trade. I suspect this partly reflects the distortion inherent in televised sports. On television the second week of a Major appears to have as much tennis as the first, except it is better quality and more exciting. After four rounds of build-up, suddenly the top players are playing each other.
An astute fan might notice that the coverage is increasingly confined to the main court, but to the casual viewer all the courts look the same anyway, and they have no interest in knowing where anything is occurring. Hisense Arena, Rod Laver Arena – on television they’re all just confusing names for an identical swatch of cobalt across which exceedingly fit young men and women scamper. But when you’re on the grounds, and all you have is a grounds pass, they’re impenetrable zones of privilege from which the unwashed masses are excluded. I should stress that this isn’t true for everyone. There were plenty of people watching doubles on Showcourt Two because it was preferable to watching Andy Murray and Simon on Hisense.
In any case, the broadcaster works hard to convey the impression that the grounds remain frenziedly active, even as the last weekend draws near. But anyone visiting the grounds on the second Monday will encounter a strikingly different event than they would have on the first Monday (and I can barely imagine what it’s like at the US Open, where there’s a third Monday). So, while the Australian Open gathers pace and surges towards the finals, spare a thought for those still flooding the grounds, who might feel like the tournament is already over, and that they missed it.
By Jesse Pentecost
There was a strange, capricious energy to Melbourne this morning. Yesterday’s cruel heat had hardly lost its serrated edge during the night – it was still 35C at 11pm when Petra Kvitova and Laura Robson really got down to hacking at each other in earnest – and it wasn’t until breakfast this morning that the blade was truly dulled. A fitful breeze arrived, ostensibly a cool southerly but really coming at you from everywhere, often with baleful intent.
The first thing I saw upon arriving at Melbourne Park was a sudden gust pluck up a courtside umbrella, leaving the others untouched, and launch it into the back of a nearby man’s head. As far as I could see he hadn’t done anything to offend any nearby deities: he was simply watching Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty hit up. (It could be that he wasn’t demonstrating sufficiently patriotic awe, or had been indulging in impure thoughts of Jason Stoltenberg.) It was a heavy umbrella, and he seemed disappointed that there was no one upon whom to focus his ire. The skyscrapers of downtown Melbourne loomed silent in the middle distance. The clouds tumbled in.
The real answer, I hazard, is that Gael Monfils last night finally ruptured the space-time continuum. (Long-time readers will know that this is my favorite continuum.) Even at the best of times reality struggles to stay with Monfils when he opens the throttle, but as he commenced that inspired sequence of aces to bring up match points and double faults to lose them, the threadbare fabric of the universe finally wore through. Nothing made sense anymore.
This is also my explanation for how I found myself sitting in Hisense Arena watching Agnieszka Radwańska. Certainly no rational decision led me there. As she commenced her warm-up the scoreboard still displayed Monfils’ winning score from last night. As ever Poland’s highest-ranked player set about comprehensively demonstrating the old adage that the person who hits the ball in last is the person who wins the point. Heather Watson, in a recalcitrant mood, was intent on disproving this well-understood rule, but to no avail. History will show that Radwańska’s approach worked better, assuming the goal was to win the match. She won the match.
I toddled out for a turn around the grounds. Serena Williams was launching balls at an improbably handsome young fellow whose identity I never ascertained. I tried but failed to quell the ungenerous thought that Williams, being tennis royalty, will only hit up with tennis players who look like models, if not models who play tennis. A large audience had assembled to watch this unfold. By the time I’d completed a circuit of the complex they’d relocated to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s court, otherwise known as Court 23. The Frenchman was fending off groundstrokes from Thanasi Kokkinakis, and inspiring slogans from Roger Rasheed. Nearby Milos Raonic was nodding his head to serving advice from Galo Blanco. Like I said, it was all a bit strange.
