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  • Julian Dowse

French Open 2019

Les Murray, for many our national poet, was farewelled this week at a State Memorial Service. Bob Hawke’s memorial service honouring the life of our third longest serving Prime Minister was held today. In England ten contenders chase the keys to No.10 Downing Street.

Hong Kong sees ten to the power of six protest the proposed abrogation of their legal rights. Conflict; Contest; Ambition; Legacy- the stuff of life that swirls around us. This was no less the case at Roland Garros than anywhere else, where Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic complained of ‘hurricane like’ winds that blew dust and grit into their eyes. Unfortunately, for Federer no amount of eyewash could obscure the emphatic nature of Nadal’s victory over him in their semi-final. More of that later, for there seem to be many headwinds blowing strongly around the world.

Teresa May resigned as England’s Prime Minister last Friday and we are not a ‘May’ closer to seeing a solution to the Brexit crisis. Her D for Departure-Day came after the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the heroic D-Day liberation landings on the coast of France that accelerated the defeat of fascism. May’s successor will be the 12th English Prime Minister of my lifetime with their average length in office being 5.18 years which is barely longer than one term of the British Parliament. If the difficulty of effecting an accepted policy of climate change in Australia has cruelled and/or destroyed the political life of John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, then Brexit’s Prime Ministerial death toll is two and may continue to rise.

For the first time in many years, Australia’s political landscape seems relatively stable by comparison. Scott Morrison remains the 15th Australian Prime Minister of my lifetime with their average length in office 3.8 years, barely longer than one term of the Federal Parliament. Take away the long runs of Howard, Hawke and Fraser and the average is a rather meagre 2.54 years.

On the Saturday night following his surprise election victory, Scott Morrison attended the Dreamtime game between Richmond and Essendon in Melbourne. I suspect that our Prime Minister may still be experiencing a dreamlike existence coinciding with jet-lag following his recent Solomon Islands- London and return trip. From being written off as the stop-gap nine month Prime Minister- Paul Keating derided him as a “policy deadbeat with a baseball cap”-he is now lauded as “the Messiah from the Shire”. The hagiographies are beginning to be drafted by LNP supporters. What is remarkable about his victory is how unremarkable it was in terms of seats won.

The LNP coalition gained five seats- Lindsay, Longman, Herbert, Bass and Braddon, but lost the seat of Gilmore. The coalition’s net gain of four seats was enough to shift the parliamentary status quo and give it a slender majority. The LNP coalition now holds 77 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives, leaving the ALP with 68 and 6 crossbenchers- 1 Green- Melbourne, 1 Centre Alliance-Mayo, 1, Katter’s Australia Party-Kennedy and 3 Independents-Clark, Indi and Warringah. In the end only two States saw a gain of seats for the Coalition through it winning two seats in each of Tasmania and Queensland. However, the ALP must recognise that Mayo, Kennedy, Warringah and Indi are unlikely ALP gains any time soon, so for mine a two party divide of national political sympathies and allegiances sees the LNP with 81 seats (include Mayo, Kennedy, Indi and Warringah) and the ALP on 69 seats (include Melbourne) with the seat of Clark in the absence of Andrew Wilkie being too close to call.

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Now a majority of one is won, the Coalition must battle against the perennial headwinds of the Senate to pass its signature tax cuts and hope they, along with a recent cut in official rates, can energise a sluggish domestic economy, albeit one that has just achieved a record trade surplus.

Scott Morrison’s recently announced Cabinet reflects his wish to provide predictability and confidence. Seven women have won places around the inner table of government. However, it was the appointment, at the start of Reconciliation Week and on the fifty second anniversary of the 1967 referendum that granted indigenous people citizenship rights, of Ken Wyatt as the first indigenous person in Cabinet and the first indigenous person to hold the Indigenous Affairs portfolio that was especially significant. Ken Wyatt ironically represents the Western Australian electorate of Hasluck, named after Paul Hasluck, Western Australia’s first Governor-General and a Minister in the Menzies government. Hasluck’s views on Aboriginal social policy have often been criticised for their racial overtones. Sadly, the Prime Minister saw it necessary to give Health Minister, Greg Hunt, responsibility to investigate the nation’s terrible rates of Aboriginal youth suicide.

