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  • Julian Dowse

Aus Open 2020

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

Impeachment trials; US-China Trade agreements; a booming and then faltering Australian stock market; much needed, but not drought-breaking rains arriving in New South Wales and Queensland; the near comeback of Barnaby Joyce; the ‘resignation’ of Putin’s Cabinet; the facile world of Harry and Meghan; the commencement of British life post-Brexit-it is almost too much for a sane person to consider all at once. And I cannot wait any longer for the Iowa Caucus results; however, it just occurred to me that maybe the citizens of Iowa chose not to vote for any of the Democrat contenders. So, it’s on to New Hampshire and let’s hope the computers work there.

On Monday this week a State funeral was held for former Victorian Labor Party Premier, John Cain, who passed away just before Christmas. Cain’s father, John Snr., was the Premier of Victoria in the mid-1950s before the ruinous Cold War/DLP- Marxist Left v Religious Right split in the Labor Party. Labor was not to regain the Treasury benches until John Cain Jnr led his party to victory at the 1982 election. The interregnum between the father and son Cain premierships saw the Coalition governments of Henry Bolte, Rupert Hamer and Lindsay Thompson. Cain was to become Victoria’s most successful Labor Premier, winning subsequent elections in 1985 and 1988. He resigned in 1990, enabling the party to select Victoria’s first female Premier, Joan Kirner as his replacement.

The final years of Cain’s administration were overshadowed by the State’s crippling debt, industrial disputation (does anyone else remember the prolonged tram strike which saw trams filled with litter lined up along Bourke Street?) and the collapse of key financial institutions, most notably Pyramid Building Society and the Victorian Economic Development Corporation (VEDC). The VEDC was a lending arm of the State Bank of Victoria. It lost so much money that the Kirner government had to sell the State Bank to the Commonwealth Bank.

Before the collapse of Cain’s Keynesian socialist experiment, John Cain, a keen tennis player, was a driving force in the construction of Melbourne’s Flinders Park as a new international tennis centre to host the Australian Open. For that he should be greatly thanked. By the late 1970s and early 1980s the Australian Open was a shadow of its present self. Held in early December, very few of the world’s best players, especially the men, made the trip to Kooyong. There was talk of the tournament losing its Grand Slam status. As charming as Kooyong is, it is a suburban club that struggled to provide the facilities needed to host a Grand Slam event.

The relocation of the Australian Open in 1988 to Flinders Park , as it was then known, was the catalyst for the renaissance of the tournament. Now held in January, the tournament began with a classic Men’s final between Mats Wilander and Pat Cash, with Wilander prevailing in five sets. Steffi Graf took the first step towards her ‘Golden Grand Slam’. The construction of a tennis stadium whose roof could be closed to guarantee play was a radical innovation. It is now de rigeur at Wimbledon, Flushing Meadow, but still not Roland Garros!

The tournament has never looked back and is arguably the grandest of the Slams in terms of its appeal. Whereas Wimbledon is played in London’s suburbs, Roland Garros is a fair distance from central Paris and Flushing Meadows is located in New York’s Queens borough, the Australian Open is literally played in the centre of Melbourne. The vibrancy its players and spectators bring to the city is unparalleled amongst the Grand Slams. Australia’s inordinate love of sporting events combined with the Open being held at the end of the summer school holidays brings a carnival feel to Melbourne. John Cain’s vision has been truly realised and then some. Shortly after his State funeral, it was announced that one of the major stadiums at the venue, Melbourne Arena, is to be renamed in his honour.

As the crowds began to gather in Melbourne, Ashleigh Barty won her first WTA title in Australia with victory in the Adelaide International. Another emerging Russian talent, Andrey Rublev, won the Men’s title. Their semi-final victories were the most impressive of the tournament. Barty edged past Danielle Collins in a third-set tiebreaker. Rublev lost a second-set tiebreaker before defeating Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime , who looks like a young Gael Monfils, 6-4 in the third set. In Hobart, Elena Rybakina won the Hobart International. Rybakina is from Kazakhstan, a nation that did not exist when the Australian Open moved to Flinders Park in 1988, given it was still under the Soviet yoke.

No doubt retiring Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, was in the crowd. Hodgman recently announced his retirement after six years in the role and fourteen years of leading Tasmania’s Liberal Party. Hodgman becomes one of the few political leaders that appears to have left office at a time of their choosing, now joined by Senator Richard di Natale, who has resigned as leader of the Federal Greens. Conversely, reigning American and Wimbledon Doubles champion, Robert Farah, was forced to abandon his Open campaign after testing positive to a drugs test. Farah maintained his innocence claiming that he had no idea of how he could have taken the banned substance, which seems to be a problem for far too many in his native Colombia.