I re-entered Hisense, mainly because it was there, beating Ana Ivanović and Jelena Janković by mere seconds. Their match was probably the best thing I saw all day, conducted in fine spirits, although stray patches of Monfils Madness danced in the air. If you turned your head quickly, you could just about glimpse them, sparkling gaily. As she lead 5/2 30-0 in the first set, Ivanović was enmeshed in one, and lost fifteen consecutive points to trail 5/5 40-0. Then she won another handful of points to break, and eventually serve out the set. The second set was steadier, as the innate lethality of her forehand was matched by steadiness (and occasional virtuosity) on the other wing. Janković, on the other hand, only looked dangerous when she could launch a backhand up the line, which is a perilous shot to live by.
Out in the grounds the nationalist frenzy of the first two days had largely died away, mostly because the Australian players had all lost, although the start of the mixed doubles competition had inspired the flag-wavers to a resurgence of hope. Chris Guccione and Bojana Bousic saved four match points to push Anabel Medina Garrigues and Bruno Soares to a match tiebreak, before falling meekly. The flags fell limp, and the green and gold sombreros drooped in disappointment. Over on Court 6 the mood was morose, as two local doubles teams fell to superior European doubles exponents, including a reunited pairing of Sergiy Stakhovsky and Mikhail Youzhny.
A swelling roar issued from Margaret Court Arena as Julien Benneteau secured the early break from Janko Tipsarević, but I opted instead for Showcourt 3, which was due to host the fiercely anticipated dust-up between Nicolas Almagro and Jerzy Janowicz. Through a tight first set we learned that the Spaniard can more or less match the giant Pole on serve, even in the fitfully prankish breeze, and that what the Polish fans lack in vocal prowess and breadth of repertoire they make up for in devotion and volume. Sadly, it was noise that saw a number of them removed by the police, as they failed fully to heed an official warning to stop rattling the hoardings quite so enthusiastically. It would be wrong to point to this as the moment that Janowicz proved unable to stay with his more loftily-ranked opponent, since he was already trailing by two sets and break. Nonetheless, until that point Janowicz had played Almagro quite close. After that he spiraled away. At least by reaching the third round he has played to his seeding. Almagro will next face Tipsarević, who soon after sealed his second straight five-set win. Expect another long one.
There was nothing more to be done. I’d put it off for long enough. It was time to return to the scene of Monfils’ crime. Hisense Arena beckoned, which is a fairly difficult gesture for a large sports stadium to make. Perhaps I imagined it. It had been a long day. Within, Fernando Verdasco and Kevin Anderson were commencing their fifth set. As I took my seat, both enervated and anxious, I glanced to my left. For a moment, I thought perhaps I glimpsed sparkles, one last pocket of madness in the air. Then I looked at the court, and I knew that madness was precisely what I’d seen.
Jesse Pentecost is on the grounds of the Australian Open, covering matches and practice sessions and giving you an intimate behind-the-scenes look of the tennis season’s first Slam.
By Jesse Pentecost
I would be overstating the case to say that more than a minority believed Grigor Dimitrov to defeat Julien Benneteau. Even among those of us who predicted it, the prediction was for an upset, which by definition entails a lesser player beating his or her ostensible superior. But it was widely felt Dimitrov had a chance. After all, the two men are only ranked six places apart, and it was only by the grace of Rafael Nadal and John Isner’s knees that the Frenchman is actually seeded. Either way, it was sure to be a close match, and well-worth the meager effort of loitering next it.
Following an hour’s flânerie around the practice courts – I can declare with some authority that Dominika Cibulkova is shorter than Ana Ivanovic – I ensconced myself courtside for the match. The court was Court 13, and there was no camera, meaning I had one of the best views in the entire world of the famous upset destined to unfold at some unspecified time after 11am. I found myself seated next to Dimitrov’s coach and fitness trainer. I asked his trainer what ‘Come on’ was in Bulgarian. He didn’t know, but did concede he was nervous.