Retaining incumbency may be catching. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, won an overwhelming majority in India’s recent general election reducing the nation’s once dominant Congress party to a rump. In South Africa the African National Congress continues to occupy the Rand benches, albeit with a different President. Out with the bizarre and nefarious Jacob Zuma and in with Cyril Ramaphosa. New Guinea, a nation where political stability is an especially relative term saw the appointment of a new Prime Minister in James Marape.

The tempests and storms of politics mean that, for all his renewed authority, Scott Morrison is not impregnable. He knows that it would be a mistake to interpret his election authority as permanent vindication. Do not expect any Keatingesque focus on “bigger pictures” during this term of government. Having worked with Abbott and Turnbull, Morrison is well attuned to the perils of hubris.

Of course, Paul Keating was the Prime Minister who wrested the office from Bob Hawke whose life, as noted, was commemorated today in a Memorial Service at Sydney’s Opera House, the scene of his famous campaign promise that “no Australian child by 1990 would be living in poverty”. I am sure Bob’s father Clem, a Congregationalist Minister, would have told Bob that “the poor will always be with us.”

Bob Hawke was a ubiquitous figure in Australia’s public life for a generation from the late 1960s to early 1990s. Many people would have vivid memories of the man.

For me there are two distinct recollections. In 1977 my father took me to an ALP fund raising event just outside of Launceston which was to be centred around a cricket match in which the guest/player of honour was to be Bob Hawke who was then the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. As luck would have it I was walking to the toilets beside the cricket oval when a man emerged “padded up” and ready to play from a Kombi van. It was Bob himself. He walked about five metres towards the oval before unleashing a string of expletives that were a shock to me: “ where is it, I fxxxxxxxx need it….fxxxxxx Jesus. He returned to the van to collect his glass of beer. He was clearly in the grip of something unhealthy.

Fast forward to the late post-Prime Ministerial 1990s. Moonee Valley racecourse during the spring. Bob was in attendance as a lifelong devotee of the sport of kings. He paraded his new wife, the biographer Blanche, across the Members’ enclosure and Winners’ Circle as if he had won the Cox Plate himself. He was back on the turps, and the vanity was undimmed.

Between these two rather unedifying moments he was, as Prime Minister, self-disciplined and effective. The narcissism and preening grated, but Bob was always the embodiment of the Italian observation that you cannot be a glassblower without big cheeks. Or as Neville Wran once noted, “Bob proved Oscar Wilde was right when he said the flatterer was seldom interrupted.”

His governments did change the nation. Coming into office promising classic Keynesian government spending, he oversaw the radical restructuring of the Australian economy by adopting economic policies that the conservatives adored.

In the name of improving productivity and reducing inflationary pressures the Hawke government, with a zealous Paul Keating as Treasurer, allowed the entry of foreign banks, reduced tariffs, all but abolished centralised wage fixing, decentralised industrial awards, removed fixed interest rates and, without warning, floated the Australian dollar in December, 1983.

Free market economic policies were buttressed by social and welfare reforms. National superannuation was introduced , Medibank was reborn as Medicare and is now a sacred cow of Australian public policy. Legislation prohibiting sexual discrimination was passed.

Bob Hawke also did much to expand Federal government power over the environment. He legislated to prevent the flooding and development of the Franklin River in south-west Tasmania as a hydro-electric reservoir and declared the area to be a World Heritage area. On 1 July, 1983, the day that John McEnroe beat Ivan Lendl in straight sets in a Wimbledon semi-final, the High Court by 4 Justices to 3 upheld the validity of Bob Hawke’s Commonwealth legislation protecting the Franklin River. Internationally, he was instrumental in securing a treaty to prevent any mining in the Antarctic. A fierce opponent of apartheid and racism, he vigorously supported sanctions against South Africa’s government.

