As one year ends and another-secular or lunar- begins, it is customary to reflect on those who have departed in the previous twelve months.
It may be necessary to conduct such an audit at the end of the Australian Open, as it seems a year’s worth of luminaries have died in the last month
29th December 2022- Pele, arguably the world’s greatest ever football player, and soccer saint of Brazil.
30th December 2022- Barbara Walters, a pioneer for women on American media left her earthly studio, aged 93.
31st December 2022- Pope Benedict XVI, the first Pope to retire from office in over 600 years.
4th January 2023- Fay Weldon, a wickedly acerbic and insightful author, aged 92.
10th January 2023- Geoffrey Beck, a world renowned pop guitarist.
10th January 2023- Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric and a religious and ideological ally of Pope Benedict XVI, of a heart attack aged 81.
12th January 2023- Elvis Presley’s daughter, and only child, Lisa Marie, aged 54, also due to a heart attack.
16th January 2023- Gina Lollobrigida, Italian actress dubbed the “world’s most beautiful woman” in the 1960s aged 95
17th January 2023- Renee Gayer, Australia’s feisty first lady of jazz and soul music, aged 70
18th January, 2023- David Crosby iconic singer of the 1960s of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Tragically, the United States continues to have a daily death toll of the innocent be they Chinese celebrating the lunar New Year or those killed by police violence, with the appalling killing of Tyre Nichols being the latest instalment of violence. The brutal and fatal assault of an unarmed African-American by a posse of African-American police officer was sickening.
On the temporal stage, Elton John has finally said goodbye to his army of Australian fans, and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, who was not without her rock star number of supporters at the heyday of her popularity has unexpectedly resigned. First came the fans, then, all too predictably, the vile trolls. Many a prospective politician must be wondering whether it is worth serving an increasingly ungrateful, fickle and vicious public. A week after the changing of the political currents in New Zealand, torrential rains turned Auckland into a monsoonal lagoon.
Can it possibly be true that it is 50 years since the death of Lyndon Baines Johnson? I suspect most of the crowd attending the Australian Open would struggle to know who LBJ was, let alone why Australia went all the way with him: the Vietnam war is fast becoming ancient history in the Tik-Tok world of evanescent memory retention.
It is difficult to consider that in 50 years the feats of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic will be the stuff of history books.
And the glory days of Australian tennis are truly the stuff of history. One wonders for how long reunions of the greats of the 1950s and 1960s are possible- thankfully, there was still time left this year for Ken Rosewall-8 Grand Slam singles titles; Rod Laver-11 Grand Slam singles titles and two Grand Slams; Neale Fraser-3 Grand Slam singles titles and Frank Sedgman-5 Grand Slam singles titles and a Grand Slam in Doubles in 1951 with South Australia’s Ken McGregor to reminisce.
When winning the final leg of their Doubles’ Grand Slam they beat the Australian pairing of Don Candy and Mervyn Rose. Another Grand Slam Doubles Champion, Pam Shriver, revealed during the Open the damage that Candy, also a South Australian, caused her by exploiting their coaching relationship by making it a sexual one when she was only seventeen.
To happier memories: the quartet were members of eleven Davis Cup winning teams spanning from 1951-1973!
Father Time always wins. Federer’s retirement is still painfully recent and acutely felt. I was present on Rod Laver Arena when John McEnroe was sensationally defaulted from his Australian Open match against Mikael Pernfors in 1990. This year, we were all witness to Nadal’s body defaulting. Abdominal and hip injuries that have plagued him since the US Open made it impossible him to properly compete in his second round match. Nadal’s pride made him complete the match rather than ignobly default. Nadal’s hobbling, crippled exit could not have been in greater contrast to his lionhearted victory in last year’s final. We will probably never look upon him in Melbourne again.
No one could ever question the seriousness of Nadal’s injury. There was less unanimity about the extent of the knee injury that forced Nick Kyrgios to withdraw from the tournament on the eve of his first-round match. Likewise, there was simmering scepticism about the seriousness of Novak Djokovic’s hamstring injury throughout the tournament. Even a garage in South Melbourne was offering assistance to the champion to have him fit!
At the height of the Vietnam War which became LBJ’s political millstone, David Crosby was singing with The Byrds. One of their most popular songs was ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ which was a lyrical rendition of the Old Testament words from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3 1-11. This famous passage begins with the observation: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
Every January seems to be the time when tennis fans debate the timing of the Australian Open , but also the time at which matches are played.