It’s never a bad idea to embed yourself with the support staff, if only so that when their charge begins glaring beseechingly at his coach, you can pretend he or she is looking at you. It also heightens the vibe. It probably would have heightened it even more had Dimitrov won, or even won a set. Word came through that Maria Sharapova had delivered the tournament’s first double bagel, against the appropriately named Olga Puchkova. Unfortunately this word didn’t reach Dimitrov, who clearly needed more inspiration than his support team and I could collectively muster. What he didn’t need was more backhand errors, although I suspect he’d already cornered the world’s supply. Benneteau, a true professional, was unrelenting in exposing that wing, and the Bulgarian seemed powerless to stop him.
I recommenced my ambling. The toilet block beside Court 14 had malfunctioned, and a noisome musk blanketed the far corner of the grounds. I fled to Court 8, where Sorana Cirstea was seeing off Coco Vanderweghe, the most American-sounding athlete since Misty Hyman. With time to kill before Ryan Harrison and Santiago Giraldo materialised, I loafed over to the practice courts, stopping briefly to see Victor Hanescu break Kei Nishikori back, eliciting a roar of stony silence from the predominantly Japanese crowd. Caroline Wozniacki was practicing nearby, perfecting the technique of scurrying backwards after returning serve, while Alexandr Dolgopolov had was hitting up with Marcel Granollers, for some reason.
I swung by Court 16 – the practice court of champions – in order to observe the purportedly fraught moment when Roger Federer made way for Bernard Tomic, an event that was apparently scheduled and symbolic. Lest you’ve missed the beat-up: Switzerland and Australia’s best male players have allegedly been engaged in a war or words, although from reading the press transcripts it seemed less like a war than an amiable cup of tea. Naturally the media had obtained one of the teacups, and discovered that it contained a storm. The storm was that, when asked about a possible third round encounter, each man pointed out that the other guy would have to get there first. This unremarkable point was immediately apprehended, and duly repurposed as a mortal insult. The only question really was who would throw the first punch.
I arrived to discover 4,700 less disinterested people had gotten there first. Federer was hitting up with Gilles Simon, who’d unfortunately misplaced his coach. Since the Swiss has two, he lent Severin Luthi to the Frenchman, which I thought generous. I did wonder precisely how usefully this would prepare Federer for Benoit Paire. I decided that nothing can usefully prepare one for Paire, so there’s no use even trying.
As ever, Federer’s practice session ended early, so that he could spend time appeasing the adoring masses. And a mass they were. I remarked at the time that it was like Beatlemania. There was a particularly hysterical timbre that female squeals attained whenever the Fab Four took the stage, an exaggerated ululating shriek that had gone unheard since primordial times. Young people were making exactly that noise today whenever Federer strayed within arm’s reach. Federer, working his way along line, took it in his stride as teenage girls swooned and cascaded to the ground in his wake. He knows as well as anyone that their adulation has little to do with his craft, and everything to do with his fame, and it’s to his credit that fame hasn’t overly insulated him from the appropriate human reaction. He hides his bemusement well, but it’s certainly there. Seated across the court, Simon’s bemusement wasn’t hidden at all – it was clear in his sardonic grin. Tomic turned up, but Federer was still being feted elsewhere, and I couldn’t see that they exchanged words, let alone blows. I am confident someone will spin it as an icy dismissal.
Next to me a boy proudly showed his friends the oversized souvenir ball whose value Federer had marginally enhanced by adding some ink to it. He wasn’t a young boy, and I’m not convinced a signature is something genuinely worth craving. But his friends’ awe was genuine enough, and the boy was authentically swept away. Directly behind me Xavier Malisse was easily accounting for Pablo Andujar. In 2002 I recall explaining to anyone who’d listen that Malisse was the next big thing, unlike Federer, whose game I found attractive even as I decried its inconsistency. It has been a long eleven years. Malisse won comfortably, but there was no squealing. Sam Stosur won, and there were merely long, shuddering sighs of relief, rippling across the grounds.