It is ironic that another of the Hawke government’s economic reforms was the introduction of dividend imputation to prevent the double taxation of dividends; first by companies and then by shareholders. It was this policy that set the scene for the debate about the payment of franking credits that probably played a part in preventing the ALP returning to government in the days following Bob’s death.

Remembering the scale and range of Hawke’s economic and social changes is a reminder of how fortunate, if not blessed, he was to have the quality of Cabinet Ministers that he did. Whilst he was also the beneficiary of a long-running drought breaking in his first year of office and the nation winning the America’s Cup shortly afterwards, Hawke presided over a Cabinet, that even John Howard grudgingly conceded was probably the “best since World War 2”. So, who were they? : Paul Keating, Gareth Evans, the three Johns- Button, Dawkins and Kerin, Bill Hayden, Don Grimes, Mick Young, Peter Walsh, Lionel Bowen, Susan Ryan and Ralph Willis, just to name a few.

The question that Hawke’s passing has raised for me is why we “cannot look on their likes” on ballot papers anymore. This week I attended a presentation by Kevin Rudd’s Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, the former Federal member for Melbourne. He was asked what the ALP needed to do to regain office and his first response was that the party must address the issue of whom it pre-selects as its candidates. Tanner doubted whether many members of the ALP’s current caucus would have as their partners a child-care worker, a call-centre operator, a hairdresser, a self-employed tradesman; in short, the very people the party purports to represent.

Remember what Kim Beazley Senior once said ?: “When I joined the Labor Party its members were the cream of the working class, when I left its members were the dregs of the middle class.”

Hawke’s great political failure was, as so many before and since, to recognise when his best years were behind him. His removal from office was wretched and bloody and his rancorous post-parliamentary relationship with Paul Keating was entirely undignified. Two bulls in a paddock, but the surviving bull spoke at his memorial. That’s the thing of politics- one always has a shelf life and as Keating once observed, “you are never so popular as you are on the day you are elected.” In high office, longevity is a luxury few experience.

Australian, English, Indian and South African Prime Ministers and Presidents would all crave the longevity of the great players of tennis. At the Italian Open, the last major Masters tournament, before the French Open, Nadal and Djokovic reached the final to play their 56th match.

Prior to the final in Rome, Djokovic had won 9 of his previous 11 matches against Nadal, including most recently, when Djokovic demoralised Nadal in this year’s Australian Open final. Despite not having won a title this year, Nadal won his 34th Masters title from 50 finals to edge ahead of Djokovic’s Masters’ tally of 33. By winning in Rome, Nadal guaranteed that for the 16th consecutive year he has won a title. It was his ninth Italian Open title and his 6-0 4-6 6—1 win was the first time in the 142 sets that they have played that either has won a set to love. Nadal’s victory in Rome saw him reduce the deficit on his competitive ledger with Djokovic to 26-28.

This year’s French Open confirmed that chaos and predictability, two of the great constants of existence, continue to jostle for dominance. So, too for Israel Folau: he makes an entirely predictable statement consistent with his religious beliefs and, for that, his life is thrown into chaos.

Back to the tennis.

In the Women’s Draw chaos ruled. The seeds were not just blown to the winds, they were all but vaporised. In the first round Kerber and Wozniacki lost as did former champion Kuznetsova. Another former champion Ostapenko was beaten by Victoria Azarenka. Bertens had to withdraw because of illness in the second round. By the first weekend Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka had also lost, seemingly giving Simona Halep an extraordinary opportunity to defend her only Grand Slam title.

Pause and rewind.

In July 1971 my father woke me on a Saturday night, so I could watch, on a miniscule black and white screen, the Women’s final at Wimbledon. Clad in my blue check Onkaparinga dressing gown, with a cord that resembled a curtain drawstring with an elaborate tassel, the match was, and remains, the only all-Australian women’s final in Wimbledon’s history. Defending champion Margaret Court played a 19 year old called Evonne Goolagong.

