Perth. Saturday 20th February, 2016. I type as the field gathers for the Lightning Stakes at Flemington. A Group One race for the best equine sprinters in the land. A sprint of 1000 metres. The race will last for less than a minute.
I read recently that the heat at the centre of a bolt of lightning is greater than that of the sun. No wonder you would not want it to strike twice in the same place. Strange then that the Lightning Stakes is named in honour of Black Caviar who won it three times. Also, Harper Lee, who died today, saw her novel ,To Kill a Mockingbird, strike its lightning like influence upon more than one generation.
It is three weeks since the weekend of finals of the Australian Open. Yet it seems an eternity ago. The intensity and pace of the modern world seems to despatch events within our individual and collective memories more emphatically than ever. Does anyone remember with clarity the weeks and months of the Abbott government? Can anyone really believe that 9/11 was nearly fifteen years ago? Our short and long-term memories are filed away as we focus on the immediate task of filtering the information that bombards our daily lives. Did any of us stop to think recently that it is fifty years since the introduction of decimal currency in Australia and in that short time inflation has claimed the one, two and, shortly, the five cent pieces?
This year also marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare (who, in a suitably poetic manner, died on his birthday) and the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s prescient warning about the encroachment of the Soviet state upon the peoples of Eastern Europe following World War 2: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent”.
So it is important to remember. To pause. To write. To consider. For in the world of Grand Slam tennis the tennis Gods and Goddess of our times are still capable of sending down their now somewhat predictable bolts of lightning and scorching the record books with further evidence of their greatness, just as history leaves its indelible legacies.
Australia loves its Grand Slam fortnight. It is a time when commentators, tournament officials and politicians love to boast of Australia’s ability to host “a world class” event. It is a claim that is often made about many aspects of our society from arts to zoos. Australia has, apparently, “world class” hospitals, beaches, cultural centres and festivals and restaurants. Ironically, when one of our sportsmen or politicians requires professional help for alcoholism we never seem to have “world class” treatment centres to look after our fallen idols and they must disappear overseas to mysterious retreats in America. Either that or resign from the Cabinet. One would have thought that an opportunity exists in these “innovative and exciting times to be an Australian” to develop world class “treatment facilities” closer to home. Australians may suffer from assorted cultural cringes, but I would not have thought we would be embarrassed about recognising the strength and number of our native alcoholics.
But I digress, well only slightly. In the weeks leading up to the Australian Open the misbehaviour of men seemed to take the attention of the chattering classes away from politics international and national and divert it to matters sexual. A year after Eugenie Bouchard was asked to “do a post-match twirl” which set tongues wagging from Melbourne to Ottawa, Australians were in a tizz about debates concerning sexual propriety, appropriate manners and socially acceptable norms of behaviour.
There was no shortage of material as tennis players moved from Perth to Brisbane, to Sydney, to Hobart and then finally to Melbourne.
First there was the Federal Member for Immigration, Peter Dutton, who described a journalist as a “mad f******* witch” in a text message. How ironic that he is the member for Dickson. What worries me more than puerile nature of the comments is that he would be so stupid as to record them in a text message.
Yet men are not limited in their imagination when it comes to their text messages. Some Collingwood footballers decided that the world should be able to see fully naked images of themselves in what could be truly described as “off season” behaviour. More recently, Rugby League ‘star’, Mitchell Pearce lowered the ante even further by combining drunken offensiveness with playful bestiality.
Then came the talking point of the summer when Chris Gayle, a West Indian cricketer, added unexpected spice to a post-innings interview with a female reporter by suggesting that they could continue their discussion after the game over some drinks. When the reporter was visibly taken aback by the comments, Chris Gayle jocularly told her “don’t blush baby”.
Breakfast television and talkback radio, especially in the quieter news weeks of summer, were made for moments such as these.
The battlelines of the ensuing debates were as predictable as they were simplistic. Many called for Chris Gayle to be suspended from future games or, at the very least, fined substantially. For them Gayle was a patronising predator who epitomised a demeaning male culture of denigration and sexism about all matters female. The argument was that if male players cannot demonstrate maturity and respect towards women then how was female sport to be ever taken seriously?
Those who defended Chris Gayle argued that the cause of political correctness had reached a point where careless and asinine banter was now an impeachable offence. Television networks were chided for their hypocrisy in defending the honour of female journalists and female sport, but also continuing to employ female journalists whose physical attraction appeared to be a sine qua non of their employment.