A burst of extreme heat Adelaide and Melbourne thankfully did not ignite major bushfires, but did revive the debate about whether the Open is staged at too early a time of year. Whilst it suits the tournament’s organisers to have a captive holiday-especially school and university students- crowd, I have always thought it would make more sense to stage the Open during Melbourne’s reliable and benign early autumn in mid-late March. An added purpose of this change is that the AO would be held far closer to the French Open in late June.
Whenever it is held, the timing of matches was the talk of the town when a second-round match between the perennial Sir Andy Murray and Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis did not finish until after 4.00 a.m. making it the second latest match to finish in Open history.
And let’s not forget that many a second evening match on Rod Laver Arena do not finish until the wee hours. Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion, had to play her fourth-round match after Tsitsipas and Sinner battled away for four hours. Azarenka progressed to the quarter-finals winning her match after 2.00 a.m.. No-one truly wins with scheduling like that.
Nevertheless, when the timing is propitious and evening matches are played at sensible times on balmy evenings, the occasion is a vision splendid.
Have the timing of the matches and heat made the Australian Open the most capricious of the Slams? Seedings seem to have less credibility in Melbourne than any other Grand Slam venue. By the time of the fourth round there were no players ranked in the top 20 in the bottom half of the draw. Of the last 16 players contending for the singles’ titles only three were Grand Slam Champions- Djokovic, Rybakina and Azarenka.
The present timing of the AO always overlaps with debate and soul-searching about the timing and purpose of Australia Day being celebrated on January 26. Tennis Australia added to the controversy by announcing that it would not formally celebrate the current date of our national day.
Australia Day’s current date, at best generates an ambivalent mood of celebration and, at worst, many discordant notes. Many corporations and government departments have decreed that their employees could choose to work on the day. At midday from my apartment in Melbourne I could hear a twenty-one gun salute from the Shrine Remembrance and observe an aerial display by the RAF’s Roulette aircraft. Simultaneously, I could hear the protest chants of thousands objecting to celebrating a day seen by them as either “ a day of mourning” or “Invasion Day.” The level of popular unanimity implicit for such a day has evaporated.
This year the controversy about the appropriate day to celebrate our nation is a prelude to the debates that are to come about whether to constitutionally enshrine a First Nations Voice to the Parliament through a referendum, expected to be held in August.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, residents of Australia’s iconic central town of Alice Springs must be hoping that intelligent and effective voices can be used to staunch the runaway level of indigenous violence and civil disorder that has turned Alice Springs’ central district into a ‘no-go’ zone. Well intentioned voices urge social progress and reconciliation; however, in too many indigenous communities the longed for improvements in the rudiments of indigenous life-life expectancy, education, basic health-continue to be elusive. In their place is too much despair, violence and distress. Voice or no voice, the time to achieve purposeful improvement in the quality of indigenous life is now.
Back to the tennis. Have you ever heard the line about making a problem worse by not mentioning it?
Tennis Australia went to great lengths to ensure that players from Russia and Belarus were made anonymous with neither their nations being mentioned, nor their flags displayed.
Of course, what happened? Three of the four Women’s semi-finalists were from Russia and Belarus. Rybakina’s claim to be a native of Kazakhstan is a tenuous one at best. Karen Khachanov, another Russian, made the Men’s semi-finals and angered Azerbaijan with his comments supporting the Armenian cause. And Novak Djokovic’s father disqualified himself from courtside by being photographed with Russians brandishing a pro-Putin flag on the eve of Novak’s semi-final.
History tells us that there has been great kinship between Serbia and Russia for many years; however, it was no distraction on court for Novak, proving again that the greater the irritation to Djokovic the greater his resolve to overcome it.
Despite the withdrawal of many players, including the then No.1 Carlos Alcaraz, and the early defeats of seeds, the Happy Slam had the grand finals that befitted its status.
Both the Men’s and Women’s finals saw the defending Wimbledon champions face a challenge from players both seeking their first Grand Slam title. The Men’s final was also a contest to see who would become the top ranked male tennis player.
The Women’s final was befitting of the evolution and status of the Women’s game that was celebrated with the presence of ‘7 of the 9’ players who instigated the Women’s Tennis Association.
Aryna Sabalenka, lost the opening set- the first she had lost in the tournament- in just over 30 minutes. For her supporters there were ominous signs. Her serve betrayed her as the set concluded with inopportune double faults. To the surprise of many Sabalenka showed the mental resolve that many believed was beyond her and bludgeoned her way back into the match. The double faults diminished and were overtaken by aces -17 in the match-and forehand winners. Sabalenka created more break point opportunities. Her conversion was low due to Rybakina’s accurate and powerful serve; however, she did enough to take the match to a deciding set.