As the prestige of the Australian Open has grown, so too has its prizemoney. This year the Singles’ champions received $4,120,000 ($AU). It’s an amount that is at best, ridiculous, and, at worst, obscene, but then at least each champion has to succeed to claim it. The same Australian public that loves the Open is becoming heartily sick of too many corporate executives who have presided over illegal, if not malevolent, corporate practices walking away from their malfeasance with even greater amounts of money. What’s the line? – “once you give up integrity, the rest is easy.”

Similarly, as much as Australians love sport, we are not enamoured with Federal Ministers for Sport recklessly doling out grants to sporting clubs. The ghost of Ros Kelly reappeared with revelations about the manner of decisions made by former Federal Minister, Senator Bridget McKenzie before last year’s Federal election. Without either Ros’ famous whiteboard or a spreadsheet in sight, too many grants seem to have been made based on nothing more than the appeal of increased party support within a marginal electorate. For that reason, she had no choice in the timing of her resignation from Cabinet.

It is remarkable how shameless and cavalier company directors and politicians can be spending either shareholders’ or taxpayers’ money, even with the best of intentions. Take the latest submarine saga. Did we learn nothing from the Collins’ class fiasco? A dozen submarines have been ordered. The project is still at its design phase in a French engineer’s studio. Original estimated cost- $110 billion. Projected cost- $225 billion and growing. A mere $18.75 billion per submarine. Imagine what a $100 billion could do to reduce government debt.

Ah, the world is a contrary place, but none more so in the sphere of economics. Economics may often be dismissed as the “dismal science”, but it is infuriating. For every piece of positive economic news, there is always a correspondingly grim negative counterpoint. The exchange rate goes up. Good for our citizens touring overseas and for attracting overseas investment. However, it is bad news for our exporters. Interest rates decline. Great for the homebuyers. Terrible for those living on fixed incomes and looking for greater returns on their money. Unemployment reduces. Great. More jobs and more taxes for the government and fewer welfare payments. Well, not so great. Close to full employment promotes scarcity of labour and inflationary wage demands and rising interest rates. And so it goes on.

Our stock market index crashes through the 7000 barrier. It is said the surge in our share prices has been motivated by investors seeking greater returns than those currently on offer from the banks. A bull run on the stock market is usually seen as evidence of a strongly growing economy. However, many believe that the Reserve Bank may again cut official interest rates to promote economic activity, especially given the effects of the bushfires on our agricultural sector. So, is the economy strong or not? And, if interest rates are cut again will there be another unsustainable surge in housing prices that encourages even more unwise levels of borrowing?

Thankfully, the statistics that surrounded this year’s Open could only be seen as spectacular. Even without an injured Andy Murray and Bianca Andreescu, the field comprised players who between them have won a mere 111 Grand Slam singles titles: S. Williams 23, Federer 20, Nadal 19, Djokovic 16, V. Williams 7, Sharapova 5, Kerber 3, Wawrinka 3, Osaka 2, Halep 2, Kvitova 2, Kuznetsova 2, Muguruza 2, Wozniacki 1, Barty 1, Cilic 1, Stosur 1, Stephens 1: close to 27 years of Grand Slam tennis success! With the retirement of Wozniacki, the likely and sensible imminent retirements of Sharapova, Stosur, Venus Williams and Kuznetsova and the inevitable retirement of either Serena and/or Roger in the near future, this year’s Open may well set a record for the most successful field of players ever.

Speaking of extraordinary success, it should be noted that the Bryan brothers- identical twins Mike and Bob, one left handed, one right- have announced that this year, at the age of 41 will be their last on the circuit. Together, they have been the most successful doubles pairing of the Open Era, winning 16 Grand Slam titles together, with six of those coming in Australia. Mike has won an additional two Grand Slam doubles titles, playing with Jack Sock to win the Wimbledon and US titles in 2018, when Bob was injured. Not to be outdone Bob has won seven Mixed Doubles Grand Slam titles to Mike’s four, but whereas they have won the Doubles title at each of the Grand Slams, neither has managed to win the Australian Mixed Doubles title.

