Even the most ardent Republican tennis fan living in the southern hemisphere must acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the Queen’s Birthday Long Weekend. Inevitably, the holiday Monday follows the Women’s and Men’s finals at the French Open, allowing for extended periods of viewing, knowing that the holiday provides a chance for recuperation and reflection.
Residents of Melbourne have probably had too much time for navel gazing lately. The city’s fourth Lockdown came to an end last week, but not entirely. Masks must still be worn outside, Melbourne residents cannot travel more than 25 kilometres from their homes, visitors are still not allowed in homes and QR codes must be scanned before entering all retail premises and the recently re-opened restaurants, bars, and shops.
Of course, the ultimate irony of the Queen’s Birthday is that it is not celebrated on her actual birthday. The Queen turned 95 on 21st April. Notwithstanding the recent death of her husband, our constitutional Head of State presses on. Only this weekend she has been welcoming the leaders of the G7 group of nations, plus invited guests, including Australia’s Prime Minister, to the Cornwall coast. For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, the leaders have been to assemble in person. The Queen commented to the leaders at their formal photo session, “now you have to look as if you are enjoying yourselves.”
The pandemic continues to provide a succession of ironies.
Australia, which managed to contain the spread of the pandemic with a success only bettered by New Zealand, now struggles to achieve a rate of vaccination that is anywhere near respectable by world standards. We won the first half but are struggling to maintain our ascendancy in the second.
As many nations struggle to escape lockdowns, too many nations seem determined to lockdown their citizens. Belarus’ government orders planes to return to their homeland so critical journalists can be detained. Syria’s Assad regime is re-elected with no sign of a relaxation of its authoritarian rule. Ditto Myanmar. As always ditto ditto for North Korea. China’s government, anxious to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the nation’s Communist Party without any interference from their beloved proletariat, has begun to arrest dissidents young and old who display any treacherous Maoist sympathies.
In the 1970s a radical group of Maoist terrorists. occupied Peru’s mountains and were known as the Shining Path. Today Peru is still trying to lock-in a democratic culture. Recent Presidential elections are still to be declared and are the likely subject of judicial challenge and counter-challenge. Peru, which has suffered one of the highest per capita Covid-19 pandemic death rates, has seen seven of its last ten leaders investigated for corruption. Suddenly, the NSW Parliament does not seem too tainted!
Israel has struggled in recent weeks to lock-in a new government following their general election. A curious coalition of parties has formed government promising to rotate the office of Prime Minister amongst its leaders. For the moment, the new government’s most conspicuous achievement has been to end the term of Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu who has promised Israel’s parliament, that he, like Douglas Macarthur, “shall be returning.”
Let us not forget the latest efforts of Harry and Meghan when considering unsettling irony. Having spent many hours telling the world, and earning many millions for doing so, how they wish to be ‘locked out’ of the toxic culture of the English Royal family, the couple ‘lock-in’ the most royal of names, Lillibet for their newly born daughter. Lillibet was the Royal Family’s nickname for the Queen as a child when she could not properly pronounce Elizabeth. However, just to show that there are limits to their wish to ingratiate themselves, the daughter’s middle name is Diana- Lillibet’s paternal grandmother- who no doubt is seen by Meghan as a kindred spirit of a woman wronged and destroyed by the Windsor establishment.
This year’s French Open was not without its fair share of irony.
For much of its fortnight, attention on the tennis was ‘locked-out’ by everything but the tennis.
Crowds were certainly locked out by Covid restrictions and evening curfews sent crowds home at night before they turned into ‘pandemic pumpkins. In a moment of exquisite French vive la difference, these restrictions were abandoned so the Centre Court crowd could watch the conclusion of the Djokovic- Nadal semi-final!
Ash Barty, playing in Paris for the first time since winning the 2019 title, withdrew during her second-round match, when a recurring hip injury locked down her mobility.
Naomi Osaka locked herself out the tournament withdrawing before the second round, citing mental health concerns, revealing that since winning the 2018 US Open, she has been suffering from depression.
Irony, please enter again! Serena Williams on hearing this news said, “she wished she could give her (Naomi) a hug”. How thoughtful of Serena after being so thoughtless in the 2018 US Open final when her outrageous behaviour turned what should have been a moment of triumph for Osaka into a possibly never-ending nightmare.