Ah, the dramas of loose lips and utterances that sink ships. Our Prime Minister, whom the newspapers regularly tell us is considered physically attractive by female voters, torpedoed the career of one of his Ministers, Jamie Briggs, for Gayle like indiscretions. Mr. Briggs was dismissed for “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female member of his Department’s staff in a bar in Hong Kong on a Friday evening towards the end of last year. We know for certain that the Minister took it upon himself to inform his staff member that “she had piercing eyes”.
Forgive me if I can only imagine what Barry Humphries and his alter ego, Sir Les Patterson, would make of all of this. Also forgive me for making the observation that if consenting adults enter a Hong Kong bar on a Friday night for a “post-work function”, it is unlikely that they do so expecting to discuss the latest aspects of trade talks between Korea and Taiwan.
Will there be new Public Service protocols to outline acceptable social behaviour? Maybe Mr. Rudd could draft them given his experiences in that urbane men’s establishment of New York, Hooters? Good God, if it was not for lewd and drunken banter between the sexes at after-work functions, then probably over fifty per-cent of Australia’s lawyers, doctors and teachers would not have met their spouse and/or partner. Maybe hotels will have to design allocated conversation areas? Possibly the following categories could be a starting point: Room A: Non-sexual, prosaic, professional earnest conversation; Room B: Mildly social interaction, but essentially non-flirtatious in nature; Room C: Frisky and risky, no discretion allowed.
The borders between the political, personal and public seem increasingly hard to understand. One man’s chivalry and playfulness is another woman’s misogyny. At this year’s Allan Border medal dinner former Test bowler, Jeff Thompson, accepted an award for his services to the game. In a somewhat “tired and emotional state”, Thompson rattled off a rollicking series of anecdotes replete with profane swearing, sexist observations, and sexual innuendo, some of which it has to be said was directed against himself. It was all delivered with a crassness that has made many an Australian sporting presentation night forgettable. The audience laughed and lapped up every one of Thompson’s deliberately vulgar comments.
Cricket Australia who had been so quick to condemn Chris Gayle were utterly silent in response to Thompson’s speech. Was it seen as “just a bit of a fun?” Was he excused because “he was of a different era”? Or will “boys always be boys?”
Of course nights out at sporting clubs are one thing, but the ruinous slur of an allegation is another. Regrettably, we live in an age where even an allegation of improper conduct is enough to condemn and destroy reputation, especially where the allegation concerns matters sexual. Ask the former State Secretary of the NSW ALP, Jamie Clements, who was forced to resign over allegations of bullying and assaulting female work colleagues. Cardinal Pell continues to be portrayed as a guilty, amoral absconder from justice, notwithstanding that not all evidence related to as yet unstated allegations against him has been presented.
Sadly, this era of guilt by allegation began with the demise of Governor-General Peter Hollingworth, a little over a decade ago. Whilst Archbishop of Brisbane, it was alleged that he did not exercise enough vigilance over a wayward cleric. Before long the mere mention of Hollingworth’s name had people describing him as a paedophile. Superficial media reporting reinforced the prejudicial association. Career and reputation finished. Game, set and match. Some people are just not allowed their day in Court anymore.
Maybe that’s another reason we love the distraction of a fortnight of Grand Slam tennis. For on the tennis court the game is well served by international players whom by and large appear wholesome, modest and sporting. Thankfully, the demeaning influence of the Australian bad boys led by Kyrgios is not sufficient to detract us from the character of the game’s leading players. The most successful players have far too much money to be tempted to accept bribes to fix matches and one suspects their pride would not allow it, even if they were destitute.
As this year’s Open approached the form of the favoured male players was singularly clear, but less so on the distaff side.
Novak Djokovic had continued his impressive run of form after winning the US Open. He defeated Roger Federer in the final of the season ending ATP Barclay Masters event in London to record his fifth win in the event and was fittingly crowned the world’s No.1 player for the fourth time. His 2015 record was the finest by a male player since Rod Laver’s Grand Slam year of 1969. A finalist at all Grand Slam tournaments and champion of three, Djokovic was in rarefied air of his own as the year ended. His win over Federer drew him equal in his matches with the Swiss maestro at 22-22.
As floods and bushfires swept around Australian in early January, confirming our reputation as a land “of droughts and flooding rains”, Djokovic continued to impress. He recorded his easiest victory over Nadal in their forty-seven matches, beating his Spanish rival in the final in Qatar 6-1 6-2 to edge ahead in their rivalry 24-23.