Harrison was by this time marshalling his forces on Court 8. Through a scrappy set and half the disparate components of his outrage were separately rehearsed, although he had yet to combine them all in a full-blown tantrum, as he is contractually obliged to do at least once per match. He dropped the first set to Giraldo – his proto-nemesis – then gradually climbed on top during a second set short on highlights, bar the backhand pass up the line with which the American finally broke and levelled the match. Since he looked to be going on with it, I left him to his toils.
From there I looked in Stan Wawrinka, who as expected was delivering stern lessons to Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. Upon losing Stebe tore off his ridiculous yellow headband, and stormed from the court with newfound purpose, knocking elderly spectators flying. Agnieszka Radwanska, after briefly flirting with the possibility of playing the odd tight set – and thus causing concerned journalists to quibble at her recent schedule – thought better of it and went back to dishing out bagels.
Margaret Court Arena was now free, and thither I sauntered, reflecting as I did that I was running dangerously short on similes for walking casually. Luckily the two men walking out onto MCA were Mikhail Youzhny and Matt Ebden, and they were about to commence a five set classic. I wouldn’t be casually walking anywhere for a while.
For the second year in a row, Ebden fell to a seed after holding a two set lead. Last year it was Nishikori, and this year it was heartbreaking, through being closer. Youzhny saved a match point late in the fourth, before forcing the fifth. It was tremendous, although I was quick to note that most of the crowd, extravagantly bunted in Australia’s flag and given to unharmonsied chanting, found the outcome less inspiring than I did. But they were generous in applauding the Colonel as he saluted them. He’d earned it. They’d earned it.
I strolled out, elated, and discovered someone had stolen my bicycle helmet. So it goes.
By Jesse Pentecost
So far as I can ascertain, Bernard Tomic has defeated Novak Djokovic twice, and lost three times. It might have been more, but notwithstanding their status as high profile athletes, and despite our era’s ungovernable urge to document everything, it has proved surprisingly difficult to be sure. Perusing the official records doesn’t help. The tour website lists their head-to-head as 3-0 in the Serbian’s favour. The reason for this is that Tomic, quite unforgivably, chose to beat Djokovic unofficially, which is to say at mere exhibition events not worthy of the ATP’s imprimatur.
The first of these victories came at the AAMI Classic at Kooyong in 2010, and was so unofficial that it doesn’t even figure in the record for that event: an interlude within an exhibition, no more than a few practice sets with paying spectators. You can guess how seriously Djokovic took the whole thing. It couldn’t have been less official had the players removed their pants, although it would undoubtedly have been more widely discussed. As it was, even the local Australian media found it difficult to get sufficiently excited. It made the six o’clock news, but it wasn’t quite the lead story.
Tomic’s second win over Djokovic occurred in Perth last week, at the Hopman Cup, and made front pages across the country. This is a tougher result to place, because the Hopman Cup as an event resists easy categorisation. Strictly, it’s an exhibition. But is it just an exhibition? Personally, I am not enamoured of ‘exhibition’ as a blanket term, since it covers then smothers too many disparate types of match. If Sharapova and Wozniacki stage a one-night unremunerated love-in at Madison Square Garden for the benefit of charity, then that is categorically unlike the top men parachuting in to the Emirates to play a three-day tune-up for a million bucks each. The events occurring the week before majors – such as Kooyong or The Boodles – are a different matter again.
Charity exhibitions have pre-decided outcomes, and are heavily laced with farce and crowd interaction. Warm-up events, on the other hand, can be contested as vigorously as an official tour match. Certainly most players gave their all in Perth last week, at least in the singles. (One questions whether Djokovic did in going down to Tomic. But if he didn’t, I can’t imagine he would have given more at, say, the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf, which is played the week before Roland Garros, and the only ‘exhibition’ the ATP endorses.) Perth saw a number of withdrawals, but most appeared legitimate.