Roger Federer locked himself out of the tournament at the end of the third round, citing concerns about his physical fitness and acknowledging his wish to concentrate on Wimbledon. Unlike golf, where Phil Mickelson, won one of the sport’s majors, the US PGA, at the record age of 50 on the eve of the French Open, tennis is not so forgiving on bodies nearly 40 years old. For Federer, Paris clearly was not worth another match!
For so long regarded as the Emperor of tennis etiquette, Federer was suddenly seen as having feet of clay. Reaction to Roger’s decision was divided amongst the tennis world: some believed that Roger had earned the right to ‘come and go’ as he pleased; many others believed that he had devalued his legacy by showing contempt for the prestige of the Slams, the very tournaments that have delivered him greatness.
Everything and everyone who was off the court seemed more important than the tennis. Even on-court there were some jarring notes. For years at the French Open Lacoste, the French sporting goods company founded by one of their legendary ‘Four Musketeers’, have provided the tournament’s officials with tres soignee outfits. Not so this year. Pillar-box red jumpers clashed horribly with the orange of the playing surface. It was a fashion mismatch as grievous as the uniform worn by Qantas’ female flight attendants in recent years, which sees them dressed in jarring notes of red and pink. Pandemic aside, no wonder the company is in trouble!
If the French are known for their sense of fashion, they are equally known for their wines.
For that reason, this year’s French Open can be classified as one of two vintages.
The Women’s singles, the champion was the product of ‘seedless’ non-vintage grapes.
In contrast, the Men’s singles champion was another product of a remarkable vintage, unparalleled in quality, of three great varieties- Swiss, Spanish and Serbian-that appears as rich in quality as it was when first blended fifteen years ago.
Barbora Krejcikova became the sixth consecutive female to win her first Grand Slam at Paris. 10 of the last 16 Grand Slam Women’s singles champions have won their first Grand Slam title. Unseeded, Krejcikova was one of six of the octet of quarter-finalists, playing their first Grand Slam quarter-final. For only the second time in the Open Era, the last four female players were all playing their first Grand Slam semi-final. Krejcikova, playing in her fifth Grand Slam, defeated Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, seeded 31 in the final. Pavlyuchenkova was playing in her 52nd Grand Slam tournament. Krejcikova, the French and Wimbledon Doubles’ champion of 2018, teamed with fellow Czechian, Katerina Siniakova, to win another French title, becoming the first dual Singles and Doubles champion since Mary Pierce in 2000. The pair defeated the pairing of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek, the defending singles’ champion.
So why an unseeded blend? Osaka and Barty chose not to play on. Halep chose not to turn up. Pliskova, Sabalenka and Svitolina continue to reserve their worst form for Grand Slam events. Swiatek crumbled under the pressure of being the defending champion. Serena Williams continues to be defeated by Mother Time. Krejcikova survived a match point against Greek, Maria Sakkari in their semi-final. If Sakkari had won, we would have seen a pair of Greek players in the Singles’ finals!
Last year, 2020, the tennis calendar ended with Federer and Nadal atop tennis’ mountain of Grand Slam titles at 20/20/.
This year the tennis fates may also match the calendar. The Big Three may end the year 20/21. Djokovic has now won 19 titles. If he wins Wimbledon and the US Opens, he will complete the Grand Slam and become the most successful male player of all time. His second French title has already made him the first player to win all Grand Slams at least twice in the Open era.
Clearly, Djokovic sees himself entitled sit alone on top of a mountain even higher than Mt. Everest, describing his achievement in beating Nadal in their semi-final in similar terms. No-one can deny the Serbian’s skills or tenacity. Against Tsitsipas, who was playing in first Grand slam final, Djokovic recovered from two sets to love down to win. At the end of the match the 34 year old Djokovic looked far fresher than his 22 year old opponent. In the Open Era only six players have rallied from a two-set deficit to win a Grand Slam final. Remarkably, five of those finals have been in Paris: 1974, 1984, 1999, 2004 and this year. The sixth was Thiem’s triumph against Zverev in New York last year. Having played in the last two Grand Slam finals, Thiem was a surprising first round loser in Paris.