The sense that Nadal’s finest days may be behind him was to be confirmed sooner than anyone expected at the Australian Open. Whilst Djokovic took the express path direct to Melbourne, Roger Federer went to Brisbane to defend his crown, but this year found the serving power and improved agility of Canada’s Milos Raonic too strong as it was against Australia’s Bernard Tomic.
Lleyton Hewitt began his farewell tour of Australian tournaments at Perth’s Hopman Cup. Whilst his team was not successful, Australia tasted victory for the first time since the pairing of Philippoussis and Dokic in 1999 with Nick Kyrgios and Daria Gavrilova, fresh from the ink drying on her citizenship papers, beating Ukraine in the final. En route Kyrgios recorded his first victory against Andy Murray.
Murray did not have reason to be too disappointed. He had just been named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year for leading Great Britain to its first victory in the Davis Cup since 1936, playing in the nation’s first final since 1978. Even more satisfying for Murray was that he had won the pivotal Doubles rubber in the Davis Cup final against Belgium playing with his brother, Jaime. Jaime won the Wimbledon Men’s Doubles final in 2012, the year before Andy became the first Englishman (?) to win the Men’s Singles title since Fred Perry, again in the glory year of 1936. Fred Perry’s burden has been well and truly released and so his statue in the Wimbledon forecourt can relax somewhat. Full marks for Belgium, who were playing in only their second Davis Cup final. For the Belgians it was the first time since 1904, when again they were beaten by England. Thankfully, Britain did not abandon Belgium in the intervening years.
The Sydney International was a tournament marred by tropical rainstorms and a healthy dose of Australian petulance. Tomic, a former champion withdrew from a match citing injury, whilst at the same time informing the central umpire that he had become aware of his favourable draw at the Australian Open and was not wanting to overly exert himself. Maybe it is a generational thing. When Pete Sampras failed to defend his US Open title in 1994, he said that “he was glad the pressure of being the defending champion was no longer his”, Jimmy Connors remarked “that he would bust his ass to be defending champion”. The Sydney title was claimed by Djokovic’s Davis Cup partner, Viktor Troicki, who surprisingly defeated Grigor Dimitrov in the final. It was only two years ago that Dimitrov nearly took Djokovic to a fifth set in a Wimbledon semi-final. Then there was talk of him being the next great player, but the distractions of being Maria Sharapova’s ex-boyfriend appear to have been too much.
Following Serena William’s improbable loss in the semi-finals of the US Open to Roberta Vinci, the impregnable logic of the women’s game, being that if Serena chose to play in a tournament she would most likely win, started to unravel. Williams did not play in the WTA season ending tournament in Singapore. The tournament was won by Agnes Radwanska in an engrossing final against Petra Kvitova, with Radwanska claiming the most significant title of her career. Like Novak, Serena came straight to Melbourne. Questions about her match fitness were raised in the press conference after her second round victory and Serena rightly quipped that “she had been playing matches for twenty years so felt prepared for the next one”.
Before Melbourne other signs of renaissance and resurgence in the Women’s game were appearing. Dual Australian Open champion, Victoria Azarenka, indicated her return to the elite levels of the game following serious injury with an emphatic win in the Brisbane tournament, which was her first title since her Australian Open triumph of 2013. She defeated Angelique Kerber in the final who headed to Melbourne to play her 33rd Grand Slam tournament. In Sydney, the inexhaustible Svetlana Kuznetsova claimed the title. In Hobart, France’s irrepressible Alize Cornet claimed the title over an increasingly surly Eugenie Bouchard, twirl or no twirl.
And so to Melbourne. The men’s draw promised a Federer/Djokovic semi-final with Murray seeded to play Wawrinka in the other half of the draw. Andy Murray, in an effort perhaps to show local men how to be mature and sophisticated, made it clear that if his pregnant wife went into labour in Scotland he would be returning home immediately, irrespective of his chances of winning the title. Little did he know that he would have dramas closer to his temporary home when his father-in-law, tennis coach Nigel Sears, collapsed in the stands whilst watching his charge, Ana Ivanovic.
The women’s draw promised a Williams/ Simone Halep final, with Williams having to meet Sharapova in a quarter-final. If she won that match Williams would extend her winning streak over Sharapova to seventeen matches over a period of twelve years. And she did.