Weeks earlier Evonne had won her first Grand Slam title by winning the French Open in another all-Australian final when she beat Helen Gourlay, who was being supported by everyone in her and my hometown of Launceston, especially because her family owned the town’s best confectionery shop! Remarkably, Evonne Goolagong and Helen Gourlay married men both with the surname of Cawley, but unrelated! Helen Gourlay-Cawley never won a Grand Slam singles title but had success on the Doubles court winning the Wimbledon title in 1977 with American Jo-Anne Russell when they beat the formidable pairing of Navratilova and Betty Stove. She also won four Australian Open Doubles titles, including one with Evonne!

In December 1977 Evonne and Helen, now married as Cawleys, faced each other in the final of the Australian Open. It was Cawley v Cawley, with Evonne repeating her straight sets victory of Paris six years earlier.

Evonne also won the 1971 Wimbledon final in straight sets. Margaret Court double-faulted on match point. Much attention was given to the aboriginal heritage of the rising star of women’s tennis who at 19 had won two of the world’s most important tournaments. In a British yearbook reviewing the events and personalities of 1971, Evonne was described as “ a fresh faced picanninny”! For many years journalists would refer to lapses of concentration in her matches as her “going walkabout”.

Fast forward and return to 2019.

Australia has another indigenous female French Open champion in Ashleigh Barty. Showing resolve, confidence and an impressive all-court game, Barty stood tall as other seeds toppled. In the quarter finals the seeds were numbered 3,7, 8,14, 26 and 31; by the semi-finals Barty was the highest ranked player at 8 with the only other seed being England’s Johanna Konta at 26 and in the final Barty defeated the unseeded Czech, Marketa Vondrousova.

Ashleigh’s endearing modesty and quiet delight in her accomplishment could not have presented a starker contrast to the ‘efforts’ of two of our male players. Kyrgios chose not to play in the tournament and Tomic chose not to play with any effort in the first round.

Barty’s form and self-belief suggest that she could, like Evonne, claim a Wimbledon title. She is only the fourth Australian female to win a French title joining Court, Lesley Turner and Evonne. Ashleigh is the first female Australian champion at Paris since Margaret Court in 1973.

The Men’s tournament was a repeat of twelve of the last fourteen years. Rafael Nadal created tennis history by becoming the first player to win the same Grand Slam tournament twelve times, moving past Margaret Court’s eleven Australian titles. He has played in twelve French Open finals and won them all. Court played in twelve finals for her eleven Australian victories; Martina played in twelve Wimbledon finals for her nine victories. En route to his 18th Grand Slam title, Nadal halted a run of five successive defeats by Roger Federer in their semi-final, to extend his lead in their rivalry to 24 matches to 15.

Attempting to place Nadal’s dozen French titles in perspective, it is worth remembering that he has tasted more Grand Slam success at Paris than Borg(11), Laver(11), Tilden(10), Rosewall (8) ,Connors (8), Lendl (8), Agassi(8), Newcombe (7), and McEnroe(7) achieved at all the Grand Slam tournaments of the world.

The men’s seeds provided a predictability that was almost absent from the Women’s draw. Numbers 1-4 duly presented themselves for the semi-finals. Dominic Thiem (4) reached his second successive French Open final by defeating Djokovic (1) who, for the second time, was aiming to concurrently hold all four grand slam titles. Because of Paris’ inclement spring weather, Thiem did not have a day’s rest after his gruelling five set semi-final victory before facing Nadal. Thiem won the second set of the final, but his temerity in doing so saw Nadal unleash a punitive display to seal the match 6-3, 5-7, 6-1 and 6-1.

There was some compensation for Thiem as his off-court partner, Kristina Mladenovic won the Women’s Doubles title with Hungary’s Timea Babos to give France its only title of its national tournament. The Men’s Doubles title saw the unseeded French team of Chardy and Martin lose to the unseeded German team of Kevin Kraweietz and Andreas Mies who won their first Grand Slam title in straight sets.

There was more success for the unseeded. In the Mixed Doubles the Croatian/Chinese combination of Ivan Dodig and Latisha Chan defeated the No. 2 seeded Croatian/Canadian combination of Mate Pavic and Gabriela Dabrowski.