As he scales the mountains of tennis history, Djokovic stills fails to convince many that he is worthy recognition as the game’s numero uno. There is just something in what he says and does that forestalls public approval. His attempts at sincerity just never hit the lines. A day after consoling Tsitsipas and telling him that “he will certainly win a Grand Slam”, Djokovic is talking about his plans for an unbeaten year ahead. We know the great champions must be singular in purpose; however, the empathy that millions have with Federer and Nadal is missing when it comes to Djokovic. Maybe ‘Joka’, is forever to be cast as Batman’s similarly named nemesis, the Joker, being seen as the unworthy usurper of the Federer/Nadal citadel.
The Big Three have now won 59 of the last 69 Grand Slam titles. Records are meant to be broken, but I am not sure this one will be. The next generation are yet to plant vines that have taken root. Indeed, some of the young tendrils may well be showing signs of withering on the vine before their time. Consider, Lorenzo Musetti a 19 year old Italian. He won the first two sets of his fourth-round match against Djokovic, and then only one won more game. At 0-4 in the final set, he withdrew from the contest and said that he did because “he knew he was not going to win another point.” What would Jimmy Connors say of such weakness?
Given Djokovic’s victory, discussion of who is the Greatest Player of All Time will inevitably intensify. I have provided some discussion points for the true ‘tennis tragics’ at the end of the article!
For Roger and Rafa there is always doubles! The French pairing of Nicolas Mahut -forever to be remembered at the loser of the longest match at Wimbledon- and Pierre-Hughes Herbert, saved match points in their semi-final before winning their second French and fifth Grand Slam title. Roger and Rafa would bring 74 years combined experience to the court only slightly ahead of the Frenchmen’s 69 years, a gap that surely could be overcome with ability!
The G7 summit has now come to an end. Will it help poorer countries receive increased amounts of Covid-19 vaccines? Will the Olympics begin? Can Putin and Biden put recent skirmishes behind them when they meet? When will national vaccination rates reach sufficient levels to allow Australians to resume their beloved overseas travel? Will there be a day soon when Australia’s interstate borders will be permanently re-opened?
Will Prince Charles ever ascend to the English throne? Will we see tennis history rewritten in the weeks ahead? Does Federer have one last operatic farewell Grand Slam victory left?
Life continues to present us with unlimited questions and limitless possibilities. For that reason alone, we can as the Queen requested and, without having to pretend, continue to enjoy ourselves.
THOUGHTS ON THE GREATEST MALE PLAYER OF ALL TIME!
1. ‘Tis not the number of titles alone’: Martina and Chris won 18 GS titles each. How many would each have won if their rivalry did not exist? Similarly, think of Laver, Hoad, Rosewall, Trabert, Kramer and others who straddled the amateur and professional eras. I would place both Chris and Martina ahead of Serena in my list of the female Top 10;
2. Djokovic’s claims to be number one: He shades both Federer (27-23) and Nadal (30-28) in their rivalries; he has been ranked No.1 for more weeks than any other player; he is the only player to have won each Grand Slam at least twice in the Open Era and is the only player in the Open Era to have held all four titles at the one time: Wimbledon 2015, US Open 2015, Australian Open 2016 and French Open 2016
3. What of GS Final winning percentages? Nadal has won 20 from 28- 71%;
Federer 20 from 31- 64.5%; Djokovic 20 from 29 at 66%
4. Federer’s claim to greatness: he is the only person who has won 5 titles of three of the four: Wimbledon, US, and Australian Opens. He also has record runs of 10 and 8 consecutive Grand Slam final appearances;
5. Does it matter who you beat? In 11 of his 20 wins Nadal has beaten either Djokovic or Federer; In 9 of his 19 wins Djokovic has beaten either Nadal or Federer, including three times over Federer at Wimbledon. Although he has never beaten Nadal in a French final, he has beaten him each time he has won his French titles in a quarter and semi-final; and Federer has beaten either Nadal or Djokovic in 4 of his 20 titles.
6. Three out of four in the same year: Federer – 3 times- 2004,2006 & 2007, Djokovic- twice-2011 and 2015, Nadal-once in 2010
7. How do you compare players across different eras when you consider different playing surfaces, different diet and exercise regimens and different equipment- let’s not forget that Borg and McEnroe faced each other in the 1981 Wimbledon final armed with wooden racquets!
8. What weight does one give to intangible factors- contribution to the status of the game, sportsmanship, or lack thereof, participation in Davis Cup, Olympics etc?
Would the jury now retire and please consider their verdict?