Meanwhile in the real world the planets were aligned for a week in a relatively rare astronomical event. However, this did not prevent strange events occurring. They say things happen in threes and so it did when Glen Frey, lead singer of The Eagles, David Bowie, pop icon and Alan Rickman, distinguished actor, all died within days of each other, all aged in their late sixties. Rupert Murdoch defied every known law of love and emotion, other than the appeal of money and the delusions of vanity, to announce his engagement to Jerry Hall. Bronwyn Bishop displayed only marginally less vanity in announcing her attention to renominate at the age of 72 for another term as the member for Mackellar, but Phillip Ruddock had the decency to announce his retirement from the Parliament at this year’s election after close to forty-four years in the House. Only Billy Hughes has served the Federal Parliament longer.
The planets were certainly not aligning for the women’s seeds and Nadal. Halep lost in the first round and by the end of the second round had been joined by Australia’s Sam Stosur, who lost to a qualifier and Kvitova who lost to Australia’s Hopman Cup heroine, Gavrilova. Caroline Wozniacki also lost to a qualifier in the second round, but Kerber narrowly avoided such ignominy, saving a match point in her first round match. For Nadal, the history of the fates worked against him. In 2009, Nadal beat countryman Ferdinand Verdasco in an epic semi-final that lasted close to five hours. Nadal then beat Federer in the final to claim his only Australian Open title. Whilst Nadal continued to write tennis history, Verdasco failed to recapture such form. However, Verdasco had his revenge in their first round match. Nadal lost a match that also lasted nearly five hours. It was his maiden first round loss in the Australian Open. Even with the allure of his beloved clay courts ahead of him, it is hard to see Nadal adding to his title of 14 Grand Slam crowns.
It was another Spaniard that drew the curtain on Lleyton Hewitt’s international tennis career in the second round. David Ferrer, of similarly slight stature and also possessing Hewitt’s pugnacious power, was too strong for the warhorse of Australian tennis. Despite the loss, Lleyton was farewelled with deserved applause and now prepares to be Australia’s Davis Cup captain.
In the third round Roger Federer became the first man to claim a 300th Grand Slam singles victory with a comfortable win against Dimitrov. 300 for and 49 against, with seventeen titles to show for his efforts. His legion of fans was hoping that he still had an eighteenth present for himself. Tomas Berdych earned the right to play on for a quarter-final appearance against Federer by beating Nick Kyrgios in four sets. However, the third round was not a propitious one for the Bryan brothers as the perennial Doubles champions were beaten in straight sets.
The fourth round saw the brave run of Daria Gavrilova come to an end. Despite winning the first set 6-0, she could not maintain either her poise or patience against the wily crafts of the Spanish doubles specialist, Suarrez-Navaro. Milos Raonic proved his Brisbane win was not a fluke with a stirring five set victory against 2014 champion Wawrinka, who after losing the first two sets levelled the match, before succumbing in the fifth. Wawrinka wore a tennis outfit that was so garishly bright one had to wonder whether he could see the ball clearly either in the sun or in the reflection of his red and yellow ensemble. Kei Nishikori confirmed his legitimacy as an elite player by despatching former finalist Jo Wilfred-Tsonga with almost embarrassing ease. Djokovic struggled to defeat Giles Simon in five sets, but seasoned observers noted that it was good for the favourite to have a match where he nearly lost, so that his mind would be sharpened to produce his best tennis in his final matches. Djokovic won through to his twenty seventh consecutive Grand Slam quarter final, joining Jimmy Connors on that number, but still trailing the extraordinary Federer who stands alone on thirty-six.
Despite the decimation of the women’s seeds the quarter finals still saw much of the cream rising to the top. Williams subdued Sharapova, who must truly wonder what is required for her to topple her nemesis. Kerber surprised Azarenka, reversing her Brisbane loss to win through to her third Grand Slam semi-final and her first since Wimbledon in 2012. The omens were there- a third semi-final in her thirty third appearance: 3/33 =11- two more number one finishes and a first Grand Slam title would be hers! Omens should not be discounted. Remember what barrier Michelle Payne’s brother, Steve, drew for Prince of Penzance? No.1 for a 100/1 chance- 1/100 = 1 and so it proved to be! Radwanska beat Suarez to set up a semi-final against Serena. Most remarkably, the fourth quarter-final was a battle between two unseeded players. Johanna Konta, born in Sydney, but an English citizen, played Chian’s Shuai Zhang who won her first ever Grand Slam singles match in the first round! Konta also won in straight sets to proceed to her semi-final against Kerber.