And so, we look ahead to Wimbledon. Who would confidently predict the Women’s champion? Has Serena one last spring in her step? Can Halep and Osaka compose themselves to win seven successive matches on a surface that is not their natural favourite? Australia’s Ashleigh is the form player: a quarter-finalist in Melbourne, the champion in Paris. She has a strong serve which will take a confident player a long way on the grass courts. Let’s not forget she is a Wimbledon junior champion.

And let’s not also forget that Australia’s wheelchair tennis champion, Dylan Alcott, heads to Wimbledon’s first wheelchair tennis tournament hoping to win the third leg of the Grand Slam as he seeks to emulates Rod Laver’s achievement of 1969. Alcott, like Barty, is a talented athlete having switched to tennis after a successful Paralympic Basketball career. Barty, of course, has returned to tennis after playing women’s cricket.

Can Roger win a 21st Grand Slam title? Djokovic must start the favourite. Having been denied a second ‘secular slam’ in Paris, he will be keen not to fall further behind either Federer or Nadal in the honour roll of Grand Slam champions, with him now being three behind Nadal and five behind Federer.

It is improbable that the Men’s Champion will come from outside of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Along with Andy Murray, no other player won a Grand Slam title in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012,2013, 2017 and 2018. Two for two this year with two to come. 2003 was the last year that a majority of the Grand Slam titles were not won by ‘the Big Four’, now three. 2002 was the last year that no Grand Slam title was won by Federer, Nadal, Djovokic and/or Murray.

When Scott Morrison was recently in London he gave the Queen a copy of the story of Winx. Can a horse have a biography? It appears Her Majesty was delighted to receive the gift. After all, the Queen is always at Ascot, but rarely at Wimbledon.

Life delights in the most unexpected ways. No sooner were we contemplating a sporting calendar without Winx when Ashleigh Barty filled a void and became our new sporting heroine. She may well be joined in national affection by the Matildas as they continue their Women’s World Cup campaign.

Winx, all by herself, dominated her sport as the great three of tennis continue to do. The numbers do not lie: Winx won 37 of her 43 starts, the last 33 in a row for a winning percentage of 86%. The great three have now won 52 of the last 60 Grand Slam titles for a winning percentage of 86%. Greatness is enduring and comparable!

Outside of contemplating the winners at Wimbledon, there is much to consider. Will Trump’s preferred choice, Boris Johnson, become the next English Prime Minister? If he does cartoonists will have a field day caricaturing the Trans-Atlantic coiffure alliance! Venezuela continues to have a problematic future; the protests in Hong Kong elicit concerns of what may be Beijing’s response; the American body politic still seems fractured by the Mueller Report; Tehran and Washington continue to walk their path of permanently crossed purposes that has been hazardous since 1979; will the mutual admiration of America and China’s leaders enable them to resolve the Trade Wars between their countries? Can Zimbabwe ever emerge from the mire? Can South Africa avoid not sliding closer to it? Dare I mention the next Brexit convulsions? Will the Senate vote ever be finalised?

This week spring showers have seen matches abandoned at the Cricket World Cup in England. Chaos literally reigns as the predictable schedule is disrupted. The Grand Slam calendar is thankfully rarely disrupted. From the baking heat of Melbourne through to the sultry late summer days of New York, we always have something to look forward to at defined times of the year.

The French Open remains decidedly idiosyncratic with Roland Garros still sans a retractable roof and its umpires still not able to avail themselves of the Hawkeye system of line reviews. But why would we expect otherwise from our Gallic friends? After all they named Roland Garros stadium after an aviator not a tennis player!

Maybe the answer to understanding life’s colliding swirls of chaos and predictability is hoping that, with God’s good grace, neither overpowers nor wearies us, making for the greatest of all blessings: the interesting life. Barty, the new champion emerges from the chaos ; Nadal, the peerless clay champion predictably reinforces greatness. Something for everyone as our own quests continue. Who could want for more?

Julian Dowse

14th June, 2019

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