The final set was gripping. Sabalenka had the disadvantage of serving second; however, she persevered with her attacking strategy. Rybakina did not succumb easily. When the always critical seventh game of the final set began Sabalenka had won 86 points and Rybakina 84. Sabalenka broke, held for 5-3 and served for the title at 5-4. After close to two and three-quarter hours and on her fourth championship point, one of which had been lost on a double fault, Sabalenka prevailed to join an elite group of players who have won their first Grand Slam title in their first Grand Slam final.
The Australian Open has had eight different Women’s champions in the last eight years: since 2012 there have been ten different champions. Only Serena Williams (2015,2017) and Victoria Azarenka (2012,2013) have won more than one title in that time. By contrast only four men have won the title in that time: Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Wawrinka.
The Mixed Doubles champions, Luisa Stefani, and Rafael Matos are Brazil’s first Grand Slam Doubles champions. Whilst their success will not assuage the nation’s grief at failing to win the World Cup and Pele’s recent death, it is noteworthy.
Whilst Tennis Australia chose not to formally celebrate Australia Day, there was celebration for Australia when ‘wildcard lightning’ struck again in the Men’s Doubles. Last year it was the ‘wild and wilder’ wildcard pairing of Kyrgios and Kokkinakis-the Special Ks- that claimed the title. This year the wildcard pairing of Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler-the Rinja Warriors-won the title defeating the first, sixth and eighth seeds en route in best of three set matches. The AELTC at Wimbledon has announced that the Men’s Doubles title will now be decided at SW 19 in this format ending over a century of best of five set matches: as the dowager Lady Grantham may have said in Downton Abbey, “another brick from the wall!”
The Women’s Doubles title was retained by the Czech pairing of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. It was their seventh Grand Slam title and their third in a row. If they win in Paris, they will complete a non-calendar year Grand Slam.
The Men’s final drew passionate Serbian and Greek crowds to Melbourne Park to support their national heroes. Yet the Men’s final between Djokovic and Tsitsipas was curiously passionless. Djokovic was in no mood for a dramatic contest. It was all over in less than three hours. The greatest passion was following Djokovic’s straight sets victory when he emotionally embraced his support team and members of his family, sans his father. He declared that this was his most important victory. It was clear that many long and short-term ghosts had been laid to rest.
The match saw an irresistible force meet an immovable object. The immovable prevailed. The first set took less time than the post-match presentations. Tsitsipas only broke Djokovic’s serve once in the first game of the third set. Djokovic broke straight back. The pressure Djokovic relentlessly placed on Tsitsipas told in the tie-breakers: in the second set decider Tsitsipas made five unforced errors; in the final set decider Tsitsipas’ errors enabled Djokovic to race to an unassailable 5-0 lead. Tsitsipas made 42 unforced errors, many coming on his forehand side, nearly double those made by Djokovic. Everyone was reminded that Djokovic wins matches as much through his few errors as his outright winners. It is a mental game.
Djokovic in returning to the top of the tennis rankings joins Margaret Court and Rafael Nadal as the only players to have won 10 or more titles at one Grand Slam tournament. Remarkably, Djokovic and Nadal have never lost a final in garnering their respective 10 Australian and 14 French titles. Margaret Court only lost one Australian final in winning 11. The three players also share rarefied air: Court has the greatest number of Women’s Grand Slam titles with 24 and Djokovic and Nadal have 22 each to head the Men’s Honour Roll. One could not help but wonder whether Djokovic’s acknowledgement of Rod Laver in the crowd was his reminder to the world that, once again, he has a chance to complete the Grand Slam.
This year’s Men’s and Women’s champions had glorious summers, completing unbeaten campaigns with victories in Adelaide and Melbourne. Djokovic, like Sabalenka, only lost one set in Melbourne. As they head to the northern hemisphere the tennis world wonders how long their southern summery successes will continue.
Sabalenka’s victory is the dawn of her Grand Slam days.
Djokovic’s victory is an emphatic exclamation mark on over a decade of tennis domination: since 2011, he has only failed to win a Grand Slam title in 2017.
By the end of this year the debate about whether Djokovic is entitled to punctuate his name by adding the honorific of GOAT after his surname may well be settled in his singular favour.