The chest thumping brothers were Olympic gold medallists in Doubles in 2012, bronze medallists in 2008 and part of a victorious US Davis Cup team in 2007. Whilst they may have benefitted from playing in an era when the best singles players have avoided doubles, there is no doubting their durability and passion for their craft. Their exit in the third round of the tournament confirmed that their best playing days are well behind them.

When the Bryan brothers were born in 1978, Australians were able to buy a Japanese car called a Toyota Corona. Notwithstanding the high level of tariffs that were then placed on imported cars, the Corona was a middle sized family car that offered Australian families an alternative to the protected stable of the Holden Kingswood, Ford Falcon, Chrysler Valiant and, for an inglorious minute, British Leyland’s P76.

Toyota named its family sedan with a word that had meant many things: a part of the eye; a particular type of halo around the moon and a highly sought after Cuban cigar.

It now appears that the word is forever to be associated with a virus that has captured the attention of world. Beginning in China and, more particularly, emerging from the city of Wuhan, the virus has generated a mild form of Malthusian panic concerning its threat to human existence. All over the world, people are being quarantined for a fortnight in various locations including cruise liners. Australian universities are delaying the commencement of their academic year and supplies of ineffectual breathing masks have become coveted. The Australian government, by way of literally a viral reaction, has reactivated the ‘Pacific solution’ by relocating Australians evacuated from Wuhan in the almost defunct, but now reactivated refugee detention centre on Christmas Island.

Fears about the virus and the lingering smoke haze that hung over Melbourne at the start of the Australian Open created an existential pall over the tournament, exacerbated by the sporting world’s disbelief at the death of former basketball champion, Kobe Bryant. At the presentation ceremony following the Men’s final, Novak Djokovic, fresh from defending his crown to win a record eighth title, reminded the audience that “there are far more important things in life than tennis” and spoke of the toll of Australia’s recent bushfires to humans, property and wildlife. Dominic Thiem exhausted by losing his third Grand Slam final, this time in five sets after leading two sets to one, made similar observations. Rather pitifully, the President of Tennis Australia and Master of Ceremonies, Todd Woodbridge reminded their international audience that Australia was still “open for business”, as if there may be some concern that the Champions’ cheques may bounce.

The surprisingly melancholy tone struck at the final presentation ceremony came at the end of a tournament which begun with the expectation of history making celebrations. Everything in the tennis history books was set to change: either Federer would win a career defining 21st Grand Slam title or Nadal would join him on 20 and/or Serena would equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 and/or Ashleigh Barty and/or Nick Kyrgios would win Australia’s first singles titles in the Men’s and Women’s Championships since 1976 and 1978 respectively.

Everything was going to change, but very little did.

The Women’s competition confirmed that there is no established hierarchy in Women’s tennis. The debut Grand Slam victory of the Russian born American Sofia Kenin meant that for the 11th time in the last 13 Grand Slam titles there has been a new female champion.

Conversely, Djokovic’s 17th Grand Slam victory consolidated the truly majestic status quo of the Men’s game. The Great Three of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have now won a total of 56 Grand Slam titles and the last 13 between them, with Nadal and Djokovic sharing the last 8. Djokovic’s straight sets victory over an injured Federer in their semi-final extended his lead in their rivalry to 27-23. Djokovic’s straight sets victory over Nadal in the inaugural ATP Cup that preceded the Open took him ahead in the ledger of their 55 matches by a margin of 29-26. In an odd way, the G.O.A.T. debate (who is the greatest of all time?) risks obscuring the scale of their collective achievements of the Great Three. We know never to say never; however, I do believe we will never see again a trinity of the greatest known players of all time: grass (Federer), clay (Nadal) and hardcourt (Djokovic) playing simultaneously.

Yet for all of his dominance, Novak struggles to gain the adulation of tennis spectators. His frustration at the reluctance of crowds to applaud his talent with anything like the fervour they display for “Rafa and Roger” was palpable in the final and led to petulant and improper outbursts, including touching the umpire’s shoe after he was warned for taking too long to serve two consecutive points. Maybe there is just not enough love to share. For mine, the lack of spontaneous and passionate support for Djokovic stems from the fact that he is the player that has been hunting down the records of Federer and Nadal. No-one loves the stalking assassin, especially when Roger and Rafa are arguably the game’s most admired players on and off the court.

Speaking of petulant and improper outbursts, has there been anything more contemptible than Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, tearing up copies of President Trump’s State of the Union Address, in full view of Congress immediately after the President’s oration? So much for the role of the Speaker to impartially uphold the honour of the chamber. Ms. Pelosi has become a pathologically undemocratic partisan, who sees herself, perversely, as the protector of democratic tradition. She should be impeached for her insulting behaviour.

There were few reasons for Australians to celebrate at tournament’s end, especially when the unseeded Australian pairing of Luke Saville and Max Purcell were easily beaten in the Men’s Doubles final . However, for a brief shining moment over the fortnight Australians were cheering with anticipation. Nick Kyrgios behaved appropriately and concentrated on his tennis, before losing a compelling four set match to Nadal in the fourth round. John Millman led Roger Federer 8-4 in their match deciding tie-break at the end of the fifth set of their fourth round match. With Millman a mere two points away from victory, Federer won the next six points to advance to the quarter-finals where he saved an even more incredible seven match points against California’s Tennys Sandgren.

Outside the stadium, Australia Day was acknowledged in its now traditional schizoid fashion. This year I was sitting in a city apartment and could see and hear the RAAF’s aerial display team, the Roulettes, twirl and spin over the city’s botanic Gardens and Rod Laver and Margaret Court Arenas as part of their traditional Australia Day display. At the same time, I could hear chants of protesters in Bourke Street demanding that White Australians pay rent to indigenous Australians for the use of their land since 1788 and that Australia Day not be celebrated on a day that is synonymous with the dispossession of indigenous people. Much confusion, contention, consternation and not a little amount of hostility continues to bedevil the cause of reconciliation. Next year’s promised referendum on constitutional recognition of indigenous people will literally be a litmus test of the nation’s ability to recognise and begin to right many wrongs.

En route to becoming the first Australian woman to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open since Wendy Turnbull in 1984, Ashleigh Barty commented that she was proud of her indigenous heritage on every day of the year. She reached the penultimate round after avenging her quarter-final loss of last year by defeating Petra Kvitova. However, on a scalding hot day Barty could not suppress the tenacity of Sofia Kenin in their semi-final. Barty remains the No.1 ranked player in the world and now looks to defend her French Open title. If Djokovic is able to win his second French title, he will become the first player in the Open Era to win at least two of each of the Grand Slam titles.

Kenin’s opponent in the final was Garbine Muguruza. A Wimbledon and French Open champion, Muguruza was unseeded in the tournament and lost the first set of her first round match 0-6, before a resurgence of form that saw her reach the final with defeats of top ten players: Svitolina (5) in the third round, Bertens (9) in the fourth round and Simona Halep (4) in a pulsating semi-final where Halep’s mercurial talents could not overcome Muguruza’s resolve.

For the first time in the tournament’s history the entirety of the women’s final was played with the roof closed. In 1988, with no doubt John Cain present, the first women’s final at the venue between Chris Evert and Steffi Graf began under open skies, but rain forced the second set to be played indoors.

Muguruza won the first set and it appeared that her experience in Grand Slam finals would be decisive against her feisty and fearless opponent. However, after losing the first set in just under an hour, Kenin rallied to win the second set in quick time. The match swung in the fifth game of the deciding set. Against the flow of play, Kenin found herself 0-40 serving at 2-2. Evoking memories of Monica Seles at her swashbuckling best, Kenin hit five clean winners to different corners of the court to hold serve. Muguruza’s disbelief was palpable. Her serve crumbled. Pairs of ill-time double faults followed and Kenin romped home 4-6 6-2 6-2.

A proud American-her racquets are decorated with the stars and stripes- Kenin nevertheless honoured her Russian heritage by posing with her trophy besides the Yarra River in a dress that would have looked extravagant on a Romanov princess as can be seen in the following photograph:

Serena Williams lost in the fourth round to China’s Qiang Wang in three sets. At last year’s US Open, Wang only managed to win one game off Williams. Whilst debate and conjecture continues as to what the final Grand Slam tally of the Great Three will be, I believe that Serena’s quest for her elusive 24th title is over and, for the time being, Margaret Court will remain atop the male and female Grand Slam title honour board.