Normally the reward for an opponent’s withdrawal is unimpeded passage to the next round. At worst you’re expected to join your critically wounded foe on court and launch tennis balls into the crowd, in the misplaced belief that this helps them forget the cost of their tickets. However, in Perth when Isner pulled out, Fernando Verdasco was obliged to see-off a hastily-located replacement, who turned out to be promising junior Thanasi Kokkinakis. Hopman Cup here betrayed its exhibitionist tendencies: it was, after all, about the crowd. Verdasco was happy to do it, because unlike a real tournament he was in Perth for match practice. He hopefully wasn’t averse to winning the event – although he did is personal best not to – but that’s not why he was there.
It is a curiosity of Hopman Cup is that it doesn’t really build towards anything. I’ve watched it for fifteen years, but I’ve never once known who the finalists were without being told. Tournament draws have a discernible momentum, a teleological promise of heightening quality as the rounds progress, a promise which then may be realised or frustrated. The stakes are raised as the draw pares down. With the exhibition’s typical round-robin format this clarity is lost, such that any match can feel as important or trivial as any other. Djokovic’s victory over Verdasco in the final didn’t feel more elevated than his victory over Seppi earlier in the week. But I’m not convinced it was less special than if they’d played in Montpellier, where the result would be official. I’m unconvinced that singles results in Hopman Cup shouldn’t count, even if it’s a just an exhibition. Perhaps it’s a question of definition.
Everything seems to exist along some sort of continuum these days, defined not merely in opposition to something else, but by where it falls within a spectrum. For example, whereas people were once pronounced sane or crazy according to official whimsy, we now assess mental health according to a range of scales, which led to the breakthrough discovery that most of us are suffering a mental illness. In an effort to make all this comprehensible, there has also been an exponential rise in the use of flowcharts and other diagrams. In any case, it should be possible to forsake the traditionally dichotomous view of tennis tournaments as being ‘official’ or ‘exhibition’, and instead subscribe to a more supple definition.
I propose the Gangnam Scale. Under the Gangnam Scale any tournament can be defined by the point at which it becomes theoretically acceptable for its participants to mount imaginary K-pop steeds, and thenceforth to caper like lunatics. In the course of his recent blitzkrieg though South America, Federer went Gangnam at the change of ends during a singles match. This tour therefore scores a solid five on the Gangnam Scale. Djokovic and Almagro’s Gangnam-heavy tussle in Taipei last September rates similarly.
In Perth such folly was quarantined to the mixed doubles, traditionally a playground for absurdity. The singles matches remained uncontaminated (this was confirmed by the resident bio-containment team), and might therefore be considered safe for consumption. Meanwhile at official ATP events, such as Beijing’s China Open, Gangnam’s influence was only felt after the trophy ceremony. At the Majors Gangnam can be found only in designated safe zones, except for Wimbledon, which mandates a short prison term for any offending spectators or players. Grand Slams therefore default to a one on the Gangnam Scale.
Periodically any tournament can be audited by the ATP or WTA for traces of Gangnam or other exhibition-grade hilarity – and the list of proscribed memes and hijinks will broaden over time – by an independent unit co-funded by each tour, and reporting to the ITF. Assuming that an event’s draw comes up clean, it is permitted to award points according to its status. On the other hand, if a player willingly rolls up his sleeves and thus believes he has riotously parodied Rafael Nadal, all results from that tournament will be nullified, and struck from the official record for a period of no less than two years. Thus Kooyong, set to begin in two days, will remain just an exhibition – you may recall that last year Tomic stole an umpire’s shoe, a vaguely creepy move that earned him neither a reprimand nor a psychiatric evaluation.
Hopman Cup, despite its lighter tone, seemed clean. Consequently it rates a three on the Gangnam Scale. On his internal and therefore unofficial record, I suspect Tomic has added that lone victory over Djokovic to the three official losses. It’s something to savour while lounging at home on his huge pile of purloined shoes.
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.