The Men’s quarter finals saw the first, second, third, sixth, seventh and eighth seeds joined by numbers thirteen and twenty-three. No romance allowed. The winners were one, two, three and thirteen. Milos Raonic became the first male Canadian to reach the semi-final of an Australian Open. By reaching the semi-finals the near holy trinity of Djokovic, Federer and Murray increased the chance that once again one of the Big Four would claim another Grand Slam title, increasing the likelihood that their domination of Grand Slam titles would extend to a mere 46 of the last 52!
Remarkably enough there was probably greater confidence that Serena Williams would claim her sixth Australian title and join Steffi Graf on the Open Era pedestal of 22 Grand Slam titles. This confidence was reinforced when Serena ruthlessly beat Radwanska 6-0 6-4 in their semi-final. Kerber ended the dreams of Konta with an equally one sided victory in the other semi-final to reach her first Grand Slam final.
The men’s semi-finals confirmed that the old order is changing, but not entirely and not just yet! Djokovic and Federer reminded the tennis world why they are the two of the greatest ever. Djokovic swept through the first two sets of their match with unprecedented ease, but Federer was not ready to be summarily dismissed. He rallied to win the third, but by serving second in the fourth set Federer was always under pressure. A favourable net-cord to Djokovic following an improbable winner gave Djokovic the required break needed to win the match in four sets. For the first time in his career, Djokovic had eked ahead in his rivalry with Federer, 23 matches to 22. Djokovic now had the chance to claim a record sixth Australian title in the Open era and equal Roy Emerson’s tally. The former champion sadly could not attend the Open as he was mourning the loss of his son to brain cancer.
Andy Murray won his way into his fifth Australian Open final and his fourth against Djokovic, with their previous finals having been played in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2015. In his semi-final Murray pugnaciously wore down a resilient, but slightly injured, Raonic in five sets. Andy’s brother Jaime won his way into the Men’s Doubles final playing with Brazilian Bruno Soares. The charismatic pairing of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza won their way into their third successive Grand Slam final. Soares also won his way through to the Mixed Doubles final playing with Russia’s Elena Vesnina.
The outcome of Women’s final defied the odds, but it produced a worthy winner on the night. Seasoned observers of the game cannot probably remember the last time that Serena combined such poor serving with an errant forehand; however, all credit to Kerber who refused to be rushed and /or intimidated by her rival. That said when Kerber’s 5-2 lead evaporated in the final set to 5-5, I had thoughts of Novotna’s collapse against Graf in the Wimbledon final of 1993 and Azarenka’s inability to convert third set service breaks against Serena in the 2012 US Open final. Fittingly, it was a volleying error by the defending champion that gave Kerber her unlikely victory. Serena’s graciousness in defeat endeared her to all but her most strident critics. Kerber’s victory means that the last two Grand Slam Women’s singles titles (remember Pennetta’s win at the US Open last September?) have been won by players participating in their first ever Grand Slam final. Without wanting to delay publication of my article by trawling through the record books, I suspect that this is the first time this has occurred in the Open Era, possibly ever. Rewards for the persistent and the veterans continued when Hingis and Mirza claimed the Women’s Doubles title. Triumph in Paris will see them holding all four Grand Slam titles.
Victory in Paris will also see Novak Djokovic be the reigning champion of all four Grand Slam tournaments. However, it will mean so much more. A victory in Paris will see him achieve his cherished ambition of winning every Grand Slam title and thus join Budge, Laver, Agassi, Federer and Nadal on this elite level of the tennis pantheon.
Murray now has the unflattering record of having played in five Australian Open finals without success. Chris Evert/Lloyd lost six Wimbledon finals (1978,1979,1980,1982,1984 and 1985), five of them to Navratilova, but she did win three titles- 1976,1978,1981- as compensation. Djokovic did not control the final with the imperious authority that a straight sets win may suggest. Replays suggested that Murray’s cause was queered by two poor line calls which protected Djokovic from crucial losses of serve. However, the final set tie-break confirmed that Djokovic was the superior player and deserved his eleventh Grand Slam title, which equals the number won by Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg.
There was nearly a diplomatic incident during the presentation ceremony. Centre Court compere, Bruce McAvaney, tried to link the success of Djokovic’s coach Boris Becker to that of Kerber and asked the crowd to applaud “a great weekend for German tennis”. Not surprisingly the large contingent of Djokovic’s Serbian supporters refused to respond. Memories run deep in Serbian veins, even if history does not in McAvaney’s.