Margaret Court won four of those titles in her Grand Slam year of 1970. The fiftieth anniversary of her singular achievement was acknowledged with an on-court presentation alongside 1969 Grand Slam champion, Rod Laver , but it was a muted occasion. Margaret Court did not speak at the presentation with Tennis Australia saying that this had been agreed. Even if it was, it made for an awkward atmosphere. More attention was given to the bizarre protest against Margaret Court by two old lefties, both on and off the court, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova. Following a Legends’ Doubles match, the pair unfurled a banner calling for Margaret Court arena to be renamed Evonne Goolagong Arena. It is clear that the rules and boundaries of who can say what and when are increasingly difficult to fathom. Margaret Court’s relationship with Tennis Australia (TA) remains fraught. TA have acknowledged that they did not wish Court to utter what they consider her “demeaning opinions” about a range of issues including same-sex marriage, parental rights of transgender people et al. It just always seems that there is far more heartache involved in determining what is “demeaning” than there is in letting people express an opinion.

So, now we have the longest gap of the Grand Slam calendar before the quest for glory resumes in Paris. The “next generation” are approaching the citadel, but still seem unable to claim it. Dominic Thiem had a wonderful tournament. He ousted Nadal and outlasted Alexander Zverev who finally made his first Grand Slam semi-final to reach his first Australian Open final. For all of his sparkling play in the Final, the match always seemed to be on Djokovic’s racquet. Even though Novak had to come from two sets to one down for the first time in a Grand Slam final to claim the title, Thiem never seemed convinced that he would prevail. Daniil Medvedev could not reprise his US Open form, wilting in the heat to the guile of the Stan Wawrinka in their fourth round match.

My guess is that Federer will bypass Paris and head to Halle to warm up for Wimbledon on the grass. Djokovic, who has reclaimed the No.1 ranking is likely to be seeded to play Nadal in the final and must favour his chances having won eleven of their last fifteen matches and three of the last four.

However, the last time Djokovic beat Nadal on clay was in 2016 in the quarter-finals of the Italian Open. Muguruza, inspired by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to play some of her best tennis in years in Melbourne, must fancy her chances to continue her ascent in the world of tennis.

Dominic Thiem’s former girlfriend, Kristina Mladenovic, will be looking to continue her Grand Slam success in doubles in her native land. Her pairing with Hungary’s Timea Babos has garnered the duo three Grand Slam titles, with their victory in Melbourne being a second Australian title. The Mixed Doubles was won by Croatia’s Nikola Mektic and Czechia’s Barbora Krejcikova: his first Grand Slam title and for her, like Mladenovic and Babos a second Australian title to add to her French and Wimbledon Doubles titles of 2018. The pair defeated the vibrant Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a close friend of Kenin, and Jamie Murray in a final decided by a ten-point tie-break. The oldest champion of the tournament could not be Leander Paes at the tender age of 46, but was Rajeev Ram who won his second Grand Slam title by winning the Men’s Doubles title aged 35 alongside England’s Joe Salisbury, who claimed his first Grand Slam title.

Until Paris, two simple requests:

  1. Can we investigate a law banning the tattooing of legs? There seems to have been a proliferation of demonic drawings on this part of bodies in recent months. My fear is that this has been occurring because other areas of the body have been fully inked; and

  2. Can journalists please stop referring to “terrible tragedies”. I have never known a tragedy to be either acceptable or moderate in nature. A true tragedy was when I saw a television journalist refer to a bushfire as a “travesty” , rather than a tragedy.

In a year that evokes clarity of vision, much of the world seems mired in unilluminating discord: Pakistan/India, the Middle East where the presentation of America’s latest Peace Plan has already been met with defiant opposition by Palestine, Britain/European Union, Commonwealth/State governments in Australia. Adding to the cloudiness of the world’s visage is a prevailing psychological mood of despair and anxiety. We seem to be able to recite problems and concerns, but unable to effect solutions. As the lighter days of spring come to Paris in the weeks ahead, maybe we should lift our sights and remember the great human capacity to overcome adversity. Prime Minister Morrison would do well to remember the adage, “Never waste a crisis”.

As dramatic as our recent bushfires were, the extended drought that preceded them has been equally debilitating and harrowing. Now would be a good time for the Prime Minister to suggest, for example, a national water management policy that reduces Australia’s exposure to cyclical droughts. It is time for conviction, tenacity and a desire for posterity to be shown by our leaders. As much as Djokovic may wish to dismiss his tennis accomplishments as a bagatelle compared to the real business of life, it has been his very conviction, tenacity and desire for posterity that have enabled him to create a famous legacy.

We all need to lift our sights, because, as Margaret Court once told me, and Donald Trump reminded Congress yesterday,” the best is yet to come”. In the parallel universe of Men’s tennis, we are blessed that the best that there will ever be is with us now.

Julian Dowse

7th February, 2020

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