If Djokovic was able to win a calendar Grand Slam in 2016, he would end the year tied with Nadal on 14 Grand Slam victories. With Nadal past his best and with Federer being no younger, it would be a brave man to suggest that Djokovic is not at least an even money chance to achieve this feat. However, to achieve a Grand Slam would mean that Djokovic would have to win six Grand Slam titles in a row and seven out of the last eight. No male player has ever won six Grand Slam titles in a row: the best that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have managed is three. Three female ‘MAs’ – Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova had Grand Slam singles winning streaks of six. Martina and Pam Shriver managed eight in a row in doubles.
Time will tell, but I suspect that if Djokovic wins in Paris that even his uncompromising dairy-free, gluten-free approach to life and tennis may sub-consciously weaken and make it less certain that he can successfully defend his Wimbledon title. Could there be a Kyrgios/Raonic final at SW 19? Kyrgios’ first ATP final victory in Marseilles this week, where he avenged his loss to Berdych at the Australian Open, must give him encouragement, even if Djokovic would not approve of Kyrgios’ professed love for French fromage.
There was consolation for the Murray family with Jaime winning the Men’s Doubles title against the veteran pairing of Radek Stepanek and Daniel Nestor, who have a combined eighty years of experience. His Brazilian partner, Bruno Soares, also won the Mixed Doubles with Elena Vesnina. Has there been a male Brazilian player who has won two Grand Slam titles at the same tournament before? Again, I suspect not, but note that Maria Bueno did win the singles and doubles title at Wimbledon in 1960.
The tennis ends and the real world intrudes once more. For Brazilians, like Soares, the weeks after the Australian Open have brought the zika virus to the attention of the world. The hideous ramifications of the virus have certainly given the Pope and International Olympic Committee pause for thought. Just as rapidly a virus destroys Tasmania’s oyster farms in a matter of days. And if that is not bad enough the old battles remain: Syria vs. the world, Syria vs. Turkey, Turkey vs. Russia, Russia vs. the world, Britain vs. the EU, China vs Japan, North Korea and ISIS vs humanity en masse, Israel vs Palestine, Israel vs Iran… Need I say more?
Meanwhile in the “greatest democracy of them all” the American population seems unable to produce two Presidential candidates better than a humourless Democrat seeking to upstage her husband and an outrageous populist whom I am not sure is capable of definition, even as a conservative Republican. In another great democracy we call home Australians tilt precariously on the wrong side of the economic see-saw as our welfare commitments threaten to drown our productivity. Sadly, any genuine and important economic reforms appear almost impossible as the shrieks of the offended drown out rational debate. More worryingly, necessary reforms are left to the judgement of bizarre minority parties in the Senate. Unlike rallies in tennis, we seem to live in a political era where there is no end point, no resolution and no emphatic moment to cheer. The case for political agitation and action is also weakened by a national culture of cultured disinterest in the political process and an excessive interest in the pursuit of hedonism. As the Australia Day weekend neared a local newspaper reminded me of the need to “Slip, slop and slab”!
It is time for pause. I return to Perth. This isolated city’s environment has many visible expressions of its beauty. At this time of the year there is something magical to observe. February is Perth’s hottest month. Dry, baking days of forty degrees and over are common. The heat leads to a noticeable increase in the number of wasps and hornets who can be seen battling bees for dwindling supplies of summer nectar. At the same time rainbow bee-eaters appear in suburban gardens. Their colours are exquisite. Gold, bronze, green and turquoise. Their colours blend and shimmer against a cerulean sky in ineffably beautiful flight. As their name suggests, the birds feed on the stinging insects around them. Remarkably, they know to extract the malevolent stings from their prey before ingesting them.
And so the rainbow bee-eater enchants me and makes my immediate world a little safer and less harmful. The fortnight of a Grand Slam tennis tournament has a similar effect. Yes, I know the advertising is crass, the prizemoney is obscene and many of the players’ personalities are manifestly lacking. Yet, for all of that, the fortnight of a Grand Slam reminds us of the best of questing human nature and endeavour: sporting embraces at the net at the end of matches that recognise the inevitability of victory and defeat; players forcing great players to be even better; spectators admiring and supporting the best in others and players accepting the authority of others. The greater good of the game emerges from the greatest efforts of its finest ambassadors. We rightly admire those who are gracious, skilled, tenacious and inspiring. For a brief, shining moment, like a bee-eater diving, we have something to cherish and love on